File Note 66: Haroon Mirza - Camden Art Centre

Essay by David Toop



Trap Set Images References Quote Biography Credits

Trap Set

A musical instrument: a crafted, singular object with monetary value, designed for purpose as an extension of the human body. Like a ventriloquist’s dummy it sits quietly in a box, awaiting its other body, the voice which is both latent and lacking within itself. This is one way of thinking.

Now here is another musical instrument, spread through a place, without centre or operator. It is its own body, an autonomic body drawn from many sites: the body politic; the body of language and knowledge; the sound body; the body eviscerated. This instrument waits for no other sounding body, but draws plural voices from phenomena, rhetoric, ritual, archives, the movement of the body, divisions and articulations of space, symbolic objects, pulsations, the behaviour of sound, fragments of abject memory and all of that which may become lost.

From the first moment of experiencing a work by Haroon Mirza I felt within the work. Not immersed or overwhelmed, nor integrated within its field, but a clumsy moving appendage adding shifting outer edges to its already (seemingly) messy assembly. The piece was sculptural within the terms of Picasso’s Construction with Guitar Player and Violin (1913), The Singing Sculpture (1969–ongoing) of Gilbert and George or John Latham’s Big Breather (1972–73). Coincidentally or not, all of these works engage with sound; they consider sound as a property that cuts into space and vibrates air, that operates first of all at the level of physiological and emotional affect, that adds complex dimensionality to the acts of looking and being in proximity to a focal point.

Clearly not just a collection of sorry materials in random juxtaposition, Mirza’s work resonates with ideas. The precise nature of these gained clarity during his 2011 exhibition at Lisson Gallery but my interest is not so much an exegesis of these various signs embedded within a formal construction but the way they scrape against each other to make an event called music. The drum kit is a useful parallel. According to James Blades, the drummer’s ‘trap set’ or kit was a late 19th century hybrid partly inspired by one-an bands. During the early jazz era this kit was expanded to incorporate many items of exotic and domestic origin; the limits of the instrument were defined by negotiation between operator and environment. It was a contraption (hence a trap set), a somewhat pejorative term that describes a great deal of sublime music and which might also be useful for a better understanding of I saw square triangle sine.

Because Mirza builds up a conglomerate of sources and objects within one work, or within the rooms of an exhibition space, there is a tendency to think about his work as an exploration of systems. That seems fine except for the fact that elements are only partially connected to each other and are to some extent dysfunctional. They are part of a sound system in the more particular meaning derived from Jamaican reggae, a conglomerate of social forces, operators, musical sources and technology adapted to serve a particular passage of musical flow. 

A different beginning may be more constructive. To say: this is the way music is made today. So there is turntablism, minimal techno, dub, noise, micro-improv, acousmatics, phonography, club culture, youtube videos, loops, drone, sonification, digital audio and video sampling, pop and sound art archives and so on with all their different devices, protocols, operations and audiences. Though these specialist genres may co exist within an mp3 library as a kind of fiction-in-the-mind, it would be unusual to find within one setting (to take two late 20th century examples) the activities of the WrK group from Japan (a near-scientific exploration of auditory phenomena pioneered by artists such as Minoru Sato, Jio Shimizu and Toshiya Tsunoda) and the minimal techno of Monolake. Despite extreme differences in their modes of ‘performance’, they are united in an interrogation of sound, its potential forms and the environments in which sound can be experienced. In both cases, they invent new instruments. This is one way to understand what happens in certain contemporary music — not as a collection of separate devices which come together in front of an audience but as a ‘contraption’ with which all listeners interact. 

When I curated Sonic Boom for the Hayward Gallery in 2000 I was given the impossible task of making distinctions between many sounding artworks within a space lacking in any provision for isolating sounds. As the installation progressed I began to think of the entire building as an instrument and so the challenge was to ‘tune’ its elements to generate a passage through sound rather than a static cacophony. Sound Spill, a curatorial research project initiated by Mirza with artist Thom O’Nions, was formed to pursue a similar potentiality. Their exhibition of 2009 brought together the sound work of four artists through the sensibilities not just of a ‘visual’ curator but a composer who begins from the premise that composition is organised sound (to borrow the terminology of Edgard Varèse). 

From this perspective Mirza thinks of himself as a composer, which is interesting enough in the light of what might be implicit in the notion of a 21st century composer, but I’m also fascinated by some of his reference points: Guy Sherwin, a filmmaker associated with London’s structural film movement of the 1970s and then Fred Sandback, the American artist whose work in the same decade really pushed the limits of how a space could be articulated by the most minimal of means. Both had strong connections to sound and though Sandback’s work was silent, you might say that both used sound as a way of disrupting our perception of who we are in relation to a given space. By naming the sight of the invisible, I saw square triangle sine goes a degree further. The instrument contraption is the room itself, all that cannot be brought to the room, all that happens in the room and all those who enter the room. The work, seen and unseen, is instrument and instrumentality.


Richard Coyne Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism and the Romance of the Real MIT Press (2001)

Marshall McLuhan ‘Acoustic Space’ in Media Research: Technology, Art, Communication (Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture) Routledge (1998)

Kurt Vonnegut Breakfast of Champions Jonathan Cape (1973)

Josell Ramos (Dir.) Maestro (2003) 

Godfrey Reggio (Dir.) Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Lars von Trier (Dir.) Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Arthur Russell, various

Sasha and John Digweed Renaissance: The Mix Collection Renaissance Records (1994)

SND 4, 5, 6 (Vinyl) D&M Berlin (2008)

 ‘Organised sound’ Edgard Varse


Haroon Mirza (b. 1977, London) studied at Winchester School of Art, Goldsmiths College and Chelsea College of Art and Design. He now lives and works between Sheffield and London. Earlier this year he won the Silver Lion Award at the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale and in 2010 he was awarded the Northern Art Prize. Mirza has performed at the Chisenhale Gallery, London and had solo exhibitions at: VIVID, Birmingham (2010); ‘Anthemoessa’, Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin (2010); and A-Foundation, Liverpool (2009). He was included in ‘The British Art Show 7: Days of the Comet’, curated by Tom Morton and Lisa le Feuvre, which toured to various venues in Nottingham, London, Glasgow and Plymouth (2010 2011). In 2009 Mirza exhibited in the 11th Istanbul Biennale and in 2008 was included in the ‘New Contemporaries’ exhibition in Liverpool and London. He is represented by Lisson Gallery, London.


David Toop works in the field of sound and listening as a composer/improviser, author and curator.

Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation, Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation and Outset Contemporary Art Fund.