Life & Culture

The man turning swimming pools into art galleries


Israeli Joel Cahen is placing underwater speakers in public baths in the name of art.

In the world of British contemporary art, where crude shock tactics have long been the dull norm, it takes an awful lot — or a beautifully simple idea — to grab the public’s attention.

Step forward London-based Israeli sound artist Joel Cahen, curator of Wet Sounds, an appealing new art project that does not require anything from audiences except a swimming costume and an open mind.

Nurtured in collaboration with the cultural-development team at Hackney Council, in East London, Wet Sounds is a touring gallery of sound-art that is appearing at nine swimming pools nationwide, culminating in a large concert at Hackney Lido on July 19. The idea is a refreshingly unpretentious one — to use the familiarity of your local swimming pool and the acoustic properties of water to introduce sound-art to a whole new audience.

“When I started this project,” says Cahen from his studio in London’s East End, “I was surprised to see just how ignorant people are about sound-art. I don’t mean ignorant in a derogatory way — but rather that people aren’t aware that sound-art exists at all. It is just like any other art form, but one that uses sound to express its intentions.

“The wonderful thing about sound is that out of all media, it is the most immediate, the most enrapturing. It has an immense power to change your mood. This is partly what Wet Sounds is about: enabling and encouraging people to immerse themselves in a new experience, without just seeing sound as an accessory to film, or as music for Top of the Pops.”

By placing special underwater speakers strategically around the swimming pool, Cahen will transform each pool into a sound-art gallery for one day.

“By floating on your back, you will be able to focus on sound in a unique way,” he says. “Underwater, sound is totally immediate — you experience it differently than you do when it travels through the air. In water, you perceive sound not just through your ears but through your whole body.”

Works by sound-artists from as far afield as South Korea, Turkey and Australia will be featured alongside a host of British and European contributors. Work to listen out for include a piece recorded in the Galapagos Islands by Chris Watson, best known for his work with art-punk band Cabaret Voltaire, and Klaus Osterwald’s surprisingly noisy underwater sound-world recorded in a lake outside Dusseldorf using specialist microphones.

But if you think that sound-art is all about running water and whalesong, Cahen’s own contribution is a lot more down to earth. Soap splices the theme tune from Jaws with dialogue from TV soap operas such as EastEnders.

Entrance to the Wet Sounds tour is free — the only cost being the regular admission cost to the swimming pool — with one exception: the closing event at Hackney Lido on July 19 featuring a rare UK performance by legendary psychedelic improv band Nurse With Wound, who were one of the highlights at last year’s Ether Festival on London’s South Bank.

So would Cahen recommend Wet Sounds as a fun-filled family day out for the summer?

“Just because it is in a swimming pool doesn’t mean that you should automatically bring the kids,” he warns with a laugh.

“It’s the same as taking them to an art gallery — some will enjoy it, some will be bored.

“But the main thing is to provoke an opinion. Art galleries are not there to please, but to create a channel of communication that can show work that has artistic merit. Wet Sounds is no different.”

Wet Sounds is at Everton Park, Liverpool today; Levenshulme Pool, Manchester, tomorrow; and then nationwide until July 19.

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