interview with yann novak
tokafi, 2011

My first experience of Steve Roden’s visual work was of his installation Transmissions: in a darkened room, tin cans hung from the ceiling with either colored lights or speakers inside. Though hung at seemingly random heights and in no particular order, this grouping beckoned to be entered. Once inside, nothing was necessarily revealed about the questions the work had suggested, but somehow, it felt okay. There is an order to Roden’s work, in fact all his works involve self invented systems or scores that he follows, and while the explicit logic behind these instructions may not be made available to anyone but the artist, their absence in the finished work is never a problem. Roden’s work has an inherent honesty and humility that lets the viewer enjoy and explore it on there own terms. These qualities have never been more present than in his two most recent exhibitions: Steve Roden: in between, a 20-year survey curated by Howard Fox at the Armory Center for the Arts and When Words Become Forms at the Pomona College Museum of Art. These two exhibitions span twenty years and explore virtually every medium Roden has worked with, including works on paper, painting, sculpture, film, video, and sound. Of particular interest is Bowrain, an ambitious, large scale installation from the Pomona exhibition incorporating sculpture, film and sound. Like Transmissions, Bowrain draws you in physically as well as phenomenologically. As with all of Roden’s work, each piece, no matter the medium, asks you to explore.

How involved were you in the curation process of In Between?

Well, I worked with a curator – Howard Fox – who was a curator at the Los Angeles county museum of art for around 30 years, so it was an honor and an unbelievable pleasure to work with him on the show. Of course, with all of this work, particularly the earlier works, I could only see them in relation to my own history, as stepping stones through the events of my life. I had so much personal baggage wrapped up in them, that it was fantastic to have someone else to work with, who could simply see them as they are. It was a wonderful collaboration, and as much as I explained my history and ideas to him, I felt that I was the one who learned the most about my work by having these conversations with Howard. I have been really lucky in that most of the curators I have worked with I have been able to work closely with them in a collaborative situation. I’m very interested in collaboration – particularly where there is no hierarchy, so that we make decisions together. It’s not just the organizing of the work that is dealt with, but how to create a situation where these older things could still be alive and have relevance amidst the recent work, which obviously would be more resolved. Howard was great in finding several threads through the work so that even though it was a survey we didn’t need to hang it chronological, and were able to suggest some of the various “cores” that might be consistent over time. More than anything, I believe we were able to open people’s eyes – and ears – to the various ways in which works in different mediums are connected.  

A Buckminster Fuller drawing is cited as an inspiration for the ‘When Words Become Forms’ exhibition as well as an inspiration of yours in general. What sparked your interest in him?

Well, I first heard of Fuller when I was a kid. I remember, I was riding my bike down a small residential street and saw a book lying in the gutter. I’ve always been kind of a scavenger – as a small child my friend and I would spend hours walking in alleys and looking for old things in the trash – not because we were so poor, but because we would always find treasures such as old baseball cards, toys, old magazines, and sometimes even money. So I stopped my bike to see what this book was and it was Fullers’ operating manual for spaceship earth. It was probably from the late 60’s, but the cover was weird enough that I picked it up and brought it home. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word of it, I was probably 10 years old or so. Nonetheless I held on to it. In undergrad school we saw a film of Fuller talking and moving his hands all around with some of his tension geodesic models. I remember a teacher mentioning that Fuller was once asked to talk until he could not think of anything else to say and he spoke nonstop for days. I have no idea if this is true or not. What I always liked about him, aside from the forms which are amazing, is that I can rarely penetrate his ideas, so I generally have to dwell inside them for a long time before I can come close to understanding them. The drawing I used to generate Bowrain, as well as several other things in the past, was pictured in a book on Fuller’s work without a photo caption nor explanation. So, it was an image which had to be read or deciphered on its own terms. Yes, I loved it aesthetically, but I also loved that I had no idea what its intention was, and so it became a score towards the number of units and the order in which it would all be built. Obviously it was never intended to be used in such a way, but I liked very much creating architecture from a drawing that was related to architecture, knowing that the two would look nothing like each other. 

In tandem with the survey you also had a large-scale installation at Pamona College of Art ‘When Words Become Forms.’ Did the process of looking back at previous work for the survey have any effect on creation of this piece?

Yes, indeed, I was very excited about the shows complimenting each other. The difficult thing for me was spending almost 2 years putting together an exhibition that would have little new work in it; and so I decided the Pomona show should really feel as if it was the next step forward. Hence, the installation – Bowrain, which included sculpture, sound, and film – was the largest and most complex installation I’ve ever made, while the set of paintings I also exhibited were the smallest oil paintings I’d ever made – each the size of a postcard. In each – the installation and the paintings – I wanted to subvert expectations and also to try to grasp some of the obvious strands in the survey and really tug them forward. Also, with Bowrain containing sculpture, sound, and film projections, it felt like a natural step forward in terms of the amount of information and mediums co-existing in a single work. I don’t know that I would’ve had the balls to do such a thing without having the confidence that came out of looking at twenty years of work and realizing that no matter what I do, it will always feel like my work. 

Most readers here will know you from your sound works and musical compositions, but in fact your practice also involves paintings, sculptures, text works, and video installations.

Well, I have no professional or academic background in music or sound. I can’t read a note of music, nor can I use a program like max msp. I studied visual art in undergrad and grad school, and while I was working on sound things always at home, there was a moment, around the mid 1980s, when I started to see them being related. Now the two are pretty much fully integrated into my overall practice.  
Like the sound work, the visual works explore scores, systems, translation, abstraction and so forth. The visual works are a combination of scored “activities” and intuitive responses. Physically the visual works share the hand-made aesthetic of my sound works. Unlike the sound works, the paintings tend to be quite colorful – and while I see them as being quiet, they certainly are louder on the outside than the sound works. I try to trust my natural tendencies rather than attempting to manipulate the viewer or listener. I don’t like the idea of intentionally seducing someone, so I simply try to exploit my natural tendencies when I make things; so while I might want to make a painting reflective of a certain mood, I’m unwilling to go about it in a literal or expected way – or perhaps, rather than unwilling to do it, I am simply unable. 

I can’t help but think about Rolf Julius, as he passed away a week ago and he’s been a huge inspiration to me and both my sound work and visual work. What I love about his work is that it always appears as somewhat ordinary in terms of its presence – and I mean that in a very positive way. His work doesn’t seduce you at first, as much as it quietly welcomes you to enter it on your own terms. You have to work a little bit to notice the magic, and at first blush his work seems somewhat ordinary on the outside, but once you really begin to look and listen, you are completely immersed. Of course, this is kind of how Japanese rock gardens work, this is how Robert Walser’s writing tends to work – especially the small pieces – and also many of the visual artists whose work I respond to as well – such as Forrest Best or Al Taylor. I’m not putting myself in categories with my heroes, but there is something related to the idea of happenstance in these artists’ works that I kind of struggle towards, and in some ways this idea of a work having a humble presence, is where the idea of the term “lower case” first fell out of me … Speaking about a kind of art or sound work that is allowed to speak on its own, and can disengage from the artist’s own intentions and/or ideas. I don’t want my works to be about me or to point to me as someone with special skills … I just want to present a situation where the work is simply a thing that a human being has made. Of course, it has meaning for the artist, and comes from rigor and discipline, but the hope is that someone will create meaning for themselves through their experience with it. 

You often refer to using self invented systems which serve as scores for your work. Can you explain this process in relation to your visual works?

It is pretty simple on the surface. For the earliest times, I was taking information – mostly letters and words – from magazines or books. And taking them apart and re-making them in paintings. I liked the idea that graphic design was starting to happen only on a computer screen, and I was painting images that had never existed as drawn or painted by hand – this was around the time of Emigre Magazine and other early mac computer design and typefaces. I had been interested in Eric Gill’s writings about typography and how ant-machine he was and somehow, probably because of my interest in making music with cassette tapes at the time, I wanted to explore the conversation between technology and the handmade – not in the sense of an argument or to have a specific point of view, but simply to explore the territory through conversation.  

At some point I realized I was simply stealing people’s images, cutting them up, and regurgitating them back in my own form. It was fine, but I felt my conversation with the sources wasn’t deep enough, and so after eight years or so of having exhibitions I stopped working with this kind of re-contexualization of graphic language and attempted to kind of start over. There is a book by Hermann Hesse called Wandering which for some reason not a lot of people really talk about. It’s a beautiful book about a journey he took on foot through the Swiss Alps and it is broken up into a series of impressions, half of which are written in prose and half in poem form. And I must say to anyone reading this, there is one small prose chapter on trees that is the most beautiful text about trees I have ever read. I had used the book in the past towards several paintings – basically copying the text onto canvas in various forms, and so I decided to revisit it, to find an even slower way of reading it.  

So, I went to the store and bought twenty six different green colored pencils and attached a letter of the alphabet to each color, so that “olive green” would be a, “bright green” would be b, and so on. I then began to read the book as if it was a score, telling me letter by letter which green pencils to make a mark with. In this way, some of the decisions were determined by the words’ structure, and some of the decisions – the forms of the drawn lines – were simply an intuitive response. It was a simple and ridiculous way of reading and drawing, a page which took five minutes to read suddenly took me three or four hours. Since then the systems have elaborated, but are still close to these early projects. I still generally use the alphabet as a starting point (a=1, b=2, c=3, etc.), and use the numbers to determine different actions in the making of an image or an object. I’ve done the same thing with musical scores, a-g = 1-7. In the works I’m doing now, I’m using the vowel structure of a text by Henry Moor and each vowel is numbered from 1-5, so these five variables follow the order of written words, but their repetitions and sequence is determining color choices, line lengths, time spent on a certain area, etcetera. It is a way of allowing my intuitive decisions to respond to a pre-determined piece of information.  
The whole convoluted process is basically there to give me problems or to push me to make things from within a space of discomfort – there can be no complacency with this kind of work, and everything for me in terms of process, regardless of the medium, should involve learning, questioning, thinking, and growth. The systems tend to aid in my ability to learn and grow. 

There is an obvious relationship between your sound works and your visual works, yet often they are seen as two separate practices and not a unified whole. Was this intentional? 

Well, initially I didn’t realize these things were connected. I had been making “music” since high school – I was in a punk band from 1980-82 in Los Angeles – and as I got away from punk I started to try to find a sound/music that I could relate to. A lot of things happened in my life around that time, and after 1983 or so the punk scene was becoming more violent, less free, people started to dress alike, it got pretty boring. I was starting to listen to Joy Division and a lot of darker things and I also had discovered Eno around 1980 and kept going back to Another Green World, and eventually around ’85 or ’86 I pretty much stopped making songs and was making quieter abstract things that started to approach some of the ideas of the visual work. Of course, at that time I kept thinking of the sound as music, and as I moved forward I became interested in Cage, as well as a lot of what was being called “new music” which included Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, New Albion Records, Cold Blue.  

I didn’t know about sound art until maybe 1990 or so, and so at the time I was thinking more along the lines of the broken music catalog – where visual artists were making music/records, but it was kind of disconnected from their main practice, as a kind of secondary thing. So my thinking at that time was that the two were separate – and my visual work was primary and my sound work secondary. Then in 1992 I finished a group of sound pieces and as I was tossing the cassette into this box that I kept all my music in, I realized that somehow the pieces were really connected to my painting at the time – particularly in terms of ideas and process, much more so than on the surface. That’s when I decided to make my first cd – in 1993. I still kept the sound works out of the gallery for a few more years, very reticent to have sound playing in a room of visual works, as the sound seemed to influence the mood of the space so much, and even when I made films early on, they never had a sound component as I was very stubborn about each medium needing to perform on its own.  

My history tends to go in cycles, where I’m very firm about something until I kind of “know” it and then I contradict myself to open new territory. And so, I decided to try to do something where a sound and visual work could converse as a single space. What I like about this situation – which I am working with quite a lot now in terms of sculpture or drawing and sound together, is that it is a somewhat unresolved relationship. Rather than each enhancing the other, like film music, the two things tend to pull apart from each other – like siblings, they are birthed from the same ideas, but they have different personalities and different trajectories. It creates an open ended conversation. In terms of practices, I think they only seem separated because in Europe I have simply shown more sound work and am probably more known there as a sound artist, and in the states and Los Angeles, in particular, I’m much more known as a painter and a visual artist. But I think people are finally seeing – and hearing – me simply as an artist. My models are more people like Terry Fox, Paul Thek, Robert Smithson or Bruce Nauman who were simply artists who worked in various mediums including sound, sculpture, drawing and performance. The difference historically is that painters were always painters, and conceptual artists – who worked in various mediums – rarely painted, or if they did, they rarely painted like painters or in conversation with painting history.

In a strange way my practice is rooted in a kind of post-60’s view of multiple mediums, but in relation to each individual medium my approach is more related to history and tradition. I think the fact that my drawings and paintings have little to do with sound and more to do with drawing and painting confuses people who view my visual work as that of a sound artist, and similarly the sound work confuses folks who know my paintings, because the sound works are invested more in the history of sound art than the history of painting. But these are surface issues, and the conceptual foundation of all of the work is consistent in every medium. That is what interests me most about working in sound and visual works, that I can explore my ideas in various languages without worrying about how much they relate on the surface – I’m striving for connections that are much deeper. 

Tell me about your upcoming exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter this March.

The upcoming show will also signify a shift. Two years ago my grandmother died. She was a kind of Sunday sculptor – working with a few other ladies once or twice a week carving stone. She mostly carved animals or a mother and child, etc. But at times she made abstract things for me. When she passed away, I went to her studio, hoping to take some of her tools into my studio and I discovered ten stones that she had started to carve but never finished – not necessarily because she died, but like all artists, she had started them and they seemed to go nowhere so she set them aside. So I have the stones in my studio and I’m working from them. What is unique is that for at least the last fifteen years I have not used visual information outside of the canvas to generate images – which means I’m usually only looking at a score and the thing that I’m making. With the stones, I’m looking away from the canvas or object, and looking at the stones to determine much of my actions. It’s a completely new way of working for me, totally uncomfortable and filled with surprises. There are paintings, drawings, sculpture, and a sound/film work shot on 16mm film with artist Mary Simpson. I’m very excited about the work because, again, it feels as if the work is pushing forward. I’m also going to self publish a kind of zine, to allow the stones and some of the other inspirations to be part of the exhibition but not in a heavy way with the stones present as objects. I’m a big fan of ephemera and paper things to take away, so I’m happy there will be this component as well. It’s not a catalog, none of the artwork will be pictured, but it is more like an addendum, to give people access to where the work has come from and some of the ideas that surround it. I’m still working on it now, and will most likely be working on it up until we begin installing!