Cuerpo, sangre y hueso, 2021. Glass, stainless steel, acrylic, speakers, audio system, powdered blood and bone, 32 Hz frequency, and burned wood trunks, 70 x 200 x 100 cm. Photo: Industria Estudio

Intensities and Sensations: A Conversation with Juan Sorrentino

Sound and visual artist, musician, teacher, and curator, Juan Sorrentino seeks “to transmit the sensory through the corporeal.” His installations incorporate the viewer by appealing to multiple senses, motivating, as he says, “inquisitive interactions with objects and materials through sound, seduced by the phenomenology of the discovery.” With a degree in composition from the National University of Córdoba (Argentina) and a postgraduate degree in technology and video from MECAD-AESDI in Barcelona, ​​he currently directs the art residency Monte Residencia and teaches at leading universities in Argentina. Sorrentino, who lives and works in Buenos Aires, has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Europe, the United States, and Latin America, at spaces such as Whitechapel Gallery (London), Bonniers Konsthall (Sweden), MediaLab Prado (Madrid), Espacio Marzana (Bilbao), Sonic Spring (New York), and MACBA (Buenos Aires). His works have received national and international awards and are part of private as well as museum collections. 

Temblor, 2020. 3 seismic frequencies of 3 Hz, stainless steel, speakers, 3 amplifiers, 3 oscillators, and cables, 40 x 280 x 30 cm. Photo: Industria Estudio

María Carolina Baulo: As a kind of manifesto, you say that your work represents a search to transmit the sensory through the body. You address the physical and symbolic properties of the landscape and architecture. Could you explain the driving idea behind your work?
Juan Sorrentino: When working with vibrations, audible or inaudible, the body acts as a great sensor for perceiving the sound experience. Whoever claimed that we listen only with our ears? Bones, veins, skin, and the nervous system are a resonant and empathic harp to the frequencies of the universe; we are a complex spider web that vibrates. The sound experience is a cocktail of all this, added to the information received by our ears. I learned to be attentive to what happens when I begin to experience, to feel, to observe, moving between the angles and axes of perception. This is when the finding manifests itself. 

Over the last 10 years, architecture, sound, and nature have become the most significant themes in my work. In each case, the experience oscillates between pause and action or silence and sound—understanding the pause/silence as a moment of reflection, meditation, observation, and action/sound as movement, change, transformation—and then in the dynamics of the cycle, to stop again to relearn and reflect.

MCB: Many of your works rely on specific site conditions, with the same proposal repeating over time, in different settings. For example, the various iterations of the video installation Untitled (2009–19) document interactions between man and nature. In each performance, shadows are drawn on a canvas in the open air, exploring the ephemeral processes of the creative mind. What is behind this particular way of working?
JS: I find it difficult to impose objects, sounds, and materials on a space or territory. That is why I first navigate the environment; whatever it is, I observe how we dialogue with it and how in that conversation between space-time, materialities, and my themes (architecture-sound-nature), we find ourselves in an intermediate point or we act from contrast and opposition. The dialogue does not always consist of going to the forest to work with twigs, although that also happens. Oftentimes, the exchange involves a counterpoint and contrast to the environment. Gestures in art often become too demagogic when it comes to the environment. In every version of Untitled, I move through a forest carrying a blank canvas larger than my body, and I use the shadows cast by the branches to frame fleeting figures on the canvas. I am not always lucky enough to film a new version of Untitled immersed in an environment related to where it will be exhibited; however, when that happens, the work is experienced by visitors with greater intensity because they recognize the landscape.

Motto, 2014–19. Outdoor concert and performance with amplifier backpacks, microphones, hydrophone, electromagnetic field microphones, audio system, photos, maps, and sheet music. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: You define Motto (2014–19) as a live concert in the open air. Performers carry amplifying backpacks connected to various microphones to transmit the sounds of the forest and other environments. Why did you take this approach, and how did the work develop?
JS: Maximizing sounds has always fascinated me. From my first experiences of field recording, I was more interested in recording and listening live through headphones than listening to recordings in the studio. Motto is a bit of that—amplifying the sounds that surround us for the audience and using those sound materials to compose and spatialize live. I started developing this work during a workshop with Peter Ablinger in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2014. I made the first version for the gardens of the baroque palace of the L’Orangerie, and then Motto readjusted and learned from each new setting. The performers use trail maps as scores and step movement diagrams as patterns, a glossary of new graphics that define how to interact with the place soundwise, amplifying specific sounds with gestures such as dragging the microphones on the ground, generating feedback, looking for electromagnetic fields or water sounds with hydrophones.

MCB: Other works, such as Cenizas de un árbol (Ashes of a tree, 2017–19), from the “Parlantes Frágiles” (“Fragile Speakers”) series, focus on sound, or vibration, as a physical phenomenon and force. How does this work function?
JS: The sound moves ashes gathered after the burning of a fallen tree, which was part of a previous performance. The movements of the ashes are manifested as clouds contained within a cube of glass and iron. Here, sound is action that intertwines and alternates with moments of silence and pause. This allows the clouds to descend and the ashes to rest on the base, then to fly again, activated by a low frequency sound of 32 Hertz. I regularly work with sound frequencies in analogy to delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma brain waves. In the case of Cenizas de un árbol, I used a sound frequency linked to gamma waves, which are detected when the brain is in a state of intense feeling or high concentration.

Cenizas de un árbol, from the “Parlantes frágiles” series, 2017–19. Metal cube, glass, speaker, 47 Hz sinusoidal, silence, and tree ash, 84 x 84 x 84 cm. Photo: Matias Quintana Estudio

MCB: Mayólica (Majolica, 2017), also from the “Parlantes Frágiles” series, introduces ephemerality, another characteristic of your work. As a result of low-frequency vibrations, the majolica tiles gradually detach and fall from the cubes. The rhythm established between vibration and silence physically impacts the viewer.
JS: I modify the rhythm between vibration and silence according to exposure time, maximizing the resistance of the work and allowing viewers to experience the vibration in their bodies. This interaction between sound/silence or action/pause is a constant in my work; the distance between them depends on various factors such as the resistance of the materials, the performative time of the object, the resonance, and room possibilities. In this case, the explosion of the majolica tiles against the ground is exciting and devastating simultaneously; even when we do not see it, the sound reconstructs the fact. I am interested in that moment when, due to a distraction, the visual experience that we expected escapes us. The hypnotic and ephemeral elements of this piece are very strong—we do not want to miss the long-awaited event—but it usually happens that way. Similar operations happen with other works in which the interaction between silence and vibration has to be spaced apart, due to the very strong sound pressure and the risk of hearing and mental damage.

MCB: Derrumbe (Collapse, 2016–20), which applies vibrations to a wall, and Temblor (Shaking, 2020), a silent sound sculpture that vibrates in a key outside human hearing, continue this exploration. How do these two works differ in their conceptual and structural approach?
JS: The wall is presented as a limited event of a collapse that does not finish happening. It is a performative device that manifests itself as a record of the transformational process of materials. The masonry is subjected over time to an almost seismic vibration that insistently tries to modify the reality posed as “the solidity” of a symbolic wall such as “the structure.” The most significant transformations occur slowly and require permanence and persistence; it is possible that this transformation will then be executed in a very short period of time as a result of the previous process. In Temblor, through the membranes of three speakers, we can visualize three seismic frequencies slightly out of phase—in short, something inaudible but visible that sooner or later manifests itself and happens as a telluric event that exceeds us. Derrumbe is more in the territory of poetry, and Temblor is a metaphor for the action prior to the collapse. The three speakers are surrounded by a sheet of iron, which is the most abundant transition metal in the earth’s crust and the key component in the earth’s core. When moving, it generates a magnetic field, and at this point, it gets involved with the tremor proposed by the work.

Derrumbe, 2016–20. Bricks, cement, sand, plaster, iron, ferrite, cables, speakers, 47 Hz frequency, and silence, installation view. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: Arrastre (Drag, 2019) introduces a certain degree of political criticism by contrasting a quebracho trunk—a dense hardwood native to South America—and the predations of 20th-century industrialization. There is a clash of forces and interests, a movement that poetically reveals what you call a tree trunk “exiled and subjected to a system.” Quebrachos. El residuo de la trama (Quebrachos. The residue of the weft, 2021) takes a similar approach. What are these works about?
JS: Both works were presented in Buenos Aires. Arrastre was developed for the 2019 Braque Award and shown in the MUNTREF headquarters of the Hotel de Inmigrantes, very close to the epicenter of historical extractivism. Here, the site-specific exceeds the exact place and encompasses an area of ​​action. Quebrachos. El residuo de la trama was shown at the Fortabat Foundation. In this work, the quebrachos, unlike in Arrastre, are subjected to a kind of art system—they draw a path on the walls, leaving their traces and residues, and, ultimately, they wear away. 

My connection with trees, especially with the quebracho, stems from a childhood experience. My parents had taken me to visit a tannery in Puerto Tirol, Chaco Province, and I remember being shocked by the thousands of quebrachos awaiting the cursed alchemy that would turn them into tannin, which would also pollute the rivers. This is a recurring scene that comes back in many ways. In Chaco, where I was born, everything happens under the trees. For me, the tree is my home, refuge, playfield, and hiding place. The devastating force of clearing and the callousness in the face of this destruction still run through me, manifesting in multiple ways in my work.

Arrastre, 2019. Quebracho colorado tree trunks and railroad ties, two winches, microcontrollers (Arduinos, relay), train tracks, and buffers, 18 x 3 x 1.5 meters. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: Your materials are varied and have a strong physical presence. However, you almost always put them in dialogue with an ephemeral aspect, elusive as sound. In addition, since you replicate works for several years, they are subject to changes and alterations. How does this operate in Mancuspias (2021), a set of sound sculptures built from different materials?
JS: There is an ephemeral, elusive side to most of my work, but in Mancuspias, the opposite happens. These sound sculptures maintain their fixed structure and materiality (wood and metal). They do not break or fall apart. They can act alone or as an ensemble; each one has an independent audio system with a long-lasting battery and an on/off switch. The work is named after an imaginary animal invented by Julio Cortázar in his story “Cefalea” (“Headache”). Each one makes its own particular sound born from a gesture of the materiality that builds it. For example, Mancuspia #1 was designed with broken palo santo wood, which was recorded and edited at the time of breaking; I based the musical composition on this sonic materiality. Mancuspias like to walk alone, but also in a group, respecting their distance and place in space. Each Mancuspia has its own sound that coexists with the others and forms a whole. So far, there are nine sculptures organized in two albums that create a great ensemble. When all or a small group of them sound in the same room, the music is dynamic and enveloping, because each composition has its autonomy, although they were designed to be together and complement each other. Thus, the experience of listening to the Mancuspias live, in a specific space, is unique. Every time you turn them on and off, their combinations are endless.

Mancuspias, 2021. Sound sculptures with EP album, musical composition, wood, iron, accessories, and sound system, dimensions variable. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MCB: In Cuadros sonoros (Sound pictures, 2003–ongoing), you ask people to generate a mental image of a painting described by an unknown narrator. This installation highlights the importance of viewers in your work, their physical and intellectual commitment.
JS: Without realizing it, Cuadros sonoros was one of the first works in which I recorded how the visitor/spectator contributes a gesture, which most of the time is unpredictable and surprising. I am interested in leaving spaces, readings, and parts incomplete in my work—not defining or controlling everything, but waiting for things to happen and then analyzing the facts. Many people, for example, when they came across the experience of Derrumbe, lay down on the ground, while others leaned on the wall or placed their hands on the bricks or supported their heads. Because most of my works appeal primarily to experience, the range of interactions is very wide. This performative character of the objects also resonates with viewers, who are no longer mere observers who contemplate, but participants involved as co-authors of the experience.

MCB: In Cuerpo, sangre y hueso (Body, blood and bone, 2021), a diptych on wood, you work with powdered blood and bone, contained in two glass cubes. Once again, sound emanating from the speakers affects the experience, generating vibrations that move the particles and build layers of clouds. Over the years, you have sustained your interest in relating the environment to human nature and our physical response to factors that affect our senses and moods. It’s as if you’re creating a laboratory of human emotions.
JS: That human emotions lab is where I work. When I began to investigate vibrations, empathy, Schumann resonances and how they affect our behavior, as well as the impact of electromagnetic waves on daily life and physical/mental health, I entered a very seductive territory for exploration. This universe of vibrations is usually framed within the “esoteric.” For me, it is irrelevant whether science confirms it or not. Art is not a science and technology fair, quite the opposite, and that is why it enriches me to navigate the dimensions of the strange, secret, and incomprehensible. The world of vibrations is a giant and incomplete manifesto, with few explanations and definitions, that is constantly being rewritten. It is a world of intensities and sensations that I like to experience in order to get into the facts and rethink the world from there, at least from artistic practice.