A Conversation with John Duncan29 July, 2012
-- Aram Yardumian
It was Nietzsche who predicted the arts and sciences would merge into a single practice capable of opening new vistas to the world. The techne of science and the raw Dionysian energy of art together would render obsolete both theology—that caked residue under the toilet bowl of metaphysics—and the equally tendentious religiosity of Positivism. Whether Nietzsche envisioned specific technologies adapted by one and made suitable for the other, or more generally a reinforced mindset we cannot say. After all, art and science, from Euclid to Catherine Wagner, have always reacted with each other to produce a permanent art. Perhaps he meant a form of rational empiricism forged not by observation but by actualization. The elasticity of the aesthetic imagination and the psycho-social laboratory of the real world. Not a work about the thing, but the thing it itself. Not meta- but infra-. Direct actions that yield direct explanations, not more questions. What comes to mind is Pasolini's very real examination of his own sadism in Salo. Harry Harlow and his rhesus monkeys, and the photographs he left for us. Otto Mühl and Günter Brus, certainly. Mishima's Gnostic sayonara? Jamie Gillis? That very dangerous eclipsing of the aesthetics of fantasies and the mechanics of reality. Art which argues with itself on stage, celluloid and canvas without the safety nets of verisimilitude and didacticism, without specific need for the reactions of an audience entertained.
In spite of the possibilities, very little Conceptual and Process-based art manages to go beyond advertisement. It’s hard to imagine an artist less touched by her own exercises than Karen Finley. It's yourself who needs convincing, not Jesse Helms or anyone else, and I think this is why art brut is routinely thought of as synonymous with artistic purity. It is also why John Duncan is one of the least understood artists of our time. Though his work is made for contact with other humans, the term 'audience' hardly seems appropriate. He has worked with a variety of media—direct action, film, painting, bookmaking, sound art, and most recently, dance. It is reasonable to wonder how an artist can follow a subject through so many formats without losing hope or resorting to dilettantish tactics. But in spite of what you may have read, he is interested neither in provocation nor shock, or transgression per se, but in learning—in tapping into the inner self and waking up; to, as he says, 'discover everything I can about what it is to be alive.'
Duncan arrived in Los Angeles at a peculiar time in its cultural history: post-Watts, pre-Lowbrow; post-Manson, pre-Helter Skelter; post-Walter Hopps, pre-Black Flag. At CalArts, he studied painting, focusing on color psychology and 2D compositional geometry. After meeting Allan Kaprow, who introduced him to the Aktionists, and to the music of Mauricio Kagel, Steve Reich, and Pauline Oliveros, among others, he abandoned painting and never looked back. The happenings and performances he began staging in 1975 have become legendary for their effects on participants. And yet Duncan does not consider his work communicative in the traditional sense, but as shared experience. His early works (e.g., Scare, For Women Only, Move Forward), participants were necessarily trapped in situations and forced to cope; these days they are free to leave at any time, but those who choose to stay accept the ramifications of their curiosity and go home knowing some part of them wanted to remain. The 'audiences' for Duncan's early works were often quite unaware of their status as such, being city bus riders, unwitting acquaintances, or people who accidentally tuned into one of his pirate radio broadcasts. In Scare (Los Angeles, 1976), Duncan knocked on the doors of people he knew at night, disguised; when they answered he fired a gun loaded with blanks into their faces and disappeared. 'Participants' in Scare were thereby forced to experience the extremes of terror of death approaching, followed by anger, relief, and possibly fascination when the panic was over.
In Bus Ride (Los Angeles, 1976), Duncan introduced a small amount of substance with an odor similar to vaginal secretions during orgasm into the ventilation system of the city bus he drove. The idea was purely Reichian: to see whether or not the idea that repressed sexual energy gives way to aggression. Apparently so. A normally passive commuter kicked a pregnant woman off of her seat in order to put up his feet. This caused a fight among the other passengers, half of whom sided with the commuter. Again, later, a group of kids coming home from a school that specialized in training etiquette, normally introverted and quiet, attacked each other and tore up the bus.
In For Women Only (Los Angeles, 1979), an audience of women were shown pornographic collage and then invited to enter a separate room, where they could abuse Duncan sexually. The sexual nature of some of his early works (Every Woman, For Women Only, Blind Date, etc.) purportedly refract what Duncan refers to as his repressive Presbyterian upbringing in Kansas, in which misery, sensual denial, and punishment were predicate.
Participants in Move Forward (Tokyo, 1984) entered a completely dark concrete room filled with high-volume sound for twenty minutes. After ten minutes, a film collage of pornography, nuclear explosions, and Hiroshima victims, was projected in slow motion onto a paper screen that divided the room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. At the conclusion, Duncan set alight the screen and sprayed the embers into the audience with a fire extinguisher.
Even his recent performance work, The Seed at Zero (Bologna, 2010), a collaboration with choreographer Melissa Pasut in which diverse audio and visual elements are juxtaposed, demonstrates this most important motif of Duncan's work: the placement of people into a context in which they can share in the stress and elation of self-discovery, without a prescribed lesson or set of reactions; and in which they can alter perceptions by confronting fears of the unknown and new. As Duncan has said, 'If you repress something, it always becomes heavier, and in the end, it controls you. The more you ask questions, the freer you are.'
The influence of Allan Kaprow, Grotowski's Poor Theater, and the transgressive violence of the Aktonists are very much alive in Duncan's early events. In the late 1970s he began orbiting the periphery of the Los Angeles Free Music Society, with some of whose members he collaborated on radio work. In 1978 he released three cassettes on his own AQM label, and in 1979 he appeared on the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art's seminal 1979 compilation Sound. Also in 1979, he released his first LP, Organic, and distributed it with help from the LAFMS. These early recordings, prior to his departure from Los Angeles, are very much in the inventive spirit of the LAFMS, created with a variety of then-unconventional instruments such as reel-to-reel or cassette recorders, water, and found sounds. The association with premier experimentalists and his understanding of the physics and psychology of color to sound art eventually led him to work with that most surreal and unpredictable of instruments, the shortwave radio, whose time signals, utility communication, and Numbers Stations are refracted through solar, electric, and atmospheric interferences.
Duncan cross-pollenated the actualization of his performances with his audio research in the form of pirate radio broadcasts entitled Close Radio. In 1977 he, along with Michael Le Donne-Bhennet, Tom Recchion, and Paul McCarthy, recorded Station Event, a mix of improvised percussion and woodwinds and live call-ins from KPFK listeners. In 1980, he recorded one of the more haunting pieces of his early career, 'Happy Homes.' For this, he phoned Dr. Toni Grant, a call-in psychologist broadcasting on KABC, Los Angeles and described two incidents he experienced as a public bus driver in South Central Los Angeles: 'The first time,' he says, 'two people got on the bus and seemed to be dragging a sack of dirty laundry that they put under the seat. After awhile I saw there was a six-month-old baby inside it, with its eyes bruised shut. I stopped the bus and called the police. When they arrived on the scene they told me they couldn't do anything because they hadn't seen a crime committed. Another time, a woman got on with a nine year old girl who had open sores covering her arms and legs, the woman sitting next to the girl telling her, "You're evil!" I just drove, I didn't do anything. Later on I called the psychologist to say how much it bothered me that I couldn't react anymore.' In 2007, the Close Radio archive was donated to the Getty.
In May of 1980, Duncan performed what would be the most controversial and life-changing artistic act of his career, Blind Date, in which he travelled to Tijuana to purchase a female corpse, with which he had sex. Six weeks later (the minimum waiting period) he had a vasectomy so that 'the last potent seed I had was spent in a cadaver.' Blind Date was 'performed in order to torture myself, physically and psychically … There was nothing erotic about it, there was no pleasure involved … it was not act of self-indulgence … I felt that I had failed at love and decided to torture myself, to punish myself as much as I possibly could. I had this focused determination to suffer.' Driving home he found he was unable to weep, he was beyond weeping. After the vasectomy, Duncan arranged for a public listening to a tape recording he had made of Blind Date, during which he explained he 'wanted to show what can happen to men that are trained to ignore their emotions' and that the recording was made 'to render any further self-torture of this kind, especially psychic self-torture, unnecessary for anyone to perform as a creative act.' Aside from the immense risk to his mental and physical health, with Blind Date Duncan risked his artistic reputation. And indeed, the feminist network in Los Angeles saw to it his work was informally banned there, and made him a pariah. Even his closest friends turned against him.
Blind Date and its aftermath became, for Duncan, an epochal event. Besides galvanizing his departure from the USA, it inspired him 'to really go profoundly into my work and into my art, and into what it is to be alive. The moral issues are a distraction. Some people need these issues in order to justify this sense of outrage they have. It keeps them from really looking at themselves. Some people need that. Some people need that protection from themselves.'
But like a heavy chain, Blind Date has followed Duncan everywhere he has gone. Pelted by cancelled performances and friendships, threats to send him to prison, and predictable feminist outrage, Duncan crossed the Pacific to live and work for six years in Tokyo, where reception to his work was much more sincere and non-judgmental. In Tokyo, he worked with pornographer Nakagawa Noriaki on a series of commercial adult videos. Nakagawa chose the cast and crew, and Duncan directed and edited with state-of-the-art equipment. Under Duncan's direction, female performers were typically given strong, self-assured, dominant characters to play—something unknown in Japanese adult cinema. Nakagawa also gave Duncan the freedom to compose the soundtrack to the films, which he created with the shortwave—something doubly anathema to Japanese pornographic film audiences. Once the videos were released, Duncan rented them as a consumer and re-assembled the material, adding in his own found video material, and broadcast them on Japan's TVC 1 pirate television with portable transmitters built by Duncan himself. He did so illegally from apartment block roofs in central Tokyo and allegedly from an abandoned US Army hospital near Sagamihara, for only a few minutes at a time to evade the police. He has yet to meet anyone who actually saw a broadcast. These video collages were released on Duncan's AQM label on VHS and are now very scarce, as are the soundtracks released separately on cassettes under the pseudonym CV Massage.
In contrast to his Los Angeles-period works, which were, Duncan claims, all fundamentally about the Los Angeles social landscape and Duncan's strict Midwestern Presbyterian childhood, in Japan he began reaping the benefits of the Blind Date experience combined with isolation in a foreign land. His interest in revealing what is kept hidden and secret both by a society and by the physical limits of the body found unlimited contact points in Tokyo, as did opportunities to explore how truth can be revealed by experience—a subject very much in the tradition of Bataille and Artaud. All this finally came to a boil in 1984 with the release of his magnificent LP, Riot, about which he said, 'I decided to try to make a kind of music that was impossible to listen to, pure noise, that had a structure but seemed to be entirely without one: this is how RIOT was realized, before the Japanese noise scene developed.' In spite of his efforts to create something unlistenable, Riot is subtle and even in its total assault, as is its inspiration: the contrast of subtlety and overload of life in urban Japan.
Duncan continued creating assaultive music and performances for another solid decade, and periodically thereafter. With his move in 1988 from Japan to Amsterdam, where he remained eight years before moving again to his current home in Italy, his work turned toward what you might call inplorations of sound phenomena. More elaborate and less nihilistic, and no less energetic and imaginative in its address of a broader range of aspects of our inner experience, the work had matured. There is also a turn toward an understanding of sound as a physical thing to be used in self-confrontation. The influence of the Aktionists, however essential to Duncan's early artistic development, grew less relevant, and a sort of transcendentalism grew in its place. In describing the last three decades of his sound art, since his pioneering shortwave work, he says he feels he is an equal contributor among many in the process of creation; sometimes he doesn't know 'how certain elements have become part of the sound.' A step beyond the aleatory processes mapped by Cage, he found the process of creation was allowing the work to dictate the next move to him, and through this dialogue come to access something otherwise hidden.
In 1996, one of the most exhaustively constructed moments in all of sound art appeared as Duncan's collaboration with Max Springer entitled The Crackling, a nine piece serial of recordings from the particle accelerator at SLAC at Stanford. Duncan placed microphones into the tubes of the 120 Hz electron drivers along the accelerator itself, into a liquid nitrogen exhaust vent, in the center of the collision chamber hall, at various points of the cryogenic system, and around the collision chamber itself. He and Springer then spent a year and a half (including ten consecutive non-stop days) mixing the tracks. Duncan's interest in SLAC and its operations lay in its contradictions: this unimaginably massive and complex architecture, which Duncan describes as a 'city of the dead' and the infinitesimally small simplicity of its charge: the splitting of single electrons; microtones and infinite space; and the forces of which are lethal to human life and yet aimed at reaching the floor of our very existence. The thickness of the results are, as Daniela Cascella describes, 'a pursuit to the threshold of perception.' In many ways, The Crackling is a perfected version of several pieces that have served as studies for it, such as "The Immense Room" on Klaar (1991). Duncan's and Springer's expression of the vastness of the space and the processes of the reactor in condensed time is a work for the ages.
For The Keening Towers, which debuted in 2003 at the Second Gothenburg Biennial, Duncan treated recordings of the San Pietro Elementary School Choir, transforming them into a work of monumental audio-architectural art—on the subject of infant abuse. The towers themselves stood twenty-four meters high, each fitted with two speakers, looked down upon the Gothenberg City Art Museum and broadcast, continuously for 90 days, an unanchored chattering, breathing, and screaming voices, crawling all over a pile of mulching notes and an overwhelming volume left listeners stunned in place.
Most recently, Duncan has collaborated with Michael Esposito and Z'ev, the former of whom is known for his audio explorations of psychic and paranormal phenomena, to create a limited edition LP of electronic voice phenomena recordings entitled There Must Be A Way Across This River / The Abject. Also recently, several of his early works, JOHN DUNCAN 1st Recordings 1978-85, unavailable and coveted for decades, have been rereleased as vinyl box-sets by Frank Maier's Vinyl-on-Demand label.
For an artist so concerned with existential unveiling, and so varied in his approaches to subjects, the way to the truth cannot rely on science alone, or the humanities alone. He prefers to ask and answer his questions outside of categories belonging to any system. John Duncan's career from the first events to the most recent has been predicated on self-exploration, never on sensationalism. The difference between knowledge and truth is therefore paramount, for, as he says, 'knowledge is a network of interpretations, opinions and decisions, passed on from one to another to another. Truth is something you become aware of through your own experiences, by living them, examining and questioning them. A belief system can easily become a substitute for this, or an excuse to deny the existence of some experiences you may have that the system fails to explain.' Though the scientific method and its steps toward verifiability are so entrenched in social life the world round, and its rituals have become indistinguishable from that of religious faith, there is and always shall be a post-Positivist realm well out of reach of our advances, and yet right before our very eyes.
 He had already discovered Jacques Lasry's monumental Chronophagie at the Wichita Public Library.
 For example, in 2001, he was awarded the prestigious International Artists Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) residency, on the recommendation of Swedish sound artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff. Two months into the residency, the IASPIS suddenly revoked it, having learned about Blind Date. After a short legal battle (with the pro bono help of Greenpeace lawyer Jan Palmblad), Duncan completed the residency and received cash compensation from IASPIS well in excess of the residency's contractual terms.
Aram Yardumian: You have several times said you were primarily interested in finding ways to tap into the 'inner self' and to 'wake up'. What is the 'inner self'? Or rather, in what terms do you come to this concept? And what is it to 'wake up'—do you mean this physiologically, mentally, metaphorically?
John Duncan: Interesting question. What is the 'inner self'? There is a moment in out-of-body experiences when you are aware of the physical body, the 'self' that perceives it from a certain distance – and another 'self' that perceives both from another distance. That sometimes manifests itself as a 'voice', to reassure us or encourage us to stop when self-destructive behavior is threatening our lives. What is that, where does it come from? What is it to become that, or a part of it? Perhaps this is what it means to be truly awake.
AY: Is there a world beyond our bodies which we are typically unable to access due to the limitations of our senses? If so, what do you think that world is like?
JD: I like to imagine it as a form of all-encompassing, endless formless light, an inexhaustible energy. Assuming there is one, of course…
AY: You have also intimated that your work has always been about overcoming fears of new ways of thinking and feeling, fears of the unexpected, fears of change—waking up from these things. Do you believe a healthy individual is one who is fearless and uninhibited? If so, is a healthy society one which is full of such individuals?
I like to imagine a healthy society as one where individuals are truly understood and accepted as they are, limitations included, rather than perceived and treated as a threat. I also like to believe that such a society is possible, though extremely remote that anyone now living will see it occur.
AY: How do works like The Crackling and The Nazca Transmissions—which to me seem more exploratory than insploratory—function to realize something about your inner self?
JD: The Crackling, at least for me, is about the cycle of existence of a single electron: formation, movement, propelled and accelerated by an external force, freed of it, caught and propelled by another to sudden annihilating decomposition giving immediate rise to another, changed formation. A spiraling process that continues, open-ended. A metaphor for the life process in general, at whatever scale: subatomic, cosmic, everything in between.
The Nazca Transmissions is all about mystery and letting go of it. Where do the sources come from? What are they, exactly? The person who provided them, going by the name Anton Düder, suddenly went silent and vanished. Did he really exist, or was this a hoax. Listening to the tracks, none of these details matter – the music either speaks to you or it doesn't. Significance and order are imposed on it by each listener.
AY: I've been listening a great deal to your earliest cassette and LP releases and am impressed by how – I think you'll understand me – how listenable they are. Riot, for example, far from being unlistenable, as you intended, is very rich and easy to lose myself in. Maybe even beautiful. I might say the same for Dark Market Broadcast. Do you think these works have become more understandable somehow as time has passed – a patina effect?
JD: Absolutely. In those terms Riot is a complete failure and I'm delighted about that.
AY: Why did you use the pseudonym CV Massage at certain times? What does it mean?
JD: CV is a medical acronym for cardiovascular. At the time I had in mind the homosexual myth that a hand could be pushed far enough up through the rectum to massage the heart.
AY: AQM released several mysterious cassettes during your years in Japan. Who are Hisako Horikawa, O'Nancy in French, and Toshiji Mikawa? Will these Radio Code recordings ever be available again in some form?
JD: I hope so. Hisako Horikawa is a Butoh dancer; we last met when she performed with guitarist Derek Bailey. O'Nancy in French was a duo of Yasunori Taniguchi and Katsu Mizumachi, who created delicate, controlled feedback with steel barrels. Toshiji Mikawa is a member of the noise duo Incapacitants.
AY: Your esteemed high school art teacher, Betty Dickerson, also taught David Salle and Tom Otterness. Did the three of you in fact know each other in school?
JD: Yes, we all studied together. They were both a year ahead of me. A couple of times we spoke or spent time together, especially after they both came back to Wichita on short visits. David suggested attending CalArts. Tom was very quiet and shy.
AY: How did you get involved with LAFMS and what are some of your memories of its affiliates, like Joe Potts, Rick Potts, Chip Chapman, Tom Recchion, the Doo-Dooettes, etc.?
JD: Harold Schroeder and I were driving school buses. He introduced me to Tom Recchion, who introduced me to everyone else.
The one thing that each of the members of LAFMS has in common is unusually high intelligence. Chip Chapman got a summer job of keeping the CalTech computer lab open. While sitting there, he decided to see what would happen if he connected all of the Apple tabletop computers together. This parallel-processing experiment turned out to be faster than CalTech's prized Cray supercomputer and landed Chip in the director's chair until he retired. Tom got a part-time job doing illustrations and layout for a gay magazine, which he evolved into becoming head of the art departments of Warner Brothers Records and later EMI, where he is today. Fredrik Nilsen was a nurse working in the local hospital with a dream of becoming a professional photographer. For decades now he has had his own studio with regular assistants, stellar clients and almost more work than he can handle. Joe Potts went to Japan and showed his autopsy-photo collages in a Tokyo art gallery years before anyone else even considered making the trip. He sent a copy of my first LP Organic to Takuya Sakaguchi, who responded to it with a long letter in English that he had clearly struggled to write and opened a very close friendship that still continues as strongly as ever. Such stories can be told for every member of LAFMS.
Doug Henry is a largely unsung participant, with steady support of LAFMS for decades, including a documentary film he's working on where he gives extensive interviews of just about everyone involved. Doug is a good artist himself — my favorite work of his is a heavy framed block of glass that he insists on using as an ashtray. "Art should be utilitarian as well", says Doug. He seems satisfied to make the work, whether or not anyone else sees it.
Joe Potts' paintings are also largely unknown, a type of wall sculpture with several painted canvases fastened together at skewed angles, moments of several planes of existence converging, as he puts it. His shyness is chronic, almost to the point of the pathological, preferring to leave it largely unknown that he is the one who formed Extended Organ as well as Airway.
Harold Schroeder and I lost contact when I quit driving a city bus, the job he and I had both transferred to from driving school buses. He had been talking about investing in rare minerals and had been doing drugs whose names were a mystery. So when he showed up thirty years later, for the LAFMS opening at The Box, everyone was glad to see him and a bit surprised he is still alive.
Chip Chapman told me that the title of the Le Forte Four LPSpin 'n' Grin came from the Potts brothers' mother, who got it from the name of a kitchen drain appliance sold at their hardware store. Chip's canary yellow Volkswagen Beetle with the clear plexiglas bubble mounted on the roof was instantly recognizable on the freeway. Chip now lives in the Hurricane, Utah desert where he puts his brilliance to effect in gardening, cooking, local alternative cultural events and a study of the history of the development of nuclear weapons. He and Susan Farthing Chapman are still happily together, one of the few couples I know who have managed that.
Leslie Pollock starred in the 8mm filmIt's Halloween! before she and I got together for a short time. Leslie has always been adventurous, enthusiastic, up for discovering the unknown — especially if it's generally frowned-upon. She 'sang' so loudly during sex that my neighbors, worrying about her safety, wondered at first whether or not to call the police. Our paths crossed again once in Tokyo, where she gave me an audio cassette of some of the best Brasilian pop music I've heard, and several months ago on Facebook. Leslie is now studying gourmet cooking and models sado-masochistic hardware for an internet sex-toys feature in Los Angeles.
Tom Recchion and Fredrik Nilsen have always had a penchant for strange objects found at garage sales. They both have daunting collections, especially Tom who has an entire house to himself to display it all — Fredrik gives space to his kids. Tom also has a passion for cats — I remember he would let them roam all over the tiny bungalow he lived in and spray his artwork, which turned me against having cats anywhere near mine.
Vetza has always fascinated me, with a voice and willingness to explore it that easily equals Yoko Ono. She has worked for decades in Spanish-speaking television and theater, as well as conducting workshops for voice. Onstage, she actually makes me feel welcome. Everyone else there says 'OK, sure, set up over there somewhere, do whatever'; she says 'Come on, join me here, let's have some fun!'
AY: What do you remember about your time with Allan Kaprow? What was he like as a person?
JD: Allan was always very gentle, gracious, generous with his time even under pressure. He treated his students as equals, which has had a much more lasting effect than I realized at the time.
AY: You've mentioned Carlo Gesualdo's work as influential on your own. Would that be his chromatic language or his work as a murderer? Presuming the former: many composers have used chromatic scales and various languages of color in compositional practice. Arne Nordheim comes to mind. What was or is it about Gesualdo specifically that inspires you?
JD: Arne Nordheim is another influence… In Gesualdo's case, I think it's pointless to consider his music and personal life as separate. The choices made in the presentation of choral concerts, as well as in the music itself, reflect a man who was in extreme psychic conflict. That conflict is what I find interesting.
AY: What have you learned from your researches about the purpose, or lack thereof, of life on earth? Inasmuch as an electron is a metaphor for life, what lies beyond the death of the body?
JD: You tell me…
'Purpose' is a very personal thing defined and decided by each of us. Living to make money, living for the kids, to gain power of various kinds, to enjoy being alive, whatever. Mine is to learn as much as I can in the time I have left.It drives us to put energy into our lives, which in turn gives energy to the system, if you will, that we all live in. Death is another way of giving energy; the cycle is endless and open. I like to think of it as a spiral moving upward or forward.
At the same time, this image is linear and does nothing to explain why, with no knowledge of a place or its past, I have suddenly felt physical pressure at the site of a crime committed centuries ago or discovered that I know obscure details of a building that I'd never seen, read or heard about. Why EVP recordings made at the place where I grew up include my name in them. It says nothing about where such experiences, all as real as the touch of the keyboard I'm using, fit into the mesh of existence.
AY: According to Takuya Sakaguchi, you collaborated with Masami Akita, Keiji Haino and Hijokaidan. Is this true? If so, what can you recollect about these times?
JD: True. Masami and I played together a couple of times, once at a place called Strange Fruits in Tsurumaki Onsen well outside Tokyo that was packed SRO with an audience of ten people, another at a large hall in Shibuya. In Shibuya I performed Kick nude in front of several hundred witnesses; Masami performed alone – as I remember, at least – with a large video projection behind him.
Haino and I played together once at the rehearsal studio he usually rented and once live, I believe in Kichijoji. Haino let me play for about ten seconds before blasting over it with an endless solo.
Hijokaidan and I played together once in my house and once at La Mama live house in Shibuya. My part was to start things off, then fill up the place with stage smoke from behind the audience until no one onstage could see what they were doing.
AY: If you had never performed Blind Date, where do you think you would be today?
JD: Less informed, by at least an order of magnitude.
AY: When you performed it, did you have any notion it would turn your life upside down and that you would still be talking about it thirty+ years later?
JD: No. I thought my friends and the people I cared most about would understand and appreciate it, as they had with everything else I'd done up to then. I suppose a few of them do by now – if not the work itself then at least what I've dealt with since in my personal life because of it.
AY: Much of your work seems to function quite well without an audience. Why bother with one at all? Perhaps because, as in science, you hope someone out there will take the research in their own direction?
JD: Oh yes, please. I always hope others will focus on the content of the work, rather than the tools it is made with, and take it as far as possible.
AY: You've described The Error as, 'a book that invokes a logic unique to each reader, that to seek a universally applicable rationality always fails to account for some level of consciousness. To render the steps for getting there hidden and secret, by printing the entire text in black on heavy black paper, that have to be read by moving the page until the letters are reflected enough to recognize them.' It sounds very interesting, but since there are only ten copies of The Error, it is unlikely I will ever see, much less own, one. Will you every print this again?
JD: Do you know a publisher who would like to?
AY: What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you?
JD: I'm still waiting to see.
Edge of Vision: An Exchange with John Duncan-- M Kitchell
John Duncan is an artist that has been working in the realm of art-as-experience since the mid-1970s when he lived in LA. His work has gone through many different forms and mediums as time has progressed, moving from direct actions at the start of his career to carefully articulated audio work as a primary outlet currently. Early on in his career Duncan found himself exiled from LA after performing a specifically transgressive performance piece, BLIND DATE. I find Duncan interesting due specifically to his insistence on art being affective, and how he has moved through and explored this idea throughout his career. The idea of affect is a powerful force no matter what medium it's applied to, and Duncan is a master of transcendence, of reaching new feelings.
A couple weeks ago I emailed John Duncan with the request to ask him a few questions, and he was kind enough to comply and provide fantastic answers:
M. Kitchell:I have an interest in the consideration of "the artist" as a shaman, or the artistic practice as a shamanistic practice. What I specifically mean by this refers to "the belief that shamans are intermediaries or messengers between the human world and the spirit worlds," and the idea that "the shaman also enters supernatural realms or dimensions to obtain solutions to problems afflicting the community" (wikipedia). You have specifically expressed the idea that much of your praxis is geared towards learning, in a sense a self-education. It seems that an extension of this, in the presentation of the work itself, is the interest in a mode of communication, a way to share the experience and the knowledge learned. In some of your performance & installation work, it could be said that you are subjecting the audience to as much stress, or, perhaps, negativity, as you have submitted yourself to. There seems to be the intent of arriving at, say, a new consciousness, a discovery, an advancement. I think there's generally an expectation of a distance between the audience and the work of art, but much of your work seems to deny that distance, it seems to specifically violate it. This denial of distance is not specifically something unique to your work, but much of your early work (SCARE, MOVE FORWARD, MAZE) seems to aggressively challenge this distance. Can you talk a little about this, how important the communication of an experience is to your work?
John Duncan:The essence, especially now, is not so much the communication of an experience as it is the experience itself. In all the works you mention, the point is to somehow get spectators to at least meet me halfway as participants. To make it clear that the extent the work reveals itself to a participant depends on whether or not the participant allows it to do so, on each person's attitudes and character.
The difference between my earlier and more recent events is that in the past participants were usually trapped and forced to deal with a unique situation that they weren't at all prepared for, which was essential to the event. Once trapped, it was up to the individual to interpret the situation as a threat or as a chance. Now, participants are free to leave at any time. They are given a condition to accept or not. For the person who does accept, decides to follow their curiosity, the work continues to open and develop. If the person refuses, everything stops there for them, the knowledge that they couldn't let go is what they take home.
Throughout your oeuvre one can find what seems to be a repeated resistance to language, or at least an insistence that preferences experience over language. Even on your website, the descriptions of each event, performance, installation, etc., are remarkably brief, even vague at times. Though at the same time, language does specifically play a role in certain pieces. More recently I know that CD booklets included in some of your audio releases have included texts which read almost as poetry. I wonder if you'd talk about your relationship with language, how it affects your work and what role it plays within your work, even now.
The work is always about insights, hoping to invoke or describe them. Sometimes they come solely through language, sometimes solely by avoiding it. The work determines an approach that's appropriate, whether or not words expedite or block the experience. Especially when describing an event or installation, I tend to prefer to avoid writing down too many, hoping that the ones that are used help the reader imagine what it was to be there than to be a journalistic report. You're not the first to say they're sometimes vague, so we see how well it works…
In a 2007 interview with Steve Peralta, you mentioned limited edition books you made while you were in LA. What was going on in these books, could you talk about them?
The first was under 10 pages, covers included, with photo paper exposed to a specific shade of gray on the left and a phrase that seemed appropriate on the right. On the left, light gray; on the right 'A SAD SONG'. On the left, dark gray; on the right 'TRUST ABUSED'. On the left, black; on the right 'A BITTER STORY'. I made maybe 10 copies of it, don't remember if it had a title.
AGAIN was a photo-narrative, in part a performance for still camera: in the process of getting drunk, I get into an intimate love-hate struggle that ends with shooting myself in the head, then waking from it. One copy was made, which I still have.
PHALLUS was a 20-page series of collages made with images from science magazines, maps, texts of dreams, interviews from American soldiers talking about Vietnam. I made 50 black + white photocopies of it, all given to friends.
To continue with the idea of the book, I've read the digital version of your "on-going book" THE ERROR probably a hundred times, and my response to it is repeatedly a realm of affect that I can't assign to any other work of art (text or otherwise) that I've specifically encountered elsewhere. It's one of the most fantastic combinatory efforts I've ever seen. Is it still an on-going project?
It's evolved, I guess. At this point it's The PLASMA MISSIVES, dreams written in my blood on heavy sheets of thick paper.
What are you after with THE ERROR?
To make a book that invokes a logic unique to each reader, that to seek a universally applicable rationality always fails to account for some level of consciousness. To render the steps for getting there hidden and secret, by printing the entire text in black on heavy black paper, that have to be read by moving the page until the letters are reflected enough to recognize them.
One of the thing that fascinates me about your work is your obsession, or at least insistence, upon the hidden. In consideration of your work with pornography, you've stated that "Pornography shows aspects of a culture that the culture wants to deny, to keep hidden." An early work of yours that I find particularly incredible via the inscription alone is SECRET FILM. Even more recently, with your video THE TAILING, you seem to keep on the edge of vision, refusing anything fully identifiable or representational to appear. It seems like there is a thematic insistence within your oeuvre to touch the inaccessible, to access the hidden. Is this true?
A number of interviews that I have read with you begin by asking about your past. The biographic picture you paint includes a Calvinist upbringing, a life of relative isolation (in the sense that you spent more time with books than other children), and frustration, despair. You then left the relative expanse of the Midwest and attended CalArts. You've expressed that your work was thematically, perhaps, affected by this upbringing. Some of your earlier works (I'm thinking here specifically of EVERY WOMAN, FOR WOMEN ONLY, and BLIND DATE) address misogyny and, for lack of a better term, "male guilt." I'm always hesitant to assign a psycho-analytical/historical reading to a work of art, but I'm wondering specifically what your intentions were, if they were a response to the environment you found yourself in in LA, or if the work is especially reactionary to your upbringing, or, rather, if the work was exclusively made towards your idea of revealing a truth via experience?
The short answer is 'yes'. Imagine a mix of all of these elements competing for focus in the mind of a man in his early 20?s, trying to sort out who he is.
Who was the audience for your more specifically (physically, perhaps) transgressive works? You've noted that the audience of SCARE was two of your friends. When you began working, was your audience primarily other artists? What about when you were in Japan?
For the first several events in LA, audiences were mainly friends and people we knew in common. BUS RIDE was held on LA city buses in operation with me driving, NO and HAPPY HOMES were both live radio broadcasts. Japanese audiences paid at the door, tuned in to RADIO CODE pirate FM broadcasts or accidentally discovered TVC 1.
Who is your audience now? Do you have anything invested in who your audience is, or is your concern still the affective conduit the work offers, regardless of who it is that is experiences it?
This latter is an eloquent answer to your question. The short answer is: people who are curious.
After WET magazine ran some information on BLIND DATE in their March/April 1981 issue, a man wrote a letter into the magazine regarding the piece. What I find interesting about this letter is that it demonstrates that a man has had to a similar experience as the experience you undertook with BLIND DATE (albeit the entire process involved in your execution seems more articulated & specific), though his reaction, tainted perhaps by LSD, seems to diverge from yours. You've mentioned that you've more or less come to terms with the event. I think this is at least partially a demonstration of the difference between the experience of the the piece itself & the reaction to the piece itself, mainly in the fact that there's a ritual catharsis involved in the act, whereas (as opposed to much of your other work), the only direct experience the audience had with the piece was in the documentation & the experience of the audio. Whereas this man, at least ostensibly, has actually experienced the act which your work carries the message of. Do you think this man would be in a privileged position of response to your work?
I have a series of questions relating your work to other artists & filmmakers.
I'd like to talk, briefly, about some connections I see between your work and the work of others. The first artist that I find somewhat parallel to you is Terry Fox. He began as a painter, attained some notoriety in the Bay Area performance art scene due to the provocative nature of his performances (many of which, in a mode I feel similar to your own work, seemed to be after a sort of impossible transcendence), and then he left the US, and began focusing on works primarily involved with audio. The other artist I think of when I think of your work is Gregor Schneider, who of course is also more insistent upon the experience or the encounter with the 'art' than the art object itself– Schneider specifically with his interest in abject spaces, the aura of a room, the uncanny. Do you feel a kinship with either of these artists? My comments here are in fact reductive, and I'm also not specifically offering any direct connection, I'm more probing the possibility of your consideration.
I like their work, and was fortunate enough to meet Terry Fox several weeks before he died. Kinship is a different issue. Terry Fox's work shows that he was a genuinely gentle soul, which for better or worse I cannot imagine ever being able to say about myself.
Similarly, I know that you've mentioned that you no longer consider yourself influenced by the Viennese Aktionists as you were when you began your career, but I'm curious as to the nature of your interest specifically in Rudolf Schwarzkogler. I ask because, out of all the artists who gathered under the heading of the Aktionists, it was Schwarzkogler whose actions were, arguably, the most "artificial." They were staged only for still cameras, and rarely performed publicly. It seems like Schwarzkogler's work was more symbolic (though his writings do seem to be the most in tune with the ideas of a shamanism I've outlined above, opposed to a Reichian catharsis). Your work certainly seems more affective of the physical (especially BLIND DATE) than Schwarzkogler's potentialities.
Schwarzkogler also seems, at least to me, to have been the most sincere among the Aktionismus group — maybe because he died young… The tableaux he created were for intimate audiences, each participant among them left to absorb the work effectively alone, without the comfort of being in a larger group or crowd.
Are you familiar with the pink films of Hisayasu Sato? He probes ideas that some of your work explores, and things you've said about your JOHN SEE/TVC 1 videos strike me as similar. Is there a way for Western audiences to see the John See videos? It seems there was a PAL release of TVC 1 that's no longer available; will it ever be available again?
It would be great to see authorized re-releases of these videos. As far as I know, there are no plans for that for any of them. Anyone who's interested is welcome to get in contact… Sato and I haven't met; just found out recently about him. Tokyo film school graduates in the 80?s were often keen on producing special effects for splatter films, on making splatter films to produce special effects. With emphasis on the sensational, which I've never really cared about.
John Duncan, MAZE, 1996
Melissa Pasut and John Duncan, An Open Area Inside the Mountain, 2010
The necessity of art-- Catterina Seia and Chiara Tinonin
John Duncan and Melissa Pasut, both American living in Bologna, Italy, have recently started to collaborate together on the integration of music, dance and art performance. The work of John Duncan, performer and composer, has been exhibited all over the world, as at the Getty Center and MOCA in Los Angeles, MAK in Vienna, MACBA in Barcelona and MOT in Tokyo. He took part and directed the Ensemble Phoenix in Basel and Bern, the Ensemble Musica Nova in Tel Aviv and Zeitkratzer in Berlin; his music (The Crackling, Tap Internal, Palace of Mind, Fresch, Nine Suggestions) is considered as a milestone in experimenting. In his projects Duncan never offers a unique point of view but works on the complexity of limitations and opportunities, on existence and the process of change, constructing new balances. The project he's currently working on, Cross Radio a global radio based on users interaction is going to be launched next spring. With Melissa Pasut, dancer, choreographer and performer who founded Anoikis, they recently produced The Seed at Zero, a music, dance and artistic performance that started from exploring a dream they had. The performance, composed by two different acts (Transfiguration of a shattered mass and An open area inside the mountain), is an oneiric representation deeply lucid and aware, that makes the movement a metaphor of the growing process, the sound the rhythm of the world. Conversing with Duncan and Pasut means to discuss about the comprehension of the message, the relationship between the work and the spectator, the distortions of the art market. The necessity of art is a dialogue that reminds us how much art can be a resource of learning, growing, sharing meanings. And a free space for a critique that the contemporary world is cutting off.
How did you create the performance, what's the source for it?
MELISSA PASUT Mostly we wanted to work together, so from him studying with me and working with movement, we decided to try creating a piece together. Going from his work and my work, he came up with instruments and from there we worked on how to incorporate the sound and the music with the movement. It was really merging the disciplines together.
JOHN DUNCAN There's this tendency that we had to work without language, to understand the conflict with language. The choreography was based on dreams that we had, trying to find ways to interpret them without spelling them out with language, to take them as a point of reference, a point of departure. To build the choreography around these experiences. Trying to make it unnecessary to talk, or use language.
With the first performance you expressed the feeling of being a fragment. In this globalized world anybody has this life-cycle. I found that we need now a lot to get in touch with space, because no place is a real place.
MP I was working with a universal idea without having a detachment from the body in mind, so much as the exploration of the body and how it moves and how it changes, as applied to any aspect of life.
JD One of the things that is really attractive to me about working together is that this kind of work allows me to start doing things that I understand I "shouldn't do". Now, the conventional wisdom is that it's too late for someone my age to start moving, to start using the body, that at 57 years old the body starts to decay, starts to fall apart, doesn't work anymore, muscles don't respond the way they used to. So dance is something for dancers, a youthful enterprise that when you reach 30 or 40 years old suddenly you are no longer able to do, that it's time to focus on choreography instead of moving itself. I like to thumb my nose at that, to say: "this is crap". It is true that my body doesn't do the things that it did at 19 years old. It is also true that with my body, and with every other form of creativity that I have available, I can say things that were not possible when I was 20 or 30 years old. I didn't have the experiences, I didn't have the insights that time has given to me and to everybody else who has lived this long. So, dance is just one more way to give out, to give back what I've been absorbing in this time. And in a way that is… I want to say secret, but it's not really secret, it's more something that is unexpected. It's something that I did not expect to do, at all. And I am delighted to perform, whether or not I'm interesting to look at as a dancer, I don't care about that. Being included in this means that someone who is almost 60 years old who is moving, interacting with somebody who is half of his age and the things that she can do… this says something, this has some truth in it and that truth is something that I'm very excited to be part of.
Your performance together was talking about human exchange, how much people can know about themselves thanks to meeting others. You were projecting actions off the body and that was well represented by sound waves you played by John's string and carillon.
MP It's finding ourselves and learning how to relate with the outside world. I'm interested in people who are not dancers, him or whoever works with me, interested in seeing what they can explore and find within themselves and how they can related to the outside and inside world. That's what I work on, interested in seeing. So in working with John in that realm, that's what I feel we were doing or trying to do, learning the body, exploring, discovering capabilities of the body and how it can be projected outward.
JD I wanted to make a contribution to the choreography that came from an area I was comfortable working in. These sounds were as much opposite each other as I could find, as I could think of. One of them is very noisy, dynamic. It's metallic, very bulky and clumsy and clunky. The other is just the opposite, very refined; it makes very small sounds that have to be amplified to be heard at all. And it is played in a very delicate way; it is caressed, rather than churned. So they call for completely opposite approaches. That kind of contrast is something that I saw between the two of us, bringing into the work.
One of them needed strength to be played, the other one was more female in a way.
MP It came up afterward. When we thought about the instruments themselves and which one is unique, I don't think that was the intention, when he went to construct them and design them. It came afterwards when we played them and realised that the string was much more my way of being and the carillon was much more his way of being. So then we really tried to accentuate that idea. It just happened that way.
JD And at the same time to refute that idea, to sort of deny that. And say that it is not…that each of us has our own way to approach each instrument and the sound of it, so the one is not preferable to the other.
How do you consider your public during the performance?
MP This is something that we have spoken about in the past, how to make spectators as much a part of what we are doing as everything else, to allow them some sort of entrance to this world that we've created, to this idea, even if it is only a simple gesture.
JD Making contact with them. To an extent, for me at least, this comes from performance because the attraction that performance had was that it was a situation where there was no separation between the spectator and a performer. Everybody was a part of the process. And there was no real hierarchy; it's not possible to eliminate any role. With dance, even with the stage, even with physical separation between us, the audience is not in a passive role… individuals are working, to an extent, as much as we are.
MP The work is also complete with the audience, otherwise there's no reason to do it. It's not just for ourselves; it's finished, it's completed when somebody else has experienced it. I think that art should be accessible to everyone which it's not; the environment we worked in is less accessible because it's not open. For example, an art gallery is open but people can choose not to go… I believe that people should experience art, it's a necessary part of life, because artists help everybody by creating something for people who don't do the work, who can't do the work, who maybe can't approach something in a certain way. So you have this other exploration that somebody is doing and is giving but people don't… I can't say the majority of the people, but many people are not interested in art, don't find it necessary. But then you have these moments where people who see those things… they have an experience, with music, dance, movies, whatever, that changes their lives, affects them in some way. So that begins the discussion of the necessity of art.
The place where you performed, Spazio Sì, in Bologna, is managed by Teatrino Clandestino, it's accessible but at the same time an hidden place that doesn't promote its cultural offer the way we are used to, and measuring the success by the number of visitors.
JD I think that there are several situations like this here in Bologna. The one element that makes Bologna interesting is something that seems to frustrate Bolognese and that is the students, the people who are coming to Bologna from all over the world, charged with energy to do things. In fact that was the one thing that attracted me to come here. There was this energy here, from people who come here largely to study and find connections with other students who then become friends and form groups. I see this over and over again, that in this city, for some reason, there is this energy and that means there are all these small groups of people that are themselves hubs, who are doing things on their own initiative because they are frustrated by the lack of interest from the established support organisations and network structures around them. The frustrating thing about that is that they remain isolated. I think the thing that would make this city very interesting would be for these groups of people to join forces.
How can contemporary art museums work with this?
JD Contemporary art museums have a really great opportunity. They have the support that all of these other groups lack and need in order to survive. They have the possibility to attract and encourage all of these groups, but very often they do the opposite, they push them away. There is a tendency here to feel that the support organisations for art are actually doing art a favour by deigning to give some kind of funding or organisational support to art events, rather then understanding that the art events are the key to their existence. That makes it really frustrating to work in Italy. In fact it's a great place to live, but for making art I no longer expect to work here; I work abroad and travel a lot because of that.
What do you think about companies that are investing in contemporary art and art projects? Are they possible ways to explore for cultural partnership?
JD I would like to say yes. There are two reasons why I think that that is very difficult, at least at this time. One of them is that private funding organisations are reluctant to support contemporary art, unless it is so banal that it is safe for children and families. That cuts out ninety-five percent of contemporary art, because that is not what contemporary art is about. It has nothing to do with appeasing people with families; that is what Disney and Pixar are for. Contemporary art is about saying something that has a kind of truth that is difficult to see. You can not make contemporary art, at this time or any other, and still feel compelled to limit yourself to what "the masses" are willing to see, to people with children are willing to see. It doesn't work like that. It didn't work like that for me in Kansas, it didn't work in my generation, in the generation before me, it didn't work in any generation. This simply doesn't fly, so that is one thing. The other thing is that people in these small experimental groups that I was talking about, who have this creative energy, feel that they would be rejected by such support institutions even before they approached them. So unless that changes, unless these funding organisations realise that the sources of breaking energy, and the kind of things that at least they say they want to support, is in these small groups -- until they come to terms with that, these two necessary partners will always be very separate and antagonistic to each other, see each other as a trap.
Do you think this is a way for them to give identity to themselves? Building the identity defining what you are not.
JD There are people who feel that way and I used to feel that way, for quite a long time in fact; I avoided art support organisations for decades. I don't agree with that anymore, because I've seen that there are people who are in a position to support the arts, who look to the arts to tell them something about their lives that they cannot see on their own. Who value what we have to say, especially when it's confrontational or difficult to hear. I assumed for decades that they were gone, that such people didn't exist, that art support organisations and especially private collectors were interested in art only as an investment. Later I learned that this was a very limiting way to seeing. I learned that this is not always the case; there are people who really want to support art, to give money to encourage art, and in this way to be a part of the process of making art. They are essential, as the art that they want to support is essential for them. So there is this give-and-take that happens and when it does it is magic.
It is. Managing cultural institutions is not just strategy and management but is more about how much art and culture can affect the social growing process. Economists say that we are living in the knowledge era, a time when what is important is not just exchanging information but knowledge. And innovation comes from creativity and how much you are able to work, think and innovate a complex context. I really and strongly think that the arts can really be the space where you train your brain, not just because you consume them in your free time.
JD It is not a relaxing thing.
But if you do that you get used to it. The curve for cultural utility consumption is crescent, the contrary of any other good or product. Artists have a key role in our society.
JD Can you imagine where we would be if Galileo, for example, had not had such life-threatening resistance from the Church to continue his research? We have the telescope; we have support for the heliocentric model. All of these things have revolutionized the way that we see ourselves and our position in the cosmos. Can you imagine where we would be if the Church, which is such a political organisation even now, supported his research instead of threatening him? This is the kind of thing that we see still happening now. There are artists and scientists who are going against a standard model and are seen as a threat. These people, who are genuinely interested in finding out about their own existence and the existence of everyone, are blocked by people who see and treat them as a threat. That hurts everybody, blocks us all.
JOHN DUNCAN-- Steve Peralta, Neoaztlan May 2007
In 2001, the International Artists Studio Program In Sweden (IASPIS), on the recommendation of Swedish sound experimentalist, musician and curator Carl Michael von Hausswolff, awarded artist John Duncan a sought-after IASPIS residency. Two months after beginning his residency, the IASPIS revoked it citing the "problematic nature" of Duncan's 1980 piece BLIND DATE. Duncan's friends and colleagues rallied and with the pro bono help of Greenpeace lawyer Jan Palmblad, Duncan was allowed to complete his residency.
The issue was "about much more essential issues than my art, or me personally," Duncan wrote. "It's about refusing to accept being dictated to, by anyone, over what can be done and said. It's about verifying the fact that an atmosphere of so-called 'political correctness' in fact stifles the ideals it promotes that this atmosphere is counter-productive to creative acts of any kind, anywhere, as well as to the people who perform them."
"Political correctness" carried a particularly blistering resonance at the time. The rubble of the World Trade Center smoldered. Normally passive countries stared blankly at the wrath of the United States government hoping they wouldn't be picked, but once they were, there were memories of Nuremberg. Duncan would perhaps find himself an unwitting victim of the IASPIS diluted "war on terror."
Political correctness aside, there remained experimental art and the dialogue it created. Duncan's work, along with that of other experimental artists, was tinged with a guerilla empiricism with which not even an unsuspecting audience would be safe.
Duncan's 1984 event piece titled MOVE FORWARD at Plan B in Tokyo (excerpt taken from Duncan's Web site):
"High-volume sound in a completely dark concrete room for 20 minutes. After 10 minutes, a film collage that includes animated diagrams nuclear explosions, images of pornography, S-M sexual acts and Hiroshima victims, is shown in slow motion onto a paper projection screen that divides the room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. When the film ends, Duncan sets the screen on fire and sprays the burning remains into the audience with a fire extinguisher."
Duncan's 1995 event piece titled THREAT at the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia (excerpt taken from Duncan's Web site):
"Infrared photo images of vaginas projected several meters high on the rear wall of an open space with a single entrance, guarded at the entrance by an attack dog."
In his 1990 live installation piece RIVER IN FLAMES (1990), Duncan directed thousands of watts of white light into the faces of the audience while attacking them with intense, harsh music.
"The idea was to overload the audience's visual and audio perception simultaneously," said Duncan in a recent interview with von Hausswolff.
Despite the aggression, momentum carries Duncan's sound work toward introspection. The outdoor installation THE KEENING TOWERS (2003) was created with the voices of a children's choir and debuted at the Second Gothenburg Biennial. THE GARDEN (2006), an audio installation with six elements based on voice and onsite field recordings and produced with Italian experimental composer, Valerio Tricoli, was built at the Industria Piemontese dei Colori di Anilina (IPCA) in Ciriè, Italy.
In the twenties, the IPCA factory polluted the environment and bodies of its workers. Many died of cancer. Today, the Province of Turin is redeveloping the IPCA Ecomuseum as a memorial to those who were lost.
Duncan, a native of Kansas, doesn't worry so much about political correctness anymore (not as if he ever did). From his home in Italy, the controversy surrounding BLIND DATE seems a distant memory. What Duncan has found, with the help of his work, is relative success and an enduring home. In this rare interview, Duncan talks about his work and life. Steve Peralta
Steve Peralta: Can you talk a little bit about your background? Where were you born?
John Duncan: My mother came from a family of farmers living in western Kansas. My father's parents tried to start a farm in New Mexico that failed. In desperation, my grandfather accepted a job in a smalltown Kansas post office and moved the family there. My parents met as university students. They got married and settled in Wichita, where I was born.
SP: Where did you grow up?
JD: In Wichita, until I was about 8 years old. Then we started moving from one city to another as my father was transferred to various cities in the midwest, staying in one place for a year or two before moving to another.
SP: What were you like as a child/teenager/young man?
JD: I remember playing openly with kids who lived close by, sharing experiences and things we liked. I remember learning to read at around 3-years-old, especially fascinated with an illustrated how-to book that explained how to fly an airplane. Some of my first drawings were of that plane a Cessna 170. I was impatient to start school and was disappointed when classes finally began, staying home secretly on days that I knew would be especially boring. My father had already started travelling a lot then and I remember noticing that the adults in my daily life, all women, were in control but somehow preferred to defer final authority to someone else someone absent.
Everything that seemed secure and supporting collapsed when we started moving. Wherever we lived the kids seemed hostile and exclusive. The world itself became increasingly threatening.
My parents were often frustrated and distant.
I started spending a lot of time inside, deliberately isolated, mainly reading or drawing.
Each time we moved all this intensified. In my teens, school had become practically insufferable, especially as a source of social life. The only people I could really talk to outside of class were the teachers at their homes.
SP: What's your educational background? Are there any events while growing up that you feel really affected your decisions later to pursue art and sound?
JD: To keep the family together, my father decided to move back to Wichita. Teachers in one of the local high schools had come up with an informal experimental program that gave certain kids authorization to define and conduct their own study including credit for night and weekend classes at the university and a local art school. I focused on these outside classes and spent the required daily high school hours in the library working on projects agreed upon with the teachers to satisfy their need to prove I'd been studying… along with reading the assigned lists of books. Since I had time to read them all I often asked for new ones or made up my own from titles on the shelves I hadn't read or didn't recognize. There was also a records section with headphones.
SP: You mentioned your Calvinist upbringing. Perhaps you can expand on that.
JD: Suffering. Misery. Denial. Of physical pleasure, especially sensual. Sex taboo for inclusion even as a reference in conversation, let alone frank discussion. Questions about details in the Bible (a title on one of those lists) strictly forbidden. Humor forbidden during visits from relatives. All positive references to black people forbidden. What that left to encourage was work. Especially hard, dedicated work that others took for granted, didn't fully recognize or failed to understand.
SP: Talk about BLIND DATE. Many people are still outraged by the 1980 piece. In 2002, the International Artist's Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) revoked a residency invitation over the piece.
JD: Yes after granting me the maximum period they offer and I sued them for this. The lawsuit was handled by Jan Palmblad, chief defense lawyer for the Swedish branch of Greenpeace. It was settled entirely in my favor out of court within 60 days. He said it was the easiest case he's ever handled.
A number of Swedish artists and institutions, especially Fylkingen, organized among themselves to defend me and make it possible to finish the full 6-month period despite IASPIS's very determined efforts to force me to leave as soon as possible. It was a sincerely humbling and rich experience. I'll always be grateful to them for that to everyone involved including those responsible at IASPIS.
SP: You were reportedly horrified with what you had done. What was the compulsion? What it compulsion at all? Or was it something else?
JD: The driving force behind BLIND DATE was that I was horrified at having failed to give the woman I loved the proof of how I felt for her.
Remaining true to my Calvinist male upbringing, I intended to punish myself for that in the most repulsive way I could come up with. My sole focus, obsession really, was to make myself suffer as much as possible. Whether or not I survived it made no difference.
The decision to make it public was intended to point out that the intense hostility I was aiming at myself was simply an extreme version of very widespread, socially supported behavior, to set an open example of where such an upbringing can lead, to encourage others to examine similar characteristics in themselves and hopefully learn to avoid causing themselves or those around them to suffer in this way.
SP: What are your thoughts on it now in the context of 'John Duncan 2007'?
JD: My body of work effectively proves that my intentions are positive overall, so I believe BLIND DATE will ultimately be viewed in the light of my original intentions rather than the distortions and rumors that have continued to spring up around it so far.
History is full of boisterous misunderstandings that over time prove to be embarrassing. An obscenity case brought against Constantin Brancusi's Bird In Flight', to give one example. Even if the sculpture actually did inspire someone to think of using it as an erotic tool, what harm would that cause? What's the harm in seeing erotic tools as elegant, as sculpture? Harm stems from the fear of being prepared to understand in new ways, feeling threatened by the unexpected. It's what's in our minds that's essential, how we perceive and how our perceptions can be changed. This is what my work has been focused on since the beginning. This is its focus today.
SP: How much of the internal challenges you felt during your early period of work are present today and how much can you attribute those to your decision to move to Italy?
JD: Internal situations have changed and developed over time, as they do for all of us who live long enough to witness them. My decision to move to Italy came from meeting Giuliana Stefani after living eight years in Amsterdam, which followed six years of living and working in Tokyo.
SP: Was part of the decision also a rejection of the American audience?
JD: No. The decision to leave the United States came from a sort of push-pull situation between ex-lovers, close friends and their associates on one side of the Pacific making a determined effort to block any and all public displays or references to my work after failing in their attempt to send me to prison, and audiences on the other side sincerely interested in listening to what I had to say on what BLIND DATE as well as my work in general was about. Facing unabashed hostility on one side and respect on the other, the choice was fairly easy to make. Once I'd set up space to work in Tokyo, opportunities began to open up and a momentum began to build. Of course it was a huge struggle to move my possessions there and survive without speaking Japanese or knowing anything about the culture, learning everything one detail at a time, but it was an order of magnitude better than living with open hatred from the people I cared about.
SP: Can you talk about how important dissonance is to music in general and about how your work has matured over the years? Who are some of artists you feel are able to use sound effectively in their music?
JD: That's a very long list that includes but is definitely not limited to trance (calculated for and performed over multichannel audio systems in soccer stadiums); techno; gabber; early 1950's Elvis recordings on mono equipment and microphones with vacuum-tubes; the "Madrigali" of Carlo Gesualdo performed by a chorus that's memorized their individual parts to perform in darkness; Eliane Radigue's "Biogenesis" composed from the recordings of her pregnant daughter's heartbeats; Jegog performances on instruments made with bamboo that's buried in lime for months before being tested, repeating the process until the sound is perfect; recent audio recordings of the NASA probe landing on Titan… One person who uses voice amazingly is Ghedalia Tazartes, especially on the "Diaspora" LP. Another more recent example who´s actually been an inspiration to try singing is Scott Walker's "The Drift." In his case, it's more a combination of voice with lyrics and studio recording techniques. He gives the solid impression that he's been paying attention to experimental music.
SP: I'm particularly interested in your work while you lived in Japan. You entered into a more visual realm during that time it seems.
JD: Or got back into it a bit more, tapping back into collage/writing experiments that were started in the first limited-edition books (20-30 copies) done in Los Angeles.
SP: Talk in detail about your work as "John See." The work seems darkly sexual still with the punishment narrative present in BLIND DATE.
JD: The "John See" series was a brainchild of Nakagawa Noriaki, founding head of Kuki Inc., who acted as a patron of my work in Tokyo. He offered to produce a series of commercial adult videos that I would direct and edit with state-of-the-art video equipment and editing facilities with a cast and crew that he would choose. I'd write and storyboard a basic screenplay that he and I would discuss together with the crew. Then, we'd schedule location hunting trips, 3-day shooting itineraries, block pre-editing and editing time, etc.
The basic idea was to produce a product that I could then rent as a consumer and re-assemble or subvert, using my own material (rather than found TV broadcasts and film releases and ads, as I had been), into video pieces to broadcast over the TVC 1 pirate television project. Two of these were actually made and broadcast despite the abysmal quality of the VHS-edited video.
In the Japanese commercial adult arena I wanted to try and introduce roles for the actors that were at least a little bit outside their standard sterotypes of cruel bastards bent on vengeance by proxy and suffering female victims. I focused especially on giving the women strong, self-assured, dominant characters to play. Getting these ideas across to the actors on the set, in Japanese, was a surreal experience for all of us.
I was given a completely free hand with composing the soundtrack which I still think was a bold gesture on Nakagawa san's part especially since I always insisted on the liberal use of shortwave and other sources hoping to encourage some sort of introspection in the viewer. I still don't know how well they sold and to Nakagawa san's immense credit, he repeatedly insisted that I not worry or even as much as think about the production costs.
After starting to think in terms of directing a cast and crew, every detail became fascinating. I must say I never had any contact with Yakuza members there (Editor's note: Yakuza refers to the Japanese mob.) or saw any hint whatsoever of anyone being forced to participate in these productions just the opposite.
The stifling hierarchy of traditional Japanese cinema created an entire generation of film school graduates brimming with talents and dreams who were effectively blocked from using what they'd studied so intently. The adult video industry greeted these same graduates along with the uniquely talented outcasts from the generation before them with open arms and paid everyone well. Added to this, Japanese censorship laws made actual penetration impossible to show without masking, which meant it was unnecessary for the actors to have actual sex onscreen. So it attracted a number of very interesting people who, like me, simply said, "Yes."
The women who worked on-camera made at least ten times the salaries of the men. One of my favorites was a woman who used this to support her true passion: driving a race car in competition. A three-day shoot on my project allowed her to pay her mechanics, track fees, parts and maintenence for a full year. Whether or not she actually understood anything I said, in keeping with her upbringing, she left vague.
Another was a very shy man in his 50's a well-known manga artist in Japan who couldn't get erect, even with a very sympathetic partner half his age, unless he was watching uncensored porn on a video screen… perfect example of a 20th Century male. He was very popular in Japanese adult cinema and had all the work he could fit in.
Then I was fortunate enough to come in contact with two actors who could each work magic onscreen, at that moment actually together as a couple. "Magic onscreen" is an ability to create a sense of personal contact with the viewer through (and despite) a flat image and they both had it in abundance. Both were humble, approachable people who took a sincere interest in every role of the filmmaking process as well as their own focusing especially on the more obscure members of the tech crew. Nakagawa san clearly took pleasure in introducing all these people to each other.
Reviews for the videos split either pro or con. Those who saw them as art films tended to be positive. Those who preferred standard hardcore porn regularly trashed them. For me the entire project was an experiment so these comments became an amusing unexpected offshoot. For Nakagawa san, it was all publicity.
SP: Please talk about what you're working on now.
JD: In Stockholm, Sweden, two parallel installations: THE GAUNTLET at Fargfabriken and TEMPLE of DISTRACTION at Galleri Niklas Belenius.
THE GAUNTLET is set in a renovated factory with an open floor space about 40?30 meters with a 7-meter ceiling, rendered lightless as a photographic darkroom, with seven infrared sensor controlled anti-theft alarms that become active every 10-15 minutes for a 5-minute interval. The visitors' movements trigger them until the sound the alarms produce passes beyond the level of a warning and, for those ready to accept it as such, becomes an intriguing acoustic event "music," if you like. Whether it's interpreted as torture or beauty is entirely up to the visitor.
In contrast, TEMPLE of DISTRACTION is a series of clear plexiglas sheets with my blood sandwiched between them in Rorschach patterns, framed to stand about five centimeters from the wall. Light from outside will pass through two of these framed sheets sized to fit the gallery's two window frames, with their blood patterns cast at angles along interior walls. A subtle ringing 4-channel drone moving at random around the space gives the subdued light the atmosphere of a sanctuary.
In Prato, Italy, the opening of a group show I'm curating called "CROSS LAKE ATLANTIC" with Scott Arford, Gary Jo Gardenhire, Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether, Brandon LaBelle, Teresa Margolles and Fredrik Nilsen.
In Piombino, Italy, the opening of an installation in a large open space on the grounds of an active steelmill.
All opening within days of each other, between the end of August and early September.
SP: What you still would like to accomplish in your work and as a person.
JD: To wake up as fully as possible, in the time that's left.
JOHN DUNCAN-- Massimo Ricci, Paris Transatlantic January 2005
After more than 35 years of various kinds of artistic research, do you still feel the same urge to discover something more or less "shocking" or do you tend to be more analytical towards of your work?
I never have been interested in "shocking" myself or anyone else, really. The idea has always been to somehow find a way to tap into my inner self, and hopefully to encourage others through my work to do this. This desire, this fundamental urge hasn't changed, in fact it's stronger than ever. When I started making art I felt it was necessary to create confrontations, especially with myself and social conventions I'd always taken for granted, in order to learn from the conflicts and grow as a human being. At this point I can say that I've added "seduction" as well. When audiences stiffen their resolve expecting to be shocked or outraged, seduction can be even more powerfully disorienting and equally effective to direct attention inward again which in my case is the reason behind making the art in the first place.
We all know that Viennese Actionism has played a fundamental role in your work. Do you still feel the link with that movement strongly?
No. I'm grateful to all of the artists involved for so fearlessly focusing on responding to the psychic and social issues they felt so stifled by, which encouraged the generation of artists that followed them to use art as a tool to wake up. For me personally, those issues have become a lot less important now.
How would you define the transition from the harsher sound of many of your past releases to the current, more static, sonics characterizing your recent work with voice/shortwaves?
I suppose you could (jokingly or not) call it "development"… These changes have simply evolved, not really anything I've deliberately chosen to do. Again, the intention of all my work including music is to use it as a tool to realize something within oneself, and I think the recent music I've made tends to do that more effectively. Some say they think it's still harsh…
Have you kept in touch with some of your past collaborators on record, such as Andrew McKenzie, Christoph Heemann, Bernhard Günter? And, in general, how important is the exchange of opinions and experiences with other artists of areas near to your work?
Exchanges of experiences with others are essential to me, regardless of whether or not the partners consider themselves as "artists" or whether or not we work together in a deliberately creative way. The person I find most rewarding to work with now is Giuliana Stefani: difficult as it sometimes is for each of us, our relationship steadily continues to deepen. The people you mention have all gone in separate directions, from each other's as well as from mine. It's inevitable that we've all developed differently from who we were as people at the time we worked together. I still pay attention to their work and celebrate their successes; it's just become unnecessary to be in regular contact.
Should we trace a line linking your performance/installation work with your music, or do you think some people be better off enjoying them separately, because one aspect could detract from the other?
I think that's something for others to decide. For me these distinctions blur into each other.
You have worked all over the world and I'd be interested to know the reaction to your work varies depending on where you are. What kind of feedback do you receive?
It's always different. When it's genuine, response passes beyond any local cultural filters and comes from somewhere universally human.
Looking back, is there any one of your records that you have a predilection for? And which one would you recommend to someone new to your by now "acousmatic" vision?
Frankly, the next one. To both questions. Because the research will be new for me as well. And hopefully someday someone will come along who can offer a convincing explanation of what "acousmatic" actually means…
Have the anguish, the sorrow and the rage you often expressed in past "actions" or "events" somehow reached the exit door? Do you feel you've finally gathered some answers to those questions needed to underline certain human mechanisms?
Thankfully, yes. The horror and nihilism that observations and experiences have shown me are inherent in our existence fail utterly to explain a vast range of other essential aspects, ones that are much more profound and go a great deal further to reaching an inner understanding of ourselves as a whole, so to say. My efforts so far have just barely scratched the surface of this research. What I can say is that the developments in my work over the years tend to reflect this deepening view.
Could you describe your current studio set-up, especially for on records like Tongue or The Keening Towers. How does it all start and how does the groundwork develop?
Both Tongue and The Keening Towers started with voice, playing with it and seeing where it could be taken as 'pure sound'. The same is true of the audio installation Conservatory (San Sebastian) with Paolo Parisi: turning whispered insults into sound that affects the listener in ways ranging from soothing to vaguely threatening, with all clear references to recognizable language destroyed. The Hissing takes this even further: the entire piece is based on the sound made by blowing hard through the teeth. Until last year I'd put the source recordings onto a hard disk and generate all the distortions using a Mac G3 Powerbook; now I'm doing this with a Mac G4. Mixes are done on the computer.
Giuliana Stefani's photography is a fundamental visual aspect of your releases. How do you choose the subject of a cover and how does she work on that listening to the music, or independently from the sonic result?
We choose images based on connections we feel they have to the music. It's essential to us that there's a clear connection between the two.
What do you think is the worst prejudice today in the so-called avant-garde area?
Fear of knowing oneself that tries to pass itself off as sophistication. The fear that fully expressing yourself is psychically, socially or economically dangerous. That if you're making art and want to eat, compromise is inevitable. It's not. I still find it especially saddening when artists compromise themselves and their work to avoid threatening their economic support, or the possibility of ever receiving any. That very limited way of thinking has an adverse affect on all of us.
What are you listening to and reading at the moment?
Listening… The things that I'm often inspired by right now come from tinnitus, pitches produced by the inner ear. That and the acoustic effects of burglar alarms. A great book I just finished is The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, about people from the Hmong hill tribes of Laos living in the United States, which starts by describing their head-on collision with the American medical profession, veering off into detailing various ways they adapt and continue their daily customs and rituals despite living in an entirely alien society.
What has the future got in store in terms of new releases and forthcoming projects?
Today, 20 January 2005, was the closing day for the audio installation Conservatory (San Sebastian) with Paolo Parisi at Quarter in Firenze; the organizers are planning to produce a catalogue of that show that would include an audio CD. Right now I'm editing a 20-minute DVD video of Leif Elggren's text "The North Is Protected" with a soundtrack that Jean-Louis Huhta and I recorded together. Leif and I are planning the limited edition printing of a book version of The Error, leather-bound with hand-printed pages. In April I'll join Leif, Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Graham Lewis to perform our variations of the KREV anthem at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes. In March, Hausswolff and I will release a CD on 23Five in San Francisco. I'm talking with the Swiss label Sound Mirror about producing a CD of The Hissing, recorded in October 2004 at l'Arsenic in Lausanne. In November I'll set up an installation at Experimental Intermedia in Ghent, and an acoustic labyrinth of photo-sensor triggered burglar alarms at Gallery Ninapì in Ravenna.
OUTSIDERS-- Massimo Ricci, DEEP LISTENINGS (number 9, Spring/Summer 1997)
How would you describe your music and what sort of goals would you like to achieve with it?
If I could describe it, I would write about it instead of making it. The thing I'm looking for in all forms of the art I make is to learn, to discover everything I can about what it is to be alive. Music is one of a number of ways I use to do this.
Could you describe the processes you use for composition and recording, from both the technical and inspirational points of view?
Technically I prefer to keep things simple, working on the type and positioning of the microphone for making voice and field-recordings to DAT, then editing in multitrack. The first EP's CREED and KOKKA were made on a 2-track open reel Teac. In Japan I was using equipment that was easy to pack and carry: RIOT was made with a shortwave radio and cassette players running through a portable mixer, DARK MARKET BROADCAST on a 4-track cassette machine. Now I use computers, sometimes combined with an 8-track open reel machine. The content of the work is much more important. It's a process, a cycle that starts with certain sounds that stimulate an emotional response: shortwave, the sounds of places that are unique, sounds in nature. What I feel in these sources determines choices for details or for the structure, which again become another influence. At a certain moment the music itself makes clear the compositional choices and it becomes irrelevant to separate the maker from the work itself. I'm just another part of the process, no more and no less than the other elements, rather than a 'controller'. I release the work when it has something that I haven't heard before.
How did you get involved in this field?
As a painter, I studied the physics and psychology of color and the geometry used in the compositional structure of 2-dimensional surfaces. Then, one day in the school library I found material on artists of the viennese 'Aktionismus' group; Nitsch, Brus and especially Rudolf Schwarzkogler. From that moment I stopped painting and starting making events in front of an audience, where each person in the audience is in some way a participant. After that, I started to apply the principle of color (understood as frequencies of light that stimulates a direct emotional response) to sound. I wanted to create sounds with something other than conventional instruments; this led me to shortwave.
Do you prefer to work alone or in collaboration with others?
Both. I especially like to work with artists considered to be difficult, because generally they have a clear idea of their own capabilities, of what they want from themselves.
What else do you do besides composing?
I make events, build installations, make video and film, write.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
Whatever I do, I'm somehow always aware of what is happening inside and around me and I'm looking for some creative way to use it. It is an integral part of my existence.
Your comments on today's music listener/consumer; do you have a faithful following?
I'm not sure what you mean by 'faithful following'.
Could you support your work by the mere sales of your CD's?
I continue to make art because I'm compelled to do it, simple as that. CD sales have nothing to do with it.
Does your music have something to do with a mental state or do you simply experiment in order to hear the results?
Both. It starts as an experiment to see how something sounds and ends in a mental state.
Please list the records/artists that you prefer and, in general, what has had the most influence on you.
A list of landmarks, artists, records, musicians, books and films that I like would fill this magazine. Some of them are "The Last Message" by Malcom X, "Metal Machine Music" by Lou Reed, "Triadic Memories" by Morton Feldman, Carlo Gesualdo's work, "Dancing in the Street", "Heatwave" and "Needle in a Haystack" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Inuit songs, "Lightning Field" by Walter de Maria, "Towards a Poor Theatre" by Jerzy Grotowsky, the silent films of Carl Theodore Dreyer, Iceberg Slim's writing...
A personal question: why do you live in Italy?
Love. In all forms.
Finally, can you give some suggestions to those who want to publish their music without being connected to big labels, fashion, commercial reasons and so on? How can an independent artist survive today?
In the same way as independent artists have always survived: by doing what you feel, without caring about the response or consequences. By training yourself to listen only to your own heart and follow what it tells you. By refusing to be afraid of anyone's judgement, including your own.
JOHN DUNCAN-- Baz N, EST
THE CRACKLING -how did this project come about,and what was the original intention when setting about the task of recording a straight line particle accelerator?
One night I was watching a TV documentary of a race between SLAC at Stanford in California and CERN in Switzerland to discover a subatomic particle. Several years earlier I'd read about the building of SLAC and was already curious about the way it worked, but when I saw images of the complex in the documentary it suddenly hit me that the site could be an incredibly rich source for sounds I'd never heard before.
Was there any "red tape" involved with gaining access to the facility?
None that I know about. Stephen Travis Pope knew my work and was doing research at Stanford then; he was kind enough to set up a tour. I was completely straightforward about why I wanted to visit the complex, and arrived at the gate covered with recording equipment. Our guide, Mike Hildreth, was a researcher working there who also performed in a choir that specialized in 20th Century music. He answered every question I put to him about the complex, and pointed out areas crucial to the operation of the facility as well as places where he thought the sounds alone were special. He explained openly and in detail the operations of each section we visited.
How did Max Springer get involved,and what was the extent of his input?
Max offered his computer-editing studio when I told him about this project and said that I wanted to edit this work on an electron-based system. He was very, very generous with his time and expertise as well as his equipment, patiently explaining how the system worked and making it possible for me to perform final edits and processing on my own. When I would explain what I wanted to hear at a certain point, he and his partner Benzine suggested and tried combinations of programs to get that sound. The three of us worked on the project for a year and a half, ending in a marathon at Max's San Diego studio where I'd get up at 6 am and work until midnight, then they'd take over the computer and do processing until 6 am. We worked this way for 10 days nonstop until the final edit was made.
How did you come to work with Bernhard Gunter on HOME: UNSPEAKABLE -your styles seem so different, and yet it works extremely well. Did you work closely together,or was this a "long distance" collaboration ?
We worked face-to-face in Bernhard's studio, checking each section and each detail in that section until we agreed on how it sounded. We met 3 times. These sessions each lasted 3 or 4 days, over a period of about a year.
Can you go into more detail about the association with Beckett ?
Bernhard and I were both looking for a way to make music based roughly on what each of us knows about the experience of being conscious. We both like Beckett's writing. We liked the libretto 'Neither' that he wrote for Morton Feldman, and decided to use it as a base, a point of reference.
Some of your performance and installation work takes the form of an open ritual-was this your intention?
My intention is to make situations where I learn, as a participant.
BUS RIDE was done to see whether or not the idea that aggression comes from repressed sexual energy was true. I was working for the Los Angeles city transit system, and decided to use the bus I was driving to put an odor similar to vaginal secretions during orgasm into the ventilation system. The bus had windows that didn't open, so it was a fairly accurate arena to subject unwitting passengers to a subliminal sexual stimulant. I did this twice: once to sedate middle-income commuters coming home from their offices downtown, then a month later to a group of kids coming home from a school that specialized in training etiquette. In both cases these passengers were normally introverted and quiet; these times they attacked each other and tore up the bus.
SCARE was a response to being attacked on an L.A. street by a gang that made me believe they had a gun. One of them broke a broom handle on my neck from behind, and for a split second I thought I'd been shot. For that split second I felt a cold terror, then when I didn't see any blood and realized I was OK I felt a hot anger. Within seconds I went from one emotional extreme to the other, and when the moment was over I was fascinated by that. SCARE was done to create those extremes for unsuspecting participants. At night I approached the houses of people I knew well, dressed in a full-head mask that was partly covered by a cap and turtleneck sweater, carrying a gun loaded with blanks. When each man answered the door, I shot him point-blank in the face and disappeared.
KICK is performed using a form of hyperventilation that causes complete loss of physical and psychic control. I first learned this technique from a therapist in L.A. as a treatment for violent behavior. When she conducted sessions in front of a group of other therapists, these events changed for me from a form of treatment into something completely separate, something universally human. Soon after that I started performing this exercise in front of an audience; the first time was for live radio broadcast. Every time I perform KICK now something different happens, and I learn something else about what it is to be conscious.
The STRESS CHAMBER installation is a modified shipping container with three vibrators set to create the container's resonant frequency from three different directions. Outside, this vibration shakes the ground for a radius of 50 meters. Inside the container, this becomes a tangible object moving around the space at random. The participant goes in alone, strips completely and is locked inside in total darkness. With all motors running, the frequency passes around and through the participant's body.
Do you see acts of this kind as a conceptual provocation, or is there perhaps something more esoteric going on?
I'm not interested in provoking. I'm interested in learning, simple as that.
How did you get involved in film making, particularly pornography?
Pornography shows aspects of a culture that the culture wants to deny, to keep hidden. So pornography, at least for me, is a kind of mirror that shows what people in a culture are afraid of -- and aroused by -- within themselves. At first I bought 8mm films at porn shops and collaged them with other images. BRUTAL BIRTHDAY, TRIGGER, and THE IMMENSE ROOM were all made this way. In Japan, a commercial erotic video producer offered me the chance to script and direct my own commercial erotic video. I agreed to make a series.
Do you see this as a natural extension (forgive the pun) of your artistic expression?
I see that THE ERROR is a book in progress -how long will it be in progress,and is it likely to be published at some point -again,can you give some insights into what you hope to achieve with the project?
The point of THE ERROR is to make the kind of book I want to read -- an arena where dreams, insights, and other attempts to become more self-aware are open to the reader to combine into other insights, and to scrutinize as examples of success and failure.