As I passed through the black steel gates in the graffiti-decorated pink façade of La Respuesta Club at 1600 Fernández Juncos Avenue in San Juan, the venue for FAS 08 Sound Art Fair, Aug. 15-17, 2008, the video artist and television producer Ozzie Forbes greeted me effusively with a phrase worthy of a bumper sticker: "In the worst of times, Puerto Rican artists produce the best of shows."
With the local economy in the dumpster, the shortage of jobs, and a long list of alternative spaces and commercial galleries that have closed in the past year, it was a real surprise that anyone would undertake a commercial art fair at all, much less one focusing on something as hard to sell as sound art. Then again, no galleries or art dealers were represented in FAS 08, leaving artists and art collectives to run their own booths.
FAS 08 followed in the footsteps of other outside-the-box endeavors like the DIVA, Fountain, the Dark Fair and the recent Sonar Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia in Barcelona. FAS 08 was organized Lisa Ladner, a cultural producer and scholar who splits her time between Zurich and San Juan. She also edits El Status, a comprehensive database of Puerto Rican artists that is becoming increasingly useful for art professionals. Working with Ladner on FAS 08 is Omar Obdulio, an artist and founding member of =Desto alternative space, and sound curator and artist Jorge Castro.
"Only a few works of sound art have found their way into contemporary art collections from the island," Ladner admitted. "Audio sculptures, installations, performances, MP3 files, CDs or other multimedia that include music or diverse sounds are not as easy to appreciate as paintings or traditional sculptures." As usual, sales weren’t the whole story. The collector Waldemar Fabery called the fair "a great first contact for those of us who don’t know much about sound art. If the main objective was to raise interest for sound works, they succeeded. I’m definitely paying attention now."
Andres Lugo, organizer of the annual Giratorio de Ekspresion Music Festival, also acknowledged the importance of performing for its own sake. "Regardless how bad things are with the economy," he said, "most sound artists are used to performing at noncommercial venues. Even if these works don’t sell we are more than happy being acknowledged by a broader audience."
Inside FAS 08, however, economic worries evaporated amid the excitement of a high-energy opening. It was like being inside a living organism pulsating with layers of sound. Walls were covered with sheer plastic, like at a construction site, and the bar in the middle of the space gave the event a shabby sense of familiarity. Crowds were big, stayed long hours and looked satisfied. Even uninteresting works benefited from the dynamic context.
One of my favorite moments was a thrilling live set by the pioneer noise artist Francisco J. Torres, who announced in a sort of nerdy voice that there would come a time when the melancholy sound of grainy static won’t be heard on the radio. After this prediction he proceeded to craft an improvisational work entirely from the static coming from manipulated receivers, radios and antennas. Other great live performances included those of Ariel Hernández, Araceli Pino and Clon.
FAS 08 also featured panels and other educational forums, including one that pondered the definition of sound art, which welcomed the surprise intervention of composer Francis Schwartz, a former collaborator with John Cage who is legendary in his own right for his polyformic performances during the late 1970s. Schwartz, seemingly tired of the academic disputation of art professionals, interrupted without apology to deliver a superb motivational speech, complete with anecdotes of past performances, in which he urged his listeners to "make art without fear." His remarks were received with strenuous ovation from the crowd.
Physical artworks were featured at the fair as well, such as Araceli Pino’s Impulses, a raw canvas fitted with speakers that sounded a subdued rhythm, like human murmurs. Drawn onto the canvas are organic lines that makes the work seem like a painting of a tree branch. Impulses was priced dirt-cheap at $1,500. Pino, who uses the name Puntito Siniestro -- Sinister Tiny Dot -- when playing live, looks friendly enough, but when she takes the stage the music she produces is unapologetically loud, textured and gigantic. To achieve her singular sound, the artist juxtaposes layers of heavy bass with low- fi AM radio broadcasts from talk radio in what could be described as muffled political diatribe of fanatics at political conventions.
Also good was the soothing and atmospheric sound collage 11:11 (A. Borde) by G Nemyr Canals, in which the artist recreates a walk in Saas–Fee, a small town in the Swiss Alps, by editing recordings she made on site, heavy breathing and dogs barking included. Carola Cintrón presented a simple looking conceptual piece: a small wooden square box filled with sand. Visitors put their ear up against it to hear, supposedly, the sound of conch shell. I didn’t hear anything but other people did and said they enjoyed it.
Tony Walker’s Ecco Portrait, an installation in three parts, was, at $21,000, probably the most expensive work in the fair. The work includes a sound system, video cameras, microphones and a mixer, and fair visitors were invited to use these tools to interact with the piece. Walker also makes colorful and organic sculptures out of discarded plastic, which he regards as metaphors for abstract sound. A bit tacky but thoroughly honest, Walker’s installation resembled cool lounge art.
Another standout was Adal Maldonado’s scary Mambo Madness from 2007 (a DVD edition of three, ironically priced at $100.01), a grainy black-and-white short film of people dancing that plays in slow motion. A deep voiceover tells the story of a nightclub that has been specially created to detain people infected with "la clave," a dangerously erotic Caribbean rhythm. Still another eye-catching work was Two Hanging Monkeys by Charles Juhász and Fabián Vélez, a huge rattan and steel swing shaped like headphones, with custom made speakers and sound.
And the Brigada collective’s Memories of the Earth was just plain weird. It consists of a free CD featuring videos, sound and photographs that document the discovery of various domestic objects during the amateur excavation of an old latrine. With this exercise, the artists assign new meanings to old narratives, making each object the point of departure for a musical composition. Most of the individual works sound experimentally retro, like music from ‘70s horror films. Members of Brigada include Rosamarie Berrios, Pedro Luis García, Julio Mendoza, Ramón Berríos, and Yeidi Altieri.
During the closing hours of FAS 08, it became clear that the island’s supercollectors failed once again to respond to the needs of the local art scene. It’s their loss. Regardless, the fair was well attended and can be counted as a success. Plus, it is a great artistic proposition to begin with. Art fair directors take note: FAS could serve as a good addition to any large fair, especially if it had a larger venue and a larger budget.
For more on FAS 08, see the video documentation by Teo Freytes at MSA Xperimental.
PEDRO VÉLEZ had a great five years vacationing in Puerto Rico. He is now moving back to Chicago to work on The Comercial Years: The Lazy Days of Art, a book about his experience on the island.