The internationally acclaimed artist Robin Fox makes mesmerising installations that reimagine our relationship to light and sound. Fox, whose work has premiered at festivals such as Mona Foma, Vivid, Berlin Atonal and MUTEK in Montreal, is often associated with the laser, a medium he’s worked with since the mid-noughties. But growing up in Melbourne, the son of pioneering composer Cindy John, he has long been attuned to the power of the sonic.
His new work Triptych, which shows in July at Adelaide’s Dom Polski Centre as part of Unsound at Illuminate Adelaide, is inspired by the life and work of the Polish–Australian artist Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, who pre-dated his own obsession with the audiovisual by 40 years.
Fox chose to speak about Blow Up Your Video, a stadium concert by legendary rock’n’roll band AC/DC. When he witnessed it as a teenager, it altered his connection to listening for good.
AC/DC’s tour for Blow Up Your Video, the band’s 11th studio album, began in Perth in February 1988 and finished in Inglewood, California. What do you remember about the concert?
My daughter was born when I was 16 years old, and that was two years after the AC/DC concert. I could have discussed hearing the sound of my daughter’s voice at her birth as the sonic moment that changed my life. I felt like it rewired my brain. And I went from being a heavy-metal drumming teenager to being quite conservative. I studied law and literature. Law is an amazing subject if you want to learn how broken the world is. But then music took over and I realised that I had done the law degree for all the wrong reasons.
In 1980, when I was seven, KISS came out. I begged for tickets, but we couldn’t afford it. By the time I was 14, I had saved enough money to get my own tickets to this AC/DC concert. I remember going into the stadium and getting my position.
I can’t remember which track they started with, it could have been Hells Bells. But this sound came through me with this physicality that was massive and visceral and so powerful. In that moment, it transformed my understanding of what sound was. It wasn’t something that you just experienced through your ears or your brain. It was something that you experienced with your entire body. To feel the music in your stomach or in every part of your body was such a revelation to me. I felt like a lot of the music that I went on to create early in my career was searching for something sublime, this expression of intensity with sound. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t confronting. It was beautiful.
Your work is informed by synaesthesia, the neurological phenomenon in which stimulating one part of the brain leads to experiences in another part of the brain. I associate AC/DC with sensory overload. How were you changed by seeing them live?
Mum was synaesthetic so it was very normalised in my household. If you had a birthday, she would tell you what colour you were that year.
It was a critical moment when I plugged sound into an oscilloscope. There was just a split second when the sound and the image came together in a very geometric way. I thought, “Oh wow, I feel like I have just experienced synaesthesia”. It was fascinating to me that beautiful sounds, which had great harmonic coherence, looked like rubbish. But nasty sounds – which are subjective – looked amazing. At the basis of all music, there was basic geometry. It was about the idea that you should be looking at and listening to the same thing at the same time.
When I chose that AC/DC concert, I was thinking mainly of experiencing it with all the organs of the body as a synaesthetic moment. But it was the first time I witnessed a big stadium concert. And with those big stadium contexts, you have that huge sound and people are like little ants. I don’t have a memory of that audiovisual overwhelm. But I love the theatricality of AC/DC. I mean, Angus Young in his strange schoolboy costumes and the crazy way he would kick around onstage. The brothers [Angus and Malcolm Young] absolutely staunch, banging out the rhythm section. There was something incredibly flamboyant about them.
Your shows often unfold on a large scale. I’m thinking of your 2022 installation Beacon, which swept across the Derwent River in Hobart. Did the band make you rethink the relationship of space to sound?
What they taught me has influenced indoor shows such as Triptych, which I performed recently at the Barbican. They taught me that what I want to achieve sonically is maximum presence – but without causing any pain. It is a very fine line. Everyone has a different threshold for what constitutes pain. But somatically, that bottom end is so important. That bass. They taught me that you could make that kind of overwhelming sound without hurting anybody. You didn’t have to feel assaulted. You could feel embraced.
AC/DC made it clear that was possible. That you could get that intensity without being aggressive. The noise wars that go on in the noise community – there is a machismo there that I think is abhorrent. This desire to weaken and hurt people. I have been a drummer since a teenager, so I am industrially deaf. That kind of intensity, that idea of a sonic embrace, isn’t going to appeal to everybody.
In terms of Beacon, we delivered the sound through a web app so everyone could experience the work. Part of the stadium experience is the churchlike gathering of people. But through headphones, you are never going to experience that immersion. When I realised that bass frequencies are produced in your brain, I couldn’t believe it. Those tiny little speakers can’t create low frequencies. They create high frequencies that your brain mixes together.
Thinking about sound as a mental process is so fascinating.
A lot of sound artists complain that we are an incredibly visual culture. But the whole apparatus that we have, the pinna [visible part] around the ear, is designed so we can locate a sound in space. There is this amazing phenomenon called the head-related transfer function when sound hits one ear and there is a tiny fraction of a second before it hits the other. Even though culturally we preference the visual, sound is the fastest sense. There is a slight delay with the visual. We are living in the past visually. But we exist in the present with the auditory sense. That is why a very loud sound can shock you.
In 2020, AC/DC released their 17th studio album, Power Up. I’m curious about your thoughts on artistic longevity. What makes the band stand the test of time?
What I’ve come to realise is the thing that you develop over time is not technical. It is much more sensibility. If I have proved anything over 20 years of work, it is knowing when something is finished, when it conveys what it needs to convey. Often, you find yourself moving towards immediacy of communication. The tendency when I was younger was to complicate. That’s what I’ve shed over the years.
But going back to AC/DC, they were highly evolved. Their sound was so simple, so elemental. They had that directness of communication and all they really needed to do was sustain that. And you could be cynical and say that they had a brand and kept rolling it out. Or you could say that they consistently delivered an immediate communication to their audience. I like to think about it more romantically.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Robin Fox".
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