Yann Novak is a Los Angeles-based sound and visual artist, who has a large portfolio of installation and experiential design. From music festivals to small art galleries, Novak and his various collaborators build soundscapes and visual media that are an homage to the audiovisual technologies of today and yesterday. We asked Novak to talk about the evolution of his creative process and how he meditates on the intersection of sound and visual.
I see that you have come from a background of contributing sound art to the installations and performances of others, now you work on large projects of your own. Can you describe how your work has evolved and grown over the last 10 years?
When I first started making work, I was really lucky to get to collaborate with a lot of talented people. I really enjoy that dynamic, so collaboration has continued to be a big part of my practice. At some point I started to focus on solo ventures and now they feel evenly paced.
I think the bigger evolution has been from making work that was internally focused to making work that is externally focused. When I started, I was using field recordings exclusively as my source material and the end result would always have a personal narrative weaved into the concept of the piece. This made things feel really bullet proof when I would talk about them because I could always reference back on this personal narrative of how I captured the recording. After a while I started to feel trapped by this and also felt like I was alienating the audience by not giving them a big enough entrance into the work.
So I started to look at what was happening in the gallery or performance venue – what was the actual interaction between the audience and work, what were they experiencing? This was really exciting because regardless of my perceived conceptual shortcoming, people were still compelled by the work and kept coming back. What I found was I was creating these spaces that, in the best-case scenario, altered one’s perception of time, space, or even one’s mood.
Once I figured this out I really started to make work with the end-experience in mind – how is this going to affect the audience? Now instead of creating this story to justify the work, the work has become a catalyst for the creation of an experience for the audience.
Why do you make sound? To you, what can sound communicate that other media cannot?
I grew up in a musical family, so music was always a big part of my life. My mother played guitar and piano and could hear something once and replicate it perfectly. My father was an avid record collector, worked at a record shop until I was nine or so, and has had a radio show on and off for longer than I have been alive. Even with all that push towards music I was happiest painting and drawing, so I focused on visual arts formally starting in high school. I spent a number of years making pretty terrible painting while following in my father’s footsteps by DJing and collecting music.
In the late 90’s I was introduced to a lot of experimental electronic music which led me to discover artists like Steve Roden and Stephen Vitiello who were making sound in a gallery context. This made me feel like I could combine the two things I loved and as soon as I started making sound work I felt like I had really found a voice far beyond what I was able to communicate with painting.
As my work progressed, it was sound’s elusiveness and ability to subliminally change experience that made it so interesting to me. Similarly to how an architect has a program for a room: in how it’s intended to be used, sound can add queues to how you experience space without the audience ever noticing.
If you enter a room with an HVac system, you may not notice the sound of the air getting pushed in, pulled out, or the absence of its familiar drone when its off. But each circumstance is going to subtly change your experience of the space. This kind of subtle manipulation is what really interests me in sound.
You have crafted a lot of work on the intersection of sonic and visual media. In your creative process, which typically comes first: sound or visual? Why?
Early on it was the location of the field recording being used as the source that would drive all my work. Now I feel like it’s split between sound element, visual element, or the opportunity/location. I still do a lot of field recordings that can spur ideas, but equally so, I take photos or have an idea that definitely needs a visual component that drives the creation process. I was recently in a show in which the curator wanted to explore empathy, and somehow I decided to do a piece about MDMA’s empathic effects. The video element materialized first in my mind and seemed the best way to illustrate that idea, and the sound kind of followed. I am also invited to do a lot of exhibitions or performances that are open invitations to create something new. With these, I like to let the locality or theme of the show/festival guide the idea. Recently I was invited to perform at the de Young in San Francisco. They specifically wanted me to perform in the Hamon Observation Tower, so I developed a performance piece that referenced the intent of the museum’s architecture, which had to sit harmoniously within the landscape. I used field recordings from the landscape and paired them with synthesized sound meant to sit harmoniously within the field recordings. A work like that I would have never conceived of without the invitation to engage with that building, location, and history.
How has the science of sound, such as the physics and mathematical dimensions of sound, influenced your artistic process and identity?
I am not a very technical person, so I try to only learn as much as I need to. I never want my work to be solely about the phenomenon of sound or a generative process etc. Instead I like to have a healthy bit of intuition, so for instance: I use a modular synthesizer for a lot of my work, I know how most of each module works, but I prefer to start with the ear and what it’s like to experience the sound. I don't even tune it, or use MIDI or CV to feed an oscillator a specific pitch, I just sit down and tweak until I like how it sounds. I even try not to get to familiar with my own gear to keep my process a kind of discovery. My hope is that by leading with intuition the work has a more human (and thus a more emotionally accessible) quality to it instead of just illustrating an concept.
You pay tribute to the Musique Concrete tradition of electronic sound, where do you typically find sonic material to manipulate and transform?
My source field recordings are almost entirely captured by myself. There have been a few instances where I have not been able to get to a location prior to the event and hired friends to do them for me. For me the acousmatic aspects of Musique Concrete are equally if not more important to my practice. In the 90’s I was deeply involved in rave culture, it was my first experience with counter-culture and I was immediately hooked by the music. One of the fundamental things I found so interesting about electronic music back then was that all these sounds could only be produced by a speaker. I had no idea this phenomenon had a whole other lineage back then, to me it just made the sound seem so futuristic. I was fascinated by this world where one was able to create and arrange sounds without the need for breath, bow, or strike, and that electricity is essential in its production and reproduction. These sounds exist without a real world physical cause behind it, and thus become a purely subjective experience.
What is the importance of constructing immersive spaces for experiencing your work as opposed to solitary listening?
I think of the work itself as creating the immersive space. A solitary listener of a work on CD in their home can still inhabit an immersive space. The work I and a lot of my peers make can produce uncomfortably introspective experiences if framed by the context of listening to music, watching a concert, etc. I try to create works that evade this by creating seamlessly looped installation work, durational performances and long-form recorded works. In all these instances the socially-ascribed standards for experiencing the work are broken down and more agency is given to the audience. The concert is my favorite example of this. Most audience members understand that the social contract of a concert is to attend and be presented 30 - 45 minutes of music. If the audience member is not hooked in in the first 5 - 10 minutes it can become a really uncomfortable and boring experience. They might even become less receptive to the performance. With a durational performance of say 4 - 6 hours, with no set time for the audience to arrive they can walk in knowing if they don’t like it they can leave in 5 minutes. Affording them this freedom usually makes them more receptive and more likely to stay longer and have a deeper experience. At my first six hour performance, Snowfall, most guests stayed 45 - 60 minutes and one guest stayed for three hours. There was only one group that left after five minutes, but they were so talkative and disruptive that in a regular concert setting they would have been trapped, and potentially disturbed a lot more audience members. In all these instances the work is holding space for the audience and leaves room for them to take from it what they want or need. The importance lies in creating a situation where a deeper experience or exchange can happen.
In what direction do you see your work headed?
I see my work heading in a more political direction, or at least acknowledging the political context it’s being created and presented in. I think the last eight years tricked a lot of people, myself included, into thinking we were living in a more progressive political trajectory than we actually were. My latest CD for Touch, titled Ornamentation, is a good example of acknowledging context. For this release I tried to resist the casual qualification of Modernism or Minimalism because they are thrown around pretty freely and without consideration of their histories, or if the work even follows their ideologies outside of pure aesthetics. I felt it was time to try to reframe my work outside of that context and explore the roots of these labels, which were often manifestations of white, capitalist patriarchy.
Where would be your ideal venue for a performance?
I don't think there is one or if there, is I don't want to perform there. I love the uncertainty and challenges that come with a non ideal setting, whether it’s the din of traffic slowly coming back into focus for the audience as I fade away the last moments of my performance or performing outdoors and having a mockingbird join in for the last half of a set. These things that could be seen as problems or interruptions are to me what make performance really exciting because only this one audience on this one day will have that experience. It adds a layer of uniqueness that could never be planned or replicated. For one exhibition I did a site visit to a gallery in the winter for a show in the summer, when I came to install there was an air conditioner hissing away and it just so happened that it was at the same frequency I had included white noise in the sound piece. Instead of battling to quiet the machine or compete with the AC I just removed my sound and let the AC do the job for me. I would often rather walk into a question mark because the unanticipated problems are what will challenge me in a way my studio never could.