In 2010 it seems that almost every art institution, library, and university is recording, circulating, and archiving the voice of the artist. The audio/video conversation is now a means of extending the information available in a gallery show, and of preserving the memories of artists for posterity. Hosting conversations with artists is also, increasingly, a curatorial practice in its own right that signals the critical acumen, and at times the good connections, of curators themselves. It was not always so.
In 1974 when the British artist William Furlong founded Audio Arts, the concept of a cassette format magazine specifically aimed at recording conversations among artists, rather than formal interviews, was an unusual and possibly unique project. The archive of tapes, photographs, and ephemera generated throughout its life has been housed at Tate Britain since 2004, and Audio Arts is now "on hold," as Furlong has put it. The publication of Speaking of Art thus functions as a capstone to its history as well as a means of introducing new international audiences to the project. Introduced by critic Mel Gooding, who places Audio Arts in the context of late twentieth-century art practice, the book comprises edited transcriptions of forty-four encounters between artists and critics, arranged in chronological order. Individually they speak to the ideas, concerns, and passions of a wide range of artists, including John Cage, Marina Abramović, Joseph Beuys, Tacita Dean, Tadeusz Kantor, and Philip Glass. Collectively they document art's themes, ideologies, and commitments over the past thirty-plus years. The book also shows (even in transcription) how the voice of the artist has changed and continues to change; how it is that artists stage themselves in interviews, even ones as equitable and relaxed as these, showing, at least for this reader, that the artist's voice is an extension of the artist's rhetorical self-construction, and an important part of creating the idea of the artist in the late twentieth century.
Since the advent of sound recording, audio has had a complex and fluid relationship with print. In the 1930s, the writer Ralph Ellison, one of the writers [End Page 118] employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to record lives in New York City, took down his informants' voices on paper, transferring the sound of speech to the printed record: "Ahm in New York, but New York ain't in me. You understand?"1 Oral transcription constitutes a fluid, expressive, and at times controversial discourse in its own right, and what Ellison was recording in note form was not just what was being said but how it was said. Readers could listen to speech in print, aware of the presence of the voice. By the time Ellison and others were taking down voices on paper in the late 1930s, sound recording had long been "perpetuating the voices of the dead," as performance and sound historian Allen Weiss puts it.2
But it was in the post-war period, with its rapid development of audio recording, that a listening public began to develop, interested in the voices and opinions of people from all walks of life. A new idea of the voice had taken hold by the late 1940s, informed in the U.S. by the work of the WPA writers and their new interview techniques. Studs Terkel, whose oral histories of ordinary Americans began to be published in print in the 1960s, worked as a radio producer as part of the Federal Writers' Project from the 1930s, developing his own interest in the democratic voice of experience and later interviewing many musicians and artists for radio.
In the 1950s the recording press began to extend and transform the printing press. When young graduates Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney founded Caedmon records in 1953, their tag line was "Caedmon: a third dimension for the printed page." Holdridge and Roney wanted to make natural-sounding voice recordings of poets reading their work, bringing the idea of the reading as performance into recording practice. The groundbreaking label that they initiated with Dylan Thomas reading...