INTERVIEW: Mat Jenner | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Since 2013, London-based artist Mat Jenner has been running FOAM, a collection of commissioned sound works that looks deeper into the social aspects of listening. So far he’s accumulated over 120 works into the project, and each of these are presented as a completely unique 12” record. Responding to the space within the NGCA, in his new exhibition Days Jenner is reimagining the top floor of the City Library as a communal area where visitors can relax, socialise and listen to the records at their leisure. Alongside these records, the installation at the NGCA will also feature specially commissioned soundworks from artists including Paul Becker, Graham Dolphin, Sam Watson and Ruth Beale. Aside from being a chilled and inviting experience for music, sound and art lovers, Jenner’s project asks questions about what the value of physical music and sound really is when so much can be bought as a digital commodity. Thought-provoking, challenging and relaxing in equal measures, Days is set to be a unique artistic experience.

Ahead of the opening of the exhibition at the NGCA, I talked to Jenner about FOAM, the exhibition and carrying on the spirit of Walter Benjamin.

So many artists have contributed to FOAM since it began; do artists approach you wanting to get involved or do you ask artists to contribute?

The majority of artists are approached, either by myself, by another artist or curator, or by a gallery where FOAM is shown. The archive has, grown through the networks of those involved and the venues where it shown. It’s like a black hole, as it travels (ad infinitum) it gets bigger and so does its network, sucking in more people and more records… The archive is as much a set of relations and a reflection of a network as it is a collection of unique recorded works.

What type of sounds and recordings have artists been contributing to the project? 

The archive is eclectic, the types of works within it range. You have everything from spoken word, electro, experimental soundscapes, faux bands, theatrical scripts, Dadaesque choral arrangements….

How difficult has it been to produce 120 unique 12″ records for the project as a whole?

The project has grown over the past two years and become easier to manage. That said, there are always challenges, some artists really get the medium, others find it more of a challenge and need more support to realise ideas – often with great results. I’ve learnt a lot about the recording process, but I’m no expert.

FOAM

“there are always challenges, some artists really get the medium, others find it more of a challenge and need more support to realise ideas – often with great results”

It’s said that the project as a whole raises questions about the aura and worth of an original copy of art or sound in the age of the digital copy. Are you attracted to the works of Walter Benjamin? I’m detecting a distinct aura of The Work Of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction!

Yes, I think Benjamin’s essay is as pertinent now as it was when it was written. I would say I’m interested in how artworks function and what they do, I’m interested in their currency (as opposed to what they are) and what Benjamin’s concept of “aura” might mean today.

Benjamin was writing at a time when printing presses were becoming larger and physical technology was advancing at a rapid pace but now we’re living in a digital age were things can be copied and produced at an even greater speed. Do you think this means we don’t appreciate originality or the physical as much as we used to?

I think people still appreciate the original and the physical, though often, the original tips over into spectacle. What’s changed I think is that technology and capitalism – “the cultural industries” – have changed how we consume culture. For the majority of people, artistic experience is mediated through a copy, and that experience is often a singular, internalised experience that is outside of a specific space and time – like listening to an MP3 on your iPhone. This is a product of distribution and technology, so while Benjamin is right that distribution and the copy liberates the original from site, it has unforeseen social consequences.

There’s a distinctive social aspect in your work that almost seems to be attempting to bring people together. Are you aiming to make sound in particular a more social experience with FOAM and Days?

Yes, definitely, I’m interested in how a gallery might be redefined as a public space, an autonomous space, a free space and listening and sound are good vehicles for that. Listening is a very active and interactive event. FOAM demands time and space from you; some nowness and immediacy. Some artistic experiences, and in the case of FOAM, listening, can be a social experience when they are in the here and now. In FOAM, the act of listening becomes a part of the work – listening becomes performative. And you need people to share the space for that to happen. Because of the interactive nature of FOAM it instigates social exchange and negotiation.

What do you hope people will get out of coming to the Days exhibition at the NGCA?

I hope people will lose track of time and spend their day dreaming.

What’s next for FOAM? Will you be continuing to make unique records?

FOAM will continue to expand and grow. I’m taking FOAM abroad, to Scandinavia and Germany, and I hope it will tour further. I think FOAM will leave my orbit and care eventually. I’d like to give it over to a group of institutions to look after and grow by commissioning more records, to use as a resource. That is ultimately the legacy I would like for the project and everyone who has contributed.

Days is at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland from Saturday 25th July until Saturday 5th September.

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