Interview by Kevin Appel
Studio Visit Images by Jan-Willem Dikkers
“To translate something abstract is very subjective …
I’m tongue tied about it because I feel it operates
beside verbal language. And that’s partly what’s lreally
—Alison O'Danieinteresting to me about it...” — Alison O'Daniel
Alison O’Daniel is a Los Angeles-based visual artist from Miami, Florida. Her work weaves narratives of aural sensitivity and experience between the mediums of film, object-making, and performance. Through her collaborations with deaf and hearing composers and artists, her work invites sensitivity to loss and abundance of sound and its impact on social situations. View more of her work here.
Kevin Appel is a visual artist from Los Angeles, California. Appel’s work occupies spaces within and between the practices of abstract painting and architecture. He is a Professor and Associate Chair of Graduate Studies at the University of California Irvine. View his work here.
Kevin Appel: I want to start by asking you if you can name a moment or something that you saw that was pivotal in your decision to become an artist.
Roni Horn is an American visual artist and writer living and working in New York. Her work explores the shifting nature of art through sculpture, drawing, photography, language, and site-specific installations. The cyclical relationship between humankind and nature is a continuously present theme throughout her work.
Alison O’Daniel: I have this memory, when I was in fifth or sixth grade – I remember going to a museum and seeing a Roni Horn sculpture – one of her sticks with poetic phrases on them. Do you know what I’m talking about?
KA: Yes, I do.
AO: That was definitely a moment where I thought to myself, “That makes sense.”
KA: Had you had art in your background?
The Integratron is a structure designed by George Van Tassel in Landers, California, near Joshua Tree. Tassel claimed that the structure was capable of rejuvenation, anti-gravity and time travel. In the early 2000’s, Joanne, Nancy, and Patty Karl purchased the Integratron and began promoting it as an “acoustically perfect structure.”
Maverick Concert Hall
The Maverick Concert Hall is a music venue in Hurley, New York, on the outskirts of Woodstock. The Hall was built in 1916 and is a barn-like rectangular building with a gambrel roof. The hall was built entirely with volunteer labor and without an architect.
“They have art everywhere, pots everywhere, a wonderful steel wire mobile hanging in the center, a Japanese garden all around the house with billions of succulents planted in these small pots my uncle has thrown.” — Alison O’Daniel
AO: Yes. My grandmother on my mom’s side was an artist and painter. She was from Sweden and was always painting these sort of vernacular Swedish folk paintings and doing a German craft called scherenschnitte, which are paper cutouts of black silhouettes and intricate symmetrical floral compositions. I have a bunch installed in my kitchen over there. I have vivid memories of her always painting and using her tiny little scissors on the cutouts. Also, my uncle is a potter. My aunt and uncle were my biggest influences as far as the lifestyle of an artist. My first museum experience was their house – I love this house. It’s my absolute favorite architecture I’ve spent time in. They built it themselves in Mayville, NY in the 60’s – it is quite hippie, with a ceramics studio on the ground floor and a spiral staircase in the center that goes up to their bedroom. The floor-plan is entirely open and the kiln radiates up and outward through a central chimney that heats the whole space. I’m sure that my aesthetic attraction (more than my aural attraction) to The Integratron and now the Maverick Concert Hall goes back to this… their house. They have art everywhere, pots everywhere, a wonderful steel wire mobile hanging in the center, a Japanese garden all around the house with billions of succulents planted in these small pots my uncle has thrown. All their friends are artists, and my childhood and teenage observations of the way they thought and moved through the world – it also made a lot of sense to me.
KA: So, you came to it rather naturally?
AO: Yes, I think so. Also, I figure skated competitively… I’ve thought about it so much…
KA: Figure skating?
AO: Yes, in terms of the way it defined art for me – spatial relationships and choreography and storytelling…
KA: I have to say that it sheds a whole different light on the way that I’m seeing your sculpture.
AO: That’s interesting.
KA: Well, that there’s a lot of looping forms and there’s a lot of connecting forms.
KA: So, the current film is stemming from a number of stories and influences. Can you talk about either current influences, or who do you look at or read or listen to now?
Erik Frydenborg is a Los Angeles-based artist from York, Pennsylvania who creates installations, prints, sculptures, and collages. His work is reminiscent of a scientist’s anatomical models or geological models and suggests cryptic narratives.
Claire Denis is a French film director and writer. Her films deal with themes of colonial and post-colonial West Africa, and more contemporary issues in France.
Richard Tuttle is an American post minimalist artist. Tuttle is known for his small, subtle, intimate works which make use of scale and line. His work spans a diverse range of media including sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking and artist’s books.
AO: [pauses] There are specific visual artists – particular painters and sculptors who navigate a similar realm of choreography and relationship with material and color that certain film makers do with narrative. I see and feel this in lots of different kinds of work – from Erik Frydenborg to Claire Denis, from Richard Tuttle to Andrei Tarkovsky, to name a few. A big part of my current working method concerns a quote that I copied and pasted from the introduction to Tarkovsky’s book, “Sculpting in Time”. There is a quote from a physicist who wrote a letter to Tarkovsky after seeing “The Mirror”. He tried to explain to Tarkovsky what his experience of viewing the film was, his interpretation, even what he thought film could do. I copied and pasted this quote from a PDF and sent it to one of the composers to respond to and when I pasted it, because I copied it from a PDF, the words broke apart – all these extra spaces appeared, creating a musicality to the visual pattern of the letters. Once the words collapsed, the language broke down, the quote became much more significant than what originally attracted me to it.
‘ W h at is this film about? It’s a film about you. It’s about y our father, your grandmother, a b o ut s ome o ne who will live after you and who is still “you”. It’s about a Wom an who lives on the e a r th, is a part of the earth and the earth is a part of h e r; a n d the fact that a m an is answerable for his life both to t he past and to t he future. You have to watch this film simply; watch it as o ne watches t he stars, or t he sea, as o ne admi r es a l ands c ape. T h e re is no ma t h ema t i c al logic he r e, for it c a n n ot explain what man is or what is t he me a n i ng of her life.”
Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) was a Soviet Russian film maker, editor, theorist, and writer as well as a theater and opera director. His films include “Ivan’s Childhood”, “Andrei Rublev”, “Solaris”, “The Mirror”, and “Stalker”.
KA: This is Tarkovsky speaking?
AO: No, this is the physicist who wrote to him.
AO: I changed all the pronouns. This quote is it for me. I respond most to work I feel is enacting something similar to that broken apart quote and that’s what I hope to do eventually.
KA: It sounds in some way like you’re talking about a kind of associative matrix that underlines your work, but maybe it doesn’t explicate things very specifically. Which is something I’ve noticed in your work over the years. I’ve had the privilege of watching you work for some time now and it seems to me, in this current project, that you’re maybe backing into the process or starting from an obtuse angle by starting with music first as opposed to story-boarding the film and then the music or sound comes later – which would be the traditional or standard process. Can you talk about that decision and where it came from?
AO: Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about my process as a form of call and response on every level. I’m constantly trying to tune my ear and listen and pay attention. Details that present themselves become another score or the call that I then respond to. I had just finished premiering “Night Sky” in New York as part of Performa 11 at the Anthology Film Archives and I came back to L.A. and I was listening to the radio and the first story I heard was about tuba thefts in L.A. high schools – did you ever hear about this?
KA: No, I haven’t.
AO: So, I heard this broadcast about these tubas that had been stolen from high schools and it made me pause. And then I heard it again, maybe a week later. And then again. These stories made me realize that my next project would be a film that began with an inverse of the usual process of film-making. I thought of starting with the sound instead of the narrative. It felt important to not be jamming the sound in after the fact. [pauses] I don’t completely understand yet why this intuitive connection rang out like a bell, but it struck me when I heard these stories about the tubas being stolen.
KA: Did it change your own understanding of how your work operates?
AO: I made a decision to start with listening to music. I’ve set up this way of working where I have something to continually respond to and re-evaluate and translate again and again; or attempt to translate. Which is a tricky thing because to translate something abstract is very subjective… I’m tongue tied about it because I feel it operates beside verbal language. And that’s partly what’s really interesting to me about it – that it is elusive and shifting as I’m trying to grab hold of it… It’s just out of reach or beyond my ear.
KA: Take us through the process. So, you’re not making music yourself, you’re getting composers to make that music which then becomes the impetus for the scenes in the film?
KA: But you gave them cues, right? To begin their process. Can you talk about how that worked?
“To notice the subjectivity of objects or the personality of a process or event feels significant.” — Alison O’Daniel
AO: When I made my previous film, “Night Sky”, I followed this same process for myself. This is a way that I naturally work. I start by picking and choosing elements and ingredients from my environment that keep reasserting themselves and making themselves known in a way, and then build narrative around these things. To notice the subjectivity of objects or the personality of a process or event feels significant. So I continued this process I had previously done for myself, and I compiled lists of unrelated references for them to respond to and use as a score for their score. It was anything and everything from poems to asking them to use… one of the composers I asked him to think about breathing instruments. I don’t entirely know what that means, but it was a phrase that I gave him to explore. Then, I asked one of the composers to look at Louise Nevelson’s eyelashes – which are sculptures in and of themselves.
[KA and AO laugh]
Steve Roden is a visual and sound artist from Los Angeles. His work includes painting, drawing, sculpture, film/video, sound installation, text, and performance. Roden has been exhibiting his visual and sound works since the mid-1980′s, and has had numerous solo and group exhibitions internationally.
CHRISTINE SUN KIM
Christine Sun Kim is a visual, sound, and performance artist who performs auditory investigations that initiate a slippage of audio into visual. She is interested in linguistic authority, the process of translation, and the deconstruction of preconceived ideas about sound.
AO: I asked Steve Roden to look at the Foucault pendulum at the Griffith Observatory and look at the patterns that the Zamboni makes on the ice rink in order to clean the snow away. There was a diagram I gave to Steve Roden of the Zamboni route and, long after he gave me his score, he talked about the path of the Zamboni being the perfect map for minimal music. And Christine Sun Kim, I asked her to read the news stories about the tuba thefts and study a photograph of Louisa Calder’s dressing table with jewelry that Calder made for her. I asked her to think about levitation; I gave her that quote from the physicist to Tarkovsky. It was a disparate list of things that were interesting to me and that I wanted to hear what they sound like. Through this process, I would be the third leg in some sort of exquisite corpse we were all creating. Months later, I got the music back from them and spent about seven months just listening to it non-stop and writing down images and scenarios that emerged and played out in my mind. During the writing process with the screenplay and the making process with the sculptures, I return to those lists a lot and allow them to drift into the narrative.
“It was a disparate list of things that were interesting to me and that I wanted to hear what they sound like. Through this process, I would be the third leg in some sort of exquisite corpse we were all creating.” — Alison O’Daniel
KA: It sounds like you’re talking again about a kind of concrete poetry. When I hear you talk about call and response I think about abstract painting being a kind of reactive real time decision-making process based on a given vocabulary. So, you’ve built this vocabulary and you’ve given it to these people to then respond to and then you, in turn, respond to that. I’m wondering if what that represents for you is a kind of sounding board or an already full space? I think of that as – just from the point of view of a painter – thinking about the horror of blank space and having to respond to something that actually, at some point, has nothing there. And then there’s this first move that you make in order to have something to respond to. I’m wondering, in some sense, if building this narrative in that way gave you an opportunity to avoid the problematic of beginning with absolutely nothing.
AO: I love thinking of this process as a sounding board. But, in regards to the horror of beginning or the fear of blankness – I don’t think so – I never thought of it in that way. In fact, I’m extremely open to and interested in this notion of blankness or nothingness or deafness or silence. I see it as an error – the notion that anything is really truly empty. I’m interested in this, both as a fear that people have of nothing and then also as a goal that people have – to get to emptiness and to get to mindlessness, which becomes mindfulness…
Nyke Prince is a performing artist based in Los Angeles. She is a bilingual songwriter, drummer, actress, model, dancer, and make-up artist. She performs in venues around L.A. Prince was also in O’Daniel’s previous film, “Night Sky”.
AO: Yeah. I think a lot about something that the performer Nyke Prince, who is helping me write the screenplay at this stage, said to me. Nyke is the main actor and main character in this film. She is a deaf drummer. I asked her about her perspective on the relationship between music and sound. Her response was so matter-of-fact, “I don’t think about sound. I don’t even know how to answer that question – I’m not having a relationship with sound. So I’m a musician but sound is actually not in the equation.”
KA: That’s interesting. I was thinking, as you said, one of the characters in “The Tuba Thieves” is this deaf drummer. And then I remember one of the characters in your earlier film “Night Sky” is a deaf swimmer. Is there a theme of emersion in this or embodied sound?
AO: Yes. This is my relationship to figure skating too; I think the reason that I think back to my formative experiences with figure skating is because it was the first time that my body was really telling me what it could do and my consciousness was taking note. So the deaf swimmer, for example, it didn’t occur to me until the editing process – this experience that so many people equate with being under water as removing you from sound or abstracting sound. For me, in the writing process, it transformed a very basic decision that I wanted to show her as an active, capable body moving through the landscape. From the beginning, I knew this character was athletic and I was trying to figure out what her sport was. I liked the aesthetics of the Yucca Valley High School pool and how it awkwardly sat in the desert environment. I also enjoyed the inverse way that it connected to the architecture of The Integratron, and also the reflections of the disco ball in the dance marathon. But then in the editing process, of course, the immersion of being in the swimming pool added this aspect to the sound that I didn’t even foresee. It’s shockingly obvious in hindsight.
KA: I remember very well that there’s sort of moments of silence and moments when we are almost following the narrative through sound and then sound suddenly vanishes – and there’s a sense of emptiness in that, that’s what we were talking about before. I know you don’t want to be summed up as the hard of hearing artist – to have everybody interpret what you’re doing through that lens. But, yet, the issue that there is sound and then there are gaps, understanding an alternate reality stemming from this seemed to play a huge role in your work. Can you talk about that?
AO: It’s such a huge part of my life, it is the lens through which I have seen everything and may always. I recognize the irony of switching senses there and find real joy in that flip. This experience… it’s constant. I mean I’m constantly reconciling with and facing this pervasive orchestra of… of everything. I have had the privilege over the last few years of working with a lot of deaf people and hard of hearing people. It’s a different way of experiencing the relationship of one’s self to one’s body. There is sensitivity to visual, to sound, to touch that to me is so profound… but verbal language is less capable of summing up. I’m in the middle of learning sign language. It’s mind-bending because I’m coming at it from a place at once so removed and yet so familiar. There is this constant feeling of something clicking into place when I replace words with the body.
“I recognize the irony of switching senses there and find real joy in that flip. This experience… it’s constant. I mean I’m constantly reconciling with and facing this pervasive orchestra of… of everything.” — Alison O’Daniel
KA: You never learned sign language before?
AO: I never have. It’s mind-boggling to learn a language and find out that your native language doesn’t have a term for something that exists as a whole constellation of ideas in another culture or language. And you can’t help but wonder what all you’ve missed by not knowing or conversing in this way. Of course, it’s not better. It’s just different. I really resist any hierarchy between the two languages. To have lived my life without access to all sound, but still have prioritized sound and spoken language feels, in hindsight, a bit like a bummer. But it’s new, and so I am in that beautiful stage when you are turning a word around and viewing it from every angle… and in sign language that is literally what is happening.
KA: Interesting. So maybe then another way to think about it is – how does this translate for audience members that view your work and get involved with it and don’t have a direct relationship to hearing loss? Are they able to see or process? Have you had conversations with them where they’re able to basically see sound? Say in your sculptural work?
AO: Yes, I have heard people talk about them as kooky instruments or machines that seem like they’re meant for submitting or transmitting sound. Obviously some materials I’m using are noise-makers or instruments, or look like portals, or what not. But, in fact, I actually think that what I’m really interested in doing is suggesting and intimating that these are things which are being made in response to listening and you, as the viewer, are not given access to what that sound is at that moment you are looking. The titles of all the sculptures are specifically lines plucked out of the screenplay. All the material elements and the title – all these things are meant to betray that there exists background information that seems to relate to music.
KA: I certainly like the way you’re describing it better than thinking of them as wacky musical instruments.
[AO and KA laughs]
AO: Yeah, I don’t think of them as wacky musical instruments.
KA: Can you talk about how these accompanying sculptures are part of the same project? Did they stem from the same soundtrack?
AO: Yes. Throughout the whole process, I am constantly listening to the music and attempting to simultaneously translate this music into a screenplay. (Translate is probably not the right word but it’s the one I keep using, I don’t know a better one yet.) So I’m attempting to translate this into a screenplay at the same time that I’m translating them into this 2-D or 3-D world of material and color. While it is not necessary to me that somebody listens to the music while viewing the objects, it is necessary to me, hopefully, that people know that this is all being made in relationship to one another. So what I want to happen is, when you watch the film, that your experience of the soundtrack is really sculptural, and that your experience looking at these sculptures or paintings follows a somewhat narrative logic that is bouncing back and forth between the way that I’m producing narrative in the film and telling the story and asking you to experience things. They’re like parallel universes in a way.
KA: What is that logic?
AO: I think it’s the same logic that is this quote. You look at it or you watch it simply as one watches the stars, the sea, and admires the landscape when there is no mathematical logic. But then it has lineage and it has earth language, it is a part of you and you’re a part of it, I guess.
KA: Earth language?
AO: Yeah, I just made that up – it doesn’t say that in there. It’s like a primordial foundation language or something. Something that comes from the senses is both emotional and (bio)logical I guess.
KA: Well, that’s interesting. That leads me to another question I had about the American West, about hippies; we also touched a little bit on meditation. Elements have come up in your work like portals, imagery of the 60’s, talismans, shifting senses from sight to sound and back and forth. So, this basic idea of alternate realities – even the psychedelic comes forward in the work. You want to take that and run with it a little bit?
An Anechoic Chamber is a room designed to be echo-free by absorbing reflections of either sound or electromagnetic waves. The rooms are also insulated from exterior sources of noise, which means they create a quiet, open space of infinite dimension.
John Cage (1912-1992) was an American composer, writer, music theorist, and artist known as a pioneer and leader of the post-war avant-garde and as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. He is remembered for his work in electroacoustic music, indeterminacy in music, and the use of non-standard musical instruments.
“Cage had no ear for harmony and reconciled with what he could contribute as a musician… and so he became an inventor of the ear so to speak. I identify with this more than with the idea of disability. ” — Alison O’Daniel
AO: Artists’ experiments with light and space, and specifically the Anechoic Chamber in the 50’s and 60’s – that moment when artists were attempting to maybe erase a sense in order to open up the other senses or flatten everything out onto the same plane are very beautiful gestures to me, and my concerns exist on the same timeline. But I’m coming at sound and silence from a different set of experiences. So, while I love a lot of hippie stuff, I’m also coming at it from my particular body and conversations around what has maybe been named a limited or disabled experience. John Cage is accidentally playing a big role in this film. I coincidentally provided Steve Roden with a photo of the Maverick Concert Hall to respond to. This is where Cage premiered 4’33” in 1952. I didn’t know this… I just liked the hippie architecture. Steve enlightened me and the overt connection to Cage’s legacy has been obviously interesting, but even more so when you know that Cage had no ear for harmony and reconciled with what he could contribute as a musician… and so he became an inventor of the ear so to speak. I identify with this more than with the idea of disability. Maybe if I were to simplify it, I’d see a parallel in a lot of my experiences and a lot of my collaborator’s experiences with things that people were attempting to articulate but could not find language for, and they were going into the body or alternative experience in order to get to a deeper relationship with perception.
To be deaf or hard of hearing is constantly to be reconciling with experiences associated with sound and hearing and listening and deafness…
KA: Just, physically, sound coming at all times from all directions.
AO: Yeah, you are constantly aware of how you are not catching something. This is what’s amazing about it – it can simultaneously be the most frustrating thing and the most profound thing at the same time – and to wrap your head around that, it’s kind of like tripping all the time, in a way…
KA: Well it’s a good point because it also illustrates, in some ways, what art is very good at as well – which is setting up an opportunity for looking at something from an oblique angel or almost misinterpreting things so that you’re no longer in the field of the prosaic, but you’ve moved into the field of the poetic – which is where I think your work really rests.
KA: To close, why do you make art?
AO: I have two answers to this. One – I love art. I love film so much and I see work all the time that I want to stare at or be with for hours in an attempt to understand (or avoid) the madness which is the world and which is living. Then, the second answer is – just because at least one side of everything is so goddamn beautiful.
[KA and AO laugh]
AO: And I get to that sentiment in those moments when you know you’re at the threshold of simultaneously experiencing frustration, confusion, and intimidation – there’s this razor thin edge and you fall over into bliss and curiosity, peace and contentedness, whatever that experience or word is I’m trying to find and say – not needing anything more. And this experience doesn’t seem like something to chase but, rather, it’s something to just honor… that there’s the possibility of that.
KA: That’s a perfect end.
AO: Okay. [laughs] That’s almost, like, too ridiculous and Hollywood of an ending.
KA: No, that’s perfect.