The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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In the work of Rodney Graham, sound—be it the abstract noise of a 1950s Italian projector, as in his latest work, Rheinmetall/Victoria , or a song presented within a film, as in How I Became a Ramblin’ Man —is more than an integral part of the work. It has an equal weight to the visual components as subject matter. Even though Graham is not a New York-based artist, the work reminds me of the energy and interests floating around New York in the early ‘80s. Visual artists such as Robert Longo and Richard Prince played music alongside young composers such as Rhys Chatham and Glenn Branca. There was a lack of boundaries as to the formalism of art, or a deliberate ignoring of them. People had discussions about the context of performing in clubs as opposed to alternative spaces. While most of those artists eventually focused their careers exclusively within a visual realm, letting music influence them subliminally, Graham has always kept the question open: Am I a musician trapped in an artist’s mind or an artist trapped in a musician’s body? The question is really irrelevant, but it makes for a lot of interesting art.
Kim Gordon Have you seen Neil Young’s current tour?
Rodney Graham No, I haven’t.
KG It’s pretty amazing. The Greendale shows are like supersized folk art. I guess it never occurred to him to do anything in a gallery—he just works in an arena. So he brought it all to it. It was really incredible.
RG I think the last time I saw him perform was years ago, with Crazy Horse in Vancouver, when you guys were opening for him. You guys were great back then too.
KG Thanks. Yeah, he’s a pretty interesting guy. You would like his film, Greendale, the way he used film with the music. He incorporated the crew and his band. It was almost like a school play. In fact, the girl whom his daughter went to high school with, who was always in the school plays, was the main dancer. Your new show, does it have music in it?
RG No, it’s just a film. It’s mainly one large projection piece called Rheinmetall/Victoria 8. It’s a documentary of this 1930s typewriter that I found in a junk store five or six years ago: Rheinmetall is the name of the company that made the typewriter, and Victoria 8 is the name of the projector. It’s a Cinemeccanica, an Italian projector from the ’50s. Rheinmetall, it turns out, was also a big arms manufacturer for the Third Reich. It was just this incredibly beautifully made, solidly designed typewriter. Not one key had ever been pressed on it. It had somehow made it over to Vancouver. I had it around for a while and then I thought I’d do something with it. I thought I’d make a slick car-commercial kind of film, using just static shots of this typewriter. I worked with a cinematographer and we made a series, like a documentary, but every shot is static. It’s shot in 35mm and projected using this vintage projector from a fairly large cinema, very beautiful, kind of overly powerful, so that when I show it in a gallery context, the film is smaller and brighter, and the light reflects back on the projector. So it’s these two objects confronting one another. Two obsolete technologies facing off: the typewriter and the projector.
KG It’s interesting that you mention car commercials, because I’m currently obsessed with car ads, car copy, ad copy. Mostly print ads with elaborate slogans that involve celebrity lifestyles, like you can’t even tell it’s an ad. A lot of times they’ll just have these pictures of people—in fact I was in one of those ads a while ago, for a Lexus or something. And they just had a little blurb about me. It was really weird.
RG Like a lifestyle thing, like this is the kind of car you would drive?
KG I guess so, but it wasn’t even that much of a connection. It was just the strangest thing. But you know how the cars kind of represent everything. The ad can be like, What is your desire? It will take you to your desire. I always thought they were modern-day landscapes: you see cars sitting around lakes, and driving through nature. It’s right up your alley.
RG I pulled back from the car commercial idea because I would’ve had a lot of moving shots, super sexy shots, and I wanted to focus on static. In the end, in this particular context, it really worked, to my surprise, because if you look at the video, it’s very boring—it’s these very long shots, sometimes a couple of minutes, just these keys in extreme close-up. But when it’s projected, the quality has a super effective sharpness, because the grain is kind of moving around. It’s inherently fascinating. So I found that it worked without the movement.
KG Is there music in it?
RG No, I just wanted the sound of the projector, really obvious and loud. I just started working with 35mm projectors in the gallery space, and I wanted it to be something of a sculptural audio presence, so I didn’t want to have a sound track interfere. I want to do more with these projectors, because you can get them quite cheap now; the big cinemas are changing over to cineplexes with smaller projectors. So these things are becoming obsolete. You can buy them for a quarter of what they’re worth.
KG Do you do all the shooting and editing by yourself in the films or do you have a crew?
RG I have a crew. This was sort of exceptional from what I normally do. Usually I’m an actor, so I’m directed by someone else. I like that. In this case I codirected it.
KG Do you have a director you like to work with?
RG For the last few pieces I’ve been working with Glen Winter in Vancouver. He shot Smallville, the TV show. He was the principal. He was the cinematographer for that series, and he shot the last three things I did, including Rheinmetall. He’s really good.
KG And how about the sound mixing?
RG I’m usually around for that. In this one it was pretty straightforward. I’m going to do another film where there will be a recording of me talking into a loudhailer, competing to be heard over the sound of two 35mm projectors which will be projecting the film.
KG I really like your songs.
RG Oh, I was going to bring my new record.
KG I was like, If I could score that for Thurston … What about the 10-inch?
RG I’ll get you one. It’s actually a double 12-inch, self-produced, self-released. And I just did a CD, a mix for this exhibition at the Art Gallery in Ontario that’s going to LA MoCA.
KG And that has sound track stuff on it?
RG No, it’s all pop songs with my band that I’ve been working with for a couple of years.
KG Is it your voice on the songs?
RG Yeah. The new one’s different from the Bedbug one, more singer-songwriter. More Neil Young-y, a ’70s guitar-rock kind of thing.
KG I was watching How I Became a Ramblin’ Man, and I know this isn’t your intention, but for me it’s like the film is set up for the song. But it’s not like a music video. At the same time, if you’re looking at it outside an installation context, then it immediately becomes a music video. It looks like the Marlboro guy on a horse, that would be you, riding through a western landscape, mountains, a stream … you stop, get off your horse, pull out a guitar and start singing a song about being a Rambling Man, and then when it’s over you get back on and ride into the distance.
RG It is a kind of music video, in a way. At the time I was totally interested in the idea of doing a music video. That was when I was trying to get my songwriting chops as a separate project, just trying to write songs. And I’d done this kind of genre costume piece, Vexation Island. I thought I’d continue with a western one, and then I was thinking about these Gene Autry musicals and Roy Rogers musicals—actually, they’re not musicals, they are films that have musical elements in them. I was just going back and looking at them, and some of them are absolutely amazing, like this film Riders of the Whistling Pines: it’s a propaganda film for DDT. Have you ever seen it?
KG I don’t think so.
RG It was made in 1949. Gene Autry plays a forest ranger who has to spray the forest with DDT, and the local townspeople get up in arms because it’s killing all the animals, but it’s not really, it’s this evil logging company that’s killing them with another poison, and so the whole film is a justification for how great DDT is, which is kind of funny. It has little musical interludes, kind of arbitrarily located within the film. I was thinking about that genre, and I thought I would cite that, because it’s kind of a prototypical music-video situation, but it doesn’t really use the conventions of music in any other way. Oh, I’d love to make a video for one of my songs, but it’s never happened.
KG I’ve always liked that Godard used musical form in his films.
RG They just spontaneously break into song, yeah.
KG I hate musicals. I mean, I don’t hate them, they’re just not my—
RG Yeah, I know, I tend not to like them either. What do you think of Kill Bill?
KG I haven’t seen it.
RG I just bought Volume 1 on DVD. I was really impressed with the integration of the musical elements. At the beginning they use this Nancy Sinatra version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” which is really quite amazing. And there’s this Japanese band the Five, Six, Seven, Eights, in this long scene—I think Tarantino’s really quite brilliant at weaving popular music into his films. Also he’s a narrative master. Just incredible, the whole split-screen thing.
KG There are a lot of writers now, like Jonathan Lethem and Dave Eggers, who really portray the male psyche. It’s like the new Cheever. And I thought the song in your film Phonokinetoscope seems almost literary. It’s totally Lee Hazlewood-ish.
RG Well, thank you—Lee Hazlewood’s pretty awesome. The chorus is stolen from that Pink Floyd song “Bike”: “You’re the kind of girl that fits in with my world.” And I wanted to cite Syd Barrett —and Albert Hofmann, of course, the bicycle-ride theme. His is quite a loud dynamic. But because there’s no sync point between the song and the film, I wanted to create something that would demonstrate, in terms of music video, that it’s really possible to put anything together. So long as you make the film an integral thing and the music an integral thing, the sync point is not really that important, because it can work in different ways. So you can activate the film by means of the phonograph. I was thinking too about the early experiments of sound and film where they did sync up the phonograph with the projector.
KG Have you ever thought of doing live music to film?
RG Yeah, it’s funny. I just saw Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer do that a few days ago. She was doing the projections and he was doing the solo guitar stuff. It was really good. I’ve tried doing that. But I can’t really improvise. I know you guys are really into that.
KG But if you had a song, you could do song cycles or something.
RG I was supposed to play at No Music, that noise festival that was organized by Ben Portis just after 9/11. Did you play?
KG No, we didn’t go.
RG I was here; I had a show that was supposed to open on the 12th or 13th and then I ended up going back. Ben wanted me to play, and I was kind of reluctant, because I can’t really improvise. I can jam when I play with my friends, but I’ve never done it in public. Whereas when you guys perform live you’re like completely free, unstructured.
KG Well, individually, we do that. Strangely, as a group we’re not very good at improvising, in the strict sense of the word. There are certain parts in songs that are somewhat open-ended, but most of the songs are pretty much planned. There are sections that allow for more spontaneity. When we’ve just tried to cold improvise with someone else it’s been a disaster. Although we played at the Stan Brakhage tribute at Anthology Film Archives, and that was fine—having a subject matter to shape what you’re doing makes a big difference.
RG I improvised once, at a gallery, and I was sorry. It was for a piece called Softcore, where I redid the Jerry Garcia part in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, where he plays guitar while watching the sex scene in the desert. I looped that scene in a projector and performed for the length of the film, which is 108 minutes. I played continuously, just kind of droning. I thought of it as “noodling” more than improvising. I had read in some guitar magazine that it’s good to practice in front of the TV set, which I do all the time. So here I sat back in a comfy chair and watched the famous scene in that famous film. It just about sunk Antonioni, Zabriskie Point. It was a huge flop. He had all this Hollywood money that he threw at it. Jerry Garcia made enough money to buy his house from that, which was the thing that really attracted me to it. Antonioni flew him down for four hours and he just sat on a stool and improvised.
KG I have to watch that movie again. I haven’t seen it in years.
RG But it’s also got the great prototypical music-video scene at the very end, when the desert house, that incredible modernist house, explodes. That Pink Floyd song with the slo-mo explosion—it’s really in the spirit of music video.
KG That, and the scene with the Yardbirds where they destroy all their instruments while they’re playing a song at some little basement party. That’s one of my favorite moments in that film.
RG Mine too. It’s incredible.
KG Are there certain composers you really like?
KG Yeah or just particular sound tracks from movies?
RG No, I haven’t made a study of that. I wish I had studied film music a little bit more.
KG What about singers? Are there certain singers you like to listen to or get ideas from?
RG When I was working on my record I shut things out for quite a while, just because everyone sounded so good and I sounded so shitty by comparison. That’s something I always go through when I’m working. It’s a crisis of confidence. So I’ve only really started listening to other things. I tend to look back to old stuff for lyrical inspiration, Lee Hazlewood and old Dylan, and I guess it’s true that the old stuff is more interesting. I think Dylan’s lyrics on the new album are pretty amazing. They flow out of him. I have real trouble writing lyrics. I come up with ideas for songs minus lyrics and they just sit around for a year while I come up with some dumb line. That’s the hard part for me. I only started trying to write songs with lyrics six or seven years ago. I worked with this band UJ3RK5 [pronounced you jerk with Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and friends in Vancouver, but I didn’t have any input in the lyrics. I worked on a lot of the music.
KG I think your lyrics are great.
RG Thanks. It doesn’t come easily to me, that’s for sure. I admire people who make it sound easy. Stephen Malkmus makes it sound pretty easy.
KG He does, but that’s a trap for him too.
RG You think so?
KG After a while, how do you really have an impact? I don’t know.
RG I liked that last album.
KG Me too. He’s always been such a spontaneous singer, lyricist.
RG There are some really good lyrics on Thurston’s Psychic Hearts solo album.
KG I wish I had an advance of our new record. I’ll bring one to your gallery. I’m very excited about it. I think Thurston’s done his best vocals on that record, as well as myself.
RG I can’t wait to hear it.
KG Richard Prince did the cover; we’re using one of his Nurse paintings.
RG I don’t know that series.
KG They’re taken from pulp paperbacks, silk screened and painted over in a kind of de Kooning style. The titles are like New England Nurse or Surfing Nurse. The title of our album is Sonic Nurse. Richard and I used to hang out in the early ’80s, so it’s nice that we’re connected. We don’t spend that much time together now.
It’s funny, I was reading your press kit and they had some quotes from you where you’re talking about how you’ve gotten more and more interested in music and it pulled you in this direction and you didn’t know about making art anymore.
RG Yeah. I don’t remember where I said it, but it’s true. I think it helped me in a bit of a rough time. I always loved music and I basically dropped it to focus on my art career. I didn’t have any money at the time—this was the early ’80s —and I sold my guitar. Sob story. When I had a bit of money I started thinking about music again, and at the same time I was not feeling too good about my work. So it was really nice to go back to it. I got a bunch of people together to work with, and I’ve been working with the same people for quite a while. John Collins is a producer and bass player I’ve been working with since 1998, really since I started doing music. But I’ve never found a way of making the music fit into my artwork other than, say, the Phonokinetoscope or the Ramblin’ Man. I perform in too much of an art context, I think. I played with a band in Toronto recently in connection with an exhibit I had called A Little Thought, and there was a music review slagging the art audience. You can understand that a rock critic would do that. The context is not very rock.
KG At least you got a review.
KG Most people who go the opposite way, like musicians who make art, don’t get a review. I’m actually venturing back to the other side myself, getting involved with more shows. I always liked to keep art and music separate, but now I find myself using music as a subject matter. At a show I had last year in New York I put Led Zeppelin lyrics on a wood surface in gold metal fleck. It was about growing up in L.A., architecture versus nature, and teen longing. Last year I had two shows in New York, but it’s hard when you’re known for doing something else. I don’t want to be some artist that people are interested in just because I’m Kim Gordon. But on the other hand there is a reason why I veered away from the art world, so I have to be careful about how I approach it.
RG I find the art context quite exclusive in a way and fairly open to things at the same time. I basically want to get the band out on a little tour for people who are strictly music fans. Most of the people whose opinions I tend to appreciate the most are musicians, obviously.
KG When did your new CD come out?
RG It came out a couple of weeks ago. The record I put out last September. I had a thousand made and they’re in my studio and I give them to people. I’ve got some distribution through Scratch Records in Vancouver, which distributes across Canada. So I’m getting it out a little bit. The tour is hard to do. It’s expensive to take people on the road. I’ve been doing solo things, but I can’t stand it. It’s too nerve-racking. It’s terrifying to sit up there with an acoustic guitar, but it’s kind of rewarding. It’s the feeling of being utterly naked. The first few times I did it I made some really, really bad mistakes. My mind just went utterly blank in the middle of a song and I had to start again. Once I had to start again three times. I’m going to try to get away from the solo thing. The week before it is shot; I just sit and practice and fret.
KG I’d like to see you incorporate it more in your artwork. It’s a great idea, the way you’ve approached it so far.
RG I’ve got a good band now that I really like working with. It’s hard to get four people organized. You guys play regularly?
RG You just get together when you’re doing a project?
KG It’s partly because we don’t live here now. But just to get people to decide on anything is hard. It’s much easier to get things done if you’re all in a room going, Okay, let’s decide. Rather than sending artwork for the cover around and everyone putting their two cents in. It drives the graphic designer crazy.
RG I saw you guys, you had Jim O’Rourke with you. You were singing without playing guitar and without playing bass and dancing instead. It was kind of nice.
KG Yeah, it was fun. He’s kind of a member of Sonic Youth now, until he gets bored with it. But I think it’s evolved the songwriting too. We’d kind of gone to one extreme being more abstract and open-ended with the song structure, and now we’re headed back the other way. He likes to do hot licks and play double leads, this boy fun sort of thing. It can be very powerful onstage, and on this record even more so.
RG I thought it was really strong in the song department, which is my end of things.
KG Have you seen Cameron Jamie’s work at all?
RG I know of it. He works with Mike Kelley?
KG He has done stuff with him, yes. But he’s been living in Paris, and he did this film, sort of a documentary on backyard wrestling. And he showed that with the Melvins playing live with it. I haven’t seen them do it with him, but it sounds great.
RG I can imagine, and appropriately heavy. They’re an Aberdeen band.
KG Speaking of which, Aberdeen was an interesting project you did, when you went to Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and took pictures. It’s one of the most depressing-looking towns I’ve been in, but it’s very indicative of certain parts of the West Coast, like up around Crescent City in Northern California.
RG I went into town and got out very quickly. Partly because of the weather, it was very dreary. The clouds parted and I was able to take photos for two hours. I felt a little bit like a voyeur. And all these people were looking out at me from behind their blinds. It was strange. That was about my getting into music and trying to make demos. I’d been making four-track recordings of songs at home and thinking about Cobain. It was a lo-fi presentation with slides and audiotape.
KG I love the slide show in iPhoto on the Powerbook. Have you ever seen that? It dissolves for you and has this stock music like some harpsichord loop that goes over and over again.
RG I like working with slides and audio. I was thinking of doing a project in San Remo, which is a resort on the Italian Riviera, during their annual song festival. I was thinking of going in the off season and recording and taking photographs. The idea is to mix tourism with lo-fi recording, sort of rambling and recording.
KG The thing about music that I find so interesting, not to be pompous about it, is that it’s like architecture. You carry it with you; it changes your mood. It transforms whatever environment you’re in, and it transforms your inner environment, your psyche. It’s that quality that’s so hard to describe. Nothing else is like that. I will leave stores because I can’t stand the music.
RG I will also spend a lot of money shopping if the music is really good. I’ve done that before, if some sexy Roxy Music plays. But I’ve never left a store in disgust.
KG It’s usually techno that drives me out.
RG Yeah, techno’s not really my thing either.
KG The square sound waves. I just can’t take it.
Kim Gordon, a musician in the band Sonic Youth, is also an artist and curator. She has written on the confluence of contemporary art and music for magazines including Artforum, Real Life, ZG, and File. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Gordon exhibited her art at the Times Square Show, White Columns, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, and her work was included in the Second International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2003 in Gothenburg, Sweden. In addition to playing with Sonic Youth, Gordon, a cofounder of the band Free Kitten, continues to perform and record with an improvising group consisting of Ikue Mori, DJ Olive, and Jim O’Rourke.
Originally published in
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.