Sound art, documentary practices and ethical minefields:

Sound art, documentary practices and ethical minefields:  Trust, interpretive freedom and responsible engagement with vulnerable subjects

John Wynne


The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith


Sensitive Brigade



My interdisciplinary research-based practice often involves working with subjects who could be regarded, for various reasons, as vulnerable.  I was artist-in-residence, along with photographer Tim Wainwright, at Harefield Hospital, one of the world’s leading centres for heart and lung transplants and I have worked with linguists in the Kalahari Desert and in northern British Columbia to record speakers of highly endangered indigenous languages.  In most literature regarding the protection of vulnerable subjects, the economically disadvantaged and those in marginalised social groups feature alongside long-term patients and those with terminal illnesses in lists of groups deemed to be at risk of experiencing “control, coercion, undue influence, or manipulation” at the hands of researchers.  Patients waiting for a heart or lung transplant are pretty much as ill as one can get and still be alive, and speakers of endangered languages are usually members of communities with a long history of extreme political, racial and economic oppression.


My art practice hovers on the boundaries between documentary and abstraction; consequently, issues regarding appropriate use of materials collected during fieldwork and responsible engagement with subjects are particularly germane.  My work for radio has been described as “composed documentary” (Alan Hall) and my installations combining sound with still images “hang in the border zones between anthropology and art, drawing attention to the subjective nature of language documentation and photography, and the multiple layers of translation that are central to the documentation and interpretation process.”  (Kate Hennessey)


This presentation will discuss ethical considerations in art practice through work which strive to problematise the ethnographic gaze and highlight relations of power in order to avoid essentialist interpretation.  It will examine the various levels of trust involved in fieldwork-based projects:  trust between subjects and researcher, between researchers and relevant controlling authorities (political, institutional) and between researcher and funding/supporting bodies.  Issues of compromise will be raised through a practice which seeks to reconcile responsible engagement, accurate research and creative expression.


  • John Wynne is a sound artist whose practice includes installations and award-winning radio pieces which hover on the boundary between documentation and abstraction. His work encompasses large scale architectural sound drawings and vast multi-channel sculptural installations using recycled hi-fi speakers. His work with endangered languages includes a project with click languages in the Kalahari and another with one of Canada’s indigenous languages, Gitxsanimaax. Working with heart and lung transplant patients as artist-in-residence at Harefield Hospital for one year with photographer Tim Wainwright led to a book, an installation and a half-hour commission for BBC Radio 3. His 2009 installation for 300 speakers, pianola and vacuum cleaner was commissioned by Beaconsfield Gallery and became the first work of sound art in the Saatchi collection. His multi-channel public installations with alarm sounds of his own design have included one piece which was banned by the City Council of Copenhagen for allegedly “frightening and confusing the public” and another in Canada which was described by Musicworks magazine as “an ambient, ghost-like presence”. He has a PhD in Sound Art from Goldsmiths College and is a member of CRiSAP (Creative Research in Sound Arts Practice) at the London College of Communication.

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