by christoph cox some reconstructions of wandering and inner space catalog, 2002

Charles Baudelaire’s great poem “Correspondences” presents a transformative vision of modern life.1 Filtered through an aesthetic sensitivity, the mundane cityscape is recast as a living, breathing “forest of symbols” through which we wander perplexed and amazed. Established meanings are unmoored, and cognitive and sensual boundaries dissolved. The world is new and extraordinary again. Within this rich and fertile grove, colors offer themselves to be tasted, sounds to be seen, and smells to be touched. Everything is at once familiar and fantastic, significant and ambiguous, lucid and obscure.

Enigmatic signs, the mysterious powers of ordinary objects, synaesthetic experience-all are prominent themes of Steve Roden’s work, for which Baudelaire’s poem serves as an apt epigram. A genuine multi-media artist, Roden is driven by the idea that painting, film, poetry, music, and sculpture can be drawn together into what Baudelaire calls a “shadowy unison” that crosses our perceptual wires and propels us into worlds in which formerly discrete elements communicate and correspond.


With their wandering lines and fluid geometries, The Silent World paintings display many of the elements of Roden’s idiosyncratic iconography. Like much of his previous work in the visual arts, they offer glimpses into microscopic or telescopic realms, sketches for hypothetical architectures, and maps of imagined territories. Tactile and painterly, these canvases bear ample evidence of the artist’s hand and display Roden’s fondness for folk art and a homespun aesthetic.

Yet these paintings are not fully the intuitive and idiosyncratic creations they appear to be. Like much of Roden’s work, each has been rigorously and painstakingly constructed according to an external system. The ten canvases provide different visual translations of the phrase “the silent world” (the title of oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s first book) according to an apparently arbitrary scheme. Treating the alphabet as measuring device (according to the formula: a = 1 inch, b = 2 inches, etc.), Roden has built each painting around fourteen lines, one for each letter of the phrase.

Listen (4’33”) is even more elaborately constructed. The painting translates a verbal description from the score of John Cage’s famous “silent composition” 4’33” (in which, for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the performer makes no intentional sound). In Roden’s translation, Cage’s 93-word text determines not only the length of each line (according to the same scheme as the Silent World series) but also its color (a different hue for each word). The result is a polychrome lattice of 434 wayward lines, the arrangement of which is largely intuitive, but the constitution of each component is determined in advance. What are we to make of this curious mixture of the intuitive and the systematic, the idiosyncratic and the programmatic, the auditory, the verbal, and the visual?

A Short History of Inspiration

In truth, art has always shuttled between two poles: the subjective and the objective, the artist as creative demiurge and the artist as mere vehicle. Ancient Greek aesthetics situated the artist at one of those poles.2 The poet was simply a channel for the muse, a body temporarily possessed by a spirit; and “inspiration” (enthusiasmos) was an entirely impersonal and external affair. The spirit came from outside; and its expression was not individual or private but common and public. Hence Socrates’ annoyance at poets: “Almost all the bystanders might have explained the poems better than their authors could,” he scoffed, for “they are not the ones who speak those verses that are of such high value [ . . .] the god himself is the one who speaks.”3

The Christian tradition sustained this conception of inspiration and artistic practice, which remained in place through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. With Romanticism, however, the pendulum swung to the other pole. For the Romantics, and for many Modernists, the artist’s creative power lay within. Art became the ex-pression (the drawing outward) of a unique interior depth. “Inspiration” came to name the extraordinary ability, possessed by artists, to tap this creative interiority. “Poetry is purely human,” wrote Coleridge, “all its materials are from the mind, and all the products are for the mind.”4

This is the context in which Cage intervened. At the twilight of Modernism, he rejected aesthetic subjectivism and individualism and called for the return to a kind of aesthetic objectivity and impersonality. True to his Zen Buddhist sensibilities, Cage sought to free art from artists-from individual tastes, memories, and experiences-in an effort to open it up to the aesthetic character of nature and life. “Art = imitation of nature in her manner of operation,” Cage wrote in a late, fragmentary text.5 All of Cage’s compositional techniques were directed toward this goal. His use of coin tosses and the I Ching were simply efforts to bypass human subjectivity, to substitute the necessity of nature for the choice of the artist. The score for Atlas Eclipticalis translates a map of the heavens into musical symbols, while the notation for Music for Piano is rendered from imperfections on pieces of paper. Such compositions favor the idea that music is found not made, and that the artist is simply a translator or facilitator. Hence, Cage’s lifelong interest in silence, which, for him, designated not the absence of sound (an impossibility, he pointed out6) but the absence of intentional sound, highlighting the idea that music is ubiquitous and perpetual.7 “Music is permanent,” he wrote “only listening is intermittent.”8


Cage’s intervention draws attention to the fact that the artist never creates ex nihilo, that he or she always works with found objects and is always constrained by and directed from the outside: by artistic traditions and genres; by the given properties of paint, canvas, language, sound; even by “idiosyncratic” habits and obsessions. Yet Cage’s artistic practice involves a set of paradoxes: the intention of non-intention, the choice of indeterminate means, the artist against artists, the idiosyncratic style of Cage’s particular brand of anti-individualism. “John Cage,” Norman O. Brown affectionately concluded, is “a living oxymoron [. . .] obstinately reasserting both sides of an unresolved argument.”9

Inspired by Cage, Roden acknowledges this paradox and tries to resolve it by situating his artistic practice between the poles of objectivity and subjectivity. “I use systems as a way of getting myself outside of my own natural tendencies,” he says. “But I’m not doing this to completely take myself out of the work. I am interested in giving myself a finite number of choices-limitations versus total freedom. I am interested in how these chance systems affect my own abilities and intuitions in the working process. I try to set up a battle between intellectual thought/chance/systems and an intuitive working process. I am constantly interested in things like: how do I make a series of paintings with the same 14 lines each [The Silent World]? how do I make sculptures based on the machined shapes of satellites with identical small blocks of wood [Satellites]? what happens if I shoot the sky with a camera every day for a year [Monochrome Blue (A Year of Skies)]? how can I translate a text from English to green colored lines [Wandering]? and, in spite of these rules, how can I make an object that contains all of the poetic evocations that interest me beyond these exercises in formalism?”10

Roden is Cagean, then, not because of any desire to extinguish subjectivity but due to a shared fascination with “experimental” methods. Cage defined “experimental” artistic practices as those that proceed by way of actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen or known.11 For Cage and the “experimental” tradition he fostered, this often meant working by way of processes or systems that ramified in unforeseen ways and directions. So, for example, the chorus of voices that constitutes Steve Reich’s composition Come Out was produced simply by playing identical tape loops through machines running at slightly different speeds. Making art in this way is like planting a seed and letting it grow, setting a piece of wood afloat and watching it drift, or choosing a path and seeing where it leads.

Drifting, Wandering

Perhaps this is why the drawings in Roden’s Wandering series resemble branching trees, strands of DNA, spider webs, or falling water: all map the fundamental wandering or drifting by which nature itself operates (“imitation of nature in her manner of operation”). For nature is an open system that, by repetition, generates difference: a small set of initial elements fuses, divides, mutates, and travels, resulting in an infinite and incalculable variety.12 Both the Wandering and the Silent World series begin with basic sets of given elements. (Wandering translates a text by Hermann Hesse into an alphabet composed of 26 shades of green.) But the same elements generate a range of outcomes. Across the series, the Wandering drawings visibly drift: angular lines bend into irregular circles which unfurl into fluid squiggles. In The Silent World, the same 14 lines create starbursts, abstract cityscapes, tattered shrouds, and architectural assemblages. Roden’s film, Monochrome Blue (A Year of Skies) is all about drifting: the endless drift of clouds, blues, days, images-and all of this despite the obsessive and methodical procedure that produced it (shoot 9 frames of sky every day for a year wherever you happen to be). And Roden’s Satellites celebrate the lonely drift of the countless unmanned spacecrafts that endlessly cycle above us, elaborate constructions abandoned to all eternity.

Roden shows us that the artist can be an engine of indeterminacy and not, as Cage thought, only an impediment to it. The “intuitive” element in Roden’s work is simultaneously an affirmation of aesthetic decision and an affirmation of indeterminacy, as much an assertion of control as a relinquishing of it. The wavering lines that run throughout this work, for example, testify to the fact that indeterminacy and chance are built into the body’s every gesture. And Roden’s various series amply demonstrate that following one’s intuition (like following an external system) can be a form of wandering. The two poles of inspiration are joined into a seamless circle.

The Color of Silence

For many experimental composers, the poles of freedom and constraint, subjectivity and objectivity, improvisation and composition were brought together via the production of “graphic scores,” scores consisting of non-musical symbols to be interpreted by musical performers. Earle Brown’s score for December 1952, for example, is a single page covered with horizontal and vertical bars of various lengths and thicknesses. Cornelius Cardew’s monumental Treatise presents performers with 183 pages filled with mobile geometrical forms. Such scores highlight the visual element in musical composition, the fact that even conventional notation is a matter of translating the visual into the auditory.

Cage notated 4’33” as a graphic score that calls for the translation of image into sound, space into time. The piece consists of three movements of uneven duration, each of which is rendered as a set of blank pages spatially proportionate to the duration of the three parts, an eighth of an inch representing a second of silence. Attached to the score (in at least one of its several versions) is a text describing the general parameters of the piece and its first performance: “Note: the title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance. At Woodstock, NY, August 29, 1952, the title was 4’33 and the three parts were 33″, 2:40″, and 1’20”. It was performed by David Tudor, pianist, who indicated the beginnings of parts by closing, the endings by opening, the keyboard lid. After the Woodstock performance, a copy in proportional notation was made for Irwin Kremen. In it the timelengths of the movements were 30″, 2:33″, and 1’40”. However, the work may be performed by any instrumentalist(s) and the movements may last any lengths of time.”13

Roden’s Listen (4’33”) might be viewed as a sort of graphic score after the fact, the translation into image of a musical composition, or-since this composition is indeterminate-of one of its realizations. Via Cage’s description, Roden’s painting scores 4’33″‘s inaugural performance at Woodstock. Or is it a performance of this performance? The answer is undecidable, for here as elsewhere, Roden confounds the distinction between score and performance. Any score (visual, verbal, etc.) can itself be taken to be a performance, and any performance taken as the score for another performance. Indeed, throughout his work, Roden continually shows us that any object or text is capable of being translated into sound, paint, or any other material: the world (the artist included) as a vast collection of scores and performances.

Roden’s title is equally confounding. We know what it means to listen to silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. But what does it mean to listen to a painting? Music is temporal; but is painting? And isn’t painting, by its very nature, silent? Listen (4’33”) pushes us into that hazy synaesthetic zone where, despite their differences, sound, text, and image converge and blend. In principle, a painting is silent and non-temporal. But, in practice, aesthetic contemplation is neither. We are always surrounded by sound and always enmeshed in duration. In principle, text, image, and sound mark out separate domains. But it is Roden’s conviction that, as in any good translation, something-call it the “sense”-is retained across different languages or media.

What is the color of silence? White, we generally presume. And, indeed, Cage’s “silent piece” was inspired, in part, by his experience of Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings.14 Roden’s “silent” painting, on the contrary, is an eye-boggling catalog of colors. And Roden’s interpretation is fitting, for Cage’s 4’33” calls our attention to “white noise”: environmental sound that is blank or neutral until we pay attention to the myriad sonic microparticles of which it is composed. Similarly, Roden’s painting takes our assumption that silence is white and refracts it into all the colors of the spectrum: “silent color” for “white noise.”

Long Shots and Close Ups

“I am in the middle of a mass of thousands of very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they are luminescent. They are bright yellowish green, about the size and intensity of a firefly on a real dark night. I have never seen anything like it. They look like little stars. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window.” John Glenn’s lunar epiphany might be mistaken for a description of Roden’s visual and sound art. Returning the favor, Roden’s Transmission 11/60 (Stellar Regions) directly translates Glenn’s poetic communication, reconstituting the astronaut’s vision as an abstract whirl of iridescent geodes.

Roden’s fondness for the celestial no doubt comes from his love of floating, drifting forms. But it equally comes from his love of abstract views-the kinds of long shots or close-ups that make the world strange and beautiful, and call our attention to the very stuff of matter and sensation. View (Third Version) pulls us in the other direction, offering microscopic glimpses that recast our ordinary visual and auditory take on the world as a set of abstract, fragmentary details. Roden’s sound work often focuses on such auditory minutiae, on what he calls “lowercase sound.” As in most of Roden’s sound work, the components here are documentary, representing the sights and sounds of the gallery’s exterior. But each presents a world transformed, in the one case, by magnifying lenses, in the other, by sound processing.

The world found and remade, taken and transformed, View (Third Version) nicely figures Roden’s aesthetic practice as a whole. It joins the inside (the aesthetic space of the gallery, the artist’s creative powers) with the outside (the external world, source of the artist’s materials and inspiration) and calls upon us to do the same. Detaching our senses from their ordinary uses, it opens up a correspondence between sight and sound, and re-presents our world as a drift of free-floating particles: a “forest of symbols” indeed.

1 See Baudelaire, “Correspondences,” in Les Fleurs du Mal, trans. Richard Howard (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982), p. 15. 2 For a nice exposition, analysis, and critique of the notion of “inspiration” in the European tradition, see Timothy Clark, The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and Post-Romantic Writing (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997). 3 Plato, Apology 22b, trans. G.M.A Grube, and Ion 534d, trans. Paul Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), pp. 22, 942. 4 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. III, quoted in Clark, The Theory of Inspiration, p. 28. 5 John Cage, from Themes & Variations (1982), in Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, ed. Paul Hoover (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 6 “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot,” “Experimental Music,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 8. 7 “[T]o me, the essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention.” John Cage, in Conversing with Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988), p. 189. 8 Cage, Themes & Variations, p. 623. 9 Norman O. Brown, “John Cage at Seventy-Five,” quoted in David Revill, The Roaring Silence, John Cage: A Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), p. 173. 10 Personal communication, February 2002. 11 See Cage, Silence, pp. 13, 69. 12 See Umberto Eco, “Poetics of the Open Work,” in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 47-66, and Brian Eno, “Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Breaking the Sound Barrier. A Critical Anthology of the New Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1981), pp. 129-141. 13 John Cage, 4’33 (score), C.F. Peters (No 6777), Henmar Press, 1986. 14 See Cage, Silence, p. 98 and Revill, Roaring Silence, pp. 164-65.