Stephen Cornford

Any attempt to base recent developments in sound and music on a simple opposition between ‘sound artists’ and ‘knob twiddlers’, as The New York Times recently referred to them, comes undone the moment it is applied to the practice of actual artists. Stephen Cornford is a case in point: while studying sculpture at the Slade School of Art, he began DJing jungle and breakcore at squat parties, and following a “naive computer accident” that wiped out his early attempts at digitally-based music decided to try making sounds using physical objects. Now his art is equally at home and not-at-home in performance venues and on record as it is in galleries and visual arts biennials, and notions of bricolage, reusing found materials, and rewiring conventions of use and consumption can be discerned across the full breadth of his work. To call such a practice ‘interdisciplinary’ assumes the existence of predefined, segregated disciplines. Cornford doesn’t so much transgress such boundaries as question their aesthetic and political premises.

“I’ve always engaged with music as a consumer of it, whether taping radio shows as a kid, or buying records to DJ with,” he explains, “and my understanding of sound has come from this background as something which is produced by machines, formats and electricity; something which is produced by the spinning motion of the turntable, the unfurling of tape over electromagnets. I have always understood music in these terms.”

The idea that sound and music immediately concern objects is evident in works Cornford has displayed in gallery settings, such as ‘Binatone Galaxy’ (2011), an assemblage of dozens of antiquated cassette players that fill the room with the sounds of their automatic fast forwarding and rewinding, and the assortment of bowls, springs, and ball bearings that turn record players into kinetic and sonic sculptures in ‘Works for Turntable’ (2009). It also underpins the way he makes music for live performance or record release: objects are rewired and redeployed as sound sources in ways that their makers could not have envisaged, yet nonetheless retain audible traces of their original function and purpose.

As a student I would regularly trawl the university skips and made most of my work from found materials, and using old technologies is really an extension of this bricolage approach.

“Things which have a history when I acquire them are just richer in terms of how an audience relates to them, each person brings their experience to that object which means that the work resonates with their lives in ways that I can’t control. To use them then has a different meaning to buying them new as they have acquired this layer of social history.

“But I’m also interested in what happens to these machines when they fall out of use: because they are no longer needed for their original purpose their function becomes indeterminate so I get to re-define their purpose, or question their purposefulness.”

Listen closely to Cornford’s work, and this obsolescence can be heard as a kind of haunting: the whirr of cassette players, the rotating hum of turntables, and the hiss of broken electronic paraphernalia sometimes seems to come from beyond the grave, or at least the junkyard. This is one sense in which the work approaches politics, from an obtuse angle: by allowing the ghostly sounds of obsolete media to persist, Cornford implicitly questions the forward march of Progress, a narrative in which objects and ideas are successively replaced by ‘better’, more efficient ones. The incessant, tapeless churning of ‘Binatone Galaxy’ is the sound of yesterday’s progress haunting today’s; what the hawkers of the next latest and greatest throw out soon sets the dustbin rattling.

“I hope the work can maintain an implicit challenge, that the re-thinking of technologies can be read as a re-thinking of social structures, but I find this easier to do within a fine art paradigm than a music one,” Cornford admits. “Experimental music’s potency as a political challenge has become lost as it has become codified and aestheticised. This is something I find frustrating in life as a whole, not just in music. I was a student at a time when we occupied our finance wing in protest against the introduction of fees and Reclaim the Streets closed down the City for a day to decry capitalism. Now the government are waving through endless reforms and cuts which Thatcher would never have dreamt possible and we are just rolling over and taking them. Addressing this through work is very difficult: if your work begins to address any social or political issues, it is so easy for it to become co-opted and championed by activism and pigeon-holed and ignored by everyone else.”

The challenge of remaining politically conscious while avoiding the reduction to ‘political art’ extends beyond Cornford’s own practice to influence Consumer Waste, the label he runs with fellow artist Samuel Rodgers.

Nowadays, as consumerism is so hyper-rife as to appear perpetually on the verge of collapse, every decision we make to buy or sell something is expressly political, whether we like it or not.

“Samuel and I wanted the label to have an ethos that we could stand by, not just be another avenue for making 500 copies of a CD which only 150 odd people are interested in owning.”

One of the most direct manifestations of this ethos — as a set of tensions as much as beliefs — is in the packaging. “On one level the packaging was deliberately low-cost: the whole idea of the label name is that we are producing rubbish, because we are in a time where most people don’t value the package — they just want the tracks on their computer, so we are making it available to be ripped in the least possible packaging, a single piece of folded card.” Paradoxically, this rough-and-ready approach involves a high level of effort: “Because Samuel & I do actually value the package we try to make high-quality rubbish, so we letterpress it, spend a lot of time on it.”

“High-quality rubbish”: an oxymoron that questions the way we assign value to objects and the norms that govern how we use them. At a memorable concert organised by Soundfjord last summer, Cornford, along with his collaborators Lee Patterson, Dominic Lash, and Patrick Farmer, turned discarded building materials, packets of marbles and sunflower seeds, and the architectural situation provided by an enormous abandoned warehouse space in the London district of Bermondsey into sound-making objects, opportunities for sonic play. Even Cornford’s recorded output, such as a series of albums made with Rodgers culminating in the excellent “Boring Embroidery”, seizes upon the hum and feedback, the slips and hesitancies, that most music edits out, in order to make music out of them. A recent residency at the artist-run film lab presented him with the opportunity to apply these techniques to optical media, shooting 16mm film straight into the camera lens, capturing apparently abstract images from the projector bulb, and working with the relative shutter speeds of camera and projector to achieve flicker effects.

“It’s about appropriating the objects which the consumer industry designs for us and showing them to have other less functional capabilities, unimagined by their designers, allowing them to reflect us more than serve us,” Cornford asserts. In his work objects become poetically active, not by transcending their status as objects but through the re-imagining and re-presenting of their objecthood in ways that surprise and provoke. The rattle of the dustbin brings our judgements of value and interest back to haunt us, and, by virtue of being valuable and interesting, undermines them.

Images (cropped) by John Kannenberg

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