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Idea of North, an exhibition of audio art by 16 artists from four countries in four Halifax galleries, aims to illuminate how sound defines the tone of a place.

When sitting beside audio artists Eleanor King and Stephen Kelly, the surrounding sounds in the room become more noticeable. Almost on cue, as King is talking about how she instinctively connects sound to personal memories, someone drops a dish on the cafe counter, its tinny boom resonating across the floor.

“See,” she says, pointing to the tape recorder lying on the table, “when you listen to this tape later, you’ll remember everything that was happening around you.” Turns out she’s right: The sound of hip-hop in the background, a chair squeak, a laugh—all provide an indelible audio photo of one wintry December evening.

We live in a visual world. We rely on graphic signs to tell us where to go and what to do. We watch movies, read, play video games for entertainment. Even in the art world, sound-based art is still a relatively emerging form of expression, gaining acceptance by gallery audiences generally more familiar with painted or sculpted forms.

That’s why Halifax is so darn lucky. As one of three host cities for the international sound-art exhibition Idea of North, there’s a grand opportunity to experience some of the best audio art from Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Canada—including work by King and Kelly—and to gain a better understanding of how what we hear helps define who we are, and where we are. The exhibition, hosted by Dalhousie Art Gallery, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery and Eye Level Gallery, includes 16 artists, talks, residencies, films and a performance at Anna Leonowens, dominating the city’s aural landscape through two of the most frigid winter months.

Idea of North—named after the 1967 CBC Radio broadcast by Canada’s most famous sound artist, Glenn Gould—was a long time in the making. It’s the brainchild of Toronto curator Rhonda Corvese, whose work focuses on placing contemporary Canadian art within an international context. If she sounds tired on the phone, it’s because she’s worked on this exhibition for more than three years. Back in the winter of 2002, Corvese was in Madrid where she met a Norwegian curator. They discussed a mutual interest in pursuing an initiative that would examine whether regionalism, in a philosophical sense, does exist in sound.

By 2003, two Icelandic curators also entered the project. Three curatorial groups (no easy feat considering personal interests, logistical conflicts and geographic barriers) developed this project, which last year presented two distinct exhibitions in Moss, Norway, and Reykjavik, Iceland, working under an umbrella theme of sound and locality; Corvese’s specific interest being “does sound define a specific site or location?”

King and Kelly live in a world generated by sound. Along with their individual and collaborative art practices, Kelly is the broadcast technician at CKDU, King (known as Darla Kitty) is the host of the station’s Wednesday-night radio program Arts Smarts. They both play in the lo-fi pop band The Just Barelys. They were a natural choice when Corvese called the Centre for Art Tapes, looking for potential artists.

They sent a package of mostly student pieces and samples from their 2002 Radio Ballroom, where as Khyber curatorial residents, Kelly and King broadcasted the work of local audio artists on a pirate radio station located in their home. After a long period of time when the international curators were reviewing all the proposed artists, the pair heard back from Corvese, who says, “I chose specific artists not only because of their work, I chose artists that I wanted to work with.”

King and Kelly immediately began developing a concept that embraced Corvese’s idea of location. “What does it mean to be a Haligonian?” asks King. “Or to be living in Halifax as a Haligonian, when the culture is geared towards tourism. In this present political climate here, it’s frustrating being an artist. Tourism stifles the contemporary culture that is happening here or creates assumptions of what we think tourists think of us.”

They started to collect sounds. “We spent time trying to recreate the tourists’ experience and recording sounds of that experience,” says Kelly. They arrived in Moss, Norway, in late May with laptops filled with audio of local treats like the Harbour Hopper, Citadel Hill, Casino Nova Scotia, Historic Properties, Split Crow and a drunken pub crawl, led, of course, by a piper.

While they were in Norway, the duo edited the sounds to accompany the landscape of a popular trail on an old estate ground just outside the picturesque Gallery F 15 in Moss, 80 kilometres south of Oslo. At the gallery, visitors would pick up an MP3 player and follow a map created by King and Kelly. “We go back to the sounds to try and map it out with approximately how long it would take to go from this point to this point,” explains King. “Mapping what will happen in your soundscape based on your surroundings. We would do a rough cut, go back out and walk it through.”

In some ways, the resulting 21-minute “Soundroam” follows a similar path to Gould’s documentary. Gould used a “contrapuntal radio” technique (many voices speaking simultaneously) in an attempt to dispel the popular, “romanticized…Group-of-Seven painting” notion of the north. King and Kelly manipulate typical tourist sounds—in many ways a myth itself—demonstrating that one can feel isolated at “home.”

“Soundroam” plays with a range of emotions—from an eerie opening of drawn-out bagpipe sounds that skip and punctuate the air, to an expression of cynical, sharp humour during a bar-band medley which includes “Grease Lightning” and a boozy, screaming crowd. Peepers chirp and casino slot machines take on the impression of an orchestra warming up: Underlying the piece is a strange musicality which, as King points out, blends with natural sounds that creep in under the headphones. It’s an enveloping experience that places the listener right in the centre of the work. It’s also amusing to imagine Norwegian trail-walkers listening to the drunken singing of a Halifax party. Is this really what we’re all about?

Late last May and early June when King and Kelly were in sunny Moss and touring around the country, they began recording the second part of their project: A summer audio tour of Norway to be set in Halifax. Selecting sounds was easy—as tourists in another country, they simply recorded what they heard and what intrigued them. The soundtrack was similarly edited and mapped in the same way for the Halifax waterfront, and from January 14 to February 26, gallery visitors can pick up a touring MP3 player at the front counter of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

“Summer in a northern country (as you know) is so special because everyone has been cooped up for so long before the good weather arrives. When the weather gets nice everyone goes out to enjoy it,” explains King in an e-mail. “But the surroundings while you walk will be so starkly different, going by the businesses that largely exist for the tourists and the closed kiosks downtown along the water.”

Kelly admits that it may be difficult to inspire Haligonians to take an audio tour along the vacant waterfront during one of the most miserable times of the year. (Perhaps this is the point?) “We have to be conscious that we are asking a lot of people,” he says. “Our piece, especially, because they have to go out on a walk in January.”

The two cleverly devised earmuffs to keep brave listeners warm, but King brings up another issue faced by artists who work in time-based media such as audio or video. “Gallery viewers are used to spending an average of 4.2 seconds on a painting. If you go to the Louvre, people are just like ‘yep, there it is,’ and move on. And with this, if you want to experience the works you have to sit down, or in our case, walk around and hang out with it for 10 minutes.”

As both King and Corvese explain, the similarity between all the audio works in Idea of North really involves a response to site and environment. Norwegian artist Maia Urstad will line a wall of SMU Gallery with 120 CD-players and ghettoblasters, groups of which are preprogrammed to launch sounds such as radio static, Morse code and speech taken from various locations. Marla Hlady’s sculptures at Dalhousie Art Gallery are created from stainless-steel kitchen objects such as teaballs, transformed into audio-playback devices, containing sounds recorded in both Iceland and Canada.

Swedish artist Liv Strand strikes on both universal and local themes by playing on recognized semantics; one of her sound-pieces, “Brrr…,” which will greet visitors to Eye Level Gallery, “examines different ways that people sound when they express the feeling of coldness. The investigation was performed by asking people to make the vocal sound that would emphasize them shivering with coldness, often carried out right before saying something about the temperature.” Both Canadian and Swedish versions are available at the gallery. “I don’t know if there is any difference between the expressions of coldness in our countries,” she writes, “but I’m curious about that and it’s a good start.”

Strand’s perspective on locality demands “time and presence. I’ve made one piece that came out of locality—me and another artist built a mattress, a can with lotion and a sausage right out on the sidewalk with the help of the people passing. We discovered that many people had the same routine and they followed our task progressing as the days passed, and got more or less involved.”

Conversely, King and Kelly are asking us to put on a pair of audio earmuffs, rethink our daily routines and listen closely to what it means to live in Halifax.

Idea of North at Dalhousie Art Gallery, 6101 University, from January 12 to February 26, Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery, Loyola Building, from January 13 to February 26, Eye Level Gallery, 2128 Gottingen from January 14 to Feb 19. MP3 players for Eleanor King and Stephen Kelly’s “Soundroam” can be picked up at the AGNS reception desk, 1723 Hollis from January 14 to February 26.

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