This morning I decided to come into uni to write this catalogue essay. I was just sitting down at the computer when the fire alarm started up. It was massively loud. Outside, the sound was split and scattered by the walls, every building around me was buzzing. The firemen came. I sat in the cold and waited for them to switch off the alarm (incidentally, someone had burnt some Vogels they’d been toasting which set the whole thing going). The quiet came back abruptly and stayed.
It struck me when I sat back down that this is the type of experience that Campbell Kneale’s music feeds off. The unexpected, the transient and the mundane. The humdrum if you will. Everyone’s life is made up of these small, insignificant moments. I never would have expected a fire alarm to go off when I arrived here today, but it did, and there was a certain beauty in it. There was a certain beauty in sitting next to a funny lady from the history department upstairs who had a highlighter pink plaster on her glasses (she, it turns out, was the infamous Vogels toaster). There was a certain beauty in watching the confused security guard in his purple polypropylene and several kilograms of keys. And there was a certain beauty in the heavy fire engine and its fluorescent firemen.
Situated in the new Enjoy space, HUMDRUM absorbs this kind of unexpected but essentially everyday activity. There has been much critique since the 1960s of the exclusivity of the gallery space. The ‘White Cube’ as it has been termed, has been criticised as an elite and restrictive environment, which fosters a questionable cultural hierarchy. Not so in HUMDRUM. With the translation of Kneale’s practice into Enjoy the activity of people wandering about on Cuba Street invades the exhibition. The gallery goer is encouraged to sit down for a while, read a National Geographic, or just watch the world go by out the big window. The shuffle and shift of the sound around you becomes a soundtrack to the disconsolate hipster walking by, or the wagging Wellington College student. The installation, both the artistic practice itself and the environment it finds itself in, accentuates the nuances of everyday life.
Perhaps nothing is more everyday than National Geographic magazines. In HUMDRUM the visitor is invited to sit down in the chair and peruse the handy stack of National Geographics found next to it. These publications are so familiar: nearly every family seems to have had a subscription, which results in shelves and boxes full of back copies, growing dusty in the garage. By having exclusively National Geographics, rather than swanky arts and popular culture magazines, Kneale further accentuates the commonplace, the images and sounds that we might hear and see regularly but never give much thought to.
The installation has much in common with the French curator Nicholas Bourriard’s concept of Relational Aesthetics. In his characterisation, much of art of the 1990s’ was very interested in breaking apart the austerity of the gallery experience and introducing an essence of what he calls ‘conviviality’ into art viewing. The effectiveness of artists’ attempts to introduce uninhibited interrelations into the gallery has since been criticised. The claim has been that these activities reinforce the hierarchies that they purport to do away with. However, in HUMDRUM I feel there is certainly a sense of encouraging interaction and ‘conviviality’ in the exhibition space. You are invited to sit down in the chair in the centre of the room, and simply hang out for a bit. Watch the world go by. Read a magazine. You need to spend some time with the installation, become comfortable with it. This is in contradistinction to the usual gallery visit, which usually involves a quick scan around and then leave.
When you do spend time with the installation you become aware of the tiniest things, the smallest blips in our lives that Kneale is concerned with in the construction of his layered recordings. The smallest sound is able to change the flow of a whole piece. Or conversely, the smallest sound can simply be washed over and ignored. In HUMDRUM, each clutter and drone is at the same time both integral and expendable. In a traditionally conceived piece of music each stage of the piece is significant in terms of how it is affected by what comes before it and what comes after it. Here, in the HUMDRUM installation, each sound is constantly in flux. It is never positioned in a single continuum of music, but instead its noise is always negotiable and always changing. Listening to the installation is to hear a random interplay of sound. Each moment is completely different from the next. Each second is therefore individual and unique, and at the same time it is lost. Gone forever in the web of sound which subsumes it.
We are talking about BIG and little. Kneale’s installation here at Enjoy, and his other musical practices, revels in the disjunction between grandiose and banal. Indeed, often these distinctions meld to become the same thing. Kneale says in an interview:
I’ve always sought to find inspiration in my location. Currently that location is suburban Lower Hutt. Suburbia has a nasty reputation for being a congregation point
for soullessness but I have come to disagree. I have seen brief glimpses of a very deeply ingrained spirituality here, not connected with any obvious religious affiliation, but connected with the big patterns of human existence. Work, sleep, travel, children, hospitality, home decorating... I find the mundane beautiful and very grand.
HUMDRUM is undoubtedly very grand. Even given the motley collection of speakers dotted unceremoniously about the room, the duration of the sound is simply epic. It is sustained and unremitting. There is the sense that these noises existed before you and they will exist after you. They seem to disregard the listener, they don’t begin and end in relation to you. Instead, they could just go on and on and on whether or not you are there at all.
In juxtaposition to the eternal, unending sound of HUMDRUM there is what Kneale no doubt would call the ‘beautifully mundane’. This is the detail which sits among the sludge of the drone. This installation has an affinity with the domestic. The tiniest chirps, scratches, and clunks are infinitely recognisable as the noise of everyday life. They are the noises of going into the kitchen and getting a cup of tea, or the click of pushing buttons on the remote. It becomes clear when listening that this installation is as much about a grey Tuesday morning as it is about an existential questioning of spatial and sonic realities. And the beauty of it is that you can take your pick.