On getting it.
I was introduced to Jules Gimbrone’s work a few days after I moved back to Los Angeles at the end of last year. Jules had curated Fault Lines, an evening of sound performance at Human Resources LA in Chinatown. The program encouraged composers, mainly from CalArts, where Gimbrone was studying composition at the time, to create time-based work that resembled the temporal scales of tectonic plates. Sitting there quietly, listening to those textured and oftentimes jarring compositions, I was overwhelmed by the uncompromised sounds. I also had the feeling that we would work together in the coming months.
Our first collaboration took place this past summer at Fahrenheit where I curated the project Cover, Junk, Strike, with work by Gimbrone, alongside artists Corey Fogel and Rosalind Nashashibi. Gimbrone’s rehearsal process gave us the chance to discuss her practice further and to form a friendship that sustains an ongoing dialog about art as a critical tool, Los Angeles as one of our many common denominators, and how one chooses to participate in today’s creative economy.
As an artist, composer, performer, curator, and space organizer, Gimbrone has a natural ability to transform sites through play with language, sound, and choreography, closely considering the architecture of a space as well as refusing that the work or body be contained at any given moment. Jules and I went back and forth on this conversation many times, mostly at TAIX French Restaurant in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles—a place where time seems to feel inexhaustible, where we often go to argue over the things that don’t seem to make sense to either one of us, and where we tend to agree that it’s never quite so simple as “getting it.”
Suzy Halajian There were various elements simultaneously layered in your performance work Taking Up Space—the layering of sound, of effects, of objects and text, and then the live performance that began to unpack those layers while creating new, conceptual ones. Can you speak about your intention with layering, and how you use it as a tool to explore both the framework and the concepts you are thinking through with a particular work?
Jules Gimbrone I really enjoyed our initial, pre-interview conversation/conflict with the framing of this show because I was beginning to think about the role of text in my work, and questioning the impact of words upon an object or sound that started out as amorphous. Does layering add clarity or confusion? Is there anything that is not layered? What would that object look like? The God particle? An atom?
So yes, everything is layered, but the amount and specificity of the pieces themselves and how they combine is where meaning is made. I can’t hold many ideas simultaneously in my mind at one time. And I think most people get excited when we can hold two or maybe three ideas at once. Something happens there, in the gap between holding onto a “known” and another “known”; there is a slippage in that in-between space.
When I lived in New York City I would ride the subway every day. There are many parts that make up the train experience: the smell of urine, sweat, skin, perfume, people, exhaust, the visual splash of colors and fabrics, the sonic mash of conversation, the rumble of the motor and squealing brakes, my own thoughts, the energy from other people, etcetera. It can go on forever. Sometimes I would contribute to that intensely layered environment by listening to music on headphones and reading a book at the same time. Now that is a strange experience, and it creates all kinds of gaps and unknowns and bizarre slippages.
SH I think one of the most exciting moments with your process of layering objects, text, sound, and movement happens once your collaborators or fellow performers physically enter into your performance within the installation space. The room and the objects within it perform and have greater agency. How much agency do you ascribe to these objects? I am thinking here about our previous conversation about Bruno Latour and his philosophy of objects functioning as actants, either human or nonhuman, each having agency given, able to do things, sufficiently coherent enough to make a difference, produce effects, and ultimately alter the course of events.
JG This new performance/collaborative environment I worked on with Nancy Lupo, Ape Cave Stratum Feeding (part of OLD ZOO FOOD with LAXART), is the piece in which I am first locating the work in the inner, cellular, chemical makeup of the materials themselves. Using a speaker immersed in ballistic gelatin from another work, Sick Building, I am building on my interest in materials as resonant objects that have a force, a presence (in this instance, one that is geological, psychological, ecological, like in crude oil, fossil fuels, non-human and human bodies) amplified through sound. These mediums are constantly molded by the forces around them: the air, room, and individuals present—the dynamic actors of the space. I am interested in the question of where a presence or subject asserts itself within the world which it inhabits. Sometimes the work looks more at the space, sometimes more at the subject, or more at the clay or hand. For me, sound is more methodology than medium. Sound is a way to talk about these presences, these overlaying and colluding forces and their impact on a subject, because it doesn’t presuppose that anything is static. All things are vibrating, active, moving, and smashing into each other all of the time.
SH Going back to your performance works, how much direction do you give to the performers you are collaborating with, and when do you decide a work is complete during the rehearsal process? For instance, I know with Taking Up Space you changed the performance up until the very last minute on the night of the event, and you called for an even more participatory work by inviting audience members into the performance. Working this way, how important is it for you to have collaborators understand both your process and intention with a particular work? How does trust come into play between you and performers?
JG In performance there is no objective thing or it. Where does the meaning of the work reside? Is it held within the intention of the artist? The first words or concepts? The score? The architecture of the space it inhabits? The materiality of the objects themselves? The cultural moment in which it is viewed? Or maybe the work is within the viewers themselves and is determined by how much alcohol they had that night or how well the A/C is working in the space? It seems to me the meaning is to be found in the layering of all of these variables, or what I like to call the composition.
With my work, especially being a performer, I can never really know the piece except from the inside. The inside must be a place in which performers feel comfortable. They must trust being on the inside and not completely knowing what it is. Once they are there, they have to trust there is a dynamic collision of potentials that they will never fully know but somehow want to be a part of. I’m lucky enough to get to work with friends and artists who I grew up with, who know me and share my language. Mariana Valencia and Lydia Okrent are old friends. We met probably in 2002 or 2003 and developed artistically together over the years. I trust them and they trust me, even when I don’t know what I am doing. That is true love.
SH What role does improvisation play when you are shaping a work's sound and choreography?
JG There is an animal brain, a primordial brain, the hippocampus, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response of the nervous system. This is an old part of the brain I think I rely on to make artistic decisions. The loose ends, the threat of the watchful eyes of the viewers, this is an important moment for me. This is a fun moment—the last edit. It’s when the shit hits the fan, and you can slash big chunks or add something or freak out. It’s all there, and that’s an exciting time in a performance; it’s fun and scary and sometimes makes me never want to do performance again, and sometimes makes me think performance is the only experience of art that is dynamic, challenging, and a life practice.
SH Can you speak about how certain idioms came into play in Taking Up Space? Namely: “The big cheese,” “big gun,” “larger than life,” “big and bold,” “the bigger they are, the harder they fall,” “bite the big one,“ “eyes are bigger than the belly,” “the big daddy,” “too big for britches,” “more bang for my buck,” and “broad as a barn door.” Given they were both physically enacted and spoken, how does language operate for you more broadly here?
JG Language is an energy that simultaneously gives abstraction form and forms abstraction. I think of it more as a container through which we are shaped. I have hesitated to use language in my work because there are ways that concepts or ideas, when filtered through language, become “known.” For this piece, I wanted to engage with idioms that related to the body, and specifically gave the body presence, matter, and visibility through an assertion of size. These idioms flattened the body into objects. Like “broad as a barn door” seems to imply that a body can play in the same realm as a barn door; it can be functional and utilitarian and allow or hinder access to certain spaces, realms, etcetera. Simultaneously, this also implies that a barn door can become a body. It can have status and presence, and can be an active agent in the world.
“Broad as a barn door” relates more specifically to the illusion of power through size. The masculine, which is something I find myself investigating both personally and artistically, is a concept tied to this performativity of size, or taking up space. The work isn't linguistically an investigation into these idioms per se, but more a creation of a system in which these terms are presented as affect. Language is one part of a myriad of forces that overlap in the shaping of how we perceive others, our world, and ourselves.
SH You are speaking of language as text-word-phrase here, but also as cultural codes, such as the gestures and performance of masculinity. This is the illusion of power and presence being enacted through gender performativity. Can you comment more specifically on how the assumption of gender roles operates in your work?
JG I am saying that in a “masculine” performativity there is an adherence to certain specific presentations of power: postering, inflation, puffery in which the body becomes defined in relation to its ability to take up space. The “masculine” is not something I believe in, but rather a social, cultural force. This is not specific to men. Masculinity is a force field through which things that should be in motion become solid. It is an experience, and often one that is rooted in a violent severing of self which begins with the construction of a binary system: self/other, black/white, man/woman, good/evil, right/wrong, and so on. I do think that language, and the belief in its ability to wield empirical “truths” about the body (genitalia, etcetera), is where these gender myths begin.
Every day someone asks me what gender pronoun I prefer. And while I think this is an important question and meaningful to many people, it is not maybe as meaningful to me. My response at this point is that whatever you want to call me is fine. If it is confusing to you, that is appropriate because it is confusing to me as well.
SH How important do you find your physical presence to be in defining your works? For example, with In My Absence, a video installation you presented at Bowerbird in Philadelphia, you were not present in the space, though your words clearly were through the text that played on the monitor, as well as the pre-recorded sound that was amplified and reverberated from each audience member’s chair. In this instance, the text challenged the audience to consider how queerness can operate without the body, without the individual or artist’s presence. How do you see queerness performing in your work both with and without your absence, or is this is even relevant for you?
JG To me, queer is simultaneously an intensely private and highly contested political body. In popular culture difference is often deciphered in the flash of an image, a word, a pose into a two-dimensional presentation, which is then identified, categorized, sensationalized, scrutinized, objectified, and ultimately ghettoized by structures of power and privilege. Sound, like queer, is a reprioritization of the nuanced body, the flexible body, the imagined body, and the listening body.
I find that in a visually dominated world we are conditioned to a flattening of information through quick optical interpretation of difference. A more complex understanding of subjecthood can come from the auditory, and this is why I typically work with sound. I’m less interested in what a queer subject appears to be than what it does and what is done to it, what shapes it and what it shapes, and more specifically where it asserts its autonomy and power in a world that is intent on its categorical silence.
SH I've been thinking about an ongoing conversation we had about how concrete one needs to be, or chooses to be, when describing a performance work through the printed or online material that is distributed around a project (i.e. the exhibition press release, brochure, wall labels). Personally, I avoid being too descriptive with performance, and I know you feel that specificity through language is essential for you to lay out the terms of a work for the audience to “get it” and understand what’s at stake and what should be considered through the experience.
JG What is important here is to define what “it” is. If “it” is a position or statement, then it makes more sense to work in the social justice realm where there are clear outcomes from positions, proclamations, and demands. The “it” that I am interested in is not one so concise. For me, “it” is a system, state of mind, perspective, and experience. If “it” were locatable within a sentence or line, I would write that sentence and go home. “It” becomes a manifestation of a multiple, a fold, a confluence of forces that we are negotiating through and with. So, for me, there is not an expectation that the audience with completely “get it.” I don't completely “get it,” but who does? Is that ducking the question?
SH I’m not sure I consider it a matter of “getting it” for me or for the audience, but I constantly consider the artist’s negotiation in laying out the specific intention of a work, and how essential this can prove, particularly with more complex works. At the same time, I can advocate for a more abstract or open-ended approach for how it can give the audience an entry point to then compose meaning for themselves both during and after the performance, unavoidably taking into account the conversations with other audience members after the fact. Sometimes I think everything can start once the performance has ended.
JG Yes, I love that sentiment because there is no end to this exploration and we are doing it all together. It's really about this ongoing conversation within the work, after the work, between works, people, places, and communities. I think one of the most important aspects of performance is that we have the privilege of the audience’s attention. Thirty minutes of attention is a very rare commodity these days, and it is absolutely precious.
SH And do you feel like you’ve found this audience in Los Angeles since you moved here from New York in 2012? What are the communities that impact your practice?
JG Moving to Los Angeles two years ago completely changed my life and practice. New York and Los Angeles are completely opposite in many ways for me. Attending CalArts and settling in Los Angeles gave me the space and time to try out new ideas and forms. This city, in many ways, is a non-judgmental space because audiences allow a freedom to experiment. There is space to explore ideas and also a general acceptance of failure, mishaps, and unforeseen outcomes of one’s artistic process.
SH I was reminded of the same when I returned to Los Angeles after some years away. There is room to work here in a concentrated way, without distraction, and then the opportunity to step out and socialize when one chooses. What I find most exciting here is the charged energy and the space to experience work in numerous, distinct places spread throughout the city with the possibility of unpredictable things popping up and evolving all the time.
JG The sky is open.
Suzy Halajian is a Los Angeles-based independent curator.