On the Chaos of Bodies: David Grubbs and John Sparagana in Conversation

The collaborators on riots, punk, Richter, and the new book Now that the audience is assembled.

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John Sparagana, Our Monsters Have Their Own Intimate Lives #9, 2017. Archival inkjet prints, sliced and mixed on paper 33 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey. Photograph by Aron Gent.

I have a hard time describing what it is that I’m doing when looking at the collages that John Sparagana produces of cut and sliced news images. I’m reading them, sort of. I’m experiencing the force of the crowds they often depict, albeit through a curious selection of source materials. I’m being hypnotized by visually demanding compositions, but even as they dazzle the eye my brain keeps plugging away.

As I neared completion of the book Now that the audience is assembled (Duke University Press), I dangled an image of a crowd in revolt before John and asked if he might be game to have at it. Not only did he produce a number of terrific works that are included in the publication, but he has kept on keeping on with this single source, and a number of these new pieces accompany this conversation.

When folks making polite conversation ask “what kind of music do you play?” I usually say, “I grew up playing in punk bands,” although that doesn’t tell them much about the kinds of music I’ve made in the last twenty-five years. Punk is the authorizing impulse, the continuing context in much the same way that the Red Krayola have never sounded as psychedelic as they did on their first two records, and yet for them psychedelia still looms large as an authorizing impulse. For me, post-punk stretches on forever.

—David Grubbs

David GrubbsWhen was the last time you were in the thick of a really large crowd?

John SparaganaA few years ago, late December DKV Trio concert at the Hideout. So packed with people pressing from behind and jammed all the way to the stage that my nose was practically pressed up against the leather coat of the very tall guy in front of me. I’m intensely claustrophobic but the music was too good to give it up and no one else in the audience was leaving in spite of the dangerous density of bodies. Eventually the fire marshal arrived and shut it down sending us out into a bitterly cold Chicago night, major drag but also a huge relief. How about you—what is your feeling about crowds?

DGI feel that when I look at your collages that have to do with crowds I’m transported to that moment-by-moment experience of a chaos of bodies, to being smack-dab in the middle. Your collage Crowds & Powder: Tahrir Square (2013) summons both the political demonstration that it pictures and the vortex of a mosh pit at a punk show. I didn’t know that you were claustrophobic.

JS It’s mainly a phobia of enclosed spaces, but I do scope out openings and exits when I’m in a crowd. With media images of crowds, beyond the inherent political content I’m interested in how figures spatially define or characterize the visual field. Also the dynamic of all these diverse isolated gestures coalescing into a greater organism. Both aspects have a structural relationship to my approach to collage so those crowd pieces feel particularly vital. It has to be a lot of the reason I went down the rabbit hole with the news photo of the stadium concert riot you introduced me to.

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John Sparagana, Our Monsters Have Their Own Intimate Lives #3, 2017. Archival inkjet prints, sliced and mixed on paper 16 x 42 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey. Photograph by Aron Gent.

DG Oh yeah—I keep forgetting that all of this is vectored through images of crowds from news media. See how quickly I want to be whooshed VR-style back into a stage-diving throng?

JSWell I am interested in seeing an image vibrate, dissolve, fly apart while gaining density and resonance as a constructed object.

DGWe meet halfway. Maybe I’d rather spend time looking at a collage of a riot at a rock concert rather than be there in the middle of people throwing chairs. I know you’ve explained it to me before, but what’s your technique for making these sliced and mixed collages? I don’t know why, but I sense that it’s a straightforward process, and yet whenever I try to explain it to someone else I feel like I’m making a complete hash of it.

JS It’s a simple analog formula involving two stages of slicing and mixing multiple copies of the same media image—or in a case like the Themesong Variations series, multiple copies of a collage I’ve made from a media image (in that case Dick Tracy comics). The first stage is slicing the image vertically and sequencing it horizontally, in order to stretch the image out horizontally. How much it is stretched horizontally depends on the number of copies I’m using (typically four, sixteen, or twenty-five), to generate the desired degree of fracture, dissipation, vibration, and scale. There will be two horizontal panels if I am mixing four images, four if I’m mixing sixteen images, and so on. The slices are generally an eighth of an inch wide, essentially the smallest material unit that I can feasibly work with. Those eighth-inch strips are sequenced A-B for two panels, A-B-C-D for four panels, and so on. The second stage is slicing the horizontal panels horizontally and sequencing them vertically (eighth-inch strips as well). This brings the image back to its original ratio, in a grid format, expanded, stuttering and buzzing.

DG When did you first start using the technique? And apart from the numbers of copies of the source image, has the technique remained the same? How strict are you in applying it?

JS I started using this technique in 2007, though I’d been collaborating with (or one might say hijacking) media images in various ways since 2001. I am strict in applying the sequencing; I never just go off because I think something might be interesting. What does interest me is the tension generated when subjective matters meet an objective system. With some series there are complications introduced, though the slicing/sequencing technique remains constant. For example, with a few of the pieces that draw from the concert riot photo I first alternate an image sequenced from left to right with the same image right to left (a stretching of the image horizontally that becomes rhythmic), and then slice horizontally and mix vertically two of those horizontal panels resulting in a more blown-out grid. The Crowds & Powder series utilizes paint, very much of the hand, but also in a systematic way, prior to slicing and mixing. The result of that along with the sequenced slicing is a painted grid pattern that infects parts of the media image.

DG Oh man, your description of the blown-out grid is killing me. It’s like the grid just started ripping up seats and throwing them. And that’s not to mention the infected media image.

JS Yeah another kind of riot.

DG Another kind of rot.

JS Riot and rot, wings of the liberation.

DG When I asked you if you might be interested in creating artworks for Now that the audience is assembled based on the rock-concert riot image, I did so despite the fact that the book doesn’t describe an out-and-out riot, nor is the event that it details a rock concert. I guess it was just me being hyperbolic. Now that the audience is assembled describes in maybe excruciating detail a fictional concert of experimental music, and of necessity the audience is within the frame. I found myself thinking a lot about audience behavior and performer behavior, expectations on both sides, and the way those things can break down—and probably ought to break down.

JS The excruciating detail of Now that the audience is assembled feels essential to fully embedding us in the experience, and delivers the realization that audience is integral to the sonic experiment as it unfolds. I loved getting dragged into that. Speaking of audience brings me to territory thoroughly examined in your last book, Records Ruin The Landscape: the complex and layered implications of live vs. recorded experience. Central to the nature of my work is that it cannot be known via reproduction—its perceptual condition is tied to material fact. Ironic to say as this piece includes digital reproductions of the series that riffs on the stadium riot photo. I’d like to think that reproductions point to the work, but in fact by their very nature reproductions are the antithesis of the work; they undermine the perceptual condition in which the core idea of the work resides. How is that for an antagonistic statement? My friend Reto Geiser and I produced something that plays on my work’s resistance to reproduction. We translated one of the Tahrir Square pieces, Revolutionaries, from Crowds & Powder, a very large piece, into an editioned book. Each page is a one to one reproduction of a corresponding (sequenced left to right, top to bottom) fragment of the piece. It is in the form of a dime store novel; black and white, pulp paper, cheap ink, 180 pages long, with a key at the end of the book that maps out the correspondences between each page and its position in the “novel.” The title is Reading Revolutionaries.

DG One of the reasons that I like your publications so much is that they begin with the recognition that they differ in kind from the original collages, and this frees you up to push the reproductions to extremes, as with Reading Revolutionaries. Reading Revolutionaries goes further than other publications of yours that I’ve seen in magnifying the work, but also in firmly controlling the order in which someone “reads”—the word “scans” also comes to mind—its sequence of details from the work. When I first saw your catalogue Between the Eyes, the ways in which the reproductions amplify the texture of the slice and some of the smallest aspects of your compositions made me think of Gerhard Richter’s 128 Fotos von einem Bild, with its extreme, defamiliarizing closeups of a single work. Are there particular artists’ books that have served as a model for how you present the collages in your publications?

JS Nothing specific. I’ve relied on smart friends. Reading Revolutionaries took off from the logic of John Corbett’s cool idea for the Crowds & Powder catalog, the telescoping in on image details based on the trajectory of the Eames’s film Powers of Ten.

DGUntil this conversation I hadn’t really thought about comparing the experience of looking at your collages with the perceptual challenges of viewing Angela Bulloch’s pixel-box works. In her Z-Point, which I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about because I made the soundtrack for it, the viewer spends the first few minutes studying a desert landscape from Zabriskie Point rendered in 48 (six stacked rows of eight) 50-centimeter light boxes changing at a rate of once per second. But it does basically look like a desert: a generally unchanging horizontal band of browns and greens below a generally unchanging band of blues. Then everything goes haywire with the 48-pixel rendering of the scenes of explosions at the end of the film, but for a while you’ve learned to see “desert” as well as “the desert in the film Zabriskie Point.” When I describe Z-Point to someone who hasn’t seen it, I always find myself talking about the challenge of looking through the pixelation in order to see the film, but this must have to do with my experience as a musician of listening through distortion to hear the originating signal, the input. Do you imagine viewers not only looking at but also looking through your collage technique in search of the source image? Or is your relation to the work more that of believing the source image to have been erased or made irrelevant?

JS Both the content of the source image and the nature of the source media format remain integral to the meaning, no matter how distanced it is through my intervention. The analogy of listening through distortion really works for me. I’m curious whether your experience of “listening through distortion to hear the originating signal, the input” live, in space, functions in a significantly different way than as a recording. Z-Point sounds fantastic.

DG Oh, absolutely. The vast number of recordings that I listen to I get to know over multiple listens, so whatever listening through I do gets sharpened over time. In a live performance there are visual cues that tell me what’s happening, but subsequent listens then have to happen in that degraded medium that is my mind.

JSI have a casual practice which is to sit on the back stairs of my house in Chicago, relax my mind in order to locate sounds in space—the rise and fall of heels clicking on the sidewalk approaching, meeting, and passing me, an elevated train rounding the curve three blocks away and moving away along North Avenue, punctuation of children’s voices on the playground around the corner and up the street, a plane overhead in its approach to O’Hare. Space and atmospheric conditions are of course integral to the experience. As I am able to hold at least three sonic threads simultaneously my mind becomes spacious.

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John Sparagana, Our Monsters Have Their Own Intimate Lives #11, 2018. Archival inkjet prints, sliced and mixed on paper 24 x 18 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey. Photograph by Aron Gent.

DG Right now I’m experiencing my brain as small and tight like a fist. Gathered in upon itself. I know that sounds bad.

JS I hope my self-indulgent ride down reverie lane didn’t trigger that! Maybe it’s a good time to ask you what your next writing project is, and how far into it you are.

DG No, I was just performing a quick diagnostic exam prompted by your description of spaciousness within, which sounds lovely, and I was experiencing the contents of my head as dense, which sounds worse than it needs to be. Thick? No. Maybe just concentrated? When I finish a record, I find myself slingshotted into the next project because it usually is in large part everything that the previous one was not. Finish a record of songs, and I’ll be ready for longer instrumental pieces. Finish a project with Susan Howe and be ready to pick up the electric guitar. The same was true with Records Ruin the Landscape; it really must have been the week that I turned in final revisions and couldn’t mess with it further that I started writing what became Now that the audience is assembled. I knew that I wanted to write about live performance and without reference to recordings, the transmission of knowledge across time, and so on. Last spring I finished Now that and immediately began a new book set in every recording studio in which I’ve ever set foot. Within this impossible concatenation of spaces I describe a single day of recording. The current draft is approximately the same length as Now that the audience is assembled, but I have a ways to go. Maybe I’ll finish it before the end of this year? Did I ever tell you about this disastrous experience when I was in college and sent a batch of very short short stories to the writer and artist Guy Davenport, who taught at the University of Kentucky and whom I held in especially high esteem? He generously wrote back even though it was clear that he couldn’t find anything of value in the stories, nothing at all to encourage. At one point in the letter he wrote something along the lines of (and I remember it because I used it in the lyric for the song “Kentucky Karaoke,” on Rickets & Scurvy) “when you have stories to tell, you will tell them.” And I think I did understand that I had stories to tell right around the time that I finished Records Ruin the Landscape, on the basis of the preface and introduction in which I account for my attraction to these subjects on the basis of my own experience as a musician and as a listener. Occasionally I tell someone this story and they often think his advice is very arch and not helpful, but I can tell you almost exactly three decades later that I think he was absolutely correct.

JS That is a beautiful story, and has to my mind some relation to your earlier comment regarding a productive breaking down of both audience and performer expectations. A great thing about working over a significant period of time is the perspective it brings. When you say you are methodically describing a single day of recording, sounds like an alternative formal structure from Now that the audience is assembled?

DG Or maybe the same structure, ha ha? And what about my claim of slingshotting myself through undertaking a next project that is the negative image of the previous? At this point I’ll just say that the next book has many formal similarities with Now that, that it’s set in a recording studio and has everything to do with specificities of recorded-music aesthetics, and it tries to account for strategies to deal with the lack of pushback in the studio situation—the fact that no audience is assembled.

JS Ah, very cool.

DG So, you created a number of collages for Now that the audience is assembled, but after we did the final selection of images for the book, you’ve continued to work with the same source image. What can you say about this next group of works, a number of which will accompany this conversation, and how has your relationship to this single source photograph continued to change?

JS For one thing, given the amount of time I’ve spent mining the photo and making the pieces, this has come to feel like an expansive series that has grown out of a project. I’ve become mesmerized by the drama contained within this single moment recorded in 1985, as a found tableau with arenas of action within the overall arena, and as a harbinger of the belligerence and bellicosity of our present moment. I believe you spoke about that early on, and it has become more present for me the longer I’ve worked with the image.  In the course of a discussion I was having with my daughter Hannah—I don’t remember what we were speaking about—she used the phrase, our monsters have their own intimate lives, and that delineates the feeling that has evolved for me in relation to this series. When I was first working with the photo I found it spectacular for its overall gestalt and sub-actions, the longer I work with it the more haunting I find it to be.

DG The more works of yours emerge from it, the more difficult it is to think of it as a single image, you know? The fact that you can isolate and bring forth so many moments and actions and actors within a single image makes me think of it as not… single. My mother was a portrait photographer and I have powerful memories of spending time in the darkroom with her when I was very young. She’s the person who taught me the most about being patient for images to appear, and it seems to me that you’re doing something similar. One other thing I’d say about the source image is that pissed-off shirtless white dudes howling and tearing stuff up looks very different to me thirty years after I first saw the source photo. In 2018 it immediately makes want to know the nature of their rage.

JS Lovely and stark observations David; maybe a good way to conclude our conversation?

David Grubbs is Professor of Music at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. His newest book is Now that the audience is assembled (Duke University Press).  

John Sparagana is Vietti Chair in the Visual Arts at Rice University. He presented solo exhibitions at Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles and Sicardi Gallery, Houston in 2017, and Corbett vs Dempsey in 2016.

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