Left Brain/Right Brain: Alan Scarritt by Keith Sonnier

Alan Scarritt discusses his mandala-esque plaster spirals, and the sound of a harmonica in a warm room, with fellow artist Keith Sonnier.

BOMB 3 Spring 1982
003 Winter Spring 1982

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Article 61  Scarritt

Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni.

Keith Sonnier When was the date that we first met?

Alan Scarritt I think it was ’77 … I know it was ’77. It must have been September. No, August ’77.

KS Had you met Liza Béar before?

AS No, you came with Liza. The way I met Liza was through Steve Paxton. Steve had done stuff at Site.

KS And they had done an interview at Avalanche.

AS Right. Actually he referred her and you to me.

KS Yeah.

AS As someone in California doing something that might relate. And then I had a piece up at the Art Institute Annual, the Invitational, when you came.

KS Right, and then we saw some installation at Site as well. So we first met in 1977 and then we did the satellite …

AS … it was immediately after that…

KS Yeah, that we decided to work together. I remember doing that. There were lots of difficulties in the planning and execution. But I still remember, to me, the best result of the project was your piece.

AS Oh, (laughter) that’s flattering but …

KS No, the reason why … it’s not about flattery … it used the constraints that were set up by the two-way system of sending and receiving. And it was a sound and image work connecting both sides, but also recycling both sides…Which was incredibly interesting, what you chose to do, that sort of system. Now, after seeing more work, I realize how it was a very natural choice for you.

AS Well, it was real similar to the sound work that I had done previously using two recorders, two reel- to-reel recorders with a loop … I made a circuit by having each machine with one channel on record and one channel on playback and putting a patch between the two machines, crisscrossing the channels. So you actually get this delay. The same as the delay in space but you can adjust the length of the delay. And it isn’t simply a delay piece like, say, Dickie Landry used to use with music. It’s a feedback and a delay. So you really get three circuits.

KS Right …

AS And I just tried to do that visually. In the tapes from the piece, it was more complex … That’s because people at our end … I asked the engineers in New York to send me back whatever I sent you.

KS Right.

AS But at our end, we had somebody on the mixer who was adding us a second camera sometimes.

KS Right.

AS So instead of a closed circuit … the circuit was open in the space between the camera and the monitor. And that then became the performance space, where information could be added to the system at any time.

KS Which is very much like the premise of that work … of having two open functioning channel spaces, and then allowing a loop to go between them. In a way, it was really the most … Well, it was very concrete because you made that relationship much easier. It went beyond the initial shock of connection. It really pulled you out of just the connecting realm of the video-telephone syndrome, which was the technical premise for this thing we were setting up.

AS Yeah, it’s spatial, temporal—it’s physical. And it gives you a funny illusion between the continuity of the feed between the two cities and the satellite, and the continuity of the action, and as an action goes into the space it does something. If you take the hand out, then that becomes a discrete bit of information.

KS And you’re aware of the delay?

AS Right. And then that begins to layer and it interferes but not as purely as the sound does. It becomes more like a memory system because you actually see … Well, there’s this action and then there’s that one in front of it—

KS Well, it’s clearer in the sound. I think that the same thing could have happened with the image if we had had more sophisticated equipment. If we had more computerized images it would have been much, much sharper.

AS I’ve been playing around lately with … Really it’s the same idea, but I’ve taken the delay to be simply the amount of time between the camera and the monitor. And I don’t know if anyone’s done this but I’ve shown it to Barbara London, who’s seen a lot of video, and she said she hadn’t seen it done before. But by very delicately focusing in on the monitor you find the center and it begins to pulse … the pulses depend upon the focus and everything being adjusted accurately. It will pulse like a tear drop, a white teardrop … it’s very sensuous. It’s real sexual actually. And then that becomes an on going thing … I’ve had it go for hours. Any vibration, of course, will move it over one, just one … A one-line difference will change it in solution. Then you have that as a performance space but it’s pulsing. You can introduce information, say a hand, and the pulse will change.

KS It humanizes the activity of that space, too.

AS Well, I’d like to do it publicly. I actually wanted to do it at the show at the Modern but due to the sensitivity of it, what with no guard to watch it, someone was bound to touch it … It’s a problem.

KS Right …

AS It would be nice to do it with a large screen. Then you have the whole body.

KS Yes.

AS I may try to do it in California. My friends, Joe Reese and Jill Hoffman—who run the Target video—They have a really good camera and may have access to a large screen … I see that as an installation … If you turn up the sound, then you have the sound feedback and it does the same thing. It will feed back and the minute you come into the space you will interrupt the field and change the tone. And you end up with … I’ve never seen it in color. I’ve done it in black and white only. But I’d be interested to see what happens with the color.

KS Yes, you’d have a lot more variations. When you were talking about this sort of … the teardrops … this teardrop … This sort of sensual element that happens in video…I was wondering, what do you feel about the sound wave to the brain wave? How does that sort of correlate, in your thinking about it?

AS Well, I made more correlations with brain wave activity in the first audio pieces and with the plaster pieces on the floor.

KS Were these the concentric?

AS Well, the piece was a spiral of nine revolutions in a clockwise direction. And mapped back onto that was a series of nine concentric circles in a counterclockwise direction … I used plaster because it gave a temporal element. I’d mix up, say in the Clocktower piece, fifteen hundred pounds of plaster and water. When you start, you do the same gesture, you’re sort of just laying it down. Sowing, like the Millet paintings, just doing a repetitious action, but the medium you’re using is changing and remembering it differently.

KS Yes.

AS So you’re tossing this down.

KS And it also contains the gesture in the toss too, of the hands to the making.

AS Right, yeah, well that’s like … I saw that as revealing the way it was made.

Scarritt 02

Photo by Marilyn Bogerd.

KS Did you do the piece with the reaching out for the clay after these works?

AS It was after that. That was taking the …

KS Were you using the whole body to extend?

AS Yeah, I started out with the idea of these waves of gesture, these waves of action, layering. I’ll backtrack a bit … The plaster would get thicker and it would remember it differently, then you would map one onto the other.

KS You’re using a material to record a gesture?

AS Exactly. And I’m seeing how these gestures, which are based on simple actions, based on body scale …

KS Yeah …

AS It was a handful of plaster. Well, when you start the piece, a handful of plaster is like a soup ladle full, when you finish it, when you get to the end, a handful is like a 1/2 gallon of ice cream!

KS It’s the same thing with flock pieces and when I do drawings. It really is the same principle.

AS Yeah, it seems to be the most direct. The most neutral. And then you get the mapping of a thin on a thick and a thick on a thin. And then you get this interference and you see how one affects the other. And the field in the center where they overlap, which initially, for me, was the metaphor for the two sides of the brain interfering … almost a holographic way…and you’re mapping a discontinuous structure onto a continuous structure …

KS Which really leads to the photograms.

AS Right, well, the photograms then became again a space in which to do this performance directly. A pan of water. You sink the paper in the water and you expose a gesture for the minimum amount of time possible to stop the action and you’re doing two things, right? Each hand is doing something different. Like rubbing your stomach and patting your head.

KS It’s almost like a delay again.

AS Yeah, it is like a delay. And it’s almost making an image that you can’t really see while you’re making it. You can begin to determine it. The first ones I did were literally trying to transcribe the concentric circles and the spiral. I would do that by making a circle with one finger and dots with the other. The dots would generate concentric circles and the circles would generate spirals. And those would interfere and make an image.

KS It introduces a different sort of mechanism for making. I think that’s related to other senses, not to a total visual sense. It’s related more to other senses like feel and touch and hearing. Which again pulls back to this experience of working with the sound.

AS Yes, the very first one I did was in 1975 at the Berkeley Museum. That was when I took the two recorders and I simply put information in; plugged the microphone in, said, “the corpus callosum connects the left and right sides of the brain”; and then pulled it out. So it was in a closed circuit. And that would then begin to layer and interfere and slowly became pure sound. It would separate out into high frequencies and low frequencies based on the length of the tape, the way I said the information, how long you would let it go, and where the heads of the recorders were in relationship to the length of the tape. But the idea of it was that you would initially perceive the piece with one side of the brain and then, ostensibly, perceive the piece later with the other side of the brain. So it would actually do what it said it was going to do.

KS It’s like forcing another kind of reading, not only in art making but in the final thing … I can see how a lot of people would look at the photograms and be sort of looking for something else … rather than having a different approach, rather than in fact dealing with the photographic image. And even back to the camera obscura things, it’s like pulling apart that sort of process of the photographic reproductive space—

AS Part of the relationship is to leave the ways of making in. Say, in the plaster pieces, you see the fingerprints in the plaster, you see the hand prints. In the photographs, someone saw them, and said, if you want to get rid of the hand … (laughter)

KS Right …

AS The hands are clues, they let you put yourself …

KS It’s that humanizing clue, and they demystify the scientific phenomenon. And make it seem really very simplistic.

AS I agree. And I also think they demystify high abstract expressionism because you see the hands and you know it’s done in a tenth of a second. It’s trying to put you inside of it … One way of seeing it is taking a room, taking a dish of water, any physical space and using that as the blackbox. Since I had the fire in my studio I haven’t had a space to respond to. So it’s been even more focused on the body. Since I haven’t had a place to work I’ve made photographs. I have my little arena in the dish of water. And the sound pieces have been made by simply breathing through a harmonica, which allows you to do an in and out process for as long as you can do it. And I would simply breathe on one track, then rewind it, try to mime it but then I would be out of breath. I’d listen to it, I’d stay with it, but I couldn’t because I was out of breath from the first time. This would set up times of being in phase and times of being out of phase and you’d get all sorts of interference or intersections. Which was somewhat analogous to the plaster work of layering or mapping. I’ve just been focusing on that more closely, taking sections, just small parts; I did hours and hours of this. A lot of this was done in Bennington. I did two months in residence there … didn’t have anything to do except to make a show. There were no students … It was in the summer. So I’ve been listening to that material and cutting it down, listening to the smallest amount of information, how that shapes something. So when I was asked to do a sound piece at PS1, I brought the work out and listened to it in the room and tried to figure out how it would live in that room. How you would receive it in that room. It was the middle of winter, the coldest winter we’ve had, so I had to get a heater. I got a heater and it was a big 140,000 BTU kerosene heater which was not mechanical at all, it was just a burning bucket of kerosene with a smokestack on it.

Scarritt 03

Photo by Alan Scarritt.

KS Here again it’s a material, a liquid material that’s going through some sort of metamorphosis.

AS Right, and it provided light and sound and warmth and it did change during the day. So I had it on during the opening when a lot of people were there and on a very cold day, and it would change in time. It became the focal point of the piece. I darkened the room and it began to interfere with the sound. It’s a tricky area for me because I don’t know if mapping is the right word, but you are mapping two different experiences. It becomes more like film or TV or something. You’re mapping two different experiences that sometimes you …

KS Sort of like a dual reading, an intuitive and analytical one … almost like you have to give reason to an analytical condition by deciding to use the heating system as the energy generation of the work.

AS Well, the piece couldn’t have been without it. It’s just uncovering it. It’s not hiding anything. It started with as little as possible. And in the middle of winter in Queens, you can’t listen to a sound piece for any amount of time without having some warmth in the room. So it was purely practical initially. And then it adjusts itself. It works or it doesn’t. It’s breathing. It’s consuming. It’s a fire … A lot of the work that I’ve done with all these vibrating systems, all these feedback systems, all these layering systems is sort of a literal kind of resonance. But I think the resonance we’re after is … you don’t want a reason why it is, you want a resonance. In a good piece of work there is a resonance … and it’s just … it’s like erasing all the stuff in between. All the takes. And it becomes a direct feed.

KS Yes, the clues that you’re giving do force the viewer to read the work in a different way. You can’t rely on a set premise for reading it. One has to be reduced almost to how one walks through space. And how one deals on other perspective levels … other than, you know, frontal ones, with an almost photographic focus where you sort of click images as you go along and mentally read them. Here you’re again forced to have delays in between the readings.

AS Yeah. I placed the heater in the center of the room where the sound was focused. So you approached the heater for warmth and light, and the sound just appeared; interference between the sound of the fire and the sound of my breath through the harmonica. And of course, the sound of the breath of the viewer.

Aesthesipol: Keith Sonnier by Betsy Sussler
Keith Sonnier 02 Bomb 03
Portfolio by Laura Morrison
Laura Morrison Bomb 1

Laura Morrison is an artist from London based in New York.

In Search of the Truth: The Truth Booth by Cause Collective

Selections from In Search of the Truth: The Truth Booth by artists and members of Cause Collective: Hank Willis Thomas, Jim Ricks and Ryan Alexiev.

JJ Peet by Sabine Russ
Bomb114 Jj Peet 01

JJ Peet might surreptitiously reach into a drawer of kernels, grab an equalizer in the form of a wire or a pin and apply it to one of the dueling opponents—a sock-covered brick (the Resistant) and a home-made miniature cannon (the Luxury Leader). 

Originally published in

BOMB 3, Spring 1982

Barbara Kruger & Richard Prince, Keith Sonnier, Valie Export, Alan Scarritt, and Jim Chladek. Cover by Mark Magill.

Read the issue
003 Winter Spring 1982