Interview with Wolfgang Gil

Wolfgang Gil’s sound-emitting sculptures and room installations invite the audience to contemplate listening as a phenomenon, offering unique opportunities for the discovery of both the external space and our internal perception processes. Gil’s work has been presented at The Newark Museum of Art, Art Miami Art Fair, Eyebeam (New York, NY), The Loop Festival (Barcelona, Spain), Diapason Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), Harvestworks (New York, NY), Issue Project Room (Brooklyn, NY), ASPN Gallery (Leipzig, Germany), and the Subtropics Biennial (Miami, FL). The following is our interview with him about his life and work in Newark.

Where are you from, and how did you find your way to Newark?

After living in the US for 13 years, I can say, without hesitation, that Newark is that place that feels like home for me and my family.

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. I got my undergraduate degree in systems engineering at the Metropolitan University in Caracas. I interned at Banesco Bank for six months and quickly realized I wasn’t built for the corporate environment. It felt very theatrical to me, but in the wrong kind of way. I also took a course in avant-garde literature, focusing on modern and contemporary art. In this course, I was introduced to Duchamp and the Dada movement, Joseph Beuys and Fluxus, Donald Judd and Minimalism, Yucef Merhi and new media art, among others. These experiences, as well as the advice of my colleagues and friends Gil Sanson and Merhi, compelled me to move to New York City. The adverse political and economic pressures building up in Venezuela during the Chavez regime also played a role in my decision to leave the country.

In 2008, when I arrived in New York , I didn’t know anyone and barely spoke English. A year later, I enrolled in Brooklyn College’s Performance and Interactive Media Arts MFA program and began participating in New York’s sound scene. I was active in shows and exhibitions around the city, presenting works at Issue Project Room, Diapason Gallery, and Eyebeam. During this time, I waited tables and took technical sound gigs on the side to get by. Back then I wanted to be an artist first, to make a living as an artist. 

It was around 2012 – 2013 when I started doubting my chances to succeed as an artist, not so much because of the quality of the work itself, but because at the time there wasn’t an established frame of reference to analyze and infer the value of the kind of work I was making. The work wasn’t music, or painting, or sculpture, or performance. It was installation art. It was very ephemeral, with no object to ground it. It existed while the machines were on, then disappeared right after. There was no money back then to support that kind of work. So we had to pay for the presentation of our work out of our own pocket. I’ve been working full-time in tandem with my creative practice ever since 2013.

My wife and I moved from Brooklyn to Jersey City around that time. We found a great deal over there, and the location was close to Manhattan so why not try New Jersey! We lived in the Heights from 2012 to 2019. In 2016 I was invited to participate in a festival in Montreal. At the time, my mother had just moved in with us. Living in Venezuela by herself was becoming difficult for mom as she began to display signs of early dementia. After giving mom the room that previously hosted my home studio, and with the deadline to submit new work to the festival approaching, I urgently needed to find a temporary studio space. A couple of friends, including Andrew Demirjian, suggested that I check out Newark. I was told that maybe I would find a good and affordable space there. I didn’t know much about Newark then, and I was looking out for a temporary space anyway, so I went straight to Gallery Aferro. They directed me to Project for Empty Space (PES). After visiting PES a couple times, it became obvious that PES was, and continues to be, an amazing place with lots of potential and opportunities. So rather than going for a temporary deal, my wife and I decided to double down and invest all we had, and more, into opening up the first Honk-Tweet studio. I began working at the Honk-Tweet on a full-time capacity in 2019. PES and Newark provided me with an affordable space and a community for my work to grow, an opportunity I was looking for for many years. I will always be grateful to Newark and its people for this. Downtown Newark has been our home since 2019.

How would you describe your art?

My work explores the sculptural qualities of sound: sound as a malleable material that can stretch in all dimensions, with curves, edges, and changing geometries. This approach to sound-making combines fabrication, software development, and audio and system engineering into a single, interdisciplinary practice.

When I began working with sound in 2009, I was very into the rebellious aspect of being a sound artist. “A What!? A sound artist? What’s that!?,” people would say. I enjoyed the feeling of swimming against the current. That we weren’t painting or making sculpture, or doing more traditional kinds of work. That feeling was helpful to me for a little while, but soon after I had to face the reality of working in a field that is often ignored, undervalued, and misunderstood. Lack of support and appreciation for the work one does can easily challenge one’s desire to want to do the work in the first place.

Eventually I had no other choice but to think about the why. In my opinion, the main reason why new approaches to sound can be challenging for a general audience is, on one hand, because of how hard it is for us to separate any creative use of sound from music, and on the other, that music to us is commonly defined by the rhythms, tonal structures, and sonic qualities we grew up accustomed to. Works of sound that challenge those assumptions more often than not become noise to the listener, and therefore they will be filtered out by our minds or avoided altogether by the listener. 

My creative challenge then became to turn a common cultural limitation into a space of opportunity for me and others by demonstrating that the jump between culturally accepted sound and noise isn’t binary, and that there is a huge range of creative potential waiting to be explored in between the two. To expose how hard it is for most of us to think of and relate to sound existing outside our local understanding of what music is and to create a work that transcends these limits producing a new kind of experience. This is the fuel that continues to push forward my research. 

Please check out sonicplasticity.com for more information on my artistic vision.

Aural Fields #3 (left) and Resonant Bodies #1 (right)

You are known for working with sound. Are there other areas you work in that people may know less about?

I began designing sound-emitting sculptures back in 2017. Before 2017 I was already thinking of sound as a malleable material, but back then sound itself was the object, because even though sound is not visible, it does have a physical presence, it is there filling out, coloring, dividing, saturating, and emptying out the listening space. 

Finding a logical and conceptual link between my passion for sound and for building things was an exciting addition to my practice. Before making sculptural objects I would build practical things such as furniture, lamps, or whatever was needed at home.

Writing also plays a huge role in the making of my work; the ability to make abstract and somewhat unfamiliar ideas intelligible to as many people as possible. This is important in part for me to be able to explain to an investor why they should invest in my practice, as my work is expensive to make, but even more so in order to capture the imagination of a general audience. I think we would all benefit from having a wider understanding and appreciation for sound’s creative potential.

How has living in Newark inspired you creatively?

Oh this question is an easy one. Newark gave me the opportunity to open my first art studio ever, which I have been running for 4 years now, it gave me my first solo show at The Newark Museum of Art, placing my work in a conversation with works by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Victor Davson, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Sam Gilliam and gave me an exciting collaboration opportunity with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. All of these milestones were very difficult to complete for very different reasons, but as long as the city continues to try me out I will continue to give it my 1000%.

But there is something else that continues to inspire me here in the city, the warmness of its people and the city’s political viewpoint. I left Venezuela when I was 25. Before leaving Venezuela I had never experienced racism the way it exists here in America. I was actually totally unaware of it.

We Venezuelans have the weird custom of referring to people by their appearance or by a unique feature or characteristic of a person, most times affectionately. It is certainly a strange thing for someone to do, the kind of thing you only think of critically once removed from that local culture. So the way most people would refer to someone’s skin color in Venezuela was in that way, as a quality or a feature without racial undertones. 

Newark is a unique place in this country, in this moment in time, where skin color comes up socially just like that, as a quality or a feature. Newark is a place, in my experience, where what you have to offer as a person matters the most, and if you don’t have much to offer at a given time that’s cool too! As it should be! I find this to be very inspiring. It is crazy for me to think that this very basic notion almost feels radical in the America we live in. 

Any idea of what your next projects might be?

We just submitted an application to install my second solo show, a sort of continuation to the Sonic Geometries show at The Newark Museum of Art. The second show will potentially be installed in a gallery in New York and will consist of two Aural Fields and three Resonant Bodies sculptures. Two of the five proposed sculptures will be fabricated for the show. So I am working on those pieces now. I am also thinking of making a new room piece hosting a 17-speaker system stretching across the ceiling of a medium-sized listening space. It will be a dark room where people will be invited to walk in, lay down, and focus on the sound as it moves throughout the length of the room in multiple directions. 

Aural Fields #1 (left) at the Newark Museum of Art.

Tell us about a show or event that you attended recently that you’d like others to know about.

Somehow I ended up working on a cool experiential piece for Moses Sumney (on view in Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works until September 26). It is a moving multimedia experience of choreographed sound and light that syncs up to the audience movement. It is pretty sweet, check it out if you can.

If you could revisit a past project or redo a finished work, what would it be? Why?

Past works constantly influence my new work, so in a way I am often refining old ideas, incorporating new elements gathered from experience. Sometimes these old ideas gain enough weight to break away from their original branch to become their own thing with a distinct aesthetic. 

Gil’s studio hosts a 30.2 sound system comprised of three rows of 10 speakers each at floor, ear, and ceiling level. The system allows virtual sources to be placed anywhere within the plane formed by the speaker system.

A piece of sound also behaves very differently in different environments. Sometimes I need to re-engineer existing work to adapt it to the acoustics of the new listening space, and other times the acoustics of a space are so peculiar that it requires new sound to be composed in-situ. This happened to me with Resonant Bodies #1 at the Newark Museum. I composed the sound piece for the aluminum bars in my studio. After installing the bars in the museum I felt like their sound wasn’t activating the space in an exciting way, so I had to make some new sounds right there in the gallery. 

Where are some of your favorite places in Newark to hang out and why?

Before the pandemic, I was a regular at Dino BBQ, Marcus B&P, and Dutch at Tryp Hotel. I enjoyed sitting at the bar and talking with the staff about their day while drinking a whiskey on the rocks or an Old Fashioned. Black Swan is my favorite place for coffee and to hang out with the local art community in the downtown area. Actually, Jimenez also has a very solid Old Fashioned and awesome live music. I like Ferry Street Barbecue a lot. Their food is amazing, and their prices are competitive. Oh, and The Yard in Military Park! Very tasty!

And then of course there is Index Gallery, Gallery Aferro, Project for Empty Space, and Akwaaba Gallery, awesome venues for artists and art enthusiasts alike. I spend a lot of my free time jumping among these venues. Mostly as a spectator and a supporter of the wonderful work they do. QXT is great for dancing and decompressing.

Finally, I don’t think people fully understand how lucky we are to have the Newark Museum of Art here in town, and how willing the museum’s current administration is to remain open and accessible to the local community. After almost living in the museum for three months during my show, I can say from the heart that the museum is a gem. I also closely follow the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s and NJPAC’s programming.

Tell us something about you (or your work) that few people know. 

I stay busy doing commercial work for clients and developing my artwork, but I love to party and enjoy life with friends and family! We often organize parties and events—any excuse to get together and share stories. I love making coffee for everyone with my espresso machine. I also enjoyed the house parties hosted at Military Park during the summer. Summers in Newark are the best—NJPAC’s free Sounds of the City concerts blow my mind every time.

You can follow Wolfgang and his work here:

https://wolfganggil.com

Featured photo courtesy of Wolfgang Gil