How working with an older mentor taught me I can make art forever
Working with 70-year-old sound artist Christina Kubisch changed how April Aliermo looks at the future
Growing up in the '80s and '90s, we didn't have social media, so I found most of my artistic role models on MuchMusic. I'd study dance moves and imitate the fashion I saw in music videos from artists like TLC, Salt-N-Pepa, Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott — icons who were all in their 20s and early 30s.
By the time I reached my mid-20s, I was starting my own career in music, and looked to people who were inactive or deceased for inspiration. Still, most of them, like ESG and The Raincoats, were also pretty young and at the peak of their careers.
These days, I've noticed that artists I admire — artists like M.I.A., Die Antwoord and Anika — are now around the same age as me. But when I look on Instagram to see what's happening in art and music — and see how youth culture continues to be hip and forward-moving — I feel like I'm sailing into my 40s, drifting toward a land stuck in the '90s and unable to keep up with the latest fashion, lingo and nightlife!
OK, so I'm not quite the old rocker I fear I am yet. (Or am I?!) But I am at a point in my artistic career where I want to see what possibilities there are for me in my future as an older artist.
Is it possible for me to have new ideas and still be relevant? Do I keep making art and music? Or is it time for the younger, cooler generation to have their say? Will I have the same stamina to work endless hours? What is my age-appropriate fashion style? Can I have my own kids, and keep making art and music?
I understand that there's a generational gap when it comes to Instagram use, but it's undeniable that social media rarely celebrates artists who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, especially if they're women. I want to see more of what senior women at all levels are doing in their artistic pursuits. Even as an adult, I need to see what I can become!
So I did my own searching beyond social media, and 2018 ended up being inspirational for me in a new way. After delving deep into an internet wormhole in search of experienced women in sound art, I found Christina Kubisch. It turned out she's a well known pioneer in her world — and also quite approachable! After cold emailing her, she agreed to work with me and, as a result, I had the privilege of mentoring under her this past summer in Darmstadt, Germany. (Thank you Canada and Ontario Arts Councils!)
Christina has been making sound art since the 1970s, and in the last few decades, her focus has been on electromagnetic sound waves. Anything that generates electricity produces a field of sound that's beyond the human hearing range, and Christina has developed headphones that enable us to hear these "hidden" sounds.
Some are beautiful, melodic drones, some are meditative bass rhythms and others are irritating, dreadful noises. Now, at 70 years old, Christina continues to travel to different cities, recording these sounds and making new works with them.
I assisted Christina with her latest sound piece at the International Music Institute Darmstadt. "Orchestra On A Wire" was a large installation made up of 3.5 kilometres of audio wire and 64 sound channels. Christina's special induction headphones were required to hear the sounds emitting from the wires, and putting them on was like magic!
Suddenly, while walking among the wires, you could hear recordings Christina made of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony as if you were walking through the orchestra. Strings, horns and percussion slowly transformed into electromagnetic recordings from various cities. A live string quartet eventually blended in with the sonic chaos.
It was incredible to see a 70-year-old woman with the same artistic drive and stamina that I worry about losing over time. - April Aliermo
To be honest, I thought I would be part of a team taking orders from Christina before I started working with her. I thought we would be doing all the grunt work while she checked in on us every now and then to make sure we were carrying her plans out accordingly. It turned out that I had to keep up with Christina!
She worked 10-12 hours a day alongside me and three others — transporting gear, climbing ladders, hanging wires, listening to audio mixes, organizing 120 sets of headphones, rehearsing with the string quartet, rearranging wires so they would hang in an aesthetically pleasing way and documenting the whole process as we went.
Did the end of each fulfilling yet exhausting day conclude with my hopes and dreams of sipping on Weissbier alone in my Airbnb? No! After those long days of installing, Christina was interested in supporting and mingling with the other artists at the festival. This woman had so much energy. She told me that attending other people's performances gave her life.
After five extensive installing days, we had two successful days of showing "Orchestra On A Wire" to the public. It was at the end of that second exhibition day that we uninstalled the work. Christina, her audio engineer Ecki and I snipped down 3.5 kilometers of wires, wrapped them up and carried them away. We urged her to go take a rest — but she insisted on "helping us."
It was incredible to see a 70-year-old woman with the same artistic drive and stamina that I worry about losing over time. It didn't matter whether the piece was "hip" or not; it was a fascinating sound art installation that moved people of all ages. Working with Christina also reminded me about the importance of maintaining connections with the rest of one's artistic community.
I didn't get to talk much with Christina about family life, but she did mention that her adult children do attend her exhibitions sometimes and that her retired partner helps her out with projects. Hearing this left me feeling hopeful about my own future in balancing a family life and an art practice.
I guess there will be some transitions — a natural change over time in physical self, a shift in style though not in impact, maybe a slight difference in artistic practice — but my time with Christina taught me that I can basically make art forever if I want to. It's about a particular attitude, a mindset, a persistence and a way of being. Seems like as an artist I can either choose to let time (and social media) make me believe I am supposed to be moving on, leaving art and music creation for a younger generation — or that, actually, one just becomes more experienced with age, is more comfortable to keep exploring and that somewhere out there, someone like me needs to keep hearing from the senior artist. (And by the way, Christina doesn't have Instagram, but you can see other people posting her work with #christinakubisch.)