Artists We Love: James Webb

INTERVIEWED BY Malibongwe Tyilo IMAGES Kyle Morland and Adrienne van Eeden-Wharton

James Webb is an interdisciplinary artist whose work has been shown at institutions around the world. Here at VISI we are particularly fascinated by his work as a sound artist.

His latest solo exhibition, Ecstatic Interference, currently showing at Blank Projects gallery in Woodstock, Cape Town, is made up of three sound installations. The first is Untitled (with the sound of its own making), a multichannel solar powered loudspeaker system broadcasting sounds of hands beating on doors. All that is unknown features the audio of two hearts beating, from two separate speakers, separated by the length of a room. The last one, Threnody, which is fascinatingly spooky, features the isolated track of Helter Skelter (The Beatles, 1968) which was reversed and given to vocalist Zami Mdingi to sing as such. This is played through a hyper directional speaker, where it can be heard from a specific position in the gallery, making it sound as though its playing in the viewer’s head. We caught up with James to pick his brain about his fascination with sound art.

Firstly, how did you get into sound art?

Certain memories come to mind: a tape deck used by my 5-year old self to make tape letters, plotting with friends to dismantle our high school bell, and listening to the schizophonia (sic) of Simulcast radio. As a South African, sound really is part of our daily surreality: the Noonday gun that fires unquestioned, the territorial songs of local birds, and the geo-politics of accents. We are a country that needs to listen and be listened to.

What are some of the socio-political issue that concern you? And how do you confront/explore them in your sound work?

Themes of communication and belief are never far away, and include questions of how we relate to ourselves and each other, as well as how we position ourselves in the world. The artwork Untitled (with the sound of its own making) showing on Ecstatic Interference, was make with drummers beating on doors with their hands, and creates both a physical sensation in the body of the viewer, as well as conjuring images relating to access, agency and escape. PVI Solar sponsored solar panels and batteries, so the work exists as an independent force without any connection to the municipal grid. All these elements have socio-political, ecological and literary interpretations for the audience to work with and personalise in their own way.

You’ve been called a collector of sounds. Please tell us more about this.

Sounds are images to me, and my connection to them is tied to the contextual factors at play in the moment. I sometimes hold a sound through a textual description. I have many recordings of things like “percolating quietude,” “segregated morphemes,” and “sighs of completion,” that occurred when my microphone was switched off.

I am fascinated by the way you bring the body into the gallery space through the use of sound, like in your latest exhibition, Ecstatic interference, where we have hand, heart and mouth. Is this intentional on your part? Please tell us a bit more about that process.

Even though Ecstatic Interference is visually composed of minimalist shapes, the exhibition is staged to conceptually suggest the image of a body and to penetrate the listener’s body in different ways through the various modes of sonic diffusion. Threnody, an intense vocal piece sung by Zami Mdingi, uses a specialised speaker to beam sound so as to appear to be emanating from the listener’s head. And the smallest work on the exhibition, All that is unknown, takes the human heartbeat as its source material: two speakers, separated by the length of a room, each play a heartbeat. Listening to the sound that the speakers make is an intimate encounter and brings the audience’s own mortality to mind. The spacing of the speakers suggests unknown undercurrents between two people, and again the idea of bodies and proximity comes into the equation.

You have a diploma in copywriting and you also studied Drama and Comparative Religion instead of art. How does this affect your artistic practice?

The power of media, spin and marketing affects all of us, as do the dynamics of presentation and the nature of identity, faith and belief. These subjects are important things to question in art and cultural practice and are the stuff of all love/hate relationships and relational inquiries.

What do you do when you’re not creating installation/exhibition work?

I am currently planning a silent retreat in a far-off, wintry country.

Three of your favourite artists?

Anonymous, Unknown, and Studio of.

View more work at