I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Betsy Sussler You’re a sculptor. What sort of art works preceded the video tapes and installations you produced in the late ’60s?
Keith Sonnier One of the first pieces was an arc of neon with cloth and it turned on and off in sequence. They were all involved with either light sequence or some sort of tactile element. A lot of the impulses came from an erotic, sensual—they were more understood if they were felt.
BS From there you began a series called the Mirror Act Series which took place between two 7 foot square parallel mirrors.
KS Two framed camera spaces is how I began to see them. I made a film where I was one of the objects within this set. The set was the infinitely reflected space between the two mirrors. The mirrors created a pictorial plane where front and back were viewed simultaneously and as a volume. The film was horribly unsuccessful from a technical standpoint, because it evoked the narcissistic elements. I was changing clothes, or having images projected onto me. There was this weird sort of shedding of one’s ego but the film was too realistic—a problem I’ve always had, when working with film.
BS Too literal you mean.
KS Yeah, but the two mirrors were the basis for all of the video work. Channel Mix came out of this.
BS What was that?
KS A video installation—there were two stereo video projections of daytime TV. The viewer would walk into a space and channels 3, 4, 6, and 8 were all going at the same time. It was the beginning of sending and receiving—where there are two channels of projected information and electrical impulses moving in two ways.
BS From here did you go into the surveillance pieces?
KS No. I started to do live mixing—making narrative tapes, framing, lighting character projections. That’s when I began to work with Suzie Harris, Tina Girouard and Judy Padow. I would set up the situation, there was a set frame which they could see via the monitor and they would perform with the option of working within the frame—they didn’t have to be seeing themselves all of the time but it helped.
BS So they were always conscious of what they were doing. What were they doing?
KS Improvised movements, none of them lasted for more than 10 minutes, TV time.
BS Did you direct the outcome by manipulating the television apparatus? Did you tell them how to move?
KS Well that went hand in hand because one needed to know as much about the technique as one did about what the activity would be, in order to manipulate it through the performance.
BS And then …
KS The editing. I couldn’t afford color equipment at the time that was in 1969, so I took these black and white tapes—I had never edited before, it’s so different to stop time—and I would feed them into the television set and shoot with color film.
BS But how did you get color?
KS I put black-out gels over the television set—blocked off half of it and then rolled back the film and shot the other half—so two channels of information existed in one frame. And the color came about by generating black and white tape through a color monitor—turning one color gun way up thereby tinting the black and white so I would get, for instance, a full magenta.
BS So it was the color inherent in the TV set. What sort of a dialogue?
KS Could I have a light? Would you move closer …
BS Banal conversation. And the images?
KS Maybe a very abstract one within a frame. Perhaps a circle which contained the images of people moving in and out of it. Or two mouths might be having a dialogue within this circle and all the rest of the frame would be blocked out.
BS The uses of sound in your work, ambient noise, dialogue and sequence sound—what is that exactly?
KS I think through collaboration with Richard Landry, the composer and musician, I became aware that one could see and feel sound. I used strobe lights the whole time and black light—it was the ’60s baby, ultraviolet paint. I would set up this tight ambiance and the lights would make sounds with the microphones. There was one section where Tina and Suzie were smoking cigarettes blowing through these little holes …
BS How Genet …
KS They would blow smoke through the holes shaped by their fingers and then put the microphone through the same holes and it would cause feedback which was so distorted, when we filmed it the soundtrack came all the way out to the circle in the center of the frame.
BS You could see the sound?
KS Yeah, you could see it eating into the film. It left its track and moved into the track of the image.
BS What was LA-NY Hook Up?
KS Let me get the record jacket … this is it … Transcribed Information from Air to Airbetween February 1–22, 1975. It was two amplified spaces. When you walked into the space in LA you could talk directly to NY without having a telephone and vice versa.
BS I remember seeing it in LA I walked into the gallery and there was nothing in it but a microphone on a stand in the center of the room. But I became aware of street sounds and traffic noises that I knew were not coming from the door behind me—and when I spoke into the microphone someone in New York answered me. We talked about the weather …Send/Receive, the work that you did in collaboration with Liza Bear, was a live television connection via satellite between artists in SF and NY providing a medium for instant response to work projected by these two groups—
KS Almost killed me. It was so intense—but very much a pioneering effort. Liza knew a lot about my work because she had seen all the manifestations the work had taken and where it was going—politically.
BS Where was it going, politically?
KS I think as an artist one has to be allowed to stop a certain kind of work and do more research and learn more—there is this belief that all you have to do is go to the studio and putter around and things happen but that’s just absurd in the modern world. So that period—it was as if I went back into training and learned something about a system and a structure that I knew nothing about and that made me more aware.
BS What’s your attitude towards propaganda?
KS We thrive on it, live on it.
BS Most of the work we’ve been talking about uses the tools of propaganda but refrains from manufacturing it.
KS Well, that was the most overpowering thing about Send/Receive—the media is so completely politically controlled and the focus became less and less about making work as illustrating this huge propaganda tool. Acquiring that tool was the political thrust—making that tool culturally possible. I just got a much more sophisticated take on its breadth, its fantastic possibilities, scientifically, politically, and economically. Send/Receive was the culmination of a learning experience. And I don’t think the work was totally successful.
BS Well, the idea certainly was and the documentation—as an intimation of things to come … I think the problem came from the act itself overwhelming any other subject matter that could have been programmed through it. We were too intrigued.
After the experience with the Send/Receive you said you became interested in scripts—up to this point your content had been the relation between the form and its audience …
KS I think it was the context really rather than the content. All the earlier media work was based on context and the content was whatever was going on. Rather then scripting I became interested in word projection—the written word to the picture to the sound. Beginning to think of language as a perceptual device—where you not only hear the word you see it written and you have a picture of it. It creates a new language base.
BS What about Chinese ideograms?
KS But photography changed the concept of writing so much—what’s interesting is that ancient calligraphy is based on that.
BS How do you think photography changed the concept of writing?
KS It created a shorthand—it short circuited the need for realistic description.
BS Do you like the work of the Futurists?
KS I’ve always liked the ideology of the Futurists.
BS The Fascist part?
KS Their scientific investigations and the way they gave them a cultural reference—Russolo is still the most interesting to me because of his work with sound environments rather than Boccioni and Balla.
BS Who were too representational in their translation of motion. Do you think your work, particularly LA–NY Hook Up and Send/Receive is representational?
KS No, I think they are abstract, but they are representational of a cultural response.
BS Do you think that abstract art is political?
KS Yes, political aspects of a work could be the contrasts of the material, let’s say as in my new work—a radio to an abstract sculpture or attempting to make work that’s freestanding and not based on the pedestal—thanks to Smithson. The most important pieces that led up toSend/Receive were Hook Up, Channel Mix, and Live TV. Live TV was done in LA with two screens that projected the viewer in negative and positive. It was shot through with laser beams so when the viewer walked through the beam their image would shatter all over the screen. It was breaking a signal response and a person’s physicality actually did it. Once again, it was something telling be that television cannot be one way. There has to be some sort of physical and emotional feedback between the two forces of sending and receiving. There was a conscious and activated physical connection between the person and the object. In my new work I want to include television in its more objectified state as opposed to its sending response, letting it remain an object that outputs. With the computer games I can think of abusing it because it’s in a place now where it can be manipulated by the culture. Before it was like a dinette set and now it’s taken on a more aggressive and functional role.
BS Do you read science fiction?
BS You traveled to India last year, where you made two sculpture series, one in bamboo and the other in aluminum. The Hindu religion with all its mysticism plays an active role in everyday life in India—it’s used by its practitioners. And its cosmology embraces dichotomies within each God—such as Siva, the God of destruction and regeneration. Weren’t those sculptures named after Hindu Gods and Goddesses?
KS Several of the pieces, especially the bamboo work. The gestural aspects of the human body retain … I was very interested in making a symbol with parts of the body—like the gods with all the arms—and in fact the sculptures began to look like caricatures—of Hindu numbers.
BS You returned to making gestural objects.
KS I went back to making objects but I went back to making objects that were about writing—I investigated the symbolic pictographic source of writing. There’s always this pressure on the artist to make something new. I think an artist always does the same thing but refines, alters it and reorients it into the culture.
BS Do you think there is a connection between the works you did in India and earlier work, such as Send/Receive?
KS I don’t really understand all the different metaphysical labels that are at work in it yet. The only way I can talk about the work now, is that it’s the first time I worked so intensely in a non-western culture. The bamboo pieces have a very erotic edge and at the same time a very quasi-religious, scientific fiction edge too because they’re dealing with iconography again. What resulted from it was that I made freestanding work. It had always had to be fixed from wall to place to architecture. And I made this series of freestanding work which generated a different concept for me to approach sculpture with—without monumental references but instead an approach to biped, triped, and quadruped stance. My present work is named just that—depending upon how many legs they are standing on.
BS Are the Indian works based on Sanskrit?
KS Yes, very much so, the symbols on the aluminum pieces are counting—the Gujarat symbols for the numbers one through ten.
KS Is the language of the state I was in—Ahmadabad.
BS Did you have a system for arranging these numbers?
KS Not so much that. Since I didn’t know the language of the workers, I found out how to count in writing and I would say this number goes with that number and that created a code system, that they could read and I could read.
BS But that was the basis of a mutual language—the parts of a whole—how did you construct the whole?
KS They were made from drawings—dirt plans, I was actually drawing into a dirt floor. We would make these numbers out of bamboo and then figure out how they could stand up, on their own on the drawings.
BS Your color when you used video and neon was very much the colors inherent in each medium. When you got to India how did this use of color change?
KS Color in its physical pure state—you’ve been there too, you just see color and get an instant response to its intensity and depth. To me color in volume is as important as color in expanse. If you have a concentrated amount of pigment it generates a lot of energy. I think there is something about color projection which in some ways could be read metaphysically. Color can move—and does have a sending response—generating a certain atmosphere, attitude.
BS Color is so prominent in the Hindu religion—metaphysical. For instance, the Sikh Temple—which is a very opaque white with a gold roof and a saffron center in the interior. Did this sort of thing affect you? Did you make many expeditions to the Temples?
KS I went to see quite a few. The most remarkable thing about the religious art in India is that it’s still a working philosophy—full of alteration and change, it’s not set and that’s been the remarkable thing about all the different religions existing there, side by side, that they grow and interchange. They’re not as fixed as we are here and the moralistic base is not the same either.
BS Do you believe in animism—that objects can feel?
KS No, not really. No, but I think one can give objects those qualities.
BS Do the Indians worship their religious art objects as an actual embodiment—extension of the God?
KS I think they assist in making it an art object. One thing that always intrigued me is that there might be some iconographic statue somewhere and it had constantly been repainted and things were done to it—they’re pulled down to a very human level in a lot of places, they can touch them, put things on them, manipulate them. Whereas here you have to have this incredible distance between us and the object. And that’s the most incredible response I enjoyed. That’s why I was drawn to Indian culture—you can still observe a culture where physical realities of life—the horrible and the beautiful and the ordinary are all pressed right up front …
BS The sublime …
KS The sublime and the horrible—for Westerners to deal with that kind of poverty on that level of human suffering and at the same time that exists here as well.
BS Not with the same visual impact—in terms of numbers if nothing else. Did you feel with the color on your sculptures, that you were applying paint in the same way the Indians apply it to their statues?
KS Color was used in connection with the configuration the object took on. I would choose the color to enhance and direct the impulses that I wanted from a particular work.
BS In terms of …
KS Their inherent physicality—when you see the whole series, Saraswati might have a very different feeling from Vishnu and Nandi which had much smoother surfaces and were much more tactile.
BS Vishnu is?
KS The God of Creation.
BS And Nandi?
KS Nandi is the Sacred Bull God which goes back to the Europa tradition of the Sacred Bull. But there is something about India which is more hermaphroditic.
BS The bamboo sculptures are very sexual …
KS They have a sexuality and I wouldn’t call it hermaphroditic. In The Book of Kells the formation of language comes from, supernatural combination of human and animal parts—there’s a floating cosmic world where there are parts of animals and humans that are joined together. From this joining comes the basis of writing as well, to graphically combine these things. Writing is really about making a symbol out of a combination of thoughts. Now I’m not saying that I did this directly, I’m just giving this work some sort of historical support. I’m not from that world and I don’t have any religious attitudes about that. I’m concerned with making and supporting my own myth and I will use any other myth that I can, to help me do it but at the same time, as an artist I want to be clear about what mine is based on and at the same time projects something that can be read on many different levels. A lot of the reason that art is so boring is that you can read it and get it in a second and then you don’t want it anymore. It can’t sustain anything.
BS What other cultures have you studied?
KS When I was studying Anthropology I remember reading African myths where a sculpture was made for some ritual and it was made out of mud and then it all melted away. Which to me was the best use of art—where you just used it to death and it melted away and the culture had to recreate something else. It’s the antithesis of iconography in the West. And in India too—where the sculpture has been altered and repainted so that it has a totally different sort of look—it has nothing to do with a fixed state. I like art that can be used.
BS Your latest pieces appear to be a synthesis of the Indian work that combines much older gestural references to writing and your earlier work that used technological means of communication. They look as if they came out of a sci-fi film.
KS But they also look like scientific structures for outer space—humanizing technology without giving it a romantic context but a mythic one.
I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.