Interview with John Sanborn: July 15th, 2021.
John Sanborn: I’m much more accepting and much more attached to how the past and the present are connected. So, its always a good time. I have a big show in ZKM next year that Peter Weibel and Philip Ziegler were very insistent that we do before Peter retires. I’m very excited about that- its going to be quite the show! They had an interesting take on the music and video work from the 80’s. We are going to present those in a kind of installation format with motion sensors that will trigger sound as people approach the monitors.
Chris Meigh-Andrews: Yes, that a really good idea. You’ll be able to avoid the sound bleed problem that is such an issue in video exhibitions.
JS: Yes, sound bleed and also I feel that single channel works should be seen in single channel environments and not necessarily in an installation show. Most of the works are installations, but they wanted to do something that had an anchor of the visual style that I developed in the 1970’s and 80’s, which continued into the 90’s. And they drew some plans and I saw them and thought that it would be pretty cool to montage six channels so that it would be possible to see an evolution of the editing and visual style the content of the pieces. For me, doing a commercial video is the same- I know the difference, but I don’t feel the difference. To me they are both works…So I mocked something up for them and they went crazy. I told them that I thought it was a lot of fun.
CM-A: What you’re talking about is very relevant to what I’m interested to know and understand about your approach to your practice. As you know the focus of this particular chapter I’m currently writing is about the relationship between video art and music. When I looked at the interview you did with Zoe Fisher what comes across very clearly is the way in which the relationship between music and image- the influence of musical structures and forms, as well as the collaborative aspect of working with musicians made it seem like the perfect theme. When we are talking about music and video it is nearly always going to be the product of a collaboration. There are very few video artists that I’m aware of who are also composers or even musicians.
JS: Quite often people send me works and ask for my opinion. What I notice is that most often people have made the soundtrack afterwards and tried to get the music to match the tone and texture of the images, but the work basically fell into one or other of a series of tropes. For example, begin very slowly and gently and build from there. Whereas if one is really thinking about the relationship between pictures and music there can be a much greater conversation- a much stronger dynamic between what’s happening on the screen and how the music either reinforces it or takes it to a different place or makes you see or feel it differently.
CM-A: Did you start out with that understanding of the potential relationships between image and music or is it something that evolved over many years of working with video and music?
JS: In this world I had two very strong influences in different stages of my life. The first was of course Nam June Paik. I met him as a teenager in Paris and then when I moved back to New York he told me to call him. (I still remember his phone number!) “Global Grove” and a number of his other early significant works gave me permission to do a number of things. One of them was the question of what happens when you montage. In film montage is related to the work of Eisenstein- the Odessa Steps, the idea of juxtaposition creating different moods based on what comes first and what follows it. But what Paik did was to slam soundtracks together. He picked things that were deliberately tied to their sound tracks- he smashed them together. Many of the early works such as “Global Groove” were mixed live- they weren’t actually edited. I know this because John Godfrey, who was the editor for a lot of those early works, who as also my editor when I was at the TV lab- he also worked with Bill Viola, Ed Emshwiller. So John told me the stories about how he would create these “ABCD” rolls and the switch between them. Helical scan quad video recorders were actually very difficult to edit with accuracy. so to edit you would have to physically cut the 2 inch video tape. So Paik’s technique of going from say, a Tcho drummer to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels to a Japanese Coca-Cola commercial to John Cage was transporting context, not just image and sound. so when you do it as Paik did it, what you are doing is you are taking one statement, flipping it around in a fraction of a second by follow it with another statement and another and so on. It was a great influence because it could go on forever. It parallels where we are now with tens of thousands of channels for material. I’m sure you’ve done it. You go onto youtube looking for something and then its three hours later and you’ve watched 65 irrelevant things, but somehow they all make sense because you’ve inhaled it- taken it through your filtering system. So in the early years when I was working very directly with musicians (I started up a video and music label, although we only put out one release, but it was an LP and a VHS tape called “Antarctica”- “Ear to the Ground” (1982) was one of the pieces in the first collection. It was a series of works. All of the pieces in that collection were developed with the music and the images being projected in vision together. And then, step by step, back and forth, we completed the works. With “Ear to the Ground” it was “Hey Dave, what would it be like if you played New York City?”.
CM-A: So that was an idea that you suggested to him? (David van Teighem).
JS: We were actually talking about a number of ideas. At that time his performance art works involved dance and playing with found objects. I live down past the World Trade Centre at the time, and it was always noisy. The sound of the city- the construction and the traffic- the thrum of the city was always there. It started as a kind of a joke. “What would happen if you played the telephone booth?” “What happens if you played the dumpster?” We mapped out a route- we shot it pretty much in “real time”. I edited it so that it had a form, it only took a couple of days. It’s obviously about a musician, this character on a journey, the city sort of sucks him in. But by the very end he’s kind of mastered the city.
CM-A: So it does have s kind of narrative. But can we finish off that thread about influences. You spoke about Paik, but you also mentioned that there was another important influence on the way you work with music.
JS. The other influence was Bob Ashley- Robert Ashley (1930-2014). He kind of snuck up on me. I was doing work with The Kitchen and I was doing installations and doing screenings and things. The Kitchen on Brewer St was just a lovely, unpretentious place. You would have Robert Fripp playing one weekend, Rhys Chathem playing another weekend, Phillip Glass coming in. I had heard that Bob was writing these operas for television. The first one that he put out was called “Music with Rooms in the Aether”, which is a series of portraits of composers. They were very popular because he showcased a moment in New Music in New York, (actually it went as far as California). They were good pieces, but they weren’t what I would have called an opera for television. Then I heard through Carlotta Schoolman, the video director at the Kitchen, who was starting to produce works, that Bob had written another opera for television called “Perfect Lives- Private Parts” and that Bob would love to meet me. Bob and “Blue” Gene Tyranny (Robert Nathan Sheff, 1945–2020) planned to do a series of piano and voice presentations of two of the episodes. They were written to be timed-out with commercials for television. The idea was written for television. I visited Bob in his loft and Blue and Bob played me “the Park”, which is the first episode. Bob had this amazing organ in his loft, which had a percussion system as well as lots of other sonic elements. So Blue was playing piano, the organ was playing and Bob was talking and my mind just exploded. I knew what it was about, and by the time that they got to the second episode “The Backyard”, I had a complete visual image of what this thing should look like. I knew what Bob should look like, I knew how we would treat the piano, I knew what we would be doing shooting on location in Galesberg Illinois, I knew what video effects I wanted to create. I knew that we were going to create a structure for this work that would be a unique signifier. So that way that traditional operas and musicals work is that there is a very strong structure and one has an expectation about how that structure works dramatically and musically. “Perfect Lives” had a very different structure from a musical standpoint. There was no notation; there were key signature, there were timings, there was a beat and a cadence. There was also” Bob’s interpretation of how to lay the words on top of the music. It’s not singing- you’ve seen Perfect Lives”. When it all came together I thought “OK here’s a chance to go in an structure the visuals in such a way that the partitions that he’s created episode by episode and within each episode, wouldn’t be necessarily visually aware to people, but they would understand as the work progressed (and this was about three and a half hours of opera). They would feel how the visual story telling would actually enhance how they attached themselves to the music. Additionally we put text on the screen- perhaps one of the first times that it had been used artistically – not as annotation or commentary, but actually really integrated into the story. The style of the text, Bob’s writing, all that was all planned out. (I can send you scans of my notebooks and various things that we used to create the score.)
CM-A: That would be really wonderful. I think “Perfect Lives” is a key piece- not only in terms of your own work but also in terms of the relationship between video art, television and the development of some kind contemporary form of opera. I don’t think that here are that many that are substantial.
JS. Well there certainly weren’t at the beginning of the 1980’s. There are probably a lot more now. I was reading in the NY Times this morning about Ryūichi Sakamoto who has written a music theatre work premiering in Tokyo. Sakaomoto, who I know pretty well, is interesting because he is drawing on a lot of Japanese theatrical traditions, plus his own academy-award winning minimalism.
But in 1980-81 when Bob started playing this and we took it on tour- the house would be full, we’d play for three and a half hours and there would be ten people left!
I used to say, that it was a comic opera about reincarnation. It’s two artists in the mid-west who decide to create an artwork by committing the perfect crime- taking all the money out of the bank one day and then putting it all back the next. But it is also about being an alien, its about differences of culture, about men and women- a lot of dualities. It’s quite the piece!
CM-A: So the experience of working with Bob making this work forged a new sense of what might be done with the relationship between video- images on a television screen and music. As well as considering the connections between musical structures and narrative, you spoke of the “way that images can comment on themselves without having to stop the flow of entertainment or amusement. Over time those elements can create character and story.” It struck me as being a key idea in terms of understanding the kind of video music work that you have made.
JS. My friend Dara Birnbaum and I have a key difference that keeps us friends. She was reacting to television and I wanted to make television. I didn’t see the difference between what I was doing and what everyone else was doing, except for the layers of commerce. I was never afraid or disdainful of commerce because I thought I could get it to work for me!
When we got the commission from Channel Four, we had been trying to sell “Perfect Lives” to PBS and German TV, they looked at us like we were talking crazy. The TV Lab in New York gave us a very small amount of money to do a pilot, which was called “The Lessons”. You may not have seen that- it wasn’t seen very much. I will send you a link to it. In the episode call “The Bar”, the character of Buddy has sold boogie-woogie lessons on videotape to the wife of the bartender- Raoul, or R. I decided that we were going to make the boogie-woogie lessons, which were called “Music on fire and I would do it again, Cuckoo” (?) Peter Gordon said …How are you going to deal with this? I said I’m going to do the 23 minutes in bunches of sevens. I’m going to take the structure of the opera and smash it down and we are going to abstract, based on this one element we going to create a kind fractal pilot- play it in museums, show it on television- all the things that were great in the 1980’s. We then had a chance to do a pilot for Belgian television- RTVF. We recorded shows that we did in Washington DC and we were going to do a pilot for “the Bar. The technology at RTVF was ancient and we could never reach consensus on a contract- they wanted to own it. So in the middle of the night Peter Gordon and I stole all the tapes and flew out of the country. He flew out of Amsterdam and I drove to Paris. I do’t know where those two inch tapes are anymore. But then we got the commission from Channel Four and John Wyver was one of the commissioning agents. they gave us a chunk of money and everybody got paid and we made an opera for television- and it went on television! And then everybody wanted to put it on television…
CM-A: So C4 was quite brave at one level, but then it just opened the territory up.
JS: What I found amusing was that rather than a modern version of “Swan Lake”, they decided to go about as far out as you could possibly go. I think they had faith in us collectively.
Bob’s influence was not only this idea of how to put meaning and structure together from a visual standpoint but also how to imbue all the elements of a production with significance. OK, maybe no one else in the world cares for it, but its there. His attitude towards the rest of the world was that “you can go F… yourselves!” In fact, if there was a full house and the beginning of “Perfect Lives” and full house at the end, he would have considered that a disaster. He wanted to clear the hall. He wanted to make work that was like barometric pressure- just right in your face.
I’m a child of television, and my great early masters were Bugs Bunny and Wile E Coyote. So I use the word entertainment and people just hate that. But when you are communicating something, there is an aspect of entertainment. You must catch and release your audience if you want them to walk away thinking about things that you want them to think about. You’ve got to find the right ways to inject into your communication the elements that they will take to heart. That can be Bill T Jones dancing, that can be the animations of Act 3 or that can be Bob Ashley looking like Doris Day.
CM-A: This is interesting because you have these different levels of collage happening. Firstly there is a visual college of the kind we’ve been able to identify- but there’s another kind of collage happening, which is a collage of ideas that are running together and crossing over with each other.
JS: And you don’t have to state the ideas. I’m not a big fan of many artists who have to create prose. So if a work is about “colonialism” then we have to be confronted with aspects and detritus of colonialism. But that’s not the case. Poetry does a tremendous amount and music is poetry. Musical structures are ways to convey meaning without it having to be in black and white text on the screen. As Laurie Anderson said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
CM-A: That’s great! I’ve not heard that before. Can I ask you to talk a little about the differences and similarities between video and music. They both involve working in time and so that would perhaps imply that you can draw on the experience of working with one to help to express ideas and possibilities which can apply to the other.
JS: The two significant time-based challenges are single channel; beginning, middle and end, and there’s a frame in which that beginning, middle and end are placed. And then there’s installed works where you cannot choose when someone starts the experience, how long they stand there, or walk around, or whatever and when they leave. So I see the traditional time-based work as something that music supports, but I can also interact with.
I wrote an opera a few years ago (2016) with a composer named Dorian Wallace called the “Temptation of St Anthony”. We took the story and instead of St Anthony being a business man who is giving up his worldly goods for God, he is an artist. His faith is in himself and the test of his faith by the devil is to disbelieve in his own abilities. (Which I think we can all relate to!) We created a fairly straightforward musical structure- I wrote the libretto and Dorian wrote the music- but the way it is presented is as an installed work. So each act is basically taking the same, not material but leaning into the same theme, but its doing it in different ways. As each act progresses you can walk in listen to ten minutes and walk out. Or you could walk in, listen to a longer chunk of time or you could do what many people do, which is to stand there and watch it from beginning to end and when it starts to loop, you can leave. The idea of doing it as an installed work was to say that I want you to enter the experience and then leave it whenever you want, but there’s a traditional musical structure. I just put up a piece in Clermont-Ferrand, at Festival Videoformes called “The Friend” which isn’t an overtly musical work, but the time-base there is that tis a continuous loop. There are seven sermons by an American Messiah who calls himself the friend and in between each of those there is a short revelation from one of eight different saints or acolytes who are following this guy who has created his own religion. The sound environment was done by a composer named Danny Clay and it runs independently of the words. It’s an hour long, and the work is spread out, so you need to walk from place to place to interact with it. The sound, which is a much longer piece, just lays on top of it, and creates this sort of dome- this atmosphere that has high and low pressures. We did a lot of experimentation on how it would work in the space. I’m pleased with that because each of the seven sermons is four of five minutes and each of the in between things by the saints is about two minutes. So you could walk in, watch ten minutes, understand what’s going on, or you can stand there for however long you want.
CM-A: Or they keep coming back every so often and experience different bits. I guess the classic example of that might be Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” where you can come in and go out again, or perhaps “24 Hour Psycho”. (Douglas Gordon.) You get something different each time you come in, but the whole thing is still part of a piece.
JS: Its also like painting.
CM-A: Yes- an object which is always there- and always there for you to look at a different passage, or approach in a different way.
JS: So you use a certain amount of pressure to indent the message. And then that indentation kind of relaxes, and then you do it again and do it again. if I know that the Rauchenberg with the tyre and the goat is on the third floor of the museum- its one of my favourite works- I go and see the tyre and the goat piece. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, but every time I see it, you are opening that mystery box that it initially triggered and you are going through all of those feelings and emotions again and you are also feeling them from where you are now.
CM-A: Yes, you are bringing something new to your understanding or perception of the work. This is also of course partly about the influence or impact of the work from the previous time you saw it too.
In all of the things you’ve been saying there is a very important aspect of collaboration that is of course at the core of what I want to talk to you about. You are clearly a master collaborator; there are all kinds of different levels of collaboration in every piece. Even just in the works you’ve mentioned. First of all there is the collaboration with the composer or musician, but there are other creative people involved too- editors, lighting and camera people and numerous others, all of that needs to be co-ordinated in some way. You mentioned the concept of “friction” in relation to collaboration and I thought that idea was intriguing because most people would define collaboration as a kind if coming together, but you are pointing out the value of “friction” or perhaps resistance in a collaborative partnership. I felt it was an example of someone who understands the nature of collaboration a quite profound way.
JS: Typically, for almost every work nowadays, because there’s a lot of moving parts and I don’t have an assistant right now- it’s just me. To be able to do this affordably and sustainably I write briefs. Part of that process is that I get an idea and i need to visualise it, I need to feel it. I use words to talk about what I want to say and why i want to say it. ZKM is commissioning a new work from me, and I don’t know what I want to do. Its not until July 2022, but i have all these other things in motion and play. So I have four ideas right now that I’m manipulating. Each one of them has a brief and each one has mock ups of a certain number of screens, how they are oriented, how I think that that orientation is going to contribute to the story telling, how a call and response in one piece would work, how a stack of monitors in another piece would work- the different dynamics of the practicalities of video/sound. I haven’t even thought about music! If I get to a point in the brief when I’m not sure it’s interesting any more, it goes off to the side. When i get to the point where I think it will work, and I want to put the time and effort into doing it, I send the brief out to everyone who I want to work with. Director of photography, assistant editors, choreographers, composers, costume designer, etc. Then they inhale the brief. Often what I want is to inspire them. if I send them images or sketch something, i don’t want them to make exactly what I have visualised. I want them to go: “Oh that’s interesting, I think we could do this and this and this…” You have to be open enough to receive that, but also if something is transgressive, you have to be able to say so. That’s a cheap shot, or that’s too on the nose, too obscure. You have to be able to negotiate that. For example with The Residents, who I’ve worked with for many years. We did a big project towards the end of 2019 that premiered in 2020 in MOMA in New York, called “God in Three Persons”. it was derived from a 1988 LP that they had made that they wanted to turn into a theatre work. i looked at a staging of it and thought it wasn’t very interesting. I said to them that if we used video and they thought it was an interesting idea. So I wrote a script and I basically transferred it from a record to the stage. It wasn’t exactly what they had in mind but it was really good, so in there the key element is trust. Its been a long time since I fired anybody- or that I’ve gotten fired!
CM-A: Or perhaps you fire yourself!
JS: That happens more often than you could possibly imagine!
But that trust means that you can survive the friction. When I was shooting ”The Friend”, with John Cameron Mitchell- he’s a movie star, he’s won Toy awards, he’s on Netflix, he’s a brand name performer. But I had pitched the idea to him, and he said: “I love this- let’s do it!” So in the middle of the pandemic he came to my studio for a week. I had written the script, he had punched it up and between sections of the script we sat right here and we did what you do in a writer’s room- you’re saying: “that’s funny, but this could be funnier”. You have to do that- you have to have the trust to provide the safety net. Because you are going to go on the high wire and you are going to expose yourself, and there’s the fear of falling which could stop you from doing anything. The safety net is the trust that you have that someone’s got your back. When I was working with Christian Squires for the costumes for that work, i had to pull stuff off the internet, and he came back to me with these really imaginative sketches that just took what I had in mind and really blew it out. So the work ends up being greater than you, which is the whole point.
Nobody wants to hear my story- people want to hear stories that relate to them.
CM-A: I get that. In an on line interview I saw, you said something about wanting to get away from “me”. I thought that was so refreshing, because often one hears the exact reverse from just about anyone who like to think of themselves as an artist- they have an idea that whatever they are interested in should be fascinating to everyone else.
JS: It starts with me, but it doesn’t end there. The great music pieces that we can think about can be traced back to the composers, whether its Nile Rogers or Beethoven, but the extension from “me” to “not me”- from me to you is what makes the work embraceable, important. There are many, many artworks that I never want to see again. I’ve seen them once, and “thank you so much, it’s very nice”. But then there’s lots of work that I can watch over and over. I know that not the greatest way to determine if something is important or not, but for me, that repeat value. I used to have this term, “visual humming”. When you liked a piece of music you would internalise it. My challenge is to find the visual equivalent. Looking for markers that people would internalise and go “that’s a John Sanborn work but its different from this and it relates to that. Its taken forty years, but I’m getting closer and closer as time goes on.
CM-A: I think that’s almost a core idea there, because there is a beautiful relationship between an experience of music and an experience of the visual. Being able to make something or draw something from an experience of music that is relevant to working with visual imagery.
JS: In installation works, the musical analogy goes even further. One of the parts of the ZKM show will be a series of quartets that I have created. They are four channel works with the screens in portrait orientation, with the subject matter dispersed across the four screens, each doing something different or coming together, like a musical quartet. Not everybody is playing the same thing; they are individual parts and you have to assemble them. Now that’s easy when its composed in a particular way- your brain is sympathetic to harmony and to melody, but also your body is tuned to that kind of processing. This is less so when its visual, but its interesting to watch people watch the work. They move around, and then they take a step back. When they do that I know that they are looking at all four screens and seeing how each of the elements is relating to each other and how that’s creating a larger message, which is what I’d like them to go home with- along with the tee shirt and a kettle!
CM-A: All the installations that you describe and the ones that I have seen, seem to be within a field that can be taken in all at once. Have you worked on structures that require the viewer to move around?
JS: The initial showing of “The Friend” was in the top part of a chapel. There are three saints in each arm and because they take different turns talking, you have to move around- you can’t stand in one place to see everything. I have a piece that is showing in San Francisco right now called “And in Conclusion”, which is 360 degree you need to walk around. It comprises of two sets of four monitors each back-to-back facing outwards. Then there’s a ring of sixteen smaller monitors, which encircle those eight. So the images on one set of four are different from the other set. You have to physically have to walk around the piece. The idea that I’m working on right now you also have either vertically arranged or their are away from the wall and I’m playing games with what you can see from one side to the other side….
CM-A: Can you tell me a little bit about the work you did in NY dance clubs in the early 1980’s.
JS: It was a really interesting time. When we are talking about television, music video, video art all mashed together. That was very much my intention in doing what i did. For a long period of time at the very beginning on a weekly basis- I think it was a Thursday night, video artists would come in, they would get a pile of drink tickets and they would show their work in the video lounge, a little bit before the club got crowded and busy. I would also buy some works and pay them cash- cash money! That was a tremendous amount of fun. I think in about 1981 (or about that time) I told Jim Fouratt that I was going to bring everybody I could over from the opening of the Whitney biennial which was up on the upper east side down to the club- I wanted them to comp everybody and give them all drink tickets, and he was very enthusiastic because that was exactly what he wanted. He wanted the cognoscenti to be aware that all these artists were coming in, that you could touch the hem of a god or a goddess. The club did have a tremendous reputation and I know this because people like Peter Gabriel and Thomas Dolby came up to me in the club and said can I give you my works to show in the video lounge. We had a little editing system and stacks and stacks of tapes. Its fun to think about the cultural cross-over.
CM-A: This is one of the most important strands for me. That’s why I brought it up. First of all I wondered if it had an impact on the way you thought about video as a medium or war it the other way around- that you already had ideas about how the medium was open to all of those possibilities?
JS: I think my philosophy was more of an influence on what went on at the club. it was less about live performing music and more about interpretations. The interpretations could be the straightforward music videos, they could be collages of found footage- Stan Brakahge, commercials, etc set to music that is playing throughout the lounge or it could be “Global Groove”, Juan Downey, Ed Emshwiller, for two, three, four or five minutes.- or longer. What was challenging but interesting was adjusting the time base knowing that everyone is drinking, everyone is on drugs, everybody wants to get laid and what you are doing was providing conversation fodder and stimulation. You are also doing that thing that art does which is…”Psst…I’ve got a secret..” Which is what everybody wants. It just had a tremendous level of participation: the artists loved it- the public loved it. The VJs that I hired like Ben and Merrill Aldighieri and others, all went off to be video artists or connected to video. Music videos were evolving around that time. Direct distribution, like Rock America. Ed Steinberg would take the things from the record company and package them. He could make money out of something he got for free. That’s a good business model!
CM-A: I was interested to learn about the way in which you developed the video promo for “Act Three”, which was about a way of getting a piece of Phil Glass’ music broadcast on MTV. So in this case, it was the visual was the factor in selling the music, not as is so often the case, the other way around!
JS: Dean (Winkler) and I are still working together, In fact we are working on something right now with music by Terry Reilly. My wife, who is a pianist, has recorded a lot of Terry’s music and this is a piece of his that she recorded four or five years ago. Dean was also the editor and the effects guy for “Perfect Lives” and we did a handful of works together in the early 1980’s. I knew he was a Phillip Glass fan, and I knew Phillip very well and I thought I could get CBS Records, which was his label before he was signed to Nonesuch. CBS did not know what to do with Phillip, they were treating him as the next pop sensation. I told Phillip that if could get some money to make a video for a piece of your music would you agree to give us the rights? I approach CBS records and asked them for $15,000, i think- I can’t remember how much it was exactly, but it was not pop music money, and told them that I would make a video that would get Phillips music on MTV. I showed them some other work and Phillip was there and he said” “Yes, lets do it”. We took the third act of a theatre piece he’s done called “The Photographer.”
CM-A: Yes, about Edweard Mybridge, I know the piece.
JS: Dean and I loved the momentum and the structure of the music. I did a storyboard and we went back to Phillip and asked if he could make some sound edits. He said yeah, I’ll cut some here and some there- it’s like a piece of fabric, so e had a piece of music that had a beginning, middle and end. It was the early days of digital recording although I do think that there were some splices in there too. We locked ourselves away for several months, working mostly at night. We got it done, it went on MTV and everybody loved it. It was also played on television. Nam June loved it and so he used it at the beginning of “Good Morning Mr Orwell”, and it was played on “Live TV” which was a series on video art in the 1980’s here in the US. A funny story that I love to tell is that it won a special award at the Tokyo Video Festival for “Best Computer Graphics”- there are no computer graphics in the piece.
The lesson I learned from that, and from “Perfect Lives” when it was broadcast on Channel Four was that I thought we were dropping a big stone into a small pond and that the splash would be “Hockneyesque”- you know, like “A Bigger Splash”. I thought that minds would open and things would change- that black would suddenly be white. It didn’t happen. It may have been a big rock, but it was in a bigger pond. It took decades for the splash to be felt by more and more people. “Ear to the Ground”, “Act Three”, “Perfect Lives”- a series of works I have seen imitated over and over again: the solo dancer and the appearance of ghostly images.
What I find amusing is that level of influence, but decades later. So, I go to a festival in Europe and some 25 or 30 year old will come up to me and show me something they did that looks like one of my works and tells me that I was a big influence. I never got paid for the tape that you saw in your school from whoever your teacher was. I’m very very flattered, but, its…I particularly remember being on a plane with Bob and saying when we finish Perfect Lives the idea of music on television is going to change. This was after “Einstein on the Beach”, but of course Glass and Wilson were a quarter of a million dollars in debt- you’ve got to remember that!
I used to go to clubs around the country and to live VJ to both pop music and using existing soundtracks. I’d take a suitcase full of VHS tapes- usually a club would have two or more machines. I had a really great relationship with the 9:30 Club in Washington. I went down there many many times to do VJ nights and to show video art at this club. I only did one thing that I actually have recorded, which I did for television that was a live mix. It was similar to what I had done in the clubs in that it had prerecorded material that was a response. It was pre-structured and prepared to a certain extent but with a live aspect. This was done when NHK (the Japanese broadcaster) was doing a Direct Broadcast satellite (DBS) test. I was working with John Zorn, the saxophonist/composer and he had a band called Naked City. I was trying to get PBS to fund a Naked City show. John was quoting all of these pop references and he was writing his own one minute thirty second pieces and he was collaging them together with what was at the time a very diverse set of positions. So I proposed this to NHK and they flew us all over and we did a series of evenings in a studio with the band playing live and I had live cameras and multiple feeds that I could switch also live. I have a recording of that which is called the NHK sessions. It was an interesting time. The recording is not all that watchable- if you watch five minutes of it you get the point.
CM-A: What date was this?
CM-A: This was an important decade for you in terms of the development of your video work in relationship to music.
JS: There were very few things that happened in the nineteen eighties that weren’t interesting. If you remember, at the beginning of the eighties video art was its own thing. I remember being in a festival in France and thinking: I know every video artist in the world! It was a really small club. We worked together (and I was a bad boy), we slept together. There were bonds there because we weren’t in the art world, we weren’t fully folded into television, although I was doing what I was doing which always kept me a little on the outside. It was glorious, and it lasted almost a decade. When I started to get less interested in the art world was when it became more of a commodity, and traded on traditional art values. It wasn’t the artists who were making video, possibly with the exception of Joan Jonas and a handful of others. Paik obviously being the icebreaker. It was the people who were using video and were performers and conceptualists- Vito Acconci, etc. It was all very exciting. But I was doing my thing and it wasn’t fitting in anywhere. I could do a music video, have something on television, make an installation. I was bouncing around all over, and that didn’t make anybody happy. And I’m thinking: “What’s wrong with you people, we’re having fun!” It felt like a chance to experiment on a fairly broad canvas, particularly when live TV was happening. I made a series of dance works in which the pictures came first and then the sound was scored to the images. In the case of one of the pieces, with Charlie Moulton, called “Fractured Variations” which is showing this summer at MOMA in conjunction with their big Paik retrospective, there was an exchange between the composer and I in terms of the way that the video and sound were edited and the way that he was using that as material for his compositions. There was a lit of detail on the sound recording of the dancers, a lot of percussion from the body movement, sneakers on dance mats, hands slapping together. That was a kind of an interesting thing. I got so many commissions from them. I would propose a work, they give me the money, I send them the work, and they’d say: “this is great!”- because they had no idea what else to say!
CM-A: Things were still in flux, still being defined. That was what made it all so exciting, but also I suppose why there was resentment as well. Because, people like you were defining the new medium- looking at the edges, where were the edges, the boundaries? In what ways is this unique and in what ways is it connected to things we are already familiar with?
JS: What I find curious and this is much more of the case in Europe than it is here right now is as I’ve returned to making installations they are saying to me “welcome back”!
CM-A: I guess the fact that you can move around in that way means that you don’t feel the restrictions of one particular cultural situation. I think that’s healthy.
JS: I don’t feel weighed down by the need for validation. What was so great in the 80’s was that it felt like a perpetual motion machine.
I did a piece for PBS (Public Broadcasting System) called “Sister Suzie Cinema” which is one of the first pieces they broadcast. it was a theatre work that was written by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson. It stars a Doo-Wap group called 14 Karat Soul- four young black guys. Beautiful sound and that led to making a broadcast work for television with a pre-existing track, but then, since I was working directly with Lee and Bob mixing and altering that as we developed the images and pictures.
CM-A: There was just about every mode of possibility there. What is interesting about the range of work that you’ve done- you’ve engaged in so many different ways with music as some thing pre-existing, as something produced in collaboration, and everything in between!
JS: There’s that trust factor again. At the end of the last pandemic, a group of musicians I know were about to go out on tour, and of course they couldn’t. They are called “Commando”. The core of the group are two guys – Andy and Travis and they have a music group called The Living Earth Show, and they commission and perform new music works- very serious stuff. But the offshoot band is called Commando- a queer thrash metal band with really interesting activist writers and performers. There is a strong sensibility- its urgent, its political. I’m in love with a lot of what they do for the most part. Since they couldn’t go out on tour, they asked if I’d consider making some videos. Because everything I had planned had been cancelled- I was supposed to do projections for a production of “The Magic Flute” and that just disappeared. This was with two poets Lynn Breedlove and Juba Kalamka – a black gay aids worker and Lynn is a trans man who was in a seminal dyke band in the 1980’s. Both pieces really spoke to me, but since we couldn’t work together they had to record themselves on their phones. One of these is called “The Shock of Gary Fisher” and the other is called “Prince”. They are in your face, but I’m the patriarchy- the old straight white guy, and yet- there’s that trust. There is my desire to go outside of “me”. They have an awareness that it is in good hands.
Commando just came back to me again – they are now going out again on tour in the fall and they are going to finally release their record. They have come back to me to do another video, this time funded by their record company. The first time I did it for no money- I didn’t have to shoot anything! This new work is even “queerer” and way more “out there”. I said: “Are you sure I’m the right guy”? They told me that I was the only guy who could actually “get” it and do it. It’s going to be triple -X rated.
CM-A: But you are up for it, and feel comfortable with taking it on?
JS: It is so easy to stay in your comfort zone; to get on the couch and not get off. And it hurts to move. It hurts to stand out in the sun. It’s dangerous, it’s scary, but I’m sixty-six. I’ve got to do this shit, because I have no idea how much time I have left, and if I don’t do it, I will regret it. I’m also honoured that they would take a very sensitive subject matter and give it to me and say “do something!”