Sound sculpture, performance and ‘ o  o  o   ’

Sound sculpture, performance and ‘ o o o ’

By Jo Melvin


JocJonJosch is a European art collective made up of three artists, Jonathan Brantschen, Joschi Herczeg and Jocelyn Marchington. Their given names fuse to create a new identity. Each name begins with the letters ‘j’ and ‘o’. The letters resonate when they are articulated and uttered, or given shape when they are mimed in silence. The vowel ‘o’ punctuates the rhythmic space of sound.

One of the collective’s recent exhibitions was called ‘o o o’. Its notation, as in concrete poetry or a musical score, denotes the presence of sound as well as its absence, the space and time of silence. The empty spaces also mark the absence of the other letters that make up the name JocJonJosch. The artists’ shared and individual personae are invoked by the ‘o  o  o’. To say, speak or utter the letter ‘o’ requires a circular enunciation; the ‘o’ makes a circle, it denotes a hole, a space, a threshold. The expression ‘open-mouthed’ means to be amazed, or astonished. It also means to be vulnerable. Likewise, the interactions between the three members of JocJonJosch slip between humour and pain, the serious and and the comic. In their performances the artists use the body, and often their own bodies, to explore the process of decision making. Repetition, futility, transience and the constitution of memory are foregrounded in each of their actions.

The activity of digging has formed a core part of JocJonJosch’s work. In a repetitive process soil is dug from the ground to make a hole, which also means that soil is inevitably piled up. This raises the question of what to do with the displaced earth and where to put it. The soil can be used to re-fill the hole, for example, or to make bricks which form a mud tower. The hole in the ground functions as a kind of Sound memorial, while the tower is an edifice that inevitably disintegrates. Concentration on this very basic material–earth–which is intrinsic to the production of work and, in this case, artwork, draws together art of the recent past with economies of labour, cultivation and the food industry. The concentrated attention to earth as matter also reveals its properties: its texture, weight, colour and smell. And the act of shoveling, in itself rhythmic and repetitious, creates sounds.

During the summer of 2016 a performance called Raised Totems took place in Martigny, Switzerland. The totems were towers built from rounded bricks made out of earth. The performers needed to dig three pits to get enough earth for two totems. They added hay from nearby and water to bind and shape the earth. The soil in the area is mostly loose and lacks the natural stickiness of clay. But the soil from the third pit gave the artists a pleasant surprise because it was much stickier and darker than the sandier material, and more like clay, or silt. The performers made the bricks by compressing the earth and hay and treading it down in paint buckets to mould them into rounded shapes. It was an arduous task. The poor weather conditions made it difficult to make enough bricks to build the two towers. These stood at a height of a little over two metres, too high for a tall person to see the top of, but low enough to reach. The totems’ scale is that of an enlarged human body. This indexical reference to the body is important and is a constant reminder of mortality. The totems remain on site to disintegrate naturally. Their decay unfolds and extends the processes of their making into their own disappearance. This final act occurs after the performers have left.

For the exhibition Foot-Kroku-Svuk-Klingen-Fall, held at Laure Genillard Gallery, London, JocJonJosch premiered the performance Footfall. The exhibition’s title, Foot-Kroku-Svuk-Klingen-Fall, traces the corruption of the word footfall through its translation from English, to Czech, to German. Its repetition emphasises the motion and sound implied by the word footfall. Imagist constructions in poetry function similarly. Words play on sensibilities, producing imaginative associations in subversive, straightforward and unexpected ways. Such poetry seeks parallels in a process comparable to the work of memory: through sensory associations, the touch of a hand, aroma or smell, when particularities vaunt and compress time’s duration.

The day of the first performance of Footfall coincided with so-called Black Friday, an American invention for the Friday after Thanksgiving designed to create a commercial opportunity for sales in advance of Christmas. The contrast between a packed bustling Oxford Street, London’s busiest shopping area, and the darkened heat of the room in which the performance took place, was extraordinary. The first, overwhelming sensation was of being engulfed by smell and warmth. Adjusting to the light and heat, the mud-covered nakedness of the figures became apparent, their feet rising from and falling into the mud. The sound was rhythmic and slow, increasing occasionally to brief moments of great intensity. Primordial associations with earth and cattle were conjured, the smell of the mud invoking the topsoil used to fertilise gardens. The smell, like the heat, was strong but also reassuring.

In the performance a group of ten naked, mud-covered performers were treading round and round each other in a circle of wet earth. Each individual’s head looked down to the action and the sound the feet made compressing the soil. As the performers moved to negotiate each others’ movements, the earth’s shape changed and spread across the floor. It was no longer circular, and the performers moved with the earth. Their feet moved the earth, and they were moved by it. Slowly the collective treading created shifting ground. The dance undid the distinction between cause and effect. At certain points, without communication or an obvious cue, an unspoken decision was made between the performers: one would decide to scoop the earth back into shape and realign it, as it were, to where it had been before. This happened at regular intervals. Unchecked, the earth would have continued to move across the space. Its movements made the performers take action. Whether this was due to an individual’s personal discomfiture that the circle needed to be maintained, or a communal feeling acted on behalf of the performers, the process implied a dialectical response to collective and individual responsibility.

Borders shift through war and cause the movement of people. Political and economic migration is a constant factor in world histories and is a pressing concern today. Footfall is typical of the way in which JocJonJosch’s work raises subtle but pressing political issues. The collective’s approach to the political chimes with much of the work made during the mid 1960s through to the 1970s, which was a period of global uncertainty, upheaval and war. There is a text piece by Gilberto Zorio, the Italian Arte Povera artist, made for Germano Celant in 1970, which speaks similarly of responsible transactions and political consciousness. “The border is that imaginary line which is made concrete by violence. At the border I give my documents to Celant.”1

The border is a definable line made to demark territory and contain space. It marks edges. Earth, fecundity, movement and slippages. Like a primordial act, each occurrence of performance art is a new beginning and a different iteration. This iteration is left with the viewer to ponder. It is a generous gift.


1 Gilberto Zorio, Studio International, Vol. 180, No. 924, July August 1970, p. 16.

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