Tauba Auerbach and Sam Hillmer

BOMB 144 Summer 2018
144 Cover
7 Auerbach

Tauba Auerbach, Grain-4th Order Sierpinski Flight, 2018, acrylic and paste on canvas, 90 × 48 × 1.75 inches. Photo by Steven Probert. Copyright Tauba Auerbach. Images courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, unless otherwise noted.

The visual motifs common to Tauba Auerbach’s work—triple helixes, fractal eddies, and pleated waveforms—have an obvious sonic character. The oblique sweeps of banded color in her painting series Grain (2016–ongoing), for instance, are easily imagined—perhaps even heard—as oscillations of sound. These double-sided, free-standing canvases are part of INDUCTION: Tauba Auerbach + Éliane Radigue at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. It’s a tandem exhibit with an immersive sixty-speaker sound work by minimalist composer Radigue vibrating both the gallery architecture and the bodies of museumgoers.

Pushing this synergy of vision and sound even further, the exhibition will host the premiere of Zs: LIGATURE, a collaborative performance by Auerbach, artist Laura Paris, and the genre-defying band Zs. Founded at the turn of the millennium by musician Sam Hillmer, Zs plays a unique strain of experimental music too cutting to be minimalism or drone and too mindful to be noise. Their percolating mix of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and electronics suggests the complex forms of fluid dynamics and growth patterns. Recognizing these affinities, Auerbach has created album art and typography for the group’s most recent releases Noth (Social Noise, 2018) and Xe (Northern Spy, 2015). For LIGATURE, she sonifies her drawing practice by placing microphones on her pen and the surface of her paper. The looping calligraphic gestures are amplified and digitally processed—and also captured on video and projected onto multiple screens, allowing the musicians to “read” Auerbach’s drawing as a kind of score.

Auerbach and Hillmer conducted the following conversation between rehearsals for LIGATURE. It outlines some of their mutual concerns with form, improvisation, and the nature of consciousness, as well as underscores their particular variety of camaraderie and enthusiasm, which Hillmer sees as a pivotal part of LIGATURE’s compositional process.

The visual motifs common to Tauba Auerbach’s work—triple helixes, fractal eddies, and pleated waveforms—have an obvious sonic character. The oblique sweeps of banded color in her painting series Grain (2016–ongoing), for instance, are easily imagined—perhaps even heard—as oscillations of sound. These double-sided, free-standing canvases are part of INDUCTION: Tauba Auerbach + Éliane Radigue at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. It’s a tandem exhibit with an immersive sixty-speaker sound work by minimalist composer Radigue vibrating both the gallery architecture and the bodies of museumgoers.

Pushing this synergy of vision and sound even further, the exhibition will host the premiere of Zs: LIGATURE, a collaborative performance by Auerbach, artist Laura Paris, and the genre-defying band Zs. Founded at the turn of the millennium by musician Sam Hillmer, Zs plays a unique strain of experimental music too cutting to be minimalism or drone and too mindful to be noise. Their percolating mix of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and electronics suggests the complex forms of fluid dynamics and growth patterns. Recognizing these affinities, Auerbach has created album art and typography for the group’s most recent releases Noth (Social Noise, 2018) and Xe (Northern Spy, 2015). For LIGATURE, she sonifies her drawing practice by placing microphones on her pen and the surface of her paper. The looping calligraphic gestures are amplified and digitally processed—and also captured on video and projected onto multiple screens, allowing the musicians to “read” Auerbach’s drawing as a kind of score.

Auerbach and Hillmer conducted the following conversation between rehearsals for LIGATURE. It outlines some of their mutual concerns with form, improvisation, and the nature of consciousness, as well as underscores their particular variety of camaraderie and enthusiasm, which Hillmer sees as a pivotal part of LIGATURE’s compositional process.

3 Auerbach

Installation view of INDUCTION: Tauba Auerbach + Éliane Radigue, 2018. Photo by Field Studio. Copyright MOCA Cleveland. 

31 Noth Updated

The albums Noth and Xe by Zs. Cover art by Tauba Auerbach. Photo by Andrew Bourne.

Sam Hillmer So here we are, Tauba. Taubossa Nova. Taub Te Ching. Taubasana. Pajauba.

Tauba Auerbach (laughter) I’ve got to work on my nick- name game if I’m going to be part of this crew.

SHTrue! Sorry, but I have to ask what you’re eating.

TAI’m munching while we talk, sorry. These are kimchi tortilla chips, which might sound crazy, but they’re excellent. I like things that almost clash but then don’t—in all my senses, like color combinations just shy of ugly and sensations just shy of pain.

SHOh snap, diving right in. Why do you think that is?

TAIt’s got something to do with what we’ve talked about before—like really wanting to hang out on the edge of something that holds together, dwelling right where it starts to come apart and go awry. The edge where laminar flow becomes turbulent is always such an interesting shape.

SHFor me, this “hanging out on the edge” has to do with getting away from one’s own mind and intentions. It’s the difference between “I am doing” and “It is behaving”—meaning the situation or environment itself is the main actor, while our role as artists is urgent yet custodial. Does that resonate?

TAAbsolutely. I’ve also been thinking about being more responsive, doing less driving and more surfing as a way of relating to a given situation or environment. I don’t mean strictly floating along, but rather acting with a different kind of agency that’s less unilateral, somehow working with the flow. But that also seems like a different subject from the matter of the edges of some limits.

SHTo me, our ideas are sides of the same coin. I’m interested in the edge of implosion for musical or social material.

TAOh boy…what have I gotten myself into?

SH(laughter) Hear me out: being on the edge of implosion implicates us in this custodial role, rather than requiring us to draw up a whole master plan. It’s like the dynamics of emergency instead of the dynamics of the preprogrammed. Comforting words coming from your collaborator, I’m sure! (laughter)

TAYeah, that’s really not my preferred zone for something I’m new at—like performing. But I obviously don’t want the safety of staying on dry land. My ideal place isn’t in the water either though. It’s the foamy edge, in that band of froth on the beach that’s made of water and air and sand all mixed together. It’s a haywire zone of reconfiguration that you can’t just find and then stay still in; you have to constantly observe and reposition yourself.

I do think we’re talking about the exact same thing, actually—my foamy edge and your edge of implosion. But the prospect isn’t catastrophic for me! Why do you speak about this zone in terms of destruction and emergency?

SH Well, on the one hand, I appreciate those shapes that emerge when a material reaches its erratic fringe. They’re beautiful and intriguing. But it also seems intuitive for me to refer to this realm as an aesthetics of emergency. The very clinical answer to why is that we live in tenuous times, when many natural, economic, social, and political systems are being stretched past their thresholds. So it seems relevant to address art and music in this meltdown kind of way.

TAI just spent this morning listening to [feminist theorist] Karen Barad talk about the Doomsday Clock.

SHWhat did she have to say?

TAThat it’s not two minutes to midnight as publicized. It actually struck midnight ages ago, when nuclear technologies were first tested on indigenous peoples’ land.

SH“It’s after the end of the world / Don’t you know that yet?” That’s one of Sun Ra’s best lyrics.

TAHe was cited.

SHBut really, an art practice that’s like an exercise for becoming comfortable with emergency is a way of showing up for our times. On the most recent Zs record, Xe, the music was perhaps less airtight than previous efforts but still clearly composed. And compositions are basically plans, even if that plan is to push to the limit in terms of performer and listener endurance.

So we played that music until about 2015, and then I realized I didn’t want to make new compositions—new plans—because they felt irrelevant. We’re parachuting out of an airplane into the eye of a storm! Does one have a plan for that? The only plan is to survive! (laughter) Sorry, all my metaphors are so dire! It’s hilarious maybe, but I really do feel this way. Executing some clearly laid plan right now in 2018 in the USA—what could be less relevant to people’s experience? There’s a broad sense that things are really going off the friggin’ rails, so a performance should present strategies for derailing circumstances.

TAOne could also make the argument that, because shit’s going off the rails, we should try to hold it together, or just put things back together differently and better than before. I’m not necessarily making that argument myself, but maybe I am? I don’t know. But I don’t agree that composition itself is irrelevant. Is that what you’re saying though? Or is it just that working in a totally prescribed manner doesn’t feel urgent? Composition should arise from, rather than initiate, a creative process?

SHExactly. Zs is working toward music that will function as a composition without being so prescribed, especially when we subordinate what we’re doing to your hand moving the pen. It all comes from a helterskelter approach though.

TAVery true. As I’ve been drawing for this project, just “playing my scales” if you will, and then riffing and improvising along to your sounds or privately, certain forms have naturally emerged. They just sort of revealed themselves and now feel established. Little signatures. Recently, when Zs has played it’s been really wild and free-form, but I notice that everyone has their little signature too. I want to know more about them. What are these nodes in the chaos? They seem like moments when potential information becomes actual information—like the collapse of the wave function.

SHRight, so everyone has these things they do, all very recognizable, and the pieces we’re playing become mobiles of these shapes. There are a few kinds of information continuously presented in shifting relation to one another.

A cynical way of looking at these signatures, maybe, is to say they’re purely governed by our habits. And so there can be a desire to get outside of them, to surpass your tendencies and manifest something you think might be new or fresh. But this can become like wishing you had attributes that you simply don’t possess. For instance, sometimes I feel envious of people who are soft-spoken and calculated in their speech and affects. Sometimes I want to be more like them, but really there’s a slim likelihood of that. So my feeling is that the way forward as a person—and in art—is through who you are, not against it.

So what’s interesting about the signatures is leaning into them. You get to that moment when they bubble up, then put the microscope on them, then put another microscope on that, and just keep entering what it is deeper and deeper. This strategy has the capacity for change, for transmutation, and that’s where habit becomes evolution.

TAI’ve also come around to leaning into my tendencies, but that’s after a long time of trying to go directly against them. For years I brushed my teeth with my left hand and parted my hair on the side it doesn’t want to. Both were totally worthwhile exercises, but only as part of a process, not as an end in and of themselves.

SHSure, I think you can work intelligently with who you are, without negating yourself.

TAI’m interested in change, but not through brute force. I’m more curious about getting out of its way, or corralling it with tools and actions.

SHYes! And even just waiting can be a good way of pursuing change. As a performer in an ensemble setting this is definitely true. You can do almost nothing and things will change all around you. But definitely not brute force! With all of my talk about emergencies and implosions, I’m not arguing for force. Patience, yes. Bravery in the face of aversion, yes.

TAMore like jumping off a cliff in a hang glider you made yourself and not knowing if it will 100-percent work.

SHPretty much. (laughter) Tell me more about what you mean by “potential information becomes actual information,” vis-à-vis these signatures.

TAI mean that we exist in a field of possibilities, and when we act, we manifest one of them. A melody emerging from chaos is a simple example, like Pat [Higgins]’s quick-tapping guitar trills, which resolve here and there but not always. Actually, I think this metaphor might apply to all improvisation, not just the moments where it begins to “make sense.”

SHIt’s the same with my gurgling sax and Greg [Fox]’s helicopter drumming. He likes to call these manifestations “project objects”—things that anchor the project around a set of musical tropes. Project/Object is a Frank Zappa coinage.

TAFor both better and worse, there’s often a technical or physical aspect to these moves too—like, I have this weird drawing posture, where I lock my wrist and the lower knuckle of my thumb, so there are fewer variables and joints in play. Sometimes I see it as a weakness or a crutch, but I also know it’s part of what makes my line my own and not someone else’s.

SHI engage from the shoulder to the wrist to get an extremely frothy sound out of the horn.

TA While we’re on the subject of the body, did I tell you that I’ve been watching human dissections and videos of living fascia during surgeries?

SHWhat’s a fascia?

TAFascia has been one of the main things on my mind recently! It’s the connective tissue that sort of defines the boundaries of the organs in your body. And it runs through absolutely everything, like a three-dimensional and constantly reconfiguring matrix. It’s so cool—and it does both the jobs of separating and holding together. One of the main ingredients is collagen, which is a triple helix, and you know I’m obsessed with that shape.

Anyway, it’s been hiding in plain sight all this time. Way back, when Descartes wanted to do some human dissections, he allegedly went to the Pope to ask permission. The Pope said something like, “Okay, as long as we’re really clear on the fact that your domain is the body and our domain is the mind and spirit.” This cemented the separation of body and mind. Descartes’s dissections separated everything, isolating this muscle and this gland or whatever. And of course this made sense in an analytical approach and as a first mode of inquiry. All the connective material was discarded as extra fuzz, just stuff to cut away to get to the organs and bones.

Also, fascia is piezoelectric and conductive. I read a fascinating book by a Western doctor proposing it could be the conduit for qi. The meridians in traditional Chinese medicine don’t exactly correspond to the fascial planes, but some are very close. I’m just curious to see where this inquiry goes. There’s one fascial theorist in particular who’s been doing alternative types of dissections that focus on connectivity. Instead of dismantling everything, he endeavors to keep things together in “anatomy trains.” This can show, for example, how it’s possible to feel your breath in your foot because it’s actually connected to your diaphragm by all these fibers. I guess it’s been on my mind because I have a longtime interest in and reverence for topology. I just think that specific geometry of connectivity is what defines the character of pretty much everything.

SHTotally incredible. I’m so intrigued by your interest in moments in the empirically observable world that border on the metaphysical, and in concepts like four-dimensional geometry; it’s like this hyper-rigorous and right-brained way of navigating to a place that’s often approached by spirituality. One time you even posited that there might be a possible explanation of what happens after death within four-dimensional geometry.

TA(laughter) Oh, I have no idea what happens after death, but I did almost die earlier this week! And it shook me. At a certain point in the episode, I asked myself if I preferred to have my last experience of life be one of clawing to hold onto consciousness, or if I’d rather get into a peaceful state and melt into it. I didn’t have an answer!

SHYeah, that’s a tough one! So wait, what happened?

TANeither! I didn’t die! (laughter) But you mean why was I in that position? I bought a coffee, took two sips, and started to turn inside out. The coconut milk they’d used had tree nuts, and I’m super allergic. I was on the train, so I got off at the next stop and was so lucky there was an emergency room just three blocks away.

SHI’m so sorry and glad you’re alive, homie. What a ride. That’s just bananas.

TABack to your question though: Yes, I like to think of consciousness as a four-dimensional material passing through our three-dimensional world. We only experience—or are, you could say—one slice of this material at a time. The three-dimensional Sam is a cross section of the four-dimensional Sam in the same way a 2-D circle is the cross section of a 3-D sphere.

SHIt’s a very clear and beautiful model. I’m a fan.

TAI just went to this conference in Arizona last month to listen to lectures about the current science and theories of consciousness, and it was so fascinating. There were presentations about quantum physics as it relates to the brain, about language, psychedelics, lucid dreams, artificial intelligence, and wearable tech. I’m going to be a regular.

SHI have a different obsession, which might be related.

TATell me.

SHAs you know, I’m what I like to call a card-carrying Buddhist, as in I’ve taken vows and have a root guru, etcetera. In this domain of speculating about the role and mechanics of consciousness, Buddhism has some cryptic and severe things to say that fascinate me, things I can’t quite think my way out of. You are alone with your mind is one such concept. Another idea, though less cryptic I suppose, is distinguishing between relative and absolute truth.

Not every Buddhist would agree with me here, but it could be said that the idea of the waveform instantiating consciousness at a moment of collapse could only be true at the level of relative truth—in the same way that I can tap this table and feel it’s real.

“Relative” is not a derogatory thing to say about a truth, mind you. It’s essential that we relate to what is relatively true; it’s what we all do most of the time. But at the level of absolute truth your mind is productive of the table—or better yet, your mind and the table are participating in producing one another.

TAThat last bit is especially right on. I’m curious, what made you want to formalize your relationship with this philosophy/practice/religion, the whole shebang?

SHNice use of shebang! Understanding Buddhism without formally becoming a Buddhist felt like saying that I could understand thirst by reading about it. If I were an AI robot and understood thirst only as a moment when a human feels they must ingest liquid in order to maintain bodily functions, it wouldn’t be what we call understanding in any meaningful way. The same principle applies to entering a spiritual path.

TAI agree with you there.

SH The way the philosophy operates on the mind of the practitioner is heavily predicated on taking vows, which is also referred to as taking refuge. But people should approach it however and at whatever depth they want. I’m not throwing shade on sampling it. Reading about Buddhism rules! And Buddhists don’t proselytize, so nothing prescriptive coming from me here.

TAReading is great, but it’s only part of a good education. I think the act of drawing has been such an essential part of my education on so many different things. And doing qigong is not only teaching me about Taoism but also about shapes and fluid dynamics.

SHAll this reminds me of when you asked if I had any suggestions or strategies for improvisation. My disappointing answer was no.

TAWell, it wasn’t just a flat no, right?

SHMaybe I said that improvising is just dealing with being you?

TA(laughter) Yeah, something like that.

SHNo, really. You show up, there you are, and you’re just managing that, which requires a lot of creativity and problem solving.

TABut we also can condition ourselves or set up circumstances to facilitate our being there in different ways, right? Like an athlete who trains to then be able to improvise as they, say, play a game of basketball. What do we do to set up the conditions for improvisation?

SHWell, it’s like raising a kid. You can control where you raise your child but maybe not much else. (laughter) What I like to do is prepare the social fabric.

TAHow?

SHFirstly by choosing who to play with. Once there’s a consistent and stable sense that we’re all together and working on something over a long period of time, we introduce circumstances that we all have to take some action in, with everyone putting their thing into the equation. The environment itself has certain predictable attributes that will determine what happens. I also consider this to be a compositional method.

In our work together with Zs there are friendships in every direction, between you, Greg, Pat, Mike [Beharie], and with our projectionist Laura Paris and myself. We’ve assembled a set of circumstances that motivate us, and that’s a big part of the work. All of these hangouts, practices, and conversations—including this one—come together and circumscribe what’s going to happen on stage. They locate the work somewhere. Our improvisation will not be a matter of infinite possibilities but only of a few. Instead of making up strategies for improvising, I think deeply about the circumstances that surround the composition.

TAOh that’s very clear, exactly what I was asking for. Thank you!

SHYou know, we had talked some time ago about these drawings as a reciprocal score and also as akin to neumes used in early music. I’m so captivated by neumatic notation—these inexact, gestural, visual systems to represent music, this whole prehistory to the radical specificity of modern notation. I’m excited to orbit in a space where I can run with a neume.

TAYou should make some! You should draw at our next practice! And I’ll play the sax.

Tauba Auerbach is a multimedia artist living in Brooklyn. Her recent solo shows include Diagonal Press, Bard College, New York; Projective Instrument, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; The New Ambidextrous Universe, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; and Tetrachromat, which traveled from Bergen Kunsthall to Malmö Konsthall and Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels. INDUCTION: Tauba Auerbach and Éliane Radigue was recently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

Sam Hillmer is a Brooklyn-based musician, artist, and curator. He is the founding member of the band Zs, creative director of the Queens-based venue h0l0, one half of the art duo Trouble (with Laura Paris), and organizer of Representing NYC, a nonprofit committed to connecting artists with youth in undercapitalized areas. He also makes music as Diamond Terrifier.

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Originally published in

BOMB 144, Summer 2018

Featuring interviews with Chris Martin, Cy Gavin, Tauba Auerbach, Sam Hillmer, Amy Jenkins, Florian Meisenberg, John Akomfrah, Simone Forti, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Anna Moschovakis

Read the issue
144 Cover