when stars become words…

by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro mercosur biennial catalog , 2007

As we look back on the 20th century from the vantage point of the 21st, what unrealized desires and projects lay among the ruins of the great transformative projects of the modernist Utopia? This question lies at the heart of Steve Roden’s investigative process. Like many artists of the postmodern generation, Roden’s relationship to modernism is ambiguous, an internal battle between attraction to the early modern belief that art can make a better world and the recognition that this language became dry, codified, and academic in the vaults of art history. When the term ‘postmodern’ began to gain currency in the 1990s, it was first in terms of a recovery of kitsch, ironic quotation, and the freedom to detach signs and styles from their original meanings. Once the modern project was dead and buried and the wind left the sails of the Great Ideological Projects, the rush for appropriation was on, a form of souvenir hunting in which a Lenin badge and old Coca Cola bottle both stood for a past in which the terms of battle were reassuringly clear, in which you knew who your friends and enemies were.

Roden’s work implicitly asks the question of what else can we do with our lingering nostalgia for Modernity? What can we do with that residual fondness for the structures and monuments of our recent past? Is it possible now to use this nostalgia to revisit some of that history in a warmer, friendlier way? Can we bring notions of experimentation and failure back into a historical style that now looks inevitable and absolute?

Many of Roden’s works use sounds as a primary element. In an interview, Roden described his concept of ‘active listening’, a form of higher awareness of the sounds that surround us: “unlike the object qualities of a painting or sculpture, sounds activates the space it inhabits. Sound draws attention to the space and the environment it exists in; and tends to create a kind of intimacy with space (for it shares its presence with the space of a space) […] It can encourage the listener/viewer to engage with the space differently than if no sound were present.” Roden’s work differs from the many sound installations on the contemporary art scene in his equal concern for the physical structure and the sound composition. Rather than creating a neutral space in which to create an ‘ideal’ aural situation, he creates physical structures that are explicitly linked to the sound composition inside. In doing so, he is picking up on one of the central ideas of modernism: the equivalence between the arts, or synesthesia. Since the late 19th century, artists, musicians and philosophers have searched for the connection between different artistic languages. The idea that there is a unified field in which all of the arts could come together and share an ideal

language is part and parcel of the modern desire to find the essence of artistic experience above and beyond the limitations of each specific artistic form. Where Roden’s project is fundamentally different is in the understanding that this search is not deductive, rational, and scientific, but rather messy, romantic, and experimental.

Roden’s process involves searching for the gaps between one system of knowledge and the other, and charging these gaps with intuition and exploration. Where the modernist project searched for direct and rational equivalence between form, color, sound, etc, Roden freely explores fields as diverse as astronomy, geology, or linguistics, wandering through them with the innocence and fascination of an amateur. This non-technocratic approach to information allows him to find unlikely connections. In the new work for the Mercosur Biennial, he started with a British diagram of astronomical constellations and a list of the phonetic pronunciation of the names of these constellations. The combination of these elements led to the design of the listening modules and the structure from which the sound compositions are generated through a series of rigid rules that then generate a more intuitive journey through the work. Nothing in this process is strictly logical, but neither is it entirely freeform. Instead we have a system that connects diverse facts and events, but does so without an overriding program. When Roden arrives at a particular set of data, he works on translating them into another language (constellations into sounds, for example), and then combining this result with yet another source until he finds his way to a formal presentation as a sound sculpture or listening room. His new work for the Mercosur Biennial is an adaptation and development of an earlier work, Ear(th), presented at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, in 2004. In Ear(th), scientific data from earthquakes was translated into patterns and forms that generated a wooden structure on which small robots were placed to play a composition generated by this same data.

The resulting works are often somewhat idiosyncratic or quirky; the materials left exposed with a certain handmade quality. Likewise, his paintings and drawings often have a similarly exploratory and rough finish. It could be argues that this clumsiness or sense of bordering failure us where Roden is able to recover the ideals of Modernism in spite of modernity. In other words, by bringing a sense of discovery and exploration back into the project to create ideal forms and a fusion of the arts, he avoids a reading of modernism as no more than another historical style, and instead brings experimentation and wonder back into the core of the project. In Roden’s world, modernism is no longer equivalent to hygiene and absolutism, but rather becomes a search for meaning and connection, a search that is necessarily personal, relative, and tentative.