shells, bells, steps and silences

3 channel video
3 channel audio
3 audio speakers

this is a casual document of my recent installation at los angeles contemporary exhibitions – LACE – a three channel sound and video installation, bringing together walter benjamin, martha graham and john cage…

here are some notes:

in october of 2011, i was invited by the DAAD to spend a month researching walter benjamin’s archives at the akademie der kunste. i had seen some of benjamin’s notebooks previously in an exhibition in berlin in 2006; and started to think about how i might be able to spend more time with them.

because i am unable to speak or read german, my responses to benjamin’s notebooks were mainly towards visual aspects of his writing, including various systems, organizational decisions, as well as more idiosyncratic presences. while i am, of course, deeply interested in many of benjamin’s writings, i felt that approaching some of these less studied aspects of his writing (through his visual process of making words visible) was consistent with some of his quotes regarding proust and the idea of the ragpicker – someone who builds something significant from supposedly tossed off or insignificant parts.

in this way, i was able to approach benjamin’s graphic and color-coded “theme symbols” as a kind of precursor to the graphic notation and visual systems explored by many avant garde composers of the 1960’s, such as morton feldman, cornelius cardew and, of course, john cage.

benjamin used a variety of visual systems to organize his notebooks and texts through both color sequences and the use of graphic symbols. i spent much of my research cataloging a variety of benjamin’s graphic decisions towards the making of my own scores. as with most of my work with translation, the idea was not only to notate benjamin’s lexicon of shapes and colors, but to explore these findings with an approach of “what can these things offer me in terms of suggested actions or decisions”. my research was not so much a seeking, as a process of discovery, archive, reading, interpreting, and re-reading…

when i arrived in berlin, i was already ten months into a year long project of performing john cage’s 4’33” every day for the year. thus, visited the benjamin archives every day, was accompanied by a performance of 4’33” everyday… and so, cage and benjamin became connected through my daily practice and my work. i performed 4’33” in many different parts of berlin, but there were several times that i performed 4’33” specifically in the benjamin archives.

when i returned from berlin, i received two large boxes of seashells and small objects that belonged to the dancer martha graham. while i had planned upon their arrival, my idea was to set those boxes aside so that they would generate a new body of work “somewhere down the road”. but as i began to work with the benjamin research towards a score that became more and more complex, i realized that the graham objects would be the perfect “orchestra” for its realization, and slowly i moved towards a kind of a “mash-up”, with benjamin, cage and graham entwined.

while i have been making films for over 20 years, i approached this body of work with video. it seemed to relate to the fact that everything i was working with was immediate, intimate and kind of happenstance – approaching something more as a daily activity than a studio practice. everything on the surface of what i was looking at felt “unremarkable” and quiet – graham’s seashells, her travel souvenirs from asia, benjamin’s postcards from a trip to sienna… it all seemed to want to wear regular clothes, rather than a tuxedo and a ball gown… and most importantly, the medium not only fit the message, but it offered a very different kind of performative process; one that was less measured and less rigid than using 16mm film. in essence, i knew that video would allow me to experiment much more in the moment, than film. since i would be performing a score, the score had to have the potential to evolve during the making of the piece, so that the process would allow me to make mistakes.

as an artist who works in multiple mediums, it is always exciting to build an entire body of work in a medium that is less familiar, offering an aesthetic that contradicts the veneer of my work, yet knowing that certain aspects will remain, but will be present in a language less used in my work.

of course, everything in an artist’s work is bound to the idea and process of evolution. these pieces most certainly did not come out of nowhere, but are an aggregation of bits and pieces of earlier works – and clearly, these new works are all very much related to the film i made in 2011 called “striations”, as well as my sound performance practice – which nearly two years ago began to incorporate video as another improvisational element.

shells, bells, steps and silences documents 40 short performance events that collide via chance operation. each of the 40 actions follow one of benjamin’s theme symbols as a score. at its simplest, each of the colored symbols determine a corresponding object, an amount of time, a number of actions, and other performance sound action parameters. for example, each symbol is analyzed towards the number of actions it takes to draw a symbol – so that with an X, the symbol is made up of two actions, while a triangle takes three. thus, the X determines a sound making of two actions, and a triangle, a sound making of three actions. each symbol also has a corresponding color (or pair of colors as some of the symbols are red and black, or brown and black, etc.). and these, determined the colored felt in each shot.

after filming my hands performing many of the sound actions, the piece felt too busy, too active, and too familiar – and the resulting footage simply did not work. after trashing several months of tests and ideas i began again, thinking, that, because i was following a score, i should offer something closer to my performance work – which has rarely participated in my films or my recordings. i ended up creating recordings in real time with a delay pedal, a battery powered speaker and a contact mic (as well as many of graham’s things, a record player, cassette player, battery powered synth, my voice, field recordings and a piano). the idea of all of the battery powered gear was a way to bring the objects and the “studio” to several different locations, so that everything could not be entirely controlled.

in my sound works, i tend to gravitate towards loops, particularly when there are situations where various moments are allowed to come together in multiple ways (chance operation in action). along with a contact mi, my looping pedal has been a constant over 25 years of performance… and so it seemed the perfect sound carrier for this work. this pedal is not only my “axe”, but a huge aspect of my “voice”.

for ‘shells, bells, steps and silences’, sound was generated, sucked into a contact microphone, sucked into a delay pedal, spit out of a small speaker and recorded with a microphone into a digital recorder – allowing that the location to also be present in the resulting recording. these recordings are not just about capturing a moment, or the residue of a short performance, but attempt to allow the past to speak in the present, as if an echo has been been trapped in a bottle.

the resulting work offers 40 actions occurring over three projections, each of different lengths, so that the actions are constantly improvising with each other in different arrangements (as sequence 1 is 15 minutes, sequence 2 is 21 minutes and sequence 3 is 17 minutes in length). i decided to place the audio speakers within the projection area, so that the actual sound carriers would be visibly “entwined” with the images of sound carriers.  each of the 40 sequences have one of six predetermined lengths, based on the three movements of two different versions of cage’s 4’33”, allowing chance operation to participate in the flow of the overall composition.