John LeKay: How and when did you start working on these sound sculptures and is that your music playing inside the sculptures?
Tom Kotik: I began making sound pieces in 2004 while working on my graduate thesis with Nari Ward at Hunter College. I'd just returned from a semester abroad at the Glasgow School of Art and was totally lost as to what I wanted to do for the thesis. I struggled with all kinds of ideas, texts, art theory. Nothing made me excited. Up until then my work had always been about architecture (it still is) and it's connection with memory/context, but I didn't know what I really wanted to say.
At the same time as I was struggling with thesis I was heavily involved with the band I play in, Mighty High (check us out at myspace.com/mightyhigh ). To make a long story short, I realized at one point that what I really wanted to do was be a rock star, and that art could help me do it. I know this sounds silly, but that realization helped me shed the bullshit and get to heart of the issue- how to bring music into my sculpture. Until then I kept my music and my art totally apart from each other. "Rational Impulse" was the the first sound piece.
The original idea for "Impulse" was to build a sound-proofed room with windows that would allow the public to see Mighty High blasting off into rock bliss in total silence. Like watching a video with the sound turned off. Needless to say, I didn't have $30,000 to build such a room, so I simplified the piece and made it into an object with speakers inside instead of a live band. I actually think the object worked better in the end, as the interactivity of the piece is a vital part of it. After I actually pulled off the feat of silencing loud music, I realized that silence itself was more interesting than sound. Or actually, the silencing of sound. It's a sophisticated science in itself, and I see all kinds of socio/political implications in the mere term. And that is my band's music in "Rational Impulse" and "Out". The red box shown at Sculpture Center used a sampled Metallica song intro (from the song "Whiplash" off of "kill 'Em All") that looped.
JL: How did the other band members react to this project?
TK: They really liked the idea. I don't think they ever imagined the music would be turned around and used as a component in my art work. Of the four members, three were artists (one has since left the band), so they understand the working process and how inspiration comes from anywhere. It's funny, but they're usually quick to tell me if someone they've met randomly mentions the work. Maybe they feel , as I do, that they're part of the soul of the pieces.
JL: What are the materials you used and did you make the pieces yourself or have them fabricated?
TK: I use really basic building materials like MDF, plywood, drywall and carpeting. In addition, I use basic sound proofing materials like sound foam and felt. Nothing is too fancy. In my research on how to sound-proof, I learned that it's not a matter of fancy materials, but how you use them. Drywall for example, is cheap, dense and a good sound barrier. The secret is how you layer it and build the walls for it to really block sound. I build everything myself, and part of the fun is learning how all these materials work together.
My more recent work has been a bit simpler to fabricate, because I've moved away from soundproofing loud noise to trying to imply sound through their forms of the objects themselves. In other words, the silence is inherent, or at least implied, in the construction of the sculpture. The architecture of silence I call it.
JL: How sound proof are these pieces. Was the sound coming from the one in the gallery, vibration?
TK: The boxes aren't completely sound proof. They emit a low rumble. In the gallery space it sounds like music is coming from an adjacent room. The effect is interesting as you open the layers of the box. The rumble gets louder as you open the first box and see the smaller box inside. It then becomes apparent that the rumble is actually from the sculpture and not some other space. Then all hell breaks loose as you open the inner box housing the speakers.
I have to say the most satisfying part of interacting with the sound boxes is closing the lid, suffocating the sound. They're built very solidly- you can feel the air rush out of the box as you seal the lid. That action gives you the feeling of control over a powerful force. It's what made me realize that creating silence is more interesting than making loud noise. Except when I'm playing rock and roll of course!
JL: On the subject of silence, do you think it’s possible to ever truly experience this while being alive. I mean even in a sensory deprivation tank you hear your own breath and heart beat magnified ?
TK: I actually think true silence is an idealized state. Like you observed in the tank, your own body produces internal sounds that your mind recognizes in spite of being in a silent space. Cage famously observed this fact while in a parabolic chamber. I see Art as always dealing with idealized places. For example, the drive by Donald Judd to find the perfect shape led him to make objects with the highest degree of craftsmanship and clarity. Of course, it's impossible to find the perfect shape, just like it's impossible to find true silence. It's striving for something in spite of the logical impossibilities that makes being an artist so vital. That's why we're not scientists. Our "solutions" to problems only bring about more questions.
JL: Do you see it more as a concept than a physical reality?
TK: Oh, definitely a concept. An interesting one however, because most take silence as a physical fact. It's only when one delves deeper into the notions of silence that its conceptual nature becomes apparent.
JL: What does silence mean to you and why is silence so important in this day and age?
TK: Silence is both a physical as well as a socio/political state of being. I think I've already touched on the physical aspects of silence. The social aspects of silence really interest me as well, and I've been trying to address that in new work. The last 6 years of the Bush administration has been a real education in the political nature of silence. My family emigrated to the United States in the early 1970's from Czechoslovakia. I went back as a boy in 1977 and have been returning ever since. For me, it's ironic that I now live in an America with much the same outlook on silence as the Communists. Silence is good, and the ability to create it even better. In other words, both governments use lies and manipulation to create an atmosphere favorable to a worldview, which has no basis in reality. A lack of vocal opposition is put in place to control the situation. Silence is the face of lies. It happened in Czechoslovakia, and it's happening in America. When it's easier to believe the lies, people fall silent (the re-election of Bush). When the lies become worse than the truth, they get fed up (The Velvet Revolution, the recent midterm elections). I think it's a myth that totalitarian regimes are the work of evil geniuses. Totalitarian regimes happen because the populace cedes to silence, knowing they're being lied to. Usually there's a convenient excuse (the Versailles Treaty, taxes), but the sad fact is that these regimes can only succeed through the acquiescence of the people, and their acquiescence is expressed through silence.
JL: What your works brings to mind is what it must be like for a deaf person to experience music through vibration. Also synesthesia, seeing through your ears and listening through your eyes. Tasting words etc. When you speak of the architecture of silence, do you visualize silence somehow?
TK: Yes, the architecture of silence is a physical thing. It's something I'm striving to find. It began with research into soundproofing. The way one uses these materials constitutes an architecture of silence. However, I've recently been trying to allude to silence without sound at all. The Soundstudy images are some early experiments with this new approach. How can we make sounds without sound? Can an architecture stand alone without silence?
The other architecture of silence I've been thinking about recently is more conceptual- the political web around us that supports the silence of the last 6 years. The web looks like it might be falling apart, but how was built in the first place. It is not the first silence, nor the last, that we have enabled.
JL: Where do you think your work heading and what else are you working on. shows music etc.?
TK: I mentioned before that I'm really interested in alluding to sound in my sculpture without actually using any sound at all. In other words, silence becomes inherent to the structure of the sculpture themselves. I've also been doing some pieces that use ultra low frequency sound at high amplitudes, so the speakers kick but you can't hear anything. Again, silence is part of the raw material of the work. What makes the low frequency work fun for me is the notion that the amplifier produces silence. Essentially the notion of an architecture of silence expands to objects made to produce sound. Right now I don't have any shows planned. But there's talk of me doing an installation at Black and White Gallery in the Fall. I'll keep you posted!