strange attractor, exhibition catalog, 2011

(originally printed in strange attractor, crawford gallery, cork, ireland, for the exhibition, strange attractor – note: section three was accidentally deleted from the publication, here is the entire original text as intended.)

my first impressions, produced by first entering this strange house with strange inmates in a strange land (page 9), included several small landscapes, and an empty space for my own. as i surveyed the existing arrangements on tables and the floor. it was a series of small fields of instruments, electronics, gongs, hand-made and found objects, sound making toys, etc; while in the center stood a permutable sculpture – of light, wood, paper and marks. everything lay in a kind of stasis, as if at any minute things might be re-arranged.

after organizing my own landscape of objects, danny kindly asked me – the stranger – to begin. i stared at the contents of my table wondering which voice to activate first: a record player, lap-steel guitar, whistles, harmonicas, bells, stones, pine cones, finger cymbals, micro-cassette players, effects pedals and field recordings i had made that morning. i sat in my chair for a few moments, in silence, and then, obscurely as one in a dream (page 19), i shut my eyes and moved my hands…

after 10 minutes or so of my sounding alone we began to sound together, conversing in various voices like so many organ-grinders, still stupidly intent on their work, unmindful of everything else (page 25), coaxing a series of sonic eruptions out of the pauses and silence. we were all working together – each of us tending our own area of the cloud of sound – building, thinking, hearing, tinkering, reflecting – intently immersed as if this room was a world, and these sounds the only inhabitants. in the loudest moments, we all spoke at the same time, while in the quietest, nearly all of us went silent. throughout the afternoon we wove a delicate membrane of sound, shapeless like a fallen net, yet binding us together.

although we spent the bulk of our time generating sound and re-arranging objects, we also stepped away from sound making, at various times, to simply listen. there were moments when one of us also traversed the space silently, or walked while making sound with portable objects. each of the performers became a shaman attempting to activate the sprit of the space, and in such moments of reverential listening,  we stood in silence, surveying the knot… for intricacy as such a knot had never been seen (page 54), or heard.

as we passed the two hour mark, endurance became less of an issue while we embraced the current’s increase; silently sweeping us further and further towards the tranced waters beyond (page 57). and as we moved towards the third hour, the waters we had been drifting upon had finally gifted us such a trance. from then on we were simply adrift in a path of la monte young’s making, for we had been drawing a line for a few hours and now we were following it.

eventually, the long continuance of the calm had now affected the atmosphere (page 79), and we were immersed in drone, while the soundscape’s fragile body necessitated a renewal of focus. as we embraced the current, we worked delicately and sensitively so as not to destroy what had been so effortful and slowly built. at this point, each of us began to succumb to different levels of exhaustion, poking at the delicate membrane with tired ears and anxious hands. so we paused an instant… to recover from our eagerness (page 82), truly settling in, communicating with each other with refreshed ears… for us, there were no mouths, no noses, no fingers, no eyes… just ears.

by-and-by, the wind having steadily risen, and still blowing right into the harbor, bore [us] swiftly on… the sealer at a distance came into open view (page 84), and as we swayed with the current, and we could see for the first time in the distance… land.

as we moved towards the end of our journey, we began to reflect upon a return to the land from whence we departed, and life seemed wholly transformed. surely the silence we will encounter at the end of the sounding will be different the one we heard before. as we continued to inhabit our hand-built sea of sound, we were carried forward; still improvising,  still responding not only to each other, but in sympathy with the space itself, with each of us regulating our … actions according to … circumstances (page 86) – and in this case the architecture and its reflection of sound and light was the circumstance… a circumstance we attempted to work in accord with.

as we entered the harbor, the journey began its slow fade. we had traveled far, we were exhausted, and yet it seemed as if we could’ve gone on forever. as we anchored our ship in the port, all sounds began their final fadings, and  for a few breaths’ space there was a vague, muffled, inner sound as of a submerged sword-fish rushing hither and thither through the shoals of black-fish (page 97).amidst such whispers, we lifted our heads from our tables and tools, and while the air still smelled of salt and drift, the hither and thither our journey came to an abrupt end… silence.

the italicized texts and their corresponding page numbers above, were taken from herman melville’s benito cereno. each text fragment chosen by randomly opening the book and reading down from the top of the page until i discovered something that felt relevant to my strange attractor experience. after gathering the phrases, i put them in chronological order in relation to melville’s text, and they became a skeleton to place my own words upon.

at a loss of how to write a text about my experience, i simply picked up the book in the hope that it would offer me some unexpected fuel. since i had not yet read the book, i had no idea what to expect. perhaps for that moment i was dreamer, hoping that some kind of alchemy might occur that would allow a story written in 1855 to help me articulate something in 2011. of course it was never melville’s intention to collaborate with me; nonetheless, i couldn’t have written this text without him.

in truth, i only chose melville’s book because it was the closest at hand and my decision to use it above all other books was simply an act of happenstance. but melville’s words, once captured and re-articulated, became my oracle – stubbornly challenging me to find enough resonance in his narrative fragments to allow me to find my own. like any improvisation that involves a group of strangers, things tend to fall together naturally when everyone has a voice and everyone is truly listening to each other. it is my hope that through chance, my collaboration with melville was, indeed, also democratic.

on many levels, my collaboration with melville was no different than my experience with danny, mick, anthony, irene, david, and the space of the crawford gallery – for we also managed to find ways to integrate our disparate parts into a greater whole through improvisational looking and listening.

whenever i try to express my own thoughts regarding improvisation, i return to the early american painter albert pinkham ryder. ryder’s work is elegiac, homespun, romantic, seemingly naive (although not truly at all), human scaled, mystical, and one of the clearest descendents of the visual poetry of blake and turner. i don’t believe that ryder was notorious for being an improvisor, and i’m pretty sure he never improvised music with a group of strangers, but he speaks of his painting practice in terms that should resonate deeply with anyone who has been in a collaborative improvisational situation:

have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or a twig, and there clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach for something? that is like me. i am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which i have a footing”.

i believe that finding this place “beyond the place on which i have a footing” is about being in the moment of something – be it a painting or a performance. and i believe that one of the easiest ways to lose one’s footing is to collaborate with others via improvisation. and certainly, on that day in the crawford gallery, we managed to bring forth something that reeked of ryder’s reaching beyond.

for years i have used chance operation and found information (from books, musical notation, maps, lists, etc.) to generate scores. sometimes, like my collaboration with melville, i simply cut something away from its source with the hope it might speak differently,  potentially offering me to me some un-thought-of moves. other times, a source might be broken down into pieces that would then be reconstructed into a new word or form. once a thing is changed in such a way, it can be read incorrectly, enabling it to speak towards thing it never intended.

last year, while i was an artist in residence at the chinati foundation, i wanted to use a small battery powered synthesizer in one of the large former military barracks not only because it held 50 pieces of sculpture by donald judd, but because it was also incredibly resonant. i woke up one morning before sunrise, crept quietly into the building, and sat on the concrete floor with my synthesizer. as i was about to begin to perform for the room of sculpture, i realized i had no idea what to play. improvising alone in a purely intuitive manner has always been difficult for me, and i generally need to find something to bounce off of, to create some kind of tension or discomfort. like cage’s use of chance, i am interested in how certain confrontations can open doors to previously unknown places… places that i have never been able to reach through intuition alone.

in this case, i had been given a text by judd upon my arrival, and thus while i was sitting on the floor, i read through the text, extracting all of the letters a – g. i then followed the letter sequence on the keyboard of my little synth. like melville above, judd was suddenly making suggestions. because this was not a one way conversation, judd and i eventually split the duties – he determined the notes to be played, and i determined what to do with them (how long they last, if they overlap, could they be played together, the pauses between them, etc.) and so, like melville’s book, judd’s text also became a kind of oracle – offering me information and provoking me to find my own way of reading and using it. i believe there is a huge difference between the questions “what does it say?” and “what can it say?”

in my painting practice, scores are most often used to determine actions. often, information is reduced to a series of numbers related to the alphabet – such as a = 1, b=2, c=3 and so on. these numbers mostly determine formal decisions such as color choices, lengths of lines, number of elements and also an amount of time to be spent on an area.  i’ve been working with letter/number scores in this way for awhile; and as with the difference between performing solo or improvising with folks you’ve never worked with, my interest in creating things in any form is still rooted in the idea that something new can always be learned during the process of making if one can manage to continually shift or renew it. for me, it comes from a constant attempt to re-interpreting what something might be telling me. in such cases one must continually ask “what can it say?” so that the information can continue to unfold and reveal.

a few years ago, i began corresponding with belgian choreographer sandra vincent. our initial conversations had nothing to do with improvisation or scores, but tended towards more ephemeral things, such as sound and movement, essences and intuition. at one point sandra sent me a note describing my soundwork with two words: infinite intimate; and it set me thinking. a score had always been something that could be broken up into a series of rules, constraints or parameters, and usually existed as a substantial list of things (a kind of “to do” list of actions), and so i started to wonder about a score that was simply two 8 letter words.

a month or so after i received sandra’s note, i was invited to perform without the use of electronics. this was something i had been thinking about for several years but i had always felt too uncomfortable to attempt it in front of an audience. thus, i had to find a something – an action, an object – that would distract me from a feeling of nakedness… and so, in the midst of gathering a boxful of small acoustic objects, i also grabbed a small piece of thick paper about the size of a postcard, and wrote “intimate” on one side and “infinite” on the other.

during the performance, i looked down at my table of things numerous times to decide what small object to activate – and each time i was confronted with whichever of these two words was face up. when i started to feel too comfortable with the word, or felt i was falling into familiar territory, i flipped the card over in an attempt to disrupt my focus. in the end, it became an exploration of the various ways i could apply these words not only to actions, but to states of listening, focus, etc.

ever since that initial performance, the card has become an important tool, and so i brought the “infinite intimate” card to cork and i used it throughout our strange attractor performance. during the hours we improvised together, i must have flipped the card 30 or 40 times, attempting to allow each visible word to influence what i was doing – sometimes it necessitated walking around with a small bell, at others simply sitting and listening. of course, no one else in the room was knowingly working with these two words; but because the words influenced my own sonic choices, i can’t help but think that my responses to these words were transferred to everyone else – for improvising together is a continual sharing of inputs and outputs.

in the end, i see this as a kind of alchemy, where two words are transformed via readings, responses and soundings into a kind of audio firmament, hovering over us like shadows, and resonating within us like beams of light.