Thursday, July 12, 2007

Some thoughts stimulated by the "sight" discussion below, probably tangential but maybe serving to illustrate how I come to hear work like that, including aspects of randomness and how difficult it comes to making qualitative judgments of same.

Two events from my early painting career were crucial in my understanding of the nature of vision as regards art. One I remember specifically, occurring in my room in Boston in late '74 while I was attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. I was sitting around, trying to think of something to paint. (I should mention that I did then and still, to the extent I do at all, paint in what can be fairly described as a "realistic" manner). Finally one of the basic lessons osmosed from several years of poring over Vermeer and Velazquez hit home: it didn't matter. Whichever way I turned, whatever I focussed on, there was an enormous amount of visual beauty to be seen if only I looked. "Composition" didn't have to be set up, it could be developed by reading the scene deeply enough. I turned an arbitrary number of degrees in my seat and painted what happened to be in front of me, in this case an old, faded pink arm chair with a couple of brooms and mops leaning against it, my boards from the ASG baseball sim I was playing sitting on the cushion. There were wires coming down from somewhere, their multiple shadows resulting from the several light sources in play. Nothing astounding from a historical perspective, of course, but revelatory to that 20-year old. Served me in good stead.

The second is a bit more subtle and possibly more difficult to get across. I was, and remain (contrary to much 20th century pictorial thought) very fascinated by visual depth and its depiction on a two dimensional surface. I recall reading (I forget where or by whom) the assertion that Velazquez, like no one else before, succeeded in painting the air between and around objects. Now of course we all see in depth (at least those of us with sight in two eyes) but it's a different thing to be conscious of that depth, aware of the air between things. Again, very hard to explain, but I found myself able to mentally toggle on and off the ability to look at things as objects in space and be very, very, conscious of the surrounding air. Maybe everyone else does this routinely, I don't know. But I have the idea that most everyone functions (in terms of looking at things, not, obviously, in terms of interacting with them) in a kind of 2-D fashion. (Maybe this wasn't the case before TV?) It's a wonderful little technique to practice, especially outside, where you can get a vivid sense of the mass of large things, say the skyline of Manhattan, when you're conscious of the air behind it, its density, its emergence from miles back. Try it!

Combining these two states of awareness (really not trying to sound at all mystical about it because mysticism has nothing to do with it) makes for an impossibility of ever being bored in visual terms. There's simply, always, too much to see. You can probably see where I'm going in terms of sound.

To the best of my recollection, these visual understandings were things I (crudely) developed myself, though it wouldn't surprise me to learn of some other direct pointers that I've since forgotten. It took me a long, long time (well, maybe ten years) to make the obvious correlations to sound. That ol' transition from looking to seeing didn't automatically cause the jump from hearing to listening. A large part of this, I imagine, was simply the kind of music that was occupying most of my time, which is to say avant jazz, an area where Cagean concerns aren't paramount. But I'm also guessing that, once I finally got around to it, it made the transition to greatly appreciating eai and, especially, field recordings and associated areas, that much easier. Not that it's been a quick process; some baggage has a nasty habit of being difficult to throw off. In other words, having been able to see "blank" walls (after marveling at them in Vermeer for years), and paint them made it easier to hear "silence" and appreciate variations in same on recordings.

Just as I don't routinely flip on the depth-o-vision (I wish I did, but it's still something I have to think about), I also don't always walk around consciously experiencing sound in a Cagean manner. I daresay I do so more than your average Joe, probably more so than your average taomud-head but it's still a conscious decision, not my natural mode of operation. I wish it was; maybe it is for some.

This is a roundabout way of saying that just as I've for a few decades been able to entrance myself looking at whatever happens to be in my field of vision, so it becomes "easier" to happily lose myself amongst any ambient sounds in my vicinity. Still, there are preferences...a recent favorite has been waiting areas in airports. You have a cavernous space, all sorts of mechanized sounds, far more than are apparent on first blush and, as icing, conversations that are likely to be in six or seven different languages. Person I'm picking up's flight delayed? No problema! I'm not sure if it's a positive or negative that when the sound concerned is slightly less random (as in "sight"--how random can be argued) there seems to be even more, potentially, enjoyment to be derived. There shouldn't be, I suppose, but I'm afraid I'm too far gone acculturated to really make that leap. The same applies for contemporary visual art, I should mention. I'll still derive more pleasure, in all likelihood, from a Richter or Rothko than the wall next to them (maybe Agnes Martin comes closest to bridging this gap). And put me in front of a Velazquez, well, forget about me for an hour.

Cage's well-known aphorism is apropos here: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all."

The problem, such as it is (especially if I'm to write critically about something), obviously revolves around explaining why one might bother purchasing, say, "sight" as opposed to opening one's window. Sometimes I think this is a very good question. But for better or worse, there's still a substantial part of me that wants to hear human interaction, that still subscribes to the notion that certain people can hear (and make heard) sonic relationships that I'm unable to (and find beautiful), make choices that seem "righter" than those occurring, choiceless, in my vicinity. The reverse as well, that some choice don't seem right, seem awkward, ill-advised, aggravating (though again...). There's a wonderful dialog between Rowe and Cardew that took place around early June, '66 where the interviewer asked what their (members of AMM) reactions would be if a pile of chairs collapsed during a performance. Their response was that if someone had intentionally pushed over the pile, they probably wouldn't like it whereas if it just happened, it would be fine. The motives of the person pushing would go against the grain of what they were about, in other words, and that would somehow tinge the atmosphere of the room. I'm not sure about that, but it's something I've thought a lot about. Clearly, there's much more thought needed but, again, that's one of the things that "sight" compels and one of the reasons I value it so highly.

Not at all sure how much sense the above makes....


Peter Breslin said...

Hi- Great thoughts on what maybe could be called field of perception. I only became aware of the kind of attention you refer to during my experiences with hallucinogens. Those days are 20 years gone but the expansive sense of light and air is still accessible. Cats sometimes seem particularly talented at this sort of global perception. The kitten my housemate brought home recently sits and stares at the curtains for long periods of time, whether there's a breeze or not.

Have you heard Steve Feld's The Time of Bells series on Vox Lox? ( It's called "documentary sound art" but there's much more than that in Feld's field.


Brian Olewnick said...

Heh, yeah I guess should mention that none of the above observations was hallucinogenically inspired, having been "clean" in that regard since 17.

Haven't heard of Feld, will check him out, thanks.

Richard Pinnell said...

Brian that's really great stuff, and I'm a little scared how closely I can relate to a lot of what you are saying.

I had a similar art class experience myself when I was young. Our tutor had set up tables of supposedly interesting still live compositions that small groups of us were to sit around in a semi circle and paint. The composition I and a few others were placed in front of was the usualy tedious collection of plants, vases, skulls, sacking etc...
As I sat and concentrated i realised pretty quickly that the haphazard pile of coats and bags dumped on the floor by my fellow students behind the table was of much more interest. So as my colleagues painted away at the specified composition my painting was of this heap of randomly fallen colours framed by the table legs in the foreground.

The other interesting element that this way of seeing/understanding presents you with is the importance of timing. Perhaps if you came back the next day to finish the painting you had begun things would have changed, something been moved, nature's natural clock casting new shadows. Obviously as field recordings capture a moment so does this kind of painting. I know for sure I had to paint fast in my situation, as anyone could have decided they needed somethign from their bag at any point...

This way of seeing beyond the obvious tends to inform a lot of my photography these days. Photography tends to lend itself more easily to grabbing what may at first seem everyday, mundane and highlighting the life within it, the spaces and how it interplays with the spaces around it.
The tendency (for me at least) is to close in on details though, and present something more abstract by isolating one small part of it. Perhaps it would be nice to just present things as they are, maybe just randomly pointing the camera in an interesting place to see what results.

I know for certain I am regularly surprised / interested in those happy accidents that happen when the camera goes off when you didn't mean it to, and you get back home and plug in the USB cable and try and work out where on earth that intriguing image came from.

Two recent examples of photos I don't remember taking:

Brian Olewnick said...

Richard, I can certainly (not surprisingly) see affinities between your photos and some of my own work.

One of the other main "themes" (if you will) of my painting that smoothed the way for my hearing re: eai, was an early interest in the spatial tension between two separated objects. I remember taking two otherwise boring vases in the Vassar art studio and just placing them on a little ledge on a white wall, maybe a foot apart. Something about their relationship (again, against this "blank" wall, which wasn't, serving as spatial intermediary) really fascinated me. For a long time, I did pieces with two objects, rarely overlapping, against more or less monotone backgrounds, really enjoying the push-pull I was seeing between them (of course, extrapolating out from objects--generally everyday things like sticks, stones, candy, what-have-you--to human psychology. That's similar to the way I hear, say, a Rowe/Nakamura event, listening for the tensions between them as much as the sounds created.

In some of the last pieces I did, I tended more toward single objects, trying for the same tension between the item and the ground. Hard to describe and, to be sure, most people would look at them and see just a pretty well-rendered stone or mollusk shell...