Generative Misunderstanding: Alison O’Daniel Interviewed by Anne Ellegood

Working with sound, but not always the ear.

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Alison O’Daniel, Made in L.A. 2018, 2018. Installation View. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. 

Alison O’Daniel’s ongoing project The Tuba Thieves was inspired by an unlikely crime: a spate of tuba thefts from a number of high school marching bands in Los Angeles. The slowly unfolding feature-length film, which she has been shooting since 2013, is a portrait of music and silence built around events both historic and mundane. O’Daniel, whose binaural hearing loss requires her to wear hearing aids and lip read, saw the removal of this tonally rich instrument from the band as analogous to her daily experience of missing parts of conversations and having to fill in the gaps.

The production of The Tuba Thieves reversed the usual process of filmmaking by starting with finished pieces of music and writing scenes based on the compositions commissioned from deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim, hearing painter and musician Steve Roden, and the late hearing composer Ethan Frederick Greene. O’Daniel makes us cognizant of the many nuances of sound and how it interfaces with our other senses, while also revealing the often hidden politics inscribed within a culture that takes hearing for granted and elevates the visual over the aural.

—Anne Ellegood


Anne EllegoodThe Tuba Thieves (2013–ongoing) is very complex, including what will eventually be a film comprised of more than fifty scenes, live performance, and numerous sculptural objects. Can you describe this work in one sentence?

Alison O’Daniel The Tuba Thieves—derived from an ongoing collaboration with composers, deaf athletes, musicians, and performers—began in the wake of tuba robberies from Los Angeles schools in 2012, and tells the story of marching band students reconciling with missing sound, a deaf drummer, the 1952 premiere of John Cage’s 4’33”, and the last punk show at the Deaf Club in San Francisco in 1979.

AE Can you discuss how your work explores sound, or a lack of sound, as a primary subject?

AO My work internalizes and studies the details of what it means not to have total access to sound. I use that as a starting point to play with how representing aural experiences and sonic elements can be misleading and elusive in a hard of hearing or deaf person’s life: sound, the omnipresence of music, access, and the psychosocial and psychological effects of navigating these things constantly. I’m interested in the variations of experience across the hearing, HoH [hard of hearing], and Deaf spectrums. I’m intent on utilizing my experiences and experiences shared by my Deaf and HoH friends as a productive narrative tool and to develop a poetic vocabulary that drives my process, collaborations, and final works. I’m not interested in presenting overwrought narratives of people not hearing, but rather weaving our daily experiences into the writing and performances through a more abstracted sensorial series of subtle cues. 

AE How do your sculptures function in relation to the film?

AO I use materials that absorb, reflect, and alter the sounds of the spaces in which they are exhibited. Made of varying densities of foam and acoustic materials, the objects refer back to a list of references I provided to the three musicians who made scores for the film. I started with the music, working backward toward the narrative of the film. I provided the musicians with a mostly non-sound-based lists of things (poems, architecture, quotes, artists’ bodies of work, photos of artists) and asked them to interpret them musically. Because I feel insecure working with music, I try to hand it off. I attempt to keep my work focused on sound through the telling of how we all handled sound together. Maybe a way to sum up my process is to acknowledge that I’m working with sound, but often not with the ear.

AE You have also used sound to structure your work as a gradually unfolding process, or a “call and response” activity. How does your process inform the formal aspects of your work?

AO For my show at Shulamit Nazarian, I developed a process based on the children’s game Telephone, but thought of how wonderfully abstract it would be to play with only HoH participants. I tried to imagine the sculptures as having a starting point that went through multiple filters of mis-hearings. 

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Alison O’Daniel, Say the word “NOWHERE.” Say “HEADPHONES.” Say “NOTHING.” 2018. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles.

AO I begin with a conceptual focus, then take the work through several translations, leaving out the middle parts (as seen in several polyurethane columns titled Louise [2018] and their mis-hearings called Her Shadow [2018]). In this case I started with a reference—a 1960s image of Louise Nevelson smoking a cigar with incredible eyelashes on—and followed a long process of responding to, interpreting, and purposefully “mis-communicating,” showing the infinite ways that I could create new objects through the transformation that occurs in not hearing correctly. 

AE It seems that in the spaces of “mis-communication” or “mis-hearing” there is incredible opportunity for the poetic. Can you talk more about how your work, rather than depicting spectrums of deafness as a deficit or handicap, proposes that experiencing the world with inevitable gaps and different sensorial highlights is, in fact, generative and creative?

AO The process of creating the captions in my film has been the most generative. Every single edit considers the fact that I have an audience with a range of hearing experiences. I always think about how a Deaf audience would respond to an edit and how a hearing audience would, and I am inspired by and respect the fact that these receptions are different. While I require captions for films, I also sometimes feel like the captions “raise” a Deaf or HoH person’s experience to a hearing experience. And while I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have captions (WE SHOULD), I do wish that more HoH and Deaf people were determining the value system from which they are developed. 

AE How, specifically, have you used captions in The Tuba Thieves? Can you describe a scene that you think emphasizes, or calls attention, to the potential for captions to both elucidate and complicate?

AO I try to do a few things when I edit. So far I’ve chosen not to include a caption if you can see the subject or object that is the source of sound. If a sound is coming from a non-visualized or off-screen space, I will describe the sound and give the source, such as “[Radio Announcer:…..].” I put all sounds in brackets. Because the main character of the film, Nyke, is deaf, I don’t use brackets for American Sign Language, in order to shift the hierarchies a bit and to distinguish actual sound.

The most generative and poetic captioning is in Scene 55: The Plants Are Protected. Christine Sun Kim made the music and utilized her voice, as well as field recordings. I tried to make the scene without any captions at all. Two things happened. First, I sent her the initial edit and asked her what she thought. Her response was basically, “Yeah, yeah, that’s nice.” She is deaf, and I gathered that the edit was excluding her. I also wanted a separate vocal track, but when I asked for it, she only had the sound file embedded with her voice embedded. I asked her if she could re-record the vocals, and she told me she had no way of knowing what she had done originally. Determined, I started to listen to her vocal track to re-create the sounds she made, taking extremely detailed notes of what was actually happening in my mouth and throat as I re-created the sounds she made.

Right before I emailed these descriptions to her, I was struck by how beautiful and poetic the written descriptions were, and I decided not to ask her to change anything and to use these descriptions as captions. This opened the door for the captions to become a third narrative space alongside sound and image. I ended up including actual descriptions of the sounds in the film, as well as a quote that I provided to Christine and asked her to respond to, which is from a physicist who wrote to Andrei Tarkovsky after seeing The Mirror, trying to describe his experiences. When I copied and pasted this quote from a PDF to a Word document, all of the formatting broke, adding extra spaces between letters. I thought it was an apt parallel for the way we were working, so I included the abnormal spacing. Nowhere in the work is it made clear for a Deaf audience that these captions do not have an unseen voice saying them, but my hope is that the words breaking apart signifies an entire breakdown in the usual system of describing sound.

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Alison O’Daniel, Made in L.A. 2018, 2018. Installation View. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. 

AE Your approach to creating The Tuba Thieves, as well as the sequencing of scenes, is anachronistic, so there is no clear sequence of events or linear narrative to follow. Furthermore, you often show the work on multiple screens, so that viewers cannot see all the screens at once. What is it about deflecting conventions of narrative and temporality that appeals to you?

AO I’m specifically inspired by the experience of being hard of hearing and how much of my life has felt just outside comprehension. I wanted to figure out a way to acknowledge and honor that reality and also introduce the experience to a hearing audience so that they conceptually and physically have to reconcile with missing information as a productive method for encountering stories. My Deaf and HoH audience knows this intimately, laughs and nods, or in some cases, I get responses from a Deaf activist position that demands all art should be 100% accessible and admonishes me. I don’t want this project to be 100% accessible to anyone.

In Scene 61: The Kaleidoscopic Window, I present an obstacle to comprehension. At the Hammer, one channel has the written lines from the screenplay projected onto a wall opposite of two other channels that show Christine Sun Kim signing the scene. She translated the scene into American Sign Language, which has its own syntax and order, and gave me a new script for the teleprompter that included visual directions and notes, for example: “two fingers – forks.” When Christine first begins to sign, a caption below her says “[VOICE OF STEVE RODEN].” Steve, one of the other composers for The Tuba Thieves, reads her ASL teleprompter script. The audience can never see Christine’s signing and the English script at the same time, but you can turn your head and see the differences between the English and ASL. Those who know ASL can comprehend Christine, and those that hear can comprehend Steve reading the ASL gloss, writing one language in another.

The two channels side-by-side acknowledge the two audiences. The channels sometimes show time slightly out of sync, as in the stopwatches during Hearing 4’33” or Christine’s layered hands in Hand Shapes and Scene Numbers playing on a vertical monitor at Shulamit Nazarian. The video has no sound, is closely cropped to include Christine’s neck to her waist, and prioritizes her left hand. All of her fingers are painted different colors, and different shapes are painted on her palm and the top of her hand. She signs the scene numbers from the film that have already been shot. Two videos, one in color and one in black and white and always slightly out of sync, sometimes show her hands lifting and falling as if stuck in a delay or caught between signs. At other times she gestures to stop, redo, or slow down the teleprompter. I’m always interested in representing two different perceptions in ways that slip between being harmonious and completely dissonant.

Alison O’Daniel’s work is on view in the exhibition Say the word “NOWHERE.” Say “HEADPHONES.” Say “NOTHING.” at Shulamit Nazarian in Los Angeles until August 25. Scenes from The Tuba Thieves as well as several sculptures are included in Made in L.A. 2018 and The Infinite Ear at The Garage Contemporary Art Museum, Moscow. 

Alison O’Daniel lives and works in Los Angeles. She has presented solo exhibitions at Art in General, New York; Samuel Freeman Gallery, Los Angeles; and Centre d’Art Contemporain Passerelle, Brest, France. She has performed at the Hammer Museum, Knockdown Center, and Art Los Angeles Contemporary. She has received grants from the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, Center for Cultural Innovation, Art Matters, Franklin Furnace Fund, and California Community Foundation. She received her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2003, and an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, in 2010.

Anne Ellegood has been the Senior Curator at the Hammer Museum since 2009. Ellegood recently organized the first North American retrospective of the work of Jimmie Durham, which opened at the Hammer in January 2017, traveled to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Remai Modern in Saskatoon. She is the co-curator with Erin Christovale of the Hammer’s biennial of Los Angeles-based artists, Made in L.A. 2018.

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