Sara Magenheimer’s videos and installations are ascendant experiences, replete with glowing incorporeal vocals, vibrating gradient hues, and rhythmic collages of images that stack seamlessly with collaged video effects. The allure of this ebullient mood is supported by a voracious shutter and a rigorous, lifelong ritual of daily writing—works emerging from an unforeseeable union of image and scripted text. Magenheimer’s Beige Pursuit, the September 2019 installment in Wendy’s Subway’s series of performance documents, exists in continuity with this practice as the preliminary scenario for a yet-to-be-realized film. In sequences absurd, antic, and familiar (with an asterisk), Sara captures the punchy, fractured interior landscape of a world manicured by encoded determinism. In the wake of launching her own record label, Rare Violins—a platform for spoken artist’s writings—and in anticipation of the Los Angeles launch of Beige Pursuit, Magenheimer and I talked through poetry, convention, and the process of making Beige.
Nicole KaackYou have a background as a musician, and many of your works thematize sound. In Beige Pursuit, there’s a passage where X poses a series of questions to her “socratic voice assistant” / “Mom.” One asks whether objects have their own rhythms, which is the query behind several of your previous works—Seven Signs that Mean Silence (2013), Slow Zoom Long Pause (2015), and The Rhythm of Plain White (2015). How does audio figure in tandem with images or language in the book?
Sara MagenheimerThe book began as a video script. The goal was always to make one long movie that was episodically structured, and the writing process involved collecting tons of imagery and sounds—stills and audio, some of which I literally wrote into the book, like that isolated vocal track of Grace Slick. But the book became its own thing.
In the book and in my videos, I like for the load-bearing beam to be distributed between image, sound, and voice so that the primary medium is always changing. I developed that approach as a direct subversion of the way that films have traditionally used sound as subservient reinforcement of patriarchy’s love of the image and visual pleasure. In traditional film, music is often aligned with the feminine, and films that rely heavily on music to carry emotion are seen as melodramas, less serious. The audio adds color or tone, but the image is where meaning is predominantly located.
When the heavy lifting is done by all kinds of media, when the location of meaning is in motion, those expectations are upset. Sometimes my videos are entirely without visuals in order to underscore that. The same is true with the book: the emphasis shifts from content to structure to description to language. My hope is that this is an invitation to reflect on the way we “read” the world and construct meaning, to whom we listen or give power.
Sara Magenheimer. Photo by Mary Manning.
NK Your videos take on the mode of first-person or direct address, but Beige Pursuit is written as a third-person narrative.
SM The first person was always a conscious construction in the video-writing. I’m interested in a very material relationship to language and the voice—how, via the sticky matter that is one woman or man’s voice, you can bind together a polyphony of others.
We’re all speaking in a bunch of other voices all the time anyway. I have to speak in a man’s voice to be understood in certain situations, even when I’m writing or making art, or use a less working-class voice, even though this is my native tongue and my brothers have really thick Philly accents. It’s code switching.
The character is a vessel for the cohesion of a bunch of ideas. But they don’t combine comfortably; there’s tension between what is said and how it’s delivered. An identity can be surprisingly expansive, containing so many different types of language. This is also why I cast voice actors with accents—to play with the ways we read form.
NK Is this a representational gesture—“people are multifaceted”—or is it a device to disrupt narrative?
SM Both. Identity is permeable, and we’re always becoming versions of ourselves that were deep in us already, but that need to be performed to express. I think questioning coherence in general is productive: making visible the construction of self through language or calling attention to the faulty technology that language is.
As I was writing Beige Pursuit, I noticed that sometimes X was me, and sometimes she wasn’t. But that makes sense—my life at that time was fractured by the literal splitting of pregnancy and a traumatic birth. Writing has always been my way to articulate myself back to myself. Before the pregnancy, I had written about large abstractions—power, city planning, architecture, my body as a house. Afterward, I was healing through communing with that past version of myself stored in language. Writing Beige Pursuit was a way to see the landscape into which I had arrived through this rupture and connect the dots back to where I’d been before. Even if the connection was about making clear how dislocated everything felt. Writing it was a process of seeing what the new truth looked like.
NK The body as architecture or in architecture is a theme that recurs throughout the book, especially in the last section, “Sentences.” There are also images at the center and on the back cover that are drawn from 1982 issues of Architectural Digest. I interpreted those in relation to A Pattern Language, a book on architecture and urban design by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein that you call out in Beige Pursuit.
The concept of a pattern language emerges from the belief that the lived adaptation of a model is better than a top-down solution; essentially, the person who lives in a house will build it more functionally for their unique needs than an architect. However, individuals no longer have the knowledge or skills to do so. The book acts as a primer of sorts, cataloguing observed solutions—patterns—to situations or problems. The combination of these different patterns amounts to an architectural language.
I see points of overlap between this and your work, but perhaps most specifically in the way that you put pressure on the positive and negative connotations of change, portraying degradation and evolution as equally creative processes. You have said that translation between forms cannot be lossless, which is a nice idea to bring into dialogue with poetry as an open-ended structure. Where does the failure to transmit legibly become the feature of being multiply interpretable? Can you talk about how your interest in that poetic mode frustrates your desire for narrative or statement?
SM My natural affect is to be pretty poetic and express ideas abstractly. Sometimes that is frustrating, because I have a lot of rage about class, about the abuses of power that are happening in this country, so many things right now. I just want to write a diatribe or just, like, fucking say something, but my poetic soul won’t let me.
In all earnestness though, there’s something in me that resists total cohesion and normative sense-making. It’s an act of resistance. I need my politics to hold space for poetics. The structure can signal “logic” even if the language is more associative or loose. The structure of “Sentences” was initially inspired by the writing of Donald Judd, an artist who is good at communicating with clarity in both language and sculptural forms.
Sara Magenheimer, Beige Pursuit, published by Wendy’s Subway, 2019. Photos by Joseph Logan Studio.
NK Poetic or visual form can speak to those politics affectively, if abstractly. I think that comes through in the perhaps disembodied narrative drive of Beige Pursuit. Can you talk about the title?
SM I definitely connect the title to a feeling of placelessness. And in that lack of context, I imagined an itchy feeling of propulsive motion, a character in pursuit of and pursued by a really nebulous something. Beige is also a response to the total algorithmic mediation of our experience. I was thinking about Spotify’s algorithm a lot, how it sometimes makes me hate my own preferences. Everything is averaged to this annoying color. It’s as though even the things that I love have this beige veil over them.
NK In the question section, you wrote, “If punk is mainstream, can it still be punk?” Riffing on generic fit and that Blaise Cendrars line that you include in “Like Clockwork”—“What convention calls HEALTH…” Do you think of language as essentially a convention?
SM I think language is at its most vital when it’s fucked with, when it fails, or when it’s innovated. Language just extends images or ideas that we already have inside. People look at technology as exterior, but it is just a tool to do things that we can already do. We can edit videos in our minds; computers mean that other people can see them. Language does the same thing—externalizes something internal.
NKYou can make it visible, but the material limits you. Which is, again, that question of loss.
SM There’s always loss. Movies are about loss—motion is the arrival and departure of images. Time-based objects are built out of it. I think that’s why narratives in language, moving-image, and music are formats we choose to charge with emotion. There’s an inherent pathos to moving through time with something else, in sync, in tandem.
Sara Magenheimer, Beige Pursuit, published by Wendy’s Subway, 2019. Photos by Joseph Logan Studio.
NK Like the Kuleshov effect—but with a slant maybe, where the pairing of things is an empathetic gesture.
SMOr a gesture that reveals our own desire to empathize or project narrative. It’s more about getting us to reflect on what our own mental movies are playing.
Language definitely affects that visual. That Cendrars line, for example—neither health nor illness is a static moment punctuating this stream of life. If life is a stream, then it’s all in the water, and we are all wet all the time. It’s not like you arrive in one instant; you never go back to some fixed state of being either. You pass through periods of disease or trauma, and you’re somewhere else afterward. You’re never going back to some prior moment of “good” health, as if that state of being were a house.
And yet, that’s the beauty and comfort that we find in language. It makes us feel safe, and that we do have a place to go back to. Even if you know everything is in flux, the medium through which you express things allows you to conjure a familiarity that makes you feel like you can function.
NK And that’s the crisis of not being able to name things.
SM But there’s also freedom in being nameless—of being capable of subterfuge or flying under the radar. The liberation of disappearance or invisibility. That beige slip of being between states.
Wendy’s Subway continues to fulfill book orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Books are shipped using all health and safety precautions, once a week, on Mondays. New subscription options are also available to order all 2020 Document Series titles, or our full 2020 catalogue of publications.