Issue #145: Ann Hamilton and Audra Wolowiec

BOMB 145 Fall 2018
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Ann Hamilton in collaboration with Anne Bogart and SITI Company, performance view of the theater is a blank page, 2018. Photo by Reed Hutchinson. Courtesy of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.

In 2008 I had been living in New York City for about a year, cobbling together work as an artist assistant, when I received a message from Ann Hamilton’s studio inquiring about helping with an upcoming project, human carriage, at the Guggenheim Museum. For three months, I served as the main attendant of this work. My task was to activate a system of many moving layers of ascent and descent that enveloped the circular space of the museum, through meditative acts of daily care. Several years later, our dialogue continued when I assisted backstage in facilitating the movements of a large cast of performers, while also taking part as both a reader and writer in the expansive installation the event of a thread (2012) at the Park Avenue Armory. Ann makes space in her work for others to inhabit, withness, as she calls it, allowing connections to buoyantly merge, embody, and transcend. In her immersive works, inclusivity dissolves the boundaries between inside and outside, forming a collective thread where all of the senses are activated—hands become tools for listening and the mouth an aperture for seeing. The tactility of language, the page as a place of encounter, and the body as a site of reception—these are elements of engagement we both share in our work. Ann is the most perceptive, hard-working, and generous artist I have ever had the pleasure of working alongside. Our conversation took place in her apartment in New York City.

—Audra Wolowiec

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Ann Hamilton and Audra Wolowiec, a conversation, 2018, pages of found books with tape on paper.

Ann HamiltonYou and I are currently doing a project where we exchange threads of language fragments. We each have a plastic bag full of sliced-up paperback books, chunks of pages untethered from their original context. I have no idea where the texts are from, though an occasional title appears in the mix.

Audra Wolowiec I found some crime novels!

AHThey’re real mixed bags, quite literally. Some of the book fragments still have the binding on them, but the quarter-inch slice holds only a single line of words from each page—enough to sense the genre and, if you flip through, a slight glimpse of narrative. The process is sifting through and finding bits of language that stand out from the pile. It might be a word, phrase, or sentence containing a suggestive tension. One of us selects a line and sends a picture of it to the other, who then sends a line in response. When I’m sifting through the words, I lose myself completely. It unleashes the incredible pleasure of broadly associative thinking, as selected fragments start to construct something between themselves. Why would I choose one section of a line over another? There’s really no rhyme or reason. But now I have all these fragments that are meaningful to me. I could do this all day and be content.

AWIt’s wonderful to receive a line of text over email in this form from you. I’ve been writing them all down on a piece of paper to help follow along.

AHI tend to only follow the line that came before, not the whole thread.

AWSometimes a response will be too narrative, or correlate too closely, and there’s not enough space. A line that doesn’t fit as well can feel more buoyant. You sent one about birds that was so beautiful. It really opened things up, and it took a while to find something that would follow.

AHNow we have a double thread going back and forth because one time I couldn’t decide which was the best response. The lines split, like a family tree, and maybe it will split again as we go forward. But the whole structure is one of responsiveness. We pull meaning from this mass of undifferentiated material and offer it like a gift to the other person. And it’s not just about the language. Sometimes my choices have to do with the object quality—the yellowed paper, the size and style of the font. This back and forth of text fragments, which I originally did by myself, is more surprising to do with you. I think we’re onto something that could be ongoing—like exchanging postcards. We don’t have to worry about what it becomes yet. Or even if it’s anything. For now, I trust the process. It’s alive and if we give it time, who knows?

AWWorking with these fragments of cut texts has been part of several projects of yours. Where did that idea come from?

AHIt started out with human carriage, the project you participated in for The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 at the Guggenheim. The exhibition curator, Alexandra Munroe, and I had a conversation about the influence of Asian texts on Western artists before the age of the Internet, and how those texts circulated in translation.

I was thinking about how difficult it is to account for the trail of influence when something is taken from one cultural context and brought into another. It’s like trying to account for thinking. We receive things in fragments, we no longer have the cultural context, so our reading is all a kind of misreading.

I wanted to respond with a process that materialized the act of reading, and I began with remaking books. We cut up hundreds of books: some Asian, but mostly a mix of secondhand paperbacks—trashy, poetic, academic. And we recombined the individual slices from multiple sources into bundled book-like masses of disparate texts with accidental juxtapositions. I also wanted these aggregated objects to be in motion—to circulate through the museum, to be everywhere and nowhere at once. What was your experience as an animator/caretaker/attendant of the installation?

AWI very much felt in the role of a caretaker. There was an element of timekeeping as well, related to how often the system was activated. Several times an hour, I released a carriage containing two Tibetan cymbal bells enclosed in a layer of silk, which slid on a track tracing the spiral trajectory of the museum’s rotunda, from the top floor downward. The ring of the bell resonated through the space. When the bell carriage finished its spiral and reached the bottom, it released a cluster of suspended “weights” made from the combined fragments of book pages, which then accumulated in a large pile on the museum’s ground floor. These book weights were secured with strings, allowing the sculptural forms to suspend in groups, like balancing scales. I stood five stories up, watching this release take place, ready to hoist the bell carriage back to its starting position and attach more book weights for the next round. Between this activation, circumnavigation, and material transfer, some of the pages would become loose and detach from their spine, landing on various floors of the museum. Throughout the day, I would gather these fragments, and sometimes people would bring them over to me.

AHDeliver them to you, sort of like a fortune cookie without the cookie? I had a lot of people help me make the cut-up book bundles because we needed a large supply for the piece—each one was like a portrait of of the hands of the person who made it. A portrait without a face. I am still quite interested in them as a way to think about how the sensibility of a hand comes forward in touching materials. You can give the same material and process to fifteen people and their sensibility toward and touch of those materials is individual.

AWYou leave space for this material conversation to take place. Your work is not a chance operation because there is always some built-in structure, but there’s no script. It’s a generous act. In the event of a thread at the Park Avenue Armory, you introduced similar acts of generosity, by inviting people into the work, both as visitors to the space and as participants—readers and writers—activating the work.

AHI’m interested in the conditions that invite someone inside a project or a process. The work is very demanding—it asks you to relate to it on multiple levels simultaneously. For the project at the Park Avenue Armory, the readers were members or students of SITI Company, a collective of theater artists. Rather than scripting what they read aloud from their individual concordance scrolls, I asked them to read across the central spine of words that constructed each scroll, selecting lines and line lengths as they liked. The improvised reading became an act of composition with each reader responding to the text, each other, and the weather in the room. The writers at the far end of the space were writing letters addressing qualities of the space: “Dear Light” or “Dear Air” or “Dear Motion,” whatever writing would come to them from that. I’m always occupied with how a project can create a condition that allows people to form a relationship to it, one that they’re authoring, where they’re agents. Their own volition is present, but it’s not about being interactive. I invited people into the space, but I didn’t tell them what to do. It’s not going to be the same experience for every single person. To what degree does something need to be open? And to what degree does it need to be structured with parameters and guidelines?

AWTrust is also important, for the artist and for the participant because you enter into something that has a set of conditions, an internal structure that you want to honor.

AHAs a participant, you’re also trying to figure out, What am I supposed to do? And what do I want to do? How can I be present within this?

AWYou invite people to be listeners and also responders, which seems similar to your own way of approaching a site or place.

AHHow do you use response in your work?

AWI often respond to the writing of others, or in relationship to a site, how one’s body moves through a particular space, and the experience of an embodied listener. When I work with performers, I have an idea of what I would like the work to be, but I rely on their individual skill sets and experiences. I learn so much from working with other people. I’m interested in voice, but not being trained in vocal performance, it’s crucial for me to understand how someone who has these skills might interpret a set of ideas.

AHI’m interested in the pieces you’ve made where the sound carries the emotion or rhythm of what someone’s saying, but not the actual content or meaning of the words.

AWI often try to find ways of expressing voice or speech in the absence of language. In the project private space in a public time, which I showed at MASS MoCA (2016–17), I was extracting parts of speech that go unnoticed. I recorded myself reading Vito Acconci’s Public Space in a Private Time, then edited out what I considered to be the “public” elements, the known or understood vocalizations that make up words, leaving the beginnings and endings of each word and the “private” breaths in between. What a visitor heard when walking through one of the connector tunnels at the museum was a condensed series of stops and starts, a guttural experience of speech. As a corresponding visual score, I erased the physical words, then drew a rounded slur underneath the spaces, creating a series of joining lines. I was thinking of Roland Barthes’s grain of the voice in relationship to what the thread of the voice might look and sound like.

I recently worked with a composer, Jesse Mejía, who has an experimental choir in Portland, Oregon. Our project, semaphore (2016), was part of an art and science collaboration at the University of Oregon, where I spent time observing the activities of the Neuroscience Lab of Santiago Jaramillo, which studies how meaning, memory, and attention are assigned to sounds, tracking synapses and brain activity. I wanted to turn all of this data into something visceral and vocal. Jesse was incredibly helpful because I didn’t know how to communicate with the singers, musically, but I knew the sonic space I wanted to create with the text-based scores I’d made in response to the lab data. We landed on the idea of singing in a speaking tone—voicing each letter of the word as you would pronounce it while speaking. It wasn’t about hitting an exact note or being virtuosic.

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Ann Hamilton, human carriage, 2009, cloth, wire, bells, books, string, pipe, pulleys, pages, cable, gravity, air, and sound. Photo by Thibault Jeanson. Courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio. 

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Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012. Photo by James Ewing. Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory.

AHYou do a lot of collaborations with artists who have other approaches to sound, language, and writing. When these works are presented or performed, do you think about ways to invite the viewer into the experience that you had making the work? To go back to the event of a thread at the Armory: I’m sitting at the table writing a letter, in my own subjective space, and my hand is moving, but there’s all this stuff going on around me in the piece. Somebody will say something and it will have everything to do with what’s going on in my letter, or it will turn another way, and there will be this serendipitous moment, like finding that thread of text, or the word or phrase that falls out of the book. What is the condition you can set up for someone else to have the experience of finding that serendipitous moment?

AWI think it’s difficult to do that, but I love the idea of a communal experience. Without being expressly interactive, how does one invite someone to participate, to coexist in a work? In semaphore, which was performed on several floors of a science building that opened into an atrium space, I really wanted the audience to mingle with the performers, creating a fluid boundary between performer and listener. It always comes back to the idea of how one responds to being in a particular environment. And there’s vulnerability too. If it’s not scripted, you are just yourself. You’re not acting, you’re not performing.

AHThat was interesting in human carriage. As a caretaker, I wondered if I was a performer. Am I a docent for the piece? Is my role to answer the public’s questions: “Why are you doing this?” What am I? I have a task, but I’m not a machine. How do I read and listen to all of the subtle social signals that surround me?

AWIf people were moving through the museum quickly or needed answers and didn’t want to observe or experience, when I was the caretaker, I would try to slow them down by example, by being more still or responding with a question.

AHI suppose that speaks to the difference between having an experience and consuming one. We’re increasingly pushed toward the consumption of experience, rather than suspending time to just see what happens. I think that suspension happened at the Armory—the motion and sound invited people in, and they stayed a long time. Work that demands time is very hard for people to make space for. What is it that will make you slow down? We go to museums or the theater or listen to music to enter another spaciousness. I’m working with Anne Bogart and SITI Company now, and Anne has talked about how one of the most important things artists can do is reset people’s relation to time.

The possibility of solitude and interiority seems increasingly under threat. How can work make the spaciousness for another person to join or enter it, to find their own relation or their own ah-hahs? It’s something you can only experience, not something you can have. It resists consumption. And relatedly, how do you suspend people’s impulse to explain what’s happening to themselves?

AWOne way to approach that question is imagining what the space of the room could be for the viewer or listener, how it can have meaning, but not just one meaning. Entering into an almost democratic, open space of poetics. Something that’s felt, visceral, but also intangible.

AHIt’s always in relation that something happens.

AWYes. And as the artist, you learn while making connections and adding layers as things unfold. It reminds me of this phrase John Cage used to describe his ongoing collaboration with Merce Cunningham: “less like an object, and more like the weather.”

AHExactly! We share this sensibility…of landscape, of weather. Those qualities that structure a work and the particularity of them have everything to do with the atmosphere that’s made. It’s viscerally concrete. But often its relationships are abstract. And their abstraction sometimes makes it difficult for people to enter because we have a lot of cultural training to think about things in a narrative way. Can we get people to suspend into the experience without the need to kick into a narrative that explains it to them?

You don’t watch the dust motes in the air when the sun catches them and think, What do they mean? You allow them to be. How do we allow ourselves to be with? That withness is an important part of my work.

AWWhen you start a new project, how do you begin?

AHI don’t know how much of it is conscious. I’m thinking about your window piece with the plastic bags, breathing room (2012)—it’s so beautiful, so simple. Not having experienced it myself, I can imagine coming into the installation and going (gasps)—my response would be a breath. It’s so simple what you did. And I’m sure when you started making that piece you didn’t think, I want people to pay attention to how they’re breathing. But it makes sense that when someone approaches it, they would immediately be conscious of their own breath.

AWThat work started at a time when I was experimenting with found materials. I wasn’t directly thinking about the body or breath, but when I sewed the bags into a grid and held them up to the window, it was there. I now use language and text as a material in a similar way.

AHRight. It is material and it is image.

AWWhen you take someone’s writing and treat it as image or as something tangible, you can excavate and mine it. Not being negligent with someone’s work, but interacting with it out of a deep admiration, and as a form of dialogue.

AHIs it a way to go inside these texts? Like copying them out by hand—an exercise of reading that transfers through an embodied process.

AWI think so. You insert yourself because you want to have a conversation with this person or idea or text. I recently saw images online of your theater work with the SITI Company, the theater is a blank page (2015), based on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. How did you interact with Woolf’s book for that project?

AHWe are in the middle of reworking that piece for an upcoming run at UCLA. One of the dilemmas we’ve had is: Can you create the spaciousness that occurs when you read? It’s a paradox: you’re sitting with the book on your lap and the tea kettle is whistling and the phone is ringing or the dog is asking for attention. And at the same time, you’re immersed in another equally tangible world through words. The proximity and distance of those two things is such a particular condition, and we think very fluidly between their nearness and farness. How do we share the spaciousness of falling into reading itself? It’s a quiet, internal event. The theater piece asks: Can we make this social and shareable?

When the audience members arrive, they check out a book that is a version of To the Lighthouse. The pages are facsimiles of the book that became the reader’s text for the performance. It’s bound as a notepad and a lot of the text is underlined and collaged over so you can see how the book was condensed to a more manageable length. For the UCLA production, pages will be inserted  for a choral section. We have resisted responding overtly to the narrative of the book and kept our focus on the spaces and experiences of reading it.

AWOr the shared space of reading, right? Being alone together. The objectness of the book proposes that.

AHYes. I’m curious: When you read, do you underline? Do you mark up your books?

AWNot necessarily in the books. But I do take notes.

AHSo you’re a good scribe. I’m very heavy-handed with my pen and folded corners. I don’t want to stop the process of reading to copy something out. Sometimes I take pictures of the page. The impulse is to share: “Oh, let me read this to you.”

Your projects are often structured by selecting existing text to work with. What if you did the writing yourself? How important is it to be responding to another author?

AWThat’s a great question. I don’t write as often as I would like to. I really admire writers. I don’t find my own writing to be as fluid as responding to other people’s texts—being in conversation with something existing, using the language as a material.

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Ann Hamilton in collaboration with Anne Bogart and SITI Company, performance view of the theater is a blank page, 2015. Photo by Brooke LaValley. Courtesy of Ann Hamilton Studio.

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Audra Wolowiec, and if but by, 2018, sound installation with text. Courtesy of the artist.

AHHow do you go about deciding what texts you’re going to work with?

AWSometimes it’s chance. I’ll find something outside the Strand in the dollar racks, maybe a title taken out of context. I found this book Less Than Words Can Say, and the writing itself was quite terrible, but I loved the title and the idea it proposed. I was thinking about pauses and gaps in speech and learned that in music notation the comma is the mark for the breath. So I used this text to create a score for the breath by removing all the words and punctuation except for the commas. It has been performed by a few musicians, recently in Berlin by a collective called Vibrant Matter.

For a show at Bard, Not Quite Verbatim, I was asked to create a work that engaged ideas of a dialogue in an art context, rather than a literary one. I mined the collection and landed upon the Situationist Archive, specifically Theory of the Dérive by Guy DeBord. I was curious about the idea of drifting through a text, how one might become displaced through an altered experience of language, both on the page and sonically.

At the moment I’m working with a book I found several years ago called Power Talk, for the basis of another sound installation. It’s a self-help book about how to be more assertive, which has an element of humor, but for me it’s also served as an entry point to think about how language is used, often quite subtly, to command authority in the media and in our everyday lives. The chapters I’m drawn to are “Language from the Center” and “Language from the Edge.”

AHThere was a TED Talk about power poses.

AWYes, I saw that! You’re meant to sit up straight before an interview, expand your posture. And it increases your—

AH—power, confidence. So much of your work is about this space in between—drawing attention to the parts of speech or language we don’t pay attention to. There’s a book by British literary scholar Steven Connor: Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters, and Other Vocalizations. It’s all about the spaces—the stuff, the stutters, the pauses—in both writing and speech. He also wrote a book on ventriloquism called Dumbstruck.

AWThat sounds great. I had difficulty speaking as a kid.

AHOh, you did?

AWYeah, I struggled with a speech impediment, a very noticeable stutter. It still comes up sometimes, out of the blue or if I’m tired. Some words just don’t—it just stops. And as a kid I didn’t know how to deal with that.

AHWould you be silent? Would you try not to speak?

AWI would avoid speaking, especially in class and public settings. Because I was unsure of the outcome. The advice people gave me was to really think about what I was going to say, which doesn’t necessarily help.

AHIt makes you more self-conscious?

AWYeah, but then, with all that thinking about what to say, you become good at substitution and diversion.

AHBecause you can feel the word’s not going to come out. You’re improvising.

AWExactly. It’s very physical, the voice is embodied; it is of the body. That’s where my impulse toward the physicality and materiality of speech comes from.

AHThat’s so interesting. You return to a space where you prepare yourself to speak. I’m reminded of a project I did a long time ago at Dia, tropos (1994)—the title comes from Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropismes—where I worked with an actor, Tom Curlew, who as the result of a stroke now has aphasia. In thinking about communication without speech and how enormously difficult it can be to come to language, I recorded him reading. And it was often hard—impossible—for the word he was thinking or reading to come out of his mouth because of the neurological damage, and you hear in his voice the difficulty and pain of coming to speech.

I had an experience in Kraków, arriving by train from Vienna late at night, when the city was very quiet. This was years ago—gas was not easily available so there were not a lot of cars or their noise; the food markets had limited goods. I woke up in the morning in a hotel downtown—a once-grand hotel with big windows. And I could see in the square across from me a church and a congregation gathered in front, animated in conversation. I opened the window expecting to hear the sound, but quickly understood it was a deaf congregation. The moment just chilled me. And I began to wonder how metaphors and thinking differ in language that is spatial rather than linear. We aren’t often conscious of the extent to which our thinking is a consequence of our language. To go back to Nathalie Sarraute, in an interview for the Paris Review she talks about how she wanted to write in that space where you prepare yourself to speak, of words at the liminal edge of the body.

AWThat place of becoming or of ambiguity.

AHRight, it doesn’t have form yet. But it’s not nothing.

AWIt’s like the origins of something.

AHYes. That’s really the right word. I don’t know where the word origin comes from. I should look that up.

Ann Hamilton is a visual artist internationally recognized for her large-scale multimedia installations. Her work has been exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MoMA, among others. She teaches at the Ohio State University. 

Audra Wolowiec is an interdisciplinary artist working between sculpture, installation, text, and performance. Her work has been shown at MASS MoCA, CCS Bard Hessel Museum, Art in General, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Stony Brook University, Studio 10, the Poetry Project, and the Center for Performance Research. She currently teaches at Parsons School of Design, SUNY Purchase, and Dia:Beacon.

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Originally published in

BOMB 145, Fall 2018

In the process of putting together each new issue of BOMB, we often come across distinct resonances between interviews—shared themes, creative preoccupations, and even specific phrases crop up time and again within otherwise disparate features. In these pages, artists discuss their expansive notions on collaboration. Their practices tend to split, reapportion, or redefine authorship, privileging process over individual intention and encouraging unique partnerships with spectators, local communities, film subjects, and one another. These willful acts of reaching out and beyond are as vital as ever, and worth emphasizing here.

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