Entering Without Within at Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) in Ravenswood, you encounter a variety of sculptural objects comprised of glazed ceramic, cuts of wood, and metal panels made by multidisciplinary artist Mie Kongo. The pieces, an amalgamation of these natural materials, are combined so carefully and intentionally as they emanate a calm confidence. One piece features an amoeba-like, white structure that exists on top of a tree log that’s been cleanly chopped on top and bottom. Two rectangle tiles grow out of the amoeba and a small metal panel cleanly sits atop all of this chaos. Surrounding this visual experience is the subtle influx of sound that oscillates between somewhat recognizable and minimal industrial sounds to more complex abstractions, created by sound artist Norman Long.
This sort of arranging, abstracting, and transforming lies at the heart of the exhibition, curated by Ruth Hodgkins, the current Bentson Archivist and Assistant Curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Throughout the exhibition, both artists take inspiration from the world around them but choose to adjust, amend, and reshape elements of these moments to create something entirely new and usually unrecognizable. Both artists are skilled at manipulating individual elements of their chosen materials – whether that be wood, ceramic, metal, or field recordings – and they also share the commonality of gracefully offering the viewer or listener near glimmers of the material’s original state to conjure memories of the material’s past lives, imagined or otherwise.
On one of the first nice days of Chicago summer back in May, I sat down with Mie, Norman, and Ruth to discuss the show and their work. Determined to enjoy the weather, we gathered in the backyard of Experimental Sound Studio to talk together.
Emily Breidenbach: Let’s start by talking about how this exhibition got started and how you are all intertwined together.
Ruth Hodgins: I can start off by talking about how the project got started. Kristen and Nathan from Roman Susan in Rogers Park and Adam, Olivia, and Alex from Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) in Andersonville were talking about how to do more projects with similar types of organizations within the neighborhood. They were thinking through how arts organizations in the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods could work together and collaborate. Roman Susan was interested in Experimental Sound Studio because they have a specialism in sound which automatically gave an angle to how to approach an exhibition.
I’m a board member at Roman Susan, and submitted a proposal which was very broadly about abstraction in sound and image. Mie Kong was one of the artists I had in mind. The idea was to bring in a sound artist to respond to visual work. So, that then instigated a conversation about who’d be a great person to bring in [as the sound artist]. Nathan had been working with Norman W. Long for Roman Susan who’d participated in a sound walk. Was it last summer or a couple summers before?
Norman Long: It was last summer. Last summer was large. I had proposed a sound walk with Roman Susan but what ended up happening was that before I proposed the sound walk, Roman Susan asked if I had wanted to do something at the 6018 North Water Music. Me and Sara Zalek and Gweneth Anderson, we did an improvised trio and participatory sound project on the beach where we brought in deep listening exercises and sound making sort of sessions that we improvised with the sound trio. So that’s how I started working – that was like the first project.
RH: Listening to Norman’s work, we really felt it connected well to the idea of abstraction and sound. When you think about field recordings, that idea of using your environment and taking it out of the space, and how that sound then becomes abstracted into becoming something new and different and poetic. And Mie’s work does very much the same thing with surrounding material. So on hearing Norman’s work and then Mie’s, well, we just felt there was a good connection and that’s how we got everybody to come together in the very beginning.
EB: How in touch were you, Mie and Norman, with each other while creating work for this exhibition? Were you making pieces completely separately?
Mie Kongo: We had one studio visit. Ruth and Norman came to visit my studio. We spent a couple hours together talking about each other’s work. That was the first time Norman saw my work in person. I had listened to his work on his Soundcloud. We had a really nice conversation.
RH: Part of the project was inviting Norman to make the work here at ESS. And the idea was not to just it to be his work but also thinking about the space in which it’s going to inhabit and how he can then reflect that in the gallery as well. So Norman worked here (in ESS) as well.
NL: I wanted to bring in sounds from the outside, inside the gallery. And the outside takes several different degrees. It was first, the recordings came from contact mics attached to these shrubs here and from the branches up here. So there was this tactile thing that I really felt, I felt strongly about when I saw Mie’s work. There was this tactile element to it. Also, I was thinking about tones and timbres and also the way we work with wood and movement. And so those were the things that I responded too. And also, I borrowed a device called a MIDI Sprout. Which is a device that you attach to plants and it converts the plant data into MIDI data. And so, what I did for a couple of sessions that I had here at the studio was to attach those things to these plants here and vines here and to some of the vines there and to the moss growing on the concrete there. And I attached these things to a couple synthesizers that I use. So I’m sort of like filtering — each synth translated data different. And they had different tones and timbres. Which is something that I really wanted to come out, tones and timbres and rhythms. When I was composing them I was thinking of them, not like a composition – beginning, middle and end – but more like shapes that come in and out. These abstractions that fade in and out and so you’re hearing different sort of things that might sound natural, may not sound so natural. So, I wanted to get a diverse soundscape to it. It’s communicating with Mie’s work. So, you’re hearing that I see the tactility of it or the tones and the shapes of the sounds that come through. And it ended up being a lot more rhythmic than I thought but it worked because the way you want to touch the sculptures. The way you interact with the room.
EB: Ruth, how did you come up with the title for this exhibition, Without Within?
RH: The title was inspired by a short film that I had seen by a Mexican artist called Manuela De Laborde. We’re going to be showing her work on August 1st here in the garden of ESS. The title of her work is AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN and it uses shape and gesture and plays with scale. She created this fimlic, alien landscape that really stayed with me. It was recommended to me by Chicago based artist Deborah Stratman, who’s also screening on August 1st. For me, in many ways the artworks in the exhibition and works showing in the single events reflect the environment, personal history, family and surroundings. Each artist distils these complex ideas into very minimal gestures, shapes, and marks and textures which I find come together really poetically. And the juxtapositions, especially with materials: ceramic, wood, metal, very simply express so many different complex thoughts. So it was how complicated stories can be told with minimal gestures. Norman does the same thing with sound. With Mie’s practice, there is a simplicity, yet it is very precise. Ceramics, especially, can go wrong in a million ways. I think a good example are the tiles works. Maybe you can talk about the tiles and that process [Mie]? To get a tile in porcelain to be straight and the shape that you want without bending or cracking, is a huge technical undertaking and a massive project. The knowledge and skills you have in order to make a very simple porcelain rectangle happen is really exceptional.
MK: I first liked the sound of the title, Without Within. They appear similar, but each word means very different things. But when they are combined together, those words or the meaning becomes abstract and I thought these two words could be applied/used to describe many different things. What I found what Norman’s work and my work share is the making process of collecting and rearranging. Norman collects sounds and puts them together to make a piece and I work the similar way as well. I look for objects or materials that interest me and I put them together to see what happens. What I’m interested in doing in my work is to create interesting relationships. Porcelain is porcelain and metal is metal, but when they’re put together with another material, they create a new relationship or meaning, and I might discover something new and unexpected. Like music, I used to take piano lessons and my piano teacher told me that the single note doesn’t mean much but a player makes relationships between the notes and that’s music. I think that’s what artists do, we are constantly translating, rearranging and editing the world to see the world in a new way.
EB: Mie and Norman, does the experience of seeing your work coexist in the space at ESS impact your thinking or practice moving forward?
NL: I guess each collaboration I do with artists or musicians always, you know, comes with a challenge or an opportunity to connect or find a relationship between what I am doing and what my collaborator is doing. What I found unique about this experience was how the title and the concept connected us and using materials or processes that I use differently in a context that I rarely use, so having this work in a gallery with a sound system like this was really fun. Usually, I have to do a lot of the building or a lot of the sourcing of materials, particularly of the sound systems myself. SO having already having a gallery with a sound system, with an engineer, with people that I’ve known for quite some time,that was something that was unique. As far as something that will go forward, there is so many different things – technical things like trying to find different ways to use the MIDI Sprout. The particular programs I used to compose, I don’t usually compose with. I started just using field recordings and processing them through Ableton Live. Then I started improvising with my synthesizer with the field recordings. And now there are several different programs I’m using. I used a different program called Reaktor for the installation. Not feeling so self conscious about my practice where I can, I don’t know how to say it, work with more visual artists because I started as a visual artist. Juxtaposing different objects, materials and having them create a relationship and having them present something different…That’s a long drawn out way of saying yes, I did learn something and I’ve been working with so many different people. It has been inspirational, I guess.
MK: This is a new experience and I enjoyed working with a sound artist. My sculpture presented with sound is exciting. I am fortunate to have this opportunity. It was not like that we worked on every single detail together, but things worked out naturally for us, in my opinion. After having set up the show, it was interesting to discover connections and make connections between Norman’s work and my work. Norman said that he had recorded the sound for the piece in the gallery when he had taught basketball to the kids?
NL: We were taking a sound walk and we passed by a basketball court and we all sat around recording.
MK: My ceramics tile pieces are related to my previous work of the Unknown game series. They resemble game board and those dots are like playing pieces. I actually experimented with tennis, basketball, soccer court diagrams and the dots are placed on top of the court diagram like balls. When I heard Norman’s story, I thought it was interesting to find out that there was an unspoken connection. Viewing a sculpture with sound offers a different sensory experience. The audiences would make connections between the sound and the objects/imagery in their own way. And, what has happened to them/their experiences are all different.
EB: Ruth, do you have any closing thoughts on the exhibition?
RH: Yes, I think it worked very smoothly. I think it worked naturally. We all followed our instincts. I think in many ways it was successful because Mie and Norman were able to maintain their practices. Especially in Norman’s case, where it was a commission and an artist can be constrained by that word, commission, where they are expected to make something differently than they typically would. Throughout the process we found the artists to have an unspoken connection, a natural affinity and sort of abstract connection. I was just laughing with the ESS guys, because Olivia who works here said, “I thought I was sure we’d forgotten something cause it just kinda happened and now it’s here. It seemed to all just fit in together.” It was one of those very fortunate experiences. I mean, I think I have to give all the credit to ESS and Roman Susan because they’re very good at organizing, promoting and bringing people together. The gallery is open on Sundays, and by appointment, and throughout the run we’re having special events that activate the space and bring in new conversations. It’s been really fun and it’s been a really nice way to collaborate, not just with the artists, but with the two organizations. Hopefully we’ll do it again sometime.
Featured image: Mie Kongo (left) and Normal Long (right) sit on brick steps in the backyard at Experimental Sound Studio. Photo by Ryan Edmund.
Emily Breidenbach is an arts administrator with experience working at museums, education centers, and non-profits. She is currently the Associate Director of Marketing and Enrollment for Continuing Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and has previously managed strategic communications for the Krannert Art Museum, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and the Learning and Public Engagement department at the Art Institute of Chicago. She has a B.F.A. in Art History from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a M.A. in Arts Administration and Policy at SAIC.