Interview with Jacqueline Gordon
by Ellen Tani
Art Practical’s Ellen Tani reunites with sculptor and sound artist Jacqueline Gordon in a conversation about sound as communication and architecture, and its relationship to performance. The two met as graduate students at Stanford University in 2009, where they connected over a mutual interest in Cold War sound architectures. Jacqueline Gordon (MFA Stanford University, 2011) is a recipient of the 2011 Joan Mitchell MFA Award. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Ellen Tani: I’d like to talk about the origins of your practice in sound. Are there certain artists that influenced you? What do you pull on for inspiration? Do you think about daily experiences, or do you work through texts, enabling theoretical ideas to drive the work that you make?
Jacqueline Gordon: The first theoretical text I read on sound or noise was Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music. My friend Michael Silver, who gave me the book sometime around 2002, is also the one who took me to my first anechoic chamber at Bell Labs, around the same time. I had never read anything like it and had not thought about music in such a socially hierarchical way that linked the experience and production of sound in history. It’s so dystopian, yet I really identified with the first chapter and just recently picked it up to get back into the last chapter, on repetition. Right now, I am reading Acoustic Territories by Brandon LaBelle and The World of Perception by Merleau-Ponty. I’m not a big theory person. I usually enter my work from a question that comes up in the studio or an experience elsewhere. But I’m really into this little book called Bio-Music by Manford L. Eaton that was written in the ’70s. Branden W. Joseph has an interesting take on it in a recent edition of Grey Room.
ET: How does your background in performance inform your practice?
JG: I’ve been thinking about dance a lot. I had a studio visit with Ann Carlson recently, and it was really great to talk to her about sound and how it has the potential to choreograph a movement. For example, how certain types of sound can physically make your body vibrate, can control or inspire a movement, which then has the potential to change the sound itself and/or your experience of the sound. So there’s a potential for various forms of feedback.
ET: What is your history with dance?
JG: I grew up dancing consistently from age four to seventeen—ballet and then modern. I got an injury when I was seventeen; I had knee surgery, and that pretty much ended it. But I’m very mind/body aware because of that experience. I’ve been interested in Anna Halprin and Yvonne Rainer for a while, first through their collaborations with various composers, and I’m a big Merce Cunningham fan. I got to see the company perform Nearly 90² last year, and it blew my mind; it was so gorgeous, I still have goose bumps. And I’m actually starting to get back into dance myself now. I just took my first class in twelve years.
ET: Regarding the self-awareness that drives the feedback loop between the dancer and sound and, more generally, one’s own body in relation to space, can we talk about auditory focus? Some of the work that you do manipulates sound directionally, which effectively orients us to its origin and disorients us when sound and its interaction with materials is something that we don’t expect
JG: Right. Well, one thing I previously employed and will continue to use is perceived rhythm. For example, at what point in time do you hear a rhythm or experience a rhythm as periodic or aperiodic? Rhythm is so immediate on the body, voluntary or involuntary; your heartbeat can adapt to it, or you could dance or relax depending on its rate and/or volume. Things change when you recognize that you are experiencing a particular rhythm, from something aperiodic like the ocean or the rhythm of the waves to city traffic or music from a sound system.
ET: Or crickets.
JG: Absolutely. So how do you recognize that as a rhythm? Do you just experience it, or do you kind of ignore it? The piece that I made for the Stanford First Year show, called Wall II (The Space Between Us), for me was about experiencing the rhythmic qualities of an HVAC system, and getting lost in it, and hearing it as almost like a breath or a heartbeat. That was very physical, coming from a network and a system that was not bodily.
ET: And not intended to produce noise. Airflow makes it an instrument.
JG: Oh, absolutely, that’s a wind instrument. And it has all these filtering mechanisms to quiet it down, which also color the pitch. That system was the first thing I heard when I walked into the gallery at Stanford. That show was the first time I had to do a group show inside of a giant, massive cube. I’m so used to commanding my own space for an installation. My process at that time was really just sitting in a room and listening for a long time, trying to recognize patterns and particular sounds, taking note of how they related to the architecture and how I experienced that, through some ideas I had already been thinking about in my studio.
ET: So in a sense, there’s a monastic listening state, previously realizable in other solo installation spaces, that you were able to reconstruct in a public group show by creating a spatial territory for the sound experience? That reminds me of Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin’s unspecified column of air, which is a conceptual piece. It was this square—a vertical shaft—of air flow in a museum. I’m thinking about how you constructed space that’s not necessarily physically distinct from the rest of the gallery yet becomes its own kind of container.
JG: Sound has such an amazing power to be able to do that.
ET: Especially since it will stop you in your tracks, if you can identify a rhythm, and makes you aware of how that rhythm changes in relation to where you are. You will position yourself accordingly to whatever experience you want to have.
JG: Exactly. That’s going to the feedback loop I mentioned earlier, between what you hear and how you relate to it and how that changes what you hear. With that kind of work, I think a lot about habituation, which has to do with attention and how we—particularly with noises, like the HVAC system—don’t hear things.
ET: Or you may notice it initially, and then it fades away and becomes part of the atmosphere.
JG: Right. Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity, talks a lot about technology being developed to create a workplace, to facilitate a particular type of atmosphere that was highly productive. So I’m thinking about sound and productivity in those ways—and commerce, too. In the United States, most research about noise abatement is driven by commerce or product research: the study of sounds that make a vehicle feel luxurious, for example, or people’s tolerance levels to sounds when flying hundreds of feet above the earth.
ET: When I think of acoustic tolerance, I think of a straining on both ends of the spectrum—both to discern low-volume sounds and to tolerate high-volume sounds. How do you play with that range of frequencies?
JG: Well, I’m interested in a few things: one is perceived loudness, which is related to frequency and the intensity of a sound, and another is the use of infrasound and ultrasound, which are the edges of the frequency spectrum on both ends of our hearing range. Loudness is interesting because it varies from person to person and is not measurable; it’s a psycho-acoustical term that was first defined by Gustav Theodor Fechner.
Sound can take the form of language, music, or noise. And there’s more within that, like storytelling or the sound work that goes into radio, theater, or film. That involves language in a way that I, so far, have not experimented with.
JG: Because I entered into working with sound through noise—just through the experience of listening. So whether or not there was someone talking in that environment, or there was music in that environment, I abstracted that into the environment itself. I didn’t put my attention into the music or into language.
ET: Kind of acoustically mapping an event.
JG: Hearing it as a sound in a space.
ET: So that must have really changed your relationship to music, I would imagine. Does it make it hard to go see a Broadway musical?
JG: Ha! Yes, but not the sound; it’s the narrative and acting I usually can’t handle. I actually went to see a musical for the first time last December, in Kyoto at an outdoor Noh performance. People were walking everywhere on gravel, and it created an amazing texture to the soundscape within the performance.
But regarding music, I learned a lot about sound through listening to early electronic composers, particularly the ones that created these very landscape-y drone pieces. When I was in my second year of undergraduate work, I was still studying photography, and I listened to Pauline Oliveros for the first time. I was listening to it on good headphones, and all of a sudden I was, like, “I am there. This is what I’m relating to. This is what I am responding to.” And I was responding stronger to that than anything I was looking at or reading about in art school. Maryanne Amacher and Eliane Radigue were and are still big influences on me.
ET: Is it because the experience of perceiving sound is so different than reading, which we associate with music and which we associate with visual language? And that sound does not have that kind of code?
JG: Sound has a different code.
ET: You’ve spoken about your personal experience connecting to sound, but how do you communicate with your audience?
JG: My interest has always been in environment and in spaces. When I started working in sound, I was still doing photography and painting. And my painting started to turn into installations, and then I started to build them into these big blankets that somehow would flop on the floor and hang from the ceiling, and I just wanted to wrap myself up in them. And sound did that for me without having to be physically built. It’s something I could wrap myself in. And so my first sound piece was a blanket, but it was this twenty-channel, cassette-tape-looped, sculpture thing called Dream Blankets that you could also enter. So I came at it by building this environment that I wanted to experience.
More recently I did a show at Queen’s Nails, where I created this all-white piece that had twenty-six speakers. It was called Our Best Machines are Made of Sunshine, and I invited musicians to come and perform. I think that that was a big eye-opener for me, listening to other people performing in that space.
ET: So, not simply having sound playing in the space but having people performing.
JG: Yes, they were performing. I’d always enjoyed watching other people interact with my work, but I’d never really asked people how they felt about it. It wasn’t until I started to do studio visits in graduate school and wanted to hear what people were responding to that I started thinking about the actual experiences of the work from a different perspective.
ET: When you did your project at Queen’s Nails, what was the range of responses, and how did it change with various performers?
JG: Well, the thing with including performance is that then you have a performer. So the performer becomes the icon of attention in that situation, rather than the space. I think I’d still love to do something at some point in time where I build a system and then commission people to compose for the system itself.
Experiencing different sound systems is something I’m really interested in. There aren’t so many in the United States; there are more in Europe. One of the more iconic ones is the Acousmonium that was developed by Francois Bayle in the ’70s. Or the BEAST system in Birmingham, or the new wave field synthesis system at the Technical University in Berlin. All are huge, multichannel sound systems that operate very differently but are environments in which people come and perform. In San Francisco, I was first introduced to this world at Naut Humon’s Compound and the Recombinant Media Labs. I think the first show I saw at the Compound was Carsten Nicolai, back in 2004. With electronic music, a lot of the experience has to do with the speaker and the speaker system.
My idea for building a sound system is quite different, though. For example, I’d like to build a sound system into an office building or something like that.
ET: So why does the drive to do something pervasive, that takes up the whole building, stem from some of the most banal architectural spaces?
JG: Because concert halls have never been—I mean I love them, and I find their history fascinating—but they’re not a space that I find all that interesting. I actually think that an office building is a more interesting space than a concert hall.
ET: Can you describe this relationship to architecture, given your most recent performance? You were at Skowhegan in the summer and then did a few performances in San Francisco before moving to Los Angeles, right?
JG: Before I moved to L.A., 0th, the collective that I’m in, did two fairly large performances in the fall at the Berkeley Art Museum and then at the SF Electronic Music Festival. I’ve always kept 0th kind of separate from my own work, but last year the two seemed to merge a bit more. I’ve been thinking about performance a lot, and with 0th I’m able to play and experiment with an amazing, supportive crew of people.
ET: Can you talk about what 0th is?
JG: 0th is a collective: Amanda Warner, Canner Mefe, Caryl Kientz, and me. It started as a live drums and electric-bass duo in 2006, and kind of sounded more Krautrock-ish, and then we did our first installation-style show in 2010. We built all these sculptures and instruments and played them throughout the exhibition. We started to work with graphic scores, improved quite a bit, and now our performances are more theatrical, with dancers and video. We love bringing in other musicians.
ET: It’s good to have a community of people to try out ideas with; you each have a different statement in what you’re doing.
JG: Oh, absolutely. For instance, the drummer builds robots, and so she’s built a few that we have played as instruments. And she built a dodecahedron drum, where every side of it is a different drum pad. Then Caryl’s background is in shadow puppets and theatre, so we work with lights and projectors a lot. It’s been really opening for me because it forces me to get out of my comfort zone, hiding behind speakers.
ET: So the contribution you bring to it is the speaker system?
JG: Yeah, at the Berkeley Art Museum show, we performed up in one of the balconies, each of us facing our own camera that was being projected below to the audience. Our voice tracks were played from speakers up on the opposite side of the museum, and our instruments came from a quad system below. The museum itself is this incredible Brutalist structure with cast concrete trays, so there’s a lot of open space to work with—acoustically it’s a fascinating structure. But I’ve also been working a lot with the dancers, coming up with choreography, and thinking about improv, and how it is that we listen and communicate through improv. We have structure to our performances through our scores, but they’re based off of large chunks of improv, when we put ourselves into a particular situation and then we perform within it. So thinking about listening and hearing and communicating through improvisation has been super big.
ET: Let’s talk about sound and communication. Sound can communicate within itself, as you’ve articulated through your very personal relationship to environments that you hear and experience, and as a means of translation from one source to a listener.
JG: I think that’s how I got into sound, really, by listening to noise and hearing noise as a communication from architecture—emotionally relating to it and questioning that relationship, thinking about reverberation or how a sound comes from an event into an environment and then to you. And it hasn’t been until recently that I started thinking about how sound goes from person to person. I know that sounds awful. I mean, I have thought about it a lot, but in the sense of person to person—through networks and systems and architecture and thinking about how emotions translate through that space. But how do we sonically communicate emotions without music or language? How do we communicate that through noise and have that experience? It’s funny because I want to start making music again and almost want to start working with language.
ET: Is sound too abstract, then? Is it the nature of noise to frustrate the kind of clarity that one needs to identify emotion or relate?
JG: Yeah, I think so. Well, I don’t know. I think I got myself into a pigeonhole with that one.
ET: When we talk about corporate architecture, systems like these are sort of the most inhuman kind of dead faces for sound. They are meant to be blank.
JG: Blank or intimidating. But it’s the softness—like in the carpeting or cubicles—that helps with the noise abatement that I find interesting in its mundaneness. I think that part of it comes from the fact that sound has such a power to manipulate. I think people are actually scared of it. Vito Acconci was at Skowhegan this summer, and he said that he was scared of sound’s authority on a space. He thought it was too manipulative. I was really surprised by that; I totally agree, but I think that’s an aspect that’s really interesting to work with.
ET: It gets back to the argument about hearing: that you can never turn it off.
JG: Yes. You can’t shut your ears, true, and it is very informative of and immediate to your experience of a space. Getting back to how we communicate emotion without music or language…it’s tricky. It’s also part of the reason that, when composing a piece, I tend to use sounds that are found in the environment. I don’t like the idea of myself as a composer, necessarily. I’m kind of taking away that authorship and giving it instead to the structure of the installation.
ET: So in a way, you’re siphoning things from the space rather than making them.
JG: Correct. It’s like, in any system, there’s inclusion and exclusion that happens through how you structure it.
ET: But what about control and the ability to create—with all the interesting sounds in one space—a sort of uncanny reconstitution of the space itself?
JG: Well, that’s when I dictate what you listen to.
ET: And how do you make those decisions? Do you decide to amplify things or manipulate certain noises that have certain structural properties, or do you pick out things that stand out to you?
JG: Both. Right now, I have been thinking about various audio processes—like DSP filters and how digital delay or reverb are created and work—to produce a new kind of virtual environment. And, through sound design, how a signal process can be similar to the way sound is perceived in architecture and/or abstracted from it. In the past, I have created these environments intuitively, using sounds from the space that I found activated it in an interesting way and that fit with what I wanted to explore in that piece formally though sculpture, process, or other means.
ET: Let’s talk about what you’re up to now. What are you thinking about?
JG: Well, I’m currently working on lots of new things for a show I’m having with Eli Ridgway Gallery in August, where I’ll be building two sound installations. And I’ve been thinking a lot about video and video games, which I can’t really talk about yet. But in video games, movement and sound are extremely important—procedural audio, how sound responds to what you do in an environment. I’m into it, but I’ve never really played video games before; they kind of scare me.
ET: Now we’re getting into cybernetics.
JG: Yeah, I’m excited.