BJ Engelbrecht

I am an artist and academic whose main creative and theoretical interest is in sound and its relationship to time and space, particularly within the complex urban environment of Johannesburg.

Biographical, Read

Sound Installations

Some years ago, I went through an intense phase of creative production where I made either sound installations or installations that always had an element of sound. I recently came across some of the writing I was doing that culminated in my masters dissertation. I can’t help but notice how revealing some of my preliminary work is, so I thought I’d share a snippet:

… Flat Garbage, I buy all kinds of records in Johannesburg, regardless of their genre, with the intention of referring to the inhabitants of Johannesburg. This becomes more obvious when we think about traces. Firstly, each record has a scratch, a crackle or a pop that is the result of the human hand, reminiscent to Christian Marclay’s Footsteps 1989 in which empty records cover the floor and the audience is invited to walk over them, scratching their surface and creating music through this human intervention. It is also evident in the graffiti on record covers, price tags, signatures and marks placed next a favourite song all indicate an interaction of some sort by a person living in Johannesburg. Records are passed on from person to person and therefore these marking become like art-by-mail where a message is sent to an unknown location and an unknown recipient. 

When compared to sound art and installation art for that matter are well suited. Installation makes use of the predetermined architectural framework in order to point it back at itself, sound too works against these structures penetrating its crevices and continuously bouncing off and working away at its surfaces. Installation art fabricates a three dimensional experience with multiple perspectives and focal points the viewer becomes part of the artwork without which the work is inactive; his/her presence activates the work as they enter an imaginary place. Sound art too constructs an imaginary land/soundscape active only through the intervention of a human ear that listens and transports that person into an alternate reality. In my work in particular, sounds and objects are one in the same. Sounds and objects both are dutifully and ritually collected, rearranged and configured into a composition where some are foreground an others placed in the distance to create a world within worlds that play on the monotony of daily life, the constructed nature of identity though interactions with prefabricated places and the limitations that they impose, while simultaneously problamatizing memory and history though the action of using the objects that others have thrown away intent on constructing a perception of themselves and lastly comment and criticize institutional ideologies and traditions through the dematerialization of the art object in the traditional sense and therefore destabilizes and complicates the notion of the art commodity. 

Sound Installation 

Case Study: Urban Concerns 

Urban Concerns is an initiative that was conceived through the collaboration between young curators from Johannesburg Art Gallery and Bildmuseet in Umea Sweden, Michelle Harris form Johannesburg and Veronica Witman, her Swedish based equivalent. I was invited at the beginning of the year to participate in their project and be the first artist to do so. I had been given a space in the gallery to create an installation that raised the relevant concerns that referred to their project while simultaneously exploring my own concerns. From the onset of our colJaboration I had noticed that their interest was in the dynamics of social interaction within the park in which the gallery so remorsefully found itself being situated. For many years now, the gallery has been fenced off from the park. The park goers would therefore be forced to use an alternative entrance as the predetermined entrance had been closed off. To me, this represented an unwelcoming, unreceptive and standoffish position that the 

gallery has assumed. Conversely, Gallery goers are shielded from the culture of the park and would only have it in distant view, which further reinforced their aloofness, detached and antagonistic relative to the culture of the very environment in which they are. It is for these reasons that I decided to reconstruct the park setting within the gallery and began work on Lawn Care. Furthermore, an informal publication was composed in which various parties involved could express their “concerns.” I contributed on two occasions. The first related to my experience and process involved in the creation of Lawn Care and the second was, an article pertaining my concerns. They read as follows: 

Artists Statement:

“First, a contraption on wheels, a mobile monument to Johannesburg came awkwardly rolling out of a studio door. Wrapped in fluff and fish gut the precarious cloud made its way down the elevator up the wheelchair ramp and with much effort toppled over into the boot of my car. I had measured the height of the elevator but not the length of my boot and so the clouds hovered over the asphalt, out of the rear end of my motor vehicle as I battled its way to my destination. Once there, to my delight, while attempting to blow this heavy cloud into position, the gut snapped and from the melancholic mist, rained broken gadgets, old tapes, a D.J. mixer, a reel to reel tape deck and old Hi Fi speakers. Nevertheless I happily rebuilt the tower in it intended position. Up and down the ramp, in and out of the public entrance to the gallery piece by piece it was finally reconstructed from the boot of my car. Second was the lawn. In search of an alternative to artificial lawn, I quite spontaneously chose to use garden netting and garden bags. Garden bags are used to recycle organic materials and I assumed that they would be commonly used in the process of maintaining a place such as Joubert Park. From the onset of Urban Concerns I was besotted with the idea of recreating a park setting within the gallery. I believe that many visitors to the gallery deliberately ignore this factor of their experience and therefore Lawn Care, to me, would function as a place to consider this. The grass or shredded garden bags could be said to serve as a reminder of this, a metaphor for the way the space is used by the public, there experience is fleeting, transitory, ephemeral. The process of making my park refers to this, ever changing, shape shifting nature of the park and also it urban context. It is the product of its makers, their ideals and their “conversation”.

Fanzine Entry: 

“I was never a part of that city with gold paved sidewalks, glitzy night time window shopping on streamlined passageways with the soles of my shoes prints indented into the concrete pathways and metal staircases to mark out my daily route. The Johannesburg that I’m more familiar with was always that which was observed from a distance – a view of the skyline from a balcony or an unexpected delight sinking into the horizon or sneaking in between the branches of trees, its aura undeniable. I have zigzagged through its streets, bought a cigarette from that same vendor and have found myself pasted to one of its walls for shelter on many rainy days. You have to be alert, move in groups of two or more shut down to what’s happening around you, hold your possessions tightly everyone is a suspect don’t trust a stranger ignore your name if its called and keep walking. Its difficult for those of us from outside its gates to focus on a magnificence that once was and images that are sketched out either through mythological tales, fictitious reports and fables from overhead sailors that give a birds eye view that compounds and over exaggerates. There is splendour about the way of life in Johannesburg, a beautiful playfulness that struggles to fit inside self-tailored foundations and rigid outlines. It is important to note that I am speaking about the Johannesburg that has not yet been scraped clean and taped off by the marketing division to manufacture and idealized city that is safe and dirt free, I’m talking about that which lies behind these facades. With this in mind, the concern is with how Johannesburg’s mannerisms are portrayed; it will always be a mariner’s tale unless we speak honestly about our own urban experience. This would rule out speaking on behalf of another that so dangerously teeters on the edge of an “Ag, shame!” mentality and the idea that Johannesburg needs to be saved from itself. The words we use are of utmost importance and can just as revealing. When speaking about anything from spaza shops and taxi ranks to shoe salesman and cigarette vendors, in the visual domain, we would quite happily use word like spontaneous, improvised, natural or instinctive and without giving it a second thought consequently reinforce notions of difference that are undeniably condescending and degrades the cities inhabitants. Another precarious practice is when artists employ this language in their own work. For example, reconstructing a roadside barber shop in the context of a gallery, sure it might be beautiful, the use of materials and everyday objects might be innovative however predicates itself on ethnographic dioramas and as a result unwittingly, unilinealism and social Darwinism.” 

Although these articles explain my interaction with Urban Concerns, neither of them goes into much depth about the sound aspect of my installation. Therefore, I would like to make use of this opportunity to do so.

Firstly, an integral part of my work is the process of collecting, therefore in Lawn Care, I collected various second hand sound equipment and at the focal point was an old reel-to-reel tape deck that came with a collection of revealing and sometimes strange recordings. I have no idea to whom this reel to reel once belonged to but the inference was made that it played an important role in the life of this unknown person living in Johannesburg and therefore evoke not only something about the audio culture of the past in Johannesburg but also my relentless pursuit of these memories encapsulated through sound and the recordings thereof. The music recorded onto the reel that was already placed onto the player was that of Pepe Jaramillo, a Mexican concert hall musician however to my surprise, only three songs were recorded which constituted only ten minutes of the entire hour long reel. The rest of the recording was a recording of a conversation that was high pitched, sounded as if it was recorded and could not be made out. It reminded me of the sea of frozen words and the words, the language of barbarians. In this analogy, I stood with my finger on the play button defrosting these archaic words, setting them free from their icy fate. I never played the recording continuously and disallowed it from becoming a theme song for the installation but rather allowed viewers to interact with the player at their own discression. I believed that this would give them the opportunity to discover the hidden sounds and experience them in the same way that I did. Rather, I allowed for two more aural experiences to surface. The first was the hip-hop that I played during the construction of the work. I found myself tying the garden.bags and counting beats 

simultaneously and during the tedious process of planting grass, I soon realized that this meditative means would not have allowed me to cover the entire surface of the floor without the musical equivalent. For every bar in the song, a blade of grass would be planted. This helped me to focus on the repetitive nature of the piece rather than on the pain in my back or the blisters on my fingers.

At this stage of the process, the audience responded in different ways. A certain security guard was rather offended by my taste in music and paced up and down peering through the doorway with disgust in his eyes. Coincidentally, my play list included a compilation of N.W.A. in which one song was entitled Fuck The Police. On the other hand I encountered a gentleman that managed events in Soweto responded by saying “This is where I want to be.” Thereafter we engaged in a long discussion over the installation and although it seemed to me that he had a fairly superficial understanding of art it did not change the fact that the work related and open his mind to new ways of looking. 

After I had completed the planting of the grass, I felt as if the aural atmosphere should change to suit the new perspective that it gave me towards the piece. During the evenings, when I was at home and when the gallery was closed, I would work on sound pieces by sampling from records that I have collected from Johannesburg specifically. I had learnt a new respect for being patient during the construction of my installation work and I believe that this was reflected in my sound studio work too. It is for this reason that I compiled these pieces onto a compact disc, which then became the final aural landscape for Lawn Care. The opening day of the exhibition however brought with it a subcategory to these works as I had been invited to have a performance on the day. Prior to this, I had been working with recording multiple channels and my plan was to have microphones lying in arbitrary places outside of the gallery. The microphone cables and the source of their amplification would then lead visitors to my installation and the urban Concerns hub. However, there was some speculation that it would rain and this ruled out my plans, as it would ruin my microphones. I decided to DJ instead at the entrance to the gallery as a guaranteed way to draw people for the surrounding area into the space. The reception was good and many people enjoyed the atmosphere that I was creating by merely playing song after song from the old to the young, people danced and enjoyed themselves and I had been given hope that Art and music can bring people together from different cultural, racial and political backgrounds. Towards the end of the day children from the neighbouring buildings began surrounding the DJ table and I began teaching them some basic scratching techniques. I emphasized that they should be gentle as if they were touching their girlfriends, they laughed but understood my point. As the day drew to a close the children refused to allow me to disconnect my turntables even though nighttime was drawing near. I had made copies of my sound pieces onto compact disc with the aim of handing them out at some point but never got the chance. As a strategy to occupy the children while I packed up my equipment, I gave them the task of disrupting the disc to the people left inside the gallery and they eagerly obliged. From my work with Urban Concerns, I learnt that found truly does have the ability to cross divides in a multitude of ways, even the miserable security guard could not help but muster up a grin as I played a song from The Jackson Five entitled Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing. The overall response was positive and motivated me to continue working within the city, using the domain of visual arts and the medium of sound with the aim of stimulating discussion, interaction and debate that revolves around concerns that surface through urban experience in Johannesburg. I reiterate that sound is an ideal medium to make use of in this respect and would like to remain aware of its ability to be a medium for public intervention. 

3. Sampling 

“Digital Sampling” is a purely electronic digital recording system which takes samples or “vertical slices” of sound and converts them into binary information, into data, which tells the sound producing system how to reconstruct, rather than reproduce it” Chris Cutler 2

Brian Eno also expresses this view in a slightly different form in his writing on the studio as compositional tool. “The effect of recording is that it takes music out of the time dimension and puts it in the space dimension.” 3 Whether it is the space within the inner ear activated by a pair of headphones or the space within a room activated by a pair of speakers, the moment anything is recorded and reproduced through the use of audio equipment, sound becomes spatially orientated. Furthermore, it is hereby that it is well suited within site-specific practices. “Musical instruments produce sound. Composers produce music. Musical instruments reproduce music. Tape recorders, radios, disc players etc., reproduce sound.” Oswald. Therefore, any recorded sound, whether they be recordings of music, speech or noise detach themselves from the original event and become objects in their own right, sonic matter.

Along with the sampling, comes the authorization and clearance of the material that you intend to use. In the case of music the rules and guidelines are strict. In Johannesburg for example many artists will not allow for their work to be cleared at all such is the case with artist like Miriam Makeba to protect the sanctity and inviolability of their music. They see the act of sampling as brutalizing, disrespectful and an assault on the integrity of the musician. There are various firms that specialize in the clearance of samples on behalf of the artists but generally record labels try to avoid using producers that use samples. The procedure involves having someone that represents the artist being sample or even the artist themselves to first listen to what you have done with their music and if they are happy; they would take a percentage of your earnings. Often times even if they don’t approve of how you used their music, the artists would still allow clearance because the potential to earn is great. Various rumours also exist with regards to the length of the sample that you may use before having to pay royalties, however many companies have a stern principal that insists that even if you use a single not that you must pay. The classic case is that of Vanilla Ice using an MC Hammer sample to which he added one extra note at the end of the bar, and refused to pay even though the everybody that has ever listened to ice-icebaby, immediately remembers the MC Hammer song, but in all fairness, the loops are different. This raises interesting questions in relation to Barthe’s Death of the Author.4 And the originality of thoughts and ideas. Firstly, if we look at John Oswald’s Betters by the Borrower: The Ethics of Musical Debt.5 he calls into question the death of the… 

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