Transparent and Opaque: On Black Lake by Lydia Dona

Lydia Dona talks with Susan Jennings and Slink Moss, the interdisciplinary pair that comprises Black Lake, on the occasion of “Shake,” their new record. Check out Mystic Eye, an exclusive track by the band in Editor’s Choice of BOMB 117!

Black Lake 1

Photo by s-e stroum. Courtesy of Black Lake.

At the end of September 2011, Black Lake releases their debut 7” record Shake. Black Lake is an unusual duo comprised of Susan Jennings and Slink Moss, two different interdisciplinary artists who come together to create music and art. Black Lake has performed in various public art spaces, clubs, and experimental venues such as the RISD Museum of Art, Club Helsinki, David Nolan Gallery, 179 Canal, and X-initiative. Their project is an inter-media fusion of video projections, performance, music, spoken word, shadows, and floating sculptural objects. The effect upon the spectator and listener is the experience of moving through music from an unusual stage for an original hybrid of sound and movement. Light and shadow guide their central vision. Artist Lydia Dona talks to Black Lake on the occasion of their record release.

Lydia Dona You formed in the fall of 2009. Why?

Slink Moss To experiment with time and space.

Susan Jennings And light and sound.

LD What is the relationship between Black Lake and Slink Moss’s comics?

SM In my comics I explore icons of rock and roll and other things. With Black Lake we are exploring the icon of the black lake itself, the lake at night. That iconography is very important to us; it shapes who we are.

LD Slink Moss, I want to know a little about your background. What from your background is channeled into Black Lake? You bring all kinds of aspects that are different from Susan’s. I know that you make paintings, are involved with poetry, and do performance, but I am intrigued by how you bring in the cartoon thing. Your sharp gestures in performance become these characters that play between mannequin and cartoon. The performance becomes very interesting in terms of the body.

SM I use a very flat perspective in my comics. Sometimes when I perform I imagine myself as a two-dimensional cutout. I think that’s what you are seeing in the movements.

SJ Movement is one of our media. Video art, digital projections, sculpture, and shadows also are our media.

LD You utilize the late 1960s and ’70s, without appropriation, which is really cool. You reference the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, and performance aspects of Laurie Anderson, but your impact and intention are different. You maintain a connection to nature, and desire that connection to nature.

SM Yes.

LD Susan, you have been working with multimedia projects that I see as incredible engagements with light, transparency, sculpture, video, and the recreation of a specific movement of light. Both you and Slink Moss contribute different elements that are between performance, sculpture, and video, and which create an intense hybrid space. This space alludes to the space of writing and fracture. How do you relate to this?

SJ Well, writing is interesting. At its most basic, writing is mark making. An aspect of my work is mark making without using any traditional drawing media. With the light, I am drawing. With the shapes that leave shadows, I am making drawings. And Slink Moss is writing. He writes the lyrics, and the lyrics are really important. They are poetry, and that is one of his contributions.

SM Lately, we have been doing automatic writing, where we trade lines and share streams of consciousness.

SJ We recently took a long trip with our families. While everyone else was asleep to pass the time in the car, we traded off two words. I did two words, Slink Moss did two words, and so on, back and forth. After that, we sifted through and made a couple of new songs. We pulled songs out of that process.

LD My take is that it’s music despite itself, and that’s the hybrid space.

SJ It’s somewhere between words, sound art, poetry, and lighting. And it is almost painterly. Everything is painterly, including the words, yet there is not a whole lot of paint involved. Slink Moss does some small paintings that are part of it.

SM We have a strict vision of what we think Black Lake is.

LD Would you call it a reductive or a compressed vision?

SJ We know what we are not in terms of sound and image. So when we are collaborating, if something comes in, we can remind each other that that’s not Black Lake and that helps us a lot in doing our work.

SM But it’s compressed, reduced, and expanded.

SJ Yeah.

SM Because it’s got a breathing quality.

LD Both of you collaborate in creating the stage itself with sounds, motions, lights, transparency, sculptures, words, and a kind of abrupt movement. There is a sort of calculated improvisation, am I correct?

SJ Yes. For example, with the sculptures that also make sound, we don’t exactly know what they’re going to look like during the performance, because they’re moving and spinning. Or we don’t know exactly what the sound is going to be, but we know the overall image. There is definitely an aspect of improvisation, though we rehearse all the time. We are very serious about making sure that we feel comfortable with what we are doing before we perform.

SM I like that phrase “music despite itself,” because it’s almost like we don’t need to do music. We could do our art without the music, but then the music becomes this huge sky over our world.

LD Now, as opposed to the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, whose work has a kind of darkness, what I like about you is that you use elements of nature and that there is a sense of optimism in the way you approach the lyrics and the writing. There is a transparency in the collaborative and ephemeral materiality of your work, which makes it possible for everything to be, I don’t like to say the word spiritual, but more positive.

SJ Some of our songs, and I don’t even know if they are songs, are about pretty dark subjects. But, what Slink Moss and I have in common is that we like the grungy dark side of life.

LD Opacity is the conceiving aspect of darkness, which I think is really good. I saw a blot of ink in the name Black Lake. A whole puddle. As a result of that puddle, there’s residue of darkness in the writing.

SJ Some people thought that the name Black Lake was about heavy metal. That’s not the case. For us, the blackness is a shiny, shimmery black, and the lake is the lake at night. We’re not interested in a bright light, a bright blue sky. It’s all about the light that’s there in the darkness.

SM I keep thinking about a Chinese poet who is in the mountains and all he can think about is how water is related to writing because you use ink to write. The black ink is like language.

SJ And I think about another Chinese poet who was drunk on rice wine and he was so enamored by the reflection of the moon in the river that he wanted it. He ran into the river to get the moon reflection, and he drowned. I think there is something exquisite about that.

LD When I saw you perform I thought, “You are like lunar angels.” One time you, Susan, dressed in white, and one time you dressed in black.

SJ And sometimes silver.

LD Often you have gadgets on your arms that are silver, and sometimes you become a part of the shadow of your own work. You almost interrupt your own shadow and move with it. You cut into Slink Moss’s movements and the music and the words become the shadow of the other. It’s interesting how the moon’s reflection is operative in the music.

SJ One of our lyrics is “you move in and out like a shadow in the dark.” I think of us as being four—both of us and our two shadows performing with us.

LD I love that. Now, Slink Moss, what is the purpose of the hat?

Black Lake 2

Photo by Alexander Ross. Courtesy of Black Lake.

SM The purpose of the hat is to reference another world. It’s like that movie West World, where a cowboy ends up in the future. A lot of our music is American music from the cowboys of the past. We are like futuristic cow-people.

LD Oh, I really love that. Futuristic cow-people. So, “I Put a Spell on You,” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, relates to a cow. What do you think about that?

SJ “I Put a Spell on You” is our only cover, and it is a very American song.

SM But it’s also voodoo.

LD So, in other words, it is related to magic. Black Lake has a serious connection to magic and Edgar Allen Poe.

SJ Oh yeah.

LD I mean, a part of the magic is this whole idea of the electric guitar, and listening to its romance and legacy.

SJ Well, Lydia, I learned on an acoustic guitar. At 14, I took lessons and learned how to play it. I never played an electric guitar until now. Slink Moss, though, is the rock and roll guy.

SM It’s one of the best vehicles for getting loud, and it sounds really good.

LD However, what’s really cool is that onstage it is all kind of low-tech multimedia.

SJ That’s from our visual art, too. That’s part of what Black Lake is—find the way to do it low-tech.

SM We keep it analog, so we are almost timeless in technology.

SJ We use technology when we need to get what we want, but we are not super “digy.”

LD There’s something romantic about the performance aspect of the music from the ‘70s and ’80s that you channel. I will refrain from using the word appropriation and will call it your “influential impact” instead. You grew up with punk. How do you relate to it?

SJ Our songs are super short, and sometimes they are “AH!” loud. We throw everything into a minute and ten seconds, and so we have a very strong connection to punk. Fast. Intense.

LD Encapsulated.

SM Emotional, raw, and real. We are carrying on, what we—

SJ We love punk.

SM Love punk.

LD How do you deal with the scars left by punk?

SJ Punk left fantastic scars.

LD So I got it right. How did Austin play into your growth?

SJ We went to Austin. We saw a lot of new bands. We saw Wanda Jackson. We performed in Austin, but what we really got to do in Austin was have an artists’ residency. Somebody donated a house for us to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse… We both have kids and families! We got to not have any worries—no responsibilities, no jobs, no kids. At that point, we had other band members, and we got better in Austin.

LD I saw a picture of the two on your bus and thought to myself, How audacious! They’re going to Austin with all these groups, looking total folk and Americana. Here are two sophisticated Manhattan artists, weaving in all kinds of elements—folk music, a light touch of tambourine … But with the electric guitar you really break boundaries. You like bringing unrelated aesthetic things together and, in the end, are creating music despite itself.

SJ We’re creating everything despite itself. (laughter)

SM That’s the reduction, the compression, and the expansion right there.

SJ We are also creating poetry despite itself. We are creating art despite itself. That is what grabs us.

SM One thing about us is that even though you hear folk, we are electrified.

LD That’s right. The way you play the guitar, your hand goes in one motion and then passes through …

SJ The strumming hand? That’s the folk strum that I use. On the electric, I use folk chords. I’ve been an artist for all these years. I have played the guitar here and there and the story is … Slink Moss came to an open studio of mine at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts—I had a video projected onto these sculptures that were reflective and wrapped in shiny materials, and they were spinning around. It was a month before that I had said to myself, It’s finally time. I need to get some sound involved in this. Before that I thought, Why does video always have to have sound?

For years, I was a video artist who worked with light and movement and color. I thought of my work as moving paintings. But then, I made the work that Slink Moss saw, and I felt like it was time for it to have sound. I didn’t know where I was going to find it, though. I invited my friends to the studio, and Slink Moss came and said, “I am hearing sound here, and if you would like to collaborate, I make sound art.” I said, “You are kidding—that’s just what I am thinking about.” So it started with us collaborating on sound art. He had a band at the time that lost a guitarist. I said, “I play the guitar, but I haven’t done it much. I’d love to play guitar. Let’s see what happens.”

SM So, Susan showed up for tryouts for the Slink Moss Orchestra. And then she turns out to be an excellent guitarist. After a while, it morphed into Black Lake.

LD The two of you visually make an amazing combination because the way you both occupy the stage is very different, given that most of the singing and writing of the songs is done by you, Slink Moss.

SJ We joke because when I met Slink Moss, I was editing a book that you, Lydia, are in: THIS: A Collection of Artist’s Writings. He submitted something to the collection, so I edited him. That’s still basically my role. He writes the lyrics, and I am the editor.

LD This is very interesting because a lot of your stage behavior has these sharp movements. One person moves into the other person’s shadow and into each other’s movements, thus interrupting. You move around and have edited movement. You come together with one sentence, three sentences… It’s like poems and movement.

SM That’s all we are.

LD You’re artists with different baggage, which unfolds and dismantles into this energy that I call lunar, rather than solar.

SJ We are very lunar. We are not solar.

LD What’s also really cool as hell is that you’re edgy but avoid references to drugs, sex, or violence. It’s a very interesting utilization of the late ’60s and ’70s. Also, Black Lake is not about androgyny in the ’80s or ’90s flavor. It’s about hybrids, about fusion. Let’s go back to Americana. What is the American aspect in the music?

SJ It has very American roots—rock and roll and punk.

LD Let’s talk about rock and roll.

SM All the best rock and roll has been done by weirdoes. We are like the players and juggling acts in a circus.

LD A show on the road.

SM We are …

SJ Minstrels.

SM We are a minstrel show. Vaudeville songs. We are like a new and updated crazy version of that.

LD I keep coming back to the hat. I want to understand the symbols.

SJ The hat is quintessential to Black Lake, because Black Lake is at least one quarter rock and roll, which sprang from blues and rockabilly in America. The hat represents that part of Black Lake’s ancestry.

SM Our song about the solstice, “Longest night, darkest night,” is rockabilly-like.

LD Well, that makes me think of Patti Smith in a way, with some of the songs’ themes, titles, and characters. The frog, for instance.

SJ The microscopic frog.

SM Patti Smith is definitely a huge influence for us.

SJ There are also some more contemporary influences. The White Stripes is one.

SM The biggest influence for us has been the DIY movement of recording and putting things out ourselves. We are a product of our age.

LD Talk about your new vinyl record “Shake.”

SM We are putting out our records on vinyl because it sounds best, and it is also a cool format that references the records of the past. We are going to make it into a sculpture.

LD What’s about the name?

SJ It’s a 45, a “double single” with two short pieces on each side. It has a shaky sculpture pierced through the jacket. The sculpture makes sound, a lot like the sculpture/instruments that I make and that we play in performances and recordings. The first thing that’s coming out is a free downloadable video and audio piece. We are planning to do a record release performance hosted by Invisible Exports at The Wooly, a speak-easy styled club in the Woolworth Building, on October 21st. Then, we are doing a piece of art called Netherzone; it is a 12-inch vinyl with ten pieces of music all on one side. The other side is a collage with shiny materials, similar to what you saw in our studio. It is going to be in a transparent sleeve.

LD How great!

SJ That’s coming out in the winter. That’s our plan. And then we have performances.

LD Well, to wrap this up, what is really exciting is that you are coming up with an object that incorporates the philosophy of Black Lake.

SJ Yeah, it does.

Check out Black Lake’s website for more.

John Maus by Leah Loscutoff
John Maus
The Sonic Equivalent of a Cloud: Marisa Anderson Interviewed by Michael Blair

The experimental guitarist talks patterns, resonance, and her latest album. 

On the Chaos of Bodies: David Grubbs and John Sparagana in Conversation
Sparagana 01

The collaborators on riots, punk, Richter, and the new book Now that the audience is assembled.

Jlin by Jibade-Khalil Huffman​
Jlin 1

The Indiana-based producer composes intricate music from a blank slate, but her inspirations range from Nina Simone to discrete mathematics.