the quixotic videos of steve roden

by sharon mizota KCET artbound, 2012

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What do avant-garde composer John Cage, philosopher Walter Benjamin, and choreographer Martha Graham have in common? Well, besides being titans of modern art, they all make something of an appearance in Steve Roden’s new installation at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. Titled “Shells, Bells, Steps, and Silences,” the exhibition features six new video pieces that are the result of a quixotic intertwining of the three figures’ works and legacies.

Every day for the year of 2011, Roden performed Cage’s composition “4’33″, in which the musician calls attention to ambient sounds by not playing anything for four minutes and thirty three seconds. He also spent a month doing research in Benjamin’s archives in Berlin, and when he returned, he received two boxes of tchotchkes he had purchased on a whim from Graham’s estate sale. “I really thought I’d just leave the boxes alone for a couple of years while I was working on this Benjamin stuff,” he says, “but it just started to make sense, and I’m not sure I could articulate exactly why, except that things tend to fall on my doorstep at the right time.”

Serendipity is an important factor in the 48-year-old Pasadena artist’s work, which encompasses painting, drawing, sculpture, sound, and film. Influenced by the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, which emphasized improvisation, wordplay, and interdisciplinary, often ephemeral modes of artmaking, Roden usually begins with a score of some sort, a system of notation that dictates the actions and decisions involved in constructing a piece. He was initially drawn to the Benjamin archives because the writer used a complex system of graphic symbols to organize his thoughts; they reminded Roden of 1960s experimental musical notation by composer Morton Feldman.

These symbols became the score for the exhibition’s centerpiece, a triptych of wall-size video projections that document Roden’s hands as he uses objects–seashells, bells, figurines, etc.–from Graham’s collection to make a range of ethereal sounds. The duration of each action corresponds to the length of one of the three movements of “4’33.” As a result, each of the three video loops is a different length, and the actions are unlikely to appear in the same combination more than once. They are, as Roden puts it, “improvising with each other consistently.”

Although he usually begins with a set of rules, Roden’s efforts quickly meander into uncharted territory. “I’m very interested, especially with sound work, to not totally guide the thing from beginning to end,” he says. His goal is to open up conversation rather than make definitive statements. As curator Howard N. Fox wrote in his essay for Roden’s 2010 retrospective at the Armory Center for the Arts, “Secreted within Roden’s imposed discipline and willing faithfulness to follow it, there is an undercurrent of non-compliance and possible anarchy.”

Roden often arrives at this radical openness through idiosyncratic acts of translation. For example, he doesn’t understand German, so what would normally be the content of Benjamin’s writings was largely inaccessible to him. Instead, he focused on Benjamin’s symbols, and the ways in which the writer crossed words out, which were actually quite varied and elaborate. Roden says it’s “the aspect of the work that’s the least significant if you’re a PhD student or writing something about Benjamin. Most of the questions I asked at the archive were questions that no one had ever asked before.” For some, this approach to such a revered figure’s work might seem disrespectful, but Roden prefers to see it as giving the subject new life. “In a way it’s esoteric nonsense,” he admits, but “it is a way of engaging with something that maybe was never intended to happen.”

Another video was inspired directly by Benjamin’s creative erasures. Rather than simply draw a line or an X through something, Benjamin often used triangles, squiggles, elaborate crosshatching or branching networks of lines. Roden cataloged these symbols, giving each of them an English-language name. A cluster of looping circles that looked like a cloud became “cloud;” a teardrop turned on its side became “fish.” In the video, we see Roden writing each of these names in pencil and then crossing it out with the corresponding symbol. It’s both a reenactment of Benjamin’s acts of self-censure and something of a reversal, in which the thing that was meant as an erasure has become the subject itself. “It’s my word and his way of erasing it,” Roden says.

Taking things out of context was also the premise behind “Everything She Left Behind That Fits In My Hand,” a series of shots of Roden’s hand, opening and closing over each of Graham’s objects that meet the titular criteria. Although the items–seashells, animal figurines, pebbles–may have once had an emotional or symbolic resonance for Graham, that meaning has now been lost. Roden describes how two of the seashells contained tiny hand written notes that someone, likely Graham, had rolled and placed inside. “Everyone has a drawer in their desk with stuff like this,” he says, “When she found them, I’m sure they were on the beach and it meant something and then over time it sat in a box and it just died.”

Benjamin also had something to say about finding new life in old things. Roden, an inveterate collector, has long supported himself buying and selling vintage furniture and books, and was influenced by Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting.” In it, he says, the writer “talks about when a collector gets something, it’s like it comes back to life. It lives again through the collector.” By re-organizing and presenting Graham’s possessions based only on their physical size, Roden makes the loss of their original meaning keenly felt at the same time that he gives them a new purpose as the subject of a work of art.

Roden’s own subjectivity and interests play a key role in all of the works in the show. (The remaining three are small, stop-motion animations inspired by a postcard he found in Benjamin’s collection.) “I don’t really care about if I can substantiate my work to other people, but I need to be able to do it for myself,” he says, “There has to be integrity in these decisions. It’s not just taking someone’s stuff and cutting it up and seeing what happens.”

On the other hand, he is quick to insist that the installation is not about him. “It’d be pretty easy to cloak the work in some sort of emotion by telling you some tragic personal history, and I don’t want to give the work weight through what I tell you about it,” he says, “I want it to have weight in terms of your experience with it. It should function without me.”

LACE associate director and curator Robert Crouch, who organized the exhibition, says that Roden’s improvisational ethos and willingness to take a risk makes his work a collaboration of sorts with the audience. He recalls one of Roden’s musical performances: “He sits down with the material and over the course of half an hour he’s going to build something and he doesn’t know necessarily what’s going to happen. When I realized that that was actually what was happening, it became less about passive listening and became about active listening.” Experiencing Roden’s work, he says, is like “watching someone walk a tightrope and you don’t know if they’re going to fall or not.”

The chance that his translations, permutations, and improvisations might result in failure is not just an ever-present possibility, but a welcome risk for Roden, who notes that he has often gotten halfway through a project before realizing it was all wrong and he had to start over. “I think failure is one of the most important things you have as a maker,” he says, “because that’s when you learn the most and you realize what you want. It’s not just about doing something bitchin’.”