500 words

by courtney yoshimura artforum.com, 2012

Steve Roden is a Los Angeles–based sound and visual artist. His recent work can be seen in the group exhibition “Silence” at the Menil Collection in Houston, which runs through October 21; it will be on view at the Berkeley Art Museum January 30 to April 28, 2013. Here, Roden discusses the process of incorporating the works of John Cage and Walter Benjamin into his own art.

LAST YEAR, I PERFORMED John Cage’s 4’33” every day, privately––never announcing it to anybody else. It was an exercise in both writing and listening, but also an activity to see how the score could be opened up to offer activities beyond listening. By performing it daily, I explored how the piece might change through repetition, and investigated what kind of experiences it might it suggest over time. In this sense, Cage was on my mind every day.

My first true “system painting” was done about thirteen years ago and was based on one of the scores for 4’33”, which consists of a paragraph of text describing the premiere of the piece. Last year I was researching the piece and realized there are at least three distinct variations of the score, so I worked with my earlier graphic system, as well as several new systems, to generate these recent paintings.

There’s a large-scale painting in the Menil exhibition where all of the color decisions are related to various permutations of the word tacet, which is Cage’s only real musical instruction in the score. It’s interesting how tacet works, because it is essentially telling the musician to be silent, and in this case to let the surroundings speak as music. The idea of the tacet as both action and nonaction offered me the idea of a painting as both a visual experience and a site for listening.

Coincidentally, while working on the Cage performances, I was invited to Berlin to research Walter Benjamin’s notebooks, and I thought, how could I not bring these two together? I performed 4’33” in the Benjamin archives as well as in Paris, where I used one of Benjamin’s notebooks as my instrument. At some point, I felt that my conversations––one with Cage and one with Benjamin––were more interesting together than separately.

I first saw Benjamin’s notebooks with a friend in 2006. In one of the notebooks, Benjamin used a series of small colored symbols to arrange his ideas. The stream of symbols looked like the kind of graphic notation explored by composers such as Morton Feldman and Cornelius Cardew in the early 1960s. These symbols floored me, and so I wanted to generate a series of scores from these notebooks. Furthermore, Benjamin was very visual in his notetaking, especially how he crossed things out as well as the ways he connected thoughts. I noticed that he didn’t scratch things out with any consistency, and from that I found thirty-seven different ways that he would cross out mistakes. I classified each of the forms and created a lexicon of all the ways Benjamin silenced his mistakes.

The exhibition in Berlin is the first group of works to come out of this body of research. It’s not about reverence for the source, the biography, or someone else’s work. It’s about conversing with these sources, developing a connection between things through a process that is less logical and more intuitive. I’ll be working with this material for the next couple of years; these first few exhibitions feel more like a beginning than an endpoint.