William Furlong

Audio Arts - the creative process of hearing

A conversation between British artist William Furlong and Angelika Stepken (Director of Villa Romana) on the occasion of the digitisation and online publication of his sound art-archive Audio-Arts by Tate Modern (May 2014).

Audio Arts (recorded between 1973 - 2007) has become one of the most comprehensive and coherently focused aural archive of artists' voices and sound art featuring exclusive contributions from individual artists such as Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner, Gerhard Richter, Dieter Roth, Tracey Emin and Jean Tinguely.

At Villa Romana he presented his exhibition Speaking to Others: Who Speaks to Who in 2013.

The interview was recorded in April 2014 at Hotel Belvedere, Florence.

"On reading through this transcript, I am conscious of the difference between spoken language and its transcription (as is even more evident here, with the edited version of this conversation). Meanings and intention become somewhat elliptical. As with tape, however, a second readingallows for a deeper penetration beneath the surface. The reader is strongly advised to listen to the original audio tapes on the Tate website, which should clarify many of the issues raised in this text." (William Furlong)

Your exhibition Speaking to Others: Who Speaks to Who at Villa Romana brought together 23 excerpts from conversations you have been conducting with 20 artists since 1974. The visitor entered rooms with a murmuring, simultaneous presence of artists' voices.  Why did you choose this concept of sound installation? Were you establishing a historical space where meaning was/is created?

In many respects, this work can be regarded as an autobiographical journey rather than a linear tour of 40 years of Audio Arts recording. It is therefore neither a linear progression nor a logical sequence, but is structured in the way that life itself is structured (or not structured); rather like answering the phone and not knowing who is calling until you speak. It is like being in a bus or a lift with others, where you can hear ambient conversations, some louder than others, the sounds drifting in and out of focus depending on your position in relation to the speaker and the extent to which what is being said is engaging or interesting. Volume is also important, of course, but you do not necessarily hear more if the volume is louder. The space itself lends atmosphere and context to what is being said; it can also amplify or reduce the inherent meanings in the speech. As with speech, listening is a creative process.

Your practice during 40 years of Audio Arts was mainly that you, as an artist, were talking to another artist. A practice that in time created a huge archive of artists' conversations.

Yes, that is what Audio Arts is. I do not like the term interview very much, because it carries a kind of hierarchical implication that the interviewer knows more than the interviewee, that the interviewer dominates in some way. It does not have to be like that, but I think I prefer everything I have done to be regarded as a conversation, where each person has equal authority to the interviewer.

Professional conversations between one artist and another are not usually made public, although for artists they are always of great importance.

Yes, what I mean is that conversation, and I have written this somewhere, is where we develop our ideas – more than that, it is where we form them, which takes us back to Villa Romana. A lot of interaction takes place here, which in itself is not the exhibition, but it is where exhibitions are formed – through conversation and discussion with the people involved, as is indeed the case with my piece here.

The tapes often start with you stating: I am here with … You are well prepared to address the other person when you approach them.

Yes, that is true. I usually do my interviews or conversations based on a reason, which is often their exhibition, or an issue or topic that seems important to talk about. So I start with: I am here in a particular location, as indeed we are here in Florence talking – and we have a reason for doing this, which is that we want to find out more about what you are doing and what I am doing, why I am here, what my exhibition here achieved, what it did not achieve, maybe. There are always primary and secondary reasons for doing something. We have a purpose for our actions; it is not that we just do things for the sake of doing things, but that it keeps us going. I think it is always important to remember that when we talk to another person, it is not just to communicate with them, but to learn something.

Your approach to the other person involves wanting to know or discover something new.

Exactly. I think that is always the primary purpose in the informal conversations we all have with other people. That we want to know more than we do, through talking to this person. And whenever that has happened in the Audio Arts interviews, I have come away learning something, and even if it is only a little, at least I come away with something I did not have before. That is over and above the quality of the voice and gaining some sense of the way a person thinks and talks about their work, reflects on it, and uses references.


This is the quality of speaking, listening, interacting in time. Yet you decided not only to talk to certain colleagues, but to record these conversations, to store and edit them, which gave rise to an archive.

In the context of contemporary art, the term archive only started to be used quite recently. Of course, everyone is making an archive, every day of their lives, but when you tape it, you can retain the conversation, it can be stored for re-accessing, and then it starts to feel like an archive, or can be described as such.

Were you concerned with the historical value of the period during the 1970s? With saving it? Or were you far more interested in spreading the material in the most efficient way at the time?

I was not aware of the historic value of the individuals at the time. They were chosen because of their relationship to conceptual art and their relevance to Audio Arts and its underlying concept. I do not think I was interested so much in the physical material produced at that time. I should add that I ceased to make physical art in the 1970s, hence the link to conceptualism. I remember being excited at the time about art that had meanings that could be seen beyond the formal values of physical objects. Listening to an event after the fact changes its meaning. Ambiguity does creep in, but that is a good thing if it leaves the primary issues open and does not fix them.

Hearing the voice of an artist years later reminded me of the punctum experience in photography, the moment of a sudden scare, where you feel life and death at the same time. Both analogue photography and analogue audio tapes have this quality of an indexical trace, a trace of the real. Did this quality only reveal itself over time for Audio Arts?

Each time you listen to a verbal exchange, you hear more. The tape, because it can be replayed multiple times (unlike real-time conversation), allows for a deeper penetration or insight into the meanings and implications of a discussion.

You were trained as a painter at the Royal Academy in the sixties. Then, in 1973, you started with the first recordings and publishing of Audio Arts. The first issue was an interview with Art and Language, the next ones were with Michael Craig-Martin, Noam Chomsky, and, in 1974, with James Joyce, Joseph Beuys, and Buckminster Fuller. The people you have chosen have gone on to become highly prominent figures in recent art history. How did you choose your conversation partners?

I should stress that the first items to be included on Audio Arts reflect my journey through, and interaction with, the contemporary fine art world. It also has to do with opportunities and the availability of individuals and material to record. At the outset, producing Audio Arts was like being involved in my art practice. The individuals you list were chosen because of the critical energy around them at the time. They were obviously key players in the early days of Audio Arts.

… when Audio Arts became an artistic medium for you.

That is right. And it was an extension of the idea of a magazine, that a magazine is really a collection of people's thoughts. That is what Audio Arts was, a collection of people's thoughts – and a conversation is an explicit example of that because you are expressing your thoughts by talking to someone and listening to what they are saying. So, yeah, I think that it is very close – an archive and a conversation and a magazine are all similarly linked.

Why did you decide not to print the interviews, but to introduce the tape as a medium?

That is a good question. When I started Audio Arts in the early seventies, printing was available, of course, but it was quite a lot of trouble to go to print with a magazine, as it always has been. At that time, the audio cassette was only just emerging as a possibility. And it had not yet been done – it sounds strange, but the idea of a magazine based on an audio cassette had not been done before, and now it is a historic medium. Back then, it was quite an innovation, this ability to talk and retain the spoken word. Now it sounds rather silly to even think of it in that way, but at the time it was not. It is ridiculous, is it not? It was only 1973. But the medium of sound was a new phenomenon – the fact that suddenly anybody could make a recording. And I came along at just that time, with those thoughts, when the recording technology was newly available, albeit fairly basic and simple. But at least you could record something and reproduce it. And that is how the whole Audio Arts thing started.

Video art already began in the early sixties, but audio art a full ten years later? Was that because sound was always linked to the image or to news?

No, it was not, really. And as you have implied with that question, people sometimes ask: why not video? Well, it is a more complex proposition to record and edit a video – it is far more expensive, and you need more equipment to edit a video cassette with images than with sound alone, with speech – which is a radio medium. It was possible for one person to make a recording on their kitchen table, so to speak, to actually do the original recording and transfer it to tape, which could then be edited (spliced, as was the case in those days, and then joined back together), so here was this ability to produce material and to put it together and take it apart – and that was quite revolutionary. But this was not the case with video, because it was a more sophisticated material. And anyone who has ever tried to edit video knows that you cannot really do it without of a lot of expensive technology.

The ambiguous quality of audio interviews on tape entails the presence of voice, speech, and the meaning and absence of the physical figure.

Yes, that is right.

This tension comprises one of its essential qualities. It would be very different if you saw Beuys standing there and talking – there would be much more distraction through the visual.

Yes, the thing is, sound provides a direct access to thinking and to thought, to words and speech. When you make a video, there are a lot of other things there that are not necessarily important for that meaning, for those messages. They have to somehow get through the appearance of people, what they are wearing, the lighting conditions, etc. I would argue that it is more complicated and not as informative, because when we are speaking one to one, as we are now, I am confronted solely with the ideas of a person expressing herself in speech, which is a very economical, but also very direct form of communication.

The direct access of audio to thinking – is this your link to conceptual art? That you understood Audio Arts as an artistic practise, and not as a commentary or editing work?

That is correct. I made this work as an artist. And in a way, you could say the material I was working with was sound and speech. Which makes it more linked to conceptual art, because conceptual art was about values, ideas, and meanings, but without the physical objects to substantiate them. The objects I was dealing with were sound and speech.


How did you work on your material? How did you edit the talks? And how many minutes and umm, umm, umm did you cut?

Well, the editing was very physical in the way that used to be available. It is all digital today – no one touches the material. The tape I worked with was on a reel, I could mark it and cut bits out of it, and I put the program together based on that process of marking, cutting, removing, and with the hemming and hawing you just alluded to. I cut the bits and put them back together, and then the piece that I made from that was called the humming and hawing sequence, which brought together all the redundant bits of speech, as I called them, all those bits where you go "umm", the expressive bits of speech outside of language that are usually lost. You can certainly hear them in radio interviews, but I collected them and put them all together, and there is a sense of humour in the piece that came about through the possibilities of tape, and of editing.

But your editing was not only about bits. You still have hours and hours of non-published audio material. Other examples of editing related to the desire to reduce a lengthy exchange down to a size or duration that would fit the tape.

I did that as well, because when you are editing any sort of sound medium you have to reduce it to some extent, otherwise it goes on forever and ever. So, yes, I did that sort of editing, too, which entails focusing on the important things to put together a series of focused sequences where the question has been asked and the person answering sticks to the answer and does not go off on tangents. Sometimes tangents are interesting, and sometimes they are not, so I had to omit the parts that were not relevant.

We have been talking about your conversations for Audio Arts, but you have also recorded lectures, readings, and a lot of other speaking. How did this come about?

Once I established the practice, all sorts of other things became possible, of course. Recording performances and lectures and presentations became an easy associated activity for me, because I had the technology and no one else was doing it, and so I could go to the ICA and record Beuys or go to a gallery and record whomever, and retain that. These things became part of the Audio Arts project, things that were done and would have been lost, had no one been there to record them. I remember doing that with the Buckminster Fuller lectures – he came and stood there in the middle of the gallery for three hours and talked, and I recorded it. Had I not been there, it would have been lost forever. It is a brilliant sequence of words that provides insight into the man's mental agility – how he thought things through, how he contradicted himself sometimes. That was another thing about recording – it allowed you to witness the process of formulation, the process of how someone arrives at an opinion or an idea, which does not come instantly, but occurs through a series of stages. The recording allows you to witness that process of organic development.

These were always things you did on your own volition, from the initial preparations to the final result, together with Violet, I suppose?

Yes. I did them at home, in theory on the kitchen table, but not in reality because I had a studio – which brings us back to the earlier question about audio, that it was possible to do all this with some sound equipment and tape recorders, nothing more.

When did you begin collaborating? Several conversations were conducted by others.


Yes, the thing about Audio Arts was, as soon as I started it, all sorts of possibilities opened up. It caught people's imagination and allowed me to ask others to collaborate who were interested in becoming involved. When other people started helping and collaborating with me on things, I was no longer the sole producer. And it worked out, provided there was compatibility between my philosophy and what others were doing, I mean, when they knew what the underlying principles were.

A very banal question: how many copies of these tapes did you send around at the time?

Not very many to begin with – twenty, thirty – it was a new adventure in the beginning, a new enterprise, as anyone who has tried to start a magazine knows. You have to build up subscribers one by one, and I built it up to a couple of hundred internationally, which does not sound like very many, but it is still enough to create the impact that it has created. You do not need thousands. Bear in mind that I did not have any of the strategies, methods, or budgets larger magazines have for distributing and publicizing their magazines and publications. You cannot really compare it to existing enterprises, which all have big budgets for these things. I had no money to do this. Every subscriber was a hard one, but I had to get them. And that is what I did.

You kept at it for thirty-three, thirty-four years...

Yes. One thing that has to be said is that Audio Arts was a thing of its time. From today's perspective, to have a magazine run by one person seems like an anachronism. To have one person doing the whole thing – the publicity, interview, marketing, not to mention the original material, the interviews – does not make for a very viable model of production, but it worked back then. It was the time of conceptual art, where a lot of people did things like this.

You continued.

I continued. It was my project, and it went hand in hand with my practice as an artist, which still carries on.

Was the initial motivation – speaking / spreading the most experimental, radical ideas of that time – something that followed you all throughout?

That is a good question. The thing about writing art history suggests a gap between myself and the ideas and individuals I worked with at the time. It is important to make clear that I was part of what was going on, not outside of it. Audio Arts was therefore a part of conceptual art and its various conversations. It is important to remember that I always engaged as an artist, and not as a commentator or traditional critic.

Why did you call Audio Arts a magazine and not a multiple? If you call it a magazine, does this open it up more to the public?

Well, I think the term magazine has currency; multiple does not resonate the same way as it does in Europe. And multiple sounds unique, like an artist's edition, which it never was – it was meant to reach the public, it was not restricted by its term.

You said that Audio Arts started as something completely new, with simple technical means. When did the idea of sound art enter into your practice?

I still do not like the term sound art, but it is a relatively new phrase. I became involved with artists who worked in sound, such as Ian Breakwell and Richard Hamilton, to some extent. They used sound because it was another thing you could work with, another medium. In the case of Hamilton, it was speech. I think the reason Richard Hamilton was interested in Audio Arts at an early stage was because of the things he was doing in collaboration with other artists, such as Dieter Roth.

Why do you not like the term sound art?

Well, it is the term that other people applied to me, and of course there is an element of truth in it. The way I think about it is this: sound is the material, sound is the medium, and I like the idea of using different sorts of media to make art, which is a conceptual approach, of course. And that is what I did: I used sound as a material that could be applied in different ways.

You were more focused on words, speech, content than on the sound as a canonic dimension?

… as an abstract thing, yes. And I was not interested in the whole orchestral definition of what is acceptable and what is not, in the way musicians or composers are.

Another complex of questions deals with the idea of space. For Audio Arts, there is the space where you recorded the speech, and there are the spaces where the tapes travelled to, private or non-private spaces, but now they are entering the space of exhibitions. The next level is online, with the digital Tate archive. And so your work appears in different contexts, but also in different qualities of space.

One of the things that is of enormous interest is how a space that a sound is heard in becomes changed by the sound itself. If you ring a bell in a room, you hear a particular sound. If you take the bell to a mountaintop and ring it, you hear a different sound. If you ring it on the street it sounds different. So, the quality of a sound depends on where you hear it, what the source of the sound is, and where it was performed or recorded. If you do something in a room with a great deal of echo, that has a particular quality. If it is not in a room with a lot of echo, or if it is recorded close to a microphone, it has a different resonance, as well. Most sounds we hear today are recorded with a microphone close to the sound source. I think it deadens the sound a bit... because it all takes on the same quality.

That was about the space of recording…

The thing about space and sound is that sound determines and defines the space. If you clap your hands, the clap resonates in the room and what you hear is the echo as well as the clap itself, and that is important to defining or describing what you actually hear. This is not the case in a recording studio, which is why I did not like recording studios for a long time, because there was no resonance within the space.

The space of perception or reception does not matter as much to you later?

It does now, I think, because the sound you hear is a product of the space it is recorded and heard in. If it was purely about the sound, it would be like a microphone. There would be no resonance – resonance was the word I was looking for – and it is important because it is part and parcel of the sense of receiving a sound, of hearing a word that was recorded. The sound does articulate the space in which it was made and recorded. And that is why it is sculptural, I think – because sound has to do with space.

Whether I listen to Audio Arts in an exhibition space or at home on my computer: what remains is always – no matter what kind of institutional space it is in – a certain kind of intimacy of the voice.

Yes, that is right.

You always have to dedicate yourself to this intimacy.

That is true. There is more work to be done on this, but there is an intimate level of the voice, where I am only really talking to you, although I know very well that we are making a recording that can be heard by thousands of others. But at the moment, we are only talking to each other, which allows us to say something we would not if we were talking to a hundred people in a hall. That is the voice's ability: it is capable of intimacy while talking to a broader audience.

My next questions deal with listening and with repetition. What happens when you listen again and again?

Well, that is important because that is what recording can uniquely do. If we have a conversation and do not record it, we cannot return to it. A tape recording allows you to return to it and hear it over and over again. Which means you can penetrate it, you can listen to it and hear layers in a conversation that were not apparent when you were having it, because it is a very ephemeral thing, conversation, it is very one off. If you have a conversation with somebody, you do not expect to want to go back and listen to it over and over again, but if you do have that possibility, you hear so much more. There are many more layers in speech than most people realize.

My feeling is that the brain reacts in a very special way to sound. If I read a page again and again, it is not the same as listening again and again to the same sequence.

Yes, that is an important consideration. But if you listen to something repeatedly, you hear more, because you are listening to different things and the brain can penetrate those layers. And that is what happens with recorded speech, because you can hear it over and over again. Part of the idea of Audio Arts has been predicated upon this ability to return to speech and hear it again, because sometimes you can miss things. And when you hear something over and over again, it becomes reinforced. But it is not just that – you can hear different layers, different ambiances, different things within what is being said.

Is this what you meant with the creative process of listening?

WF: Yes, that is part of what I meant. Because it is interpretive. The more you hear something, the more you are interpreting what you are hearing, which is not the case if you only hear something once. You often have to interpret something based on a one-off, single experience. But if you hear it more than once you can listen to it in different ways. Listening is a complex process. Part of why I think it is so interesting to have done this project is that people can listen to the Audio Arts tapes now and hear different things than they did when they first heard them, when they were recorded. So yes, I think it is important to return to something and listen to it over and over again. But that is not the way the world is. Most recordings are only heard once. Radio is for the most part only heard once.

The online publishing by Tate Modern is the logical next step for the material itself? Not to keep it as a dead archive, but to keep it alive?

That is right. I am delighted with the fact that Tate Modern is doing this, because it means that the material will have a much longer and broader life, because it is going to be heard all over the world now, anytime people want to listen to it.

It is accessible to everybody.

It is accessible, yes. And it is worth really returning to it and listening to what is there. It is an enormous range of things – within the space of one evening, you could listen to Beuys, and Hamilton, and Duchamp, and make comparisons between them. That is another important feature of recorded sound, of listening to artists on tape – the comparative process.

I do not need to listen to them over and over again anymore, because I did that when I recorded them. But I am still delighted when I listen to them, the fact that all of that material is still there and still available. And when a rare artist like Liam Gillick uses some of the material (as he did in his recent film), or Richard Hamilton uses it in some of his films and so on, it seems very interesting and good that the material has another life. It is what Lucia Farinati has described as an active archive. So rather than being material that is put in a box and stored on shelves in a museum, it gets used and remains helpful to younger artists. It can come into play with their practice, as I used it myself in art works. So it has a long life. I do not like the idea of comparing speech to objects, but it has become like a series of objects that can be recycled and reused.

Because there are no rights on the material.

This is something I have never really been too involved with, as long as people do not exploit it. To me, its applicability and value are universal. As far as I am concerned, people can listen to it and use and reuse it.

You do not consider it your own property anymore?

No, not really. Although I have recorded most of the material on Audio Arts and would like acknowledgment, at the very least. And if the material is used in a commercial context, then of course commercial considerations come into play that everyone has to respect. It is complicated, but when something becomes a product of monetary value, it is as if it is taken out of one sphere or context and put into another. And I am only using it in one sphere, which is non-commercial, because it is a creative sphere.

You stopped producing Audio Arts in 2006. What is your artistic practice today? Is working with sound in exhibition spaces your main medium now?

I think it is interesting that I actually used speech and sound and recorded material for so long. I feel a bit like John Constable, who painted trees because he lived in a context where trees were everywhere, and so it was natural that he used that for his material. It is the same with audio. I naturally used sound, because that is what I have been familiar with. I have gone down the road of understanding the things that are possible through that, through using that medium. So yes, I go on using sound, and using the Audio Arts archive, because I do not think it is being used in terms of an active archive – there is a lot of material there for me to use, and I am going to go on using it.

There is still a lot of non-published material…

Oh, yes. The majority is non-published, because when you do an interview, you record, I do not know, 40 minutes, and then you use maybe five minutes of that, so the rest is all there, unpublished. Everything is stored at the Tate.

Should we speak a bit more about Beuys and the social sculpture?

Well, we talked about that, did we not? But Beuys is implicit in all these conversations – his work has encapsulated everything I have been interested in in terms of sound. It was his medium, too, you know: verbal sculpture, oral sculpture. The reason I was interested in Beuys from the outset had to do with the way he was able to embody meanings and values and ideas within the non-physical object that is speech. So, yes, he was a key reference.

Because of his thoughts, because he was a speaking artist?

Yes, but also because he could embody ideas, radical ideas in terms of dialogue, in terms of speech, and he did not need to go any further than speech – although when he did he went into non physical-objects.

You did not only speak to artists who were able to speak well. There are a lot of good artists who are not the best speakers.

You are right. It was not the only criterion, but Beuys was a major, pivotal figure who could do it. But he also made objects. I am not against artists making objects, but it is a question of how the objects work and what they work as, and when you say that artists are not always the best speakers, I think they are often better than they think themselves to be, or we think them to be. And so I believe that is another issue, because it really has to do with how they articulate, but not in a sort of BBC English sense, or in an A level, academic sense, but that they say what they can say according to their intellectual skills. I think most artists are very articulate. I have many artist friends who did not have a classical education, but they still speak pointedly, movingly, and very powerfully – because they find a way of saying what they want to say.

Perhaps it also depends on who they are speaking to?

Yes, it does. Yes.