James Allister Sprang Blends Concrete Sculptures and Musique Concrète

James Allister Sprang working on one of his "Concrete Arrangements," 2017.


“The compassion, generosity, and brain-breaking necessary for ‘radical listening’ is really important right now,” James Allister Sprang wrote by email from Berlin. The Miami-born artist and poet was abroad developing Turning Towards a Radical Listening, a ninety-minute live performance that incorporates immersive multi-directional audio, a custom-built speech-to-text software application, and a large-scale video projection. For Sprang, “radical listening” is intentional listening, the type that’s cognizant of historical, social, and cultural contexts. It invites listeners not only to receive information, but to discover how they participate in shaping it.

Sprang conceived of Turning two years ago while experimenting with Google’s proprietary auto-dictation software. He noticed the program had a hard time interpreting black voices, similar to the documented difficulties that digital cameras have interpreting black skin. He started feeding recordings he’d made of black poets reading their work into the speech-to-text program. Glitches abounded, which Sprang chalked up to the algorithm’s inability to encode voices different from the ones it was trained on. Resulting mistranslations could be upsetting, peculiarly novel, or inadvertently political. Sprang started layering the recordings, generating a sound-art−dub-music hybrid. His mixing console and software wove black voices, tape loops, and other audio samples into a reverb-drenched, whole-body sound bath. As Sprang mixed and remixed the strata of sound, he projected a continuously typed text onto the wall, wherein the software attempted to interpret the aural layers in real time. Using what French composer Pierre Schaeffer called musique concrète−a montage of recorded sounds, often opposed to “pure” electronic music−Sprang generated mired concrete poetry.

Around the same time, Sprang started sculpting with literal concrete. He had originally studied photography at Cooper Union in New York. Later, he pursued performance−primarily as GAZR, a poet-emcee persona that was central to his MFA work at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he also developed a new material process: he mixed large amounts of pigment into concrete, which made it brittle upon drying, then walked across  the colorful slabs, breaking them into fragments. He stacked the bits into mounds reminiscent of ancient burial sites, and photographed the arrangements from above for his series “Concrete Color Arrangements” (2017).

The term “concrete,” both noun and adjective, can refer to cityscapes and soundscapes alike. Sprang will make use of that intriguing duality this month, when he offers several performances of Turning Towards a Radical Listening during his residency at the Kitchen in Manhattan. In November, he’ll present “Fragment Scapes,” a solo exhibition of lens-based photographs, cyanotypes, and photo-objects concerned with concrete at Knockdown Center in Queens. With components ranging from building materials to artificial intelligence, Sprang provides tools for audiences to listen closely and hear the frequencies that history has muddled and muzzled.


This article appears under the title “James Allister Sprang” in the October 2019 issue, p. 16.