blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Part I

Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn, and I'm talking to Richard Carlyon at the Blackbird office at Virginia Commonwealth University. Richard Carlyon appears in the Gallery section of Blackbird with his video piece Flight Song.

Richard, because most people are not going to know exactly what the origin of Flight Song was, if you could talk maybe a little bit about the connection to John Cage and how you created the piece, that would probably be helpful.

Richard Carlyon: When John Cage passed away in 1992, just a few weeks before his eightieth birthday, I knew that I wanted to do something in a kind of homage to him. For a long time, I had followed his activities as a composer, as a writer, as a performer, as a poet, as a humorist, and certainly his various activities with sound and noise. I initially thought of doing something, some kind of construction that might include sound and objects and paint, but that seemed fixed. And when I think of John Cage, I think of something that's fluid, porous, open. He's not working for closure, he's working for openness. That's the sense I have of him as a person and as an artist.

And, one day (this wasn't in my mind at all) I was walking up the staircase in the Art Foundation building at the VCU campus, and I was the only person in the building. Classes were closed. It was in the break between the end of the spring term and before the summer session began. And as I ascended the staircase—once I got to the top of it after I had ascended it, and I started to walk down the hall, I heard the echo of the creak of the steps was in my head. And I thought, "That's it." This was not intended. It's something that everybody does every day of the week, walk up and down a flight of steps. You don't pay any attention to it, but if you isolate the sound in it, you're actually creating, according to Cage, it could be thought of, as musical. So I decided to do a video.

Initially I thought of engaging someone to walk up and down the steps, and I would record it. But then I was afraid I'd get "arty" with it. I'd start thinking about the composition of the picture, of the image of the person. So I decided to do it myself and just put the camera on a tripod, fix the focus so it did cover the stairway, and I would just walk up and down the steps for a half hour, which is what I did. And then, I didn't want it to be a portrait, so I didn't want my facial features to show in any way. I decided to wear a black linen suit. I was bare-chested, but I had a black linen suit and was in my bare feet. And the reason I'm in my bare feet is because I didn't want the image to convey that the weight of my shoes was making this sound, you know, that I was stamping, in other words, that I was stamping on the steps. So I set the camera up, and I just walked up and down the stairs and I had a half hour of tape. Then I went to the video lab, and I edited out all the images of my walking down the steps. In other words, I just kept the ones of ascending the steps. Once I had that—that was my master tape—I then decided in the spirit of Cage to use a chance-determined structure to compose the piece. Using a simple arithmetical system, I determined, first of all, how long would this piece be, and it came out five minutes and, I think, thirty-three seconds. Then I determined at what point in the thirty-minute tape (well, it was actually down to about sixteen minutes after I edited out the descending), at what point within that sixteen minutes would I enter the tape. Once I found that point on the editor, then how long, what would be the duration, how long will this run? Would it be one second, two, three, five, ten, whatever? That was all determined by chance. Then I asked myself, "Is this to be repeated? Yes or no?" And that was determined by chance. If it was yes, then, how many times is it to be repeated? And if no, I just would go on to the next entry point.

I worked on this for about a year and a half, and when I completed it, it came out to exactly the five minutes and thirty seconds. When I edited it, I had the soundboard on, of course, but I didn't listen to it. I turned the volume down because I didn't want to be influenced by it. So I just paid attention to these dials on the editor, and when I completed the assignment I gave myself, then I played it. So the play between the image of this man's body walking up a staircase and the various creaks and sounds that are occurring from the weight of the body as it hits these steps going up created the piece. And I felt it was an appropriate homage to John Cage.

MF: When I was at Hollins in the late sixties, he [John Cage] came through with Merce Cunningham and composed a piece for the Hollins carillon by connecting the knots on a board. But I also think of his long connection with Cunningham and your interest in dance as well. Cunningham also used chance-determined kinds of work, and chance-determined work is certainly a part of your aesthetic as well. I wondered if you would speak to that a little bit, how that interested you and why that's sort of where you go.

RC: Well it's interested me from the very time that I entered the Fine Arts department at RPI [Richmond Professional Institute], now VCU, in 1950. And that's when I discovered John Cage. I mean, by accident I discovered him. I was at McCorley's, I think it was called Corley's music shop down on Grace Street. They had a bin of records that were marked down, they were fifty cents for an lp. That was the bin I always went to, and I saw two albums. All it said was "John Cage Prepared Piano." I never heard of John Cage, and I didn't know what a prepared piano was. I bought both albums. There were two albums, and I bought both of them. From that point on, I got interested in him and his work, and then I found out, of course, that he used chance-determined structures for most of his activities from the late forties on up until the time of his death. At that time, I never heard anyone talk about John Cage. It was difficult to find information about him in libraries and so forth. There were very few recordings of his music at that time. And when I spoke to the head of the music department here at VCU, I sought him out and asked him about John Cage, and he said, "He's a joke. He can't be taken seriously. Have you heard his music?" And I said, "Well, just Prepared Piano." And he said, "Well that's a joke." He said, "He's altered the piano." And I said, "But isn't that interesting," because if you listen to the recording it doesn't sound like a piano. It sounds like some instruments that you're not familiar with. And everything, the stress in my education, and for others as well (I think it was pretty general throughout the United States at that time) was on a sound formal composition, that no matter what subject you used for painting or sculpture, one went to some sort of a final formal resolution and clarity. One worked for a kind of, to quote Matisse, a kind of condensation of sensations brought to some sort of purist statement. And so that was the stress, that was the emphasis. But in the back of my mind, all those years, and for decades following it was this example of John Cage and, as you mentioned, Merce Cunningham.

As I moved into my late fifties and sixties, I found myself more and more engaged with this because it's a way of getting away from habits. It's a way of challenging neat patterns of thinking. You can begin to make discoveries. It's like a hunter, someone hunting for information. You look for one thing, but you find something else, which is much richer, much more interesting and engaging than what you thought you were looking for. So I tried, initially through collage, to introduce this factor, this process, into my work, and slowly over the years it's sort of taken over. It gets back to something, too, that John Cage said. He said that he thought that art is not an escape from life or an embellishment of it but rather an introduction to it. In other words, you can use all of your experience, all of it. And the emphasis is on experience as opposed to understanding, I mean, if you make a kind of distinction there. The experiencing mind, according to John Cage, is the mind that is delighted and enhanced when anything comes into it that isn't within the realm of its imagination. In other words, the emphasis is on discovery.

So I have tried to find ways to draw upon the knowledge and experience I have and put it in a situation where I'm not sure what's going to come out. And, in my case anyway, when something is produced using these various kinds of chance structures, you can accept or reject it when it's over, but you cannot—and there is an ethic—you cannot fool around with it. It has to be established a priori, and once it's in operation, you have to follow the assignment you gave yourself. And then it comes out. And then you have an ethical decision. Am I going to keep this? Or am I going to throw it away because it was a dumb structure, I didn't use interesting materials, or it was faulty from the inception? And you just throw it away, but there's no sense of loss because you've learned something from it. You're not going to do that again. And I've found that it connects to so many different areas of experience. I mean, it's not just art—I'm using the word art in the best sense—but to things that happen in everyday life that one can observe. I mean, you can walk down the street through a large cosmopolitan area and all that you're thinking about is, "I want to get from this block to the next block," or whatever. But you can also walk down that and start to notice the rhythms with which people move. The mechanism is the same for everyone walking. The mechanism is the same, but the rhythms in which it's performed—there's all this wonderful variety to it, and you feel part of it. You actually begin to feel part of it. And so it's not you alone walking down the street. Everybody's creating this rhythm whether they're paying attention to it or not, and it's unselfconscious. You just walk down the street, and if you pay attention to it, it's delightful.

MF: Now, you said that probably this way of dealing with experience and art goes back more to somebody like Marcel Duchamp in terms of looking at how art can look at experience and deal with it.

RC: I think so.

MF: I'm thinking of someone like Hans Hofmann.

RC: Oh, definitely. Oh, definitely. And there is a connection, I think, between Cage and Cunningham and Marcel Duchamp. Any chance he had, John Cage would acknowledge that he owed a great deal to the example of Duchamp. And I think it's largely through Cage that Duchamp's ideas became palpable to the artists here in America, particularly during the 1960s. All of a sudden, Picasso wasn't the most relevant artist for painters, for example, or Brancusi for sculptors. But it was Duchamp. Because it's in Duchamp's view that art is undefinable. He didn't call himself an anti-artist because he wasn't ever against anything. He said he wasn't like an atheist. Because an atheist believes negatively. Duchamp said, "I don't believe negatively, I just don't believe in art, period." So he called himself a non-art, but there's a trick there of course. But I do think there is a connection, and the fact that Duchamp used chance operations in some of his work, in "Large Glass," in a musical score he wrote, and in other pieces as well. But I think Cage has a peculiarly American character perhaps. I mean, he's from California, grew up in California, and he had sort of a sunny disposition. He just had this very open, curious, welcoming mind and imagination. I think it's been a great loss that he's gone. To me, the twentieth century died with Cage.


Part II

MF: "Delighted," I think is a word that applies to your work as well. There's a certain playfulness quality not just to that, but a delightful sort of elegance that is in your drawings and in your videos. I'm thinking of another video that was in your show at 1708 [Gallery] last spring that was clips of Astaire [Fred Astaire] essentially.

RC: Yes.

MF: How did you put that together?

RC: Well, it's the same situation. I mean, he passed away, and it was very upsetting to me. I couldn't imagine living one's life without images of Fred Astaire tap dancing his heart away.

One of my favorite dance numbers is a so-called "Shorty George" number that he did with Rita Hayworth, I think it was 1942, from the MGM film You Were Never Lovelier. It is just a wonderful swing number. And I decided to re-choreograph it, but I brought, I mean, I've had it for years. I decided, "Well this could be re-choreographed." I used a similar approach to it that I did with the Flight Song piece where I use a chance-determined structure. I had no idea what the final result would be. Though in both instances, I should say, in both cases, both of those videos, I wanted it to come to an end. I didn't leave it open-ended and it does follow, though I'm moving back forwards in time, there is an end. In the staircase, I do finally get up the steps. You just see the feet arrive, and then it ends and repeats. And with the Fred Astaire, they are in this embrace, tap dancing in an embrace, and they go off the movie set. So it does end. It does put a period to it. But other than that . . . .

I wish that Astaire were still around because I would love to send him a copy of that. I don't know. He might be terribly offended or think it's a joke. I don't know. But he might find it delightful. Rita Hayworth, too. Because it isolates and repeats so many of the movements, it allows you to see patterns of the movement that otherwise would be lost. You get so caught up in the, you know, just propelling forward and moving in so many wonderful ways and when you start to see the little nuances, the way Fred Astaire would change the position of his hand while in the air. And it changes the whole character, the whole phrase of the dance movement. It's exciting. Or the way Rita's skirt rises and falls. One of the repeats was eleven times, it took forever. But she's spinning around and the skirt goes up and down and up and down and up and down. And it's delightful. It allows us, one thing that I like about video, it allows us an intimate look at things.

MF: It also measures time.

RC: Oh yes.

MF: That you can't do in flat work. Is that one of the attractions of video for you?

RC: Yes, it's measurable. The time is measurable. If you have a foot of tape, that's something that you can manipulate in various ways. If you're interested in the sound or the kinesthetics of it and/or the image, you can play with this in a variety of ways. You can put one image next to another. They don't necessarily have to be related, as it were. You can just take fifty ads off of television and take them out of the context of the show that they were shown in and just hook them together. And it's hysterical. I mean I've done that.

I have a video I haven't finished. I've worked on it for years. It's images of former president Reagan and his wife leaving the White House lawn for Camp David. It shows them walking across the lawn to the helicopter, and that would be Friday evening. Then on Sunday between 7:00 and 7:15 they would return and walk another path to the White House from the helicopter. And I have hundreds of those that I videotaped over an eight year period. And on the tape I'm doing, he's waving one way, and he's waving another. Nancy is always in the same—she's just lock stepped in these gestures. She looks over her left shoulder, waves with her right hand, then she looks at Ron, then she looks back towards the pilot of the helicopter, and waves. When you hook them together, in one way, it's absurd of course, but in another these simple gestures—Here I am, the president of the United States, and here's his wife, and, yes, there's the press corps, and, yes, we've had a wonderful time at Camp David. I think it says something about not just video or just about the president. It says something about the way we receive information today. If you have a remote control, for example, and many persons do, of course, on their TV, and you click, and say that you have a cable hook-up where you have forty, fifty, sixty channels to go through and nothing is right, is it? You just click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click from one to another. Well all that's being recorded on the brain. And in an odd way, some kind of sense or nonsense is being made of this. It is there. It's registered. It's like looking at the front page of a newspaper. You see something happened in Somalia, something happened in Richmond, and something happened in Lima, Peru, and something happened in Bosnia. These are all different events, and the eye just scans from one to another. There's the weather report, a little thing about the weather, how to conserve water, all this on the front page. And as we scan from one thing to another it's like a mosaic. And if we make any sense of the world—this is your world today, this is the news today—we have to make some sense out of it. And that participatory aspect of it, that the reader of the newspaper is really the final editor. People don't read everything. They're very selective. And as we go through the newspaper, we have, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, all this bad news—that's the news—surrounded by all the good news, which is the ads—Free, Two for One, Marked Down, and so forth. That is something that we share. I don't think it's just the artists, or creative people, or thinkers. It happens every day of the week. One thing can follow anything on television, and it does. And we start to look at life and nature around us that way. en it begins to take on a kind of import, at least in terms of individual experience. One of the things I think is fascinating about so-called postmodern art, and I don't know what that is, other than the fact that it does appeal to a serious audience. And a serious audience is an audience that recognizes that it's part of the artist's process. Now I'm not talking about liking or disliking, but that audience is part of the process.

MF: That does seem to be the difference between, say, a canvas of Picasso's, where he did it all and something like contemporary video art where you're expected to be a part of it.

RC: Definitely. And you can draw upon all areas of your experience. I mean, it's implicit. You will draw upon some areas of your experience. You're going to make some connections. And, that's exciting. Actually, it's sort of a late twentieth-century, twenty-first-century version of the symbolist idea. In Mallarmé, for example, where you're a participant. I mean, he's just giving you this use of language with so many blanks and intervals and gaps in it, and he's never really describing anything. He's recording the effects of things that they had upon his perception. So we can read the same poem a whole life and it's a fluid situation where we're constantly redefining its meaning or import. In other kinds of literature, that isn't possible. It seems to come with electronic technology. It's something in sound. I mean, here we have this digital tape recorder.

MF: It struck me that the technology does seem to be crucial to this because most of the readers of Blackbird are probably verbal people, are people who deal with words, not people who deal with contemporary images, and I think the kind of abstraction that appears as a part of the kind of chance-determined things that you're talking about is very frustrating sometimes for people who are used to dealing with the verbal landscape. It's something that did not happen in abstract painting at the turn of the last century, but is happening now. The technology gives you ways to mimic the mind in different kinds of circumstances.

RC: Yes, and I think that our younger citizens especially are very receptive to this. That's my sense of it anyway.

MF: There's also a lot of video that's being done that's very, sort of, like documentary. And thinking of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this past year has had a series of three shows that deal with contemporary video art and thinking of [Shirin] Neshat's Rapture that that's beautiful to look at, but very more like a documentary film than like the kind of video that you've done. What is your feeling about that sort of divergence or connection? Is it our need for narrative?

RC: Well, she's presenting something sequentially. But I think what's interesting about it—there's sound, but there's not much dialogue, if any. I mean, in the sense that we think of, say, a narrative film or narrative video. And because it's exotic to us westerners—I mean, they're in this desert-like area, this very arid area, and these women are involved in what appears to be a ritualistic activity, ceremonial, ritualistic. They're not really individuals. We don't think of them as distinct individuals, the way she's made the film. We see them as a group, a kind of entity. So they're representing Neshat's view of, a particular view of women of the Middle East. So, from our eye, it has a sort of, I would say, an exotic allure. I don't know how else to put that exactly. But the fact that it's ritualistic, and especially towards the end when they start to throw the sand up over their heads, and they're murmuring. But we're not told what this means. We're not introduced to characters. We sense that it's moving toward some sort of conclusion but we're not really sure what it is until it occurs. So this is a new kind of narrative. It's all visual imagery in time. And, I think that we're invited, in effect, to supply our own narrative based upon whatever knowledge we have, say, of the situation of women in the Middle East traditionally in relationship to this current situation. So that it's foreign. This was not made by an American, you get it right away. This is not a Hollywood production. We're not sure why they're there. But it's been elaborately staged. This has been very carefully conceptualized on the part of the video artist. And it's something about her insistence, obsessiveness, and drive to get this onto video that also becomes part of its content. I think that's inescapable.

But other than that, my response to it was essentially visceral when I watched it. I didn't think about anything. I just got caught up in the movement, the various kinds of activity, the, incessant, persistent sound score, and these murmurs—it was very visceral, as opposed to an intellectual response. But as we sit here, I think back on it, I'm calling upon my experience with it. I'm phrasing that or framing that in a particular way. But if we were to walk right now into the Virginia Museum and that was playing, I wouldn't have anything to say about it. It would be very difficult to analyze it while it's going on. I know I'd get caught up in it. I think this is one of the allures of video as opposed to film. And the fact that video can be looked at in a room, you don't have to turn the lights out. That copies are easily attainable. You can check them out of libraries, you can buy copies. Seeing that film in your home would be a very different experience from seeing it at the Whitney Museum of Art or the Virginia Museum of Art. It would have a very different effect, I think—tremendously different. And that's one of the things that's happened since video, I mean, even with Hollywood films. Yes, you can go to the theatre and see something in Cinemascope, or whatever, in a large screen with surround sound, but then you get this image that collapses into twenty-six inches or whatever you have at home. The viewing experience and the relationship between the viewer and the film is completely changed. Some things look marvelous in the theatre, and they look awful on TV. Conversely, video of a Hollywood film on TV sometimes is enhanced. One of the things that I've noticed, particularly in "serious" Hollywood films—I'd put the serious in quotation marks. I don't know if there's anything left that's really serious out there—but so-called serious films often, on TV, take on a comical quality, and it's unintentional. It's one of the things that happened with television. You think of the old Frankenstein films and Dracula films and Mummy films from the 1930s and the 1940s, and when TV came along and with the late show (this was back in the late fifties and early sixties) and they started to play these films, well, they seem hysterical. I mean, this guy, wrapped up, and he's obviously Boris Karloff wrapped up in bandages coming towards the camera. And it takes on a comical effect. It's not intentional.

MF: In thinking of the variety of the kind of video experience that's around now, the piece that the museum bought by Bill Viola [The Quintet of the Unseen].

RC: Oh yes, the portrait piece.

MF: That's fascinating in a completely different way.

RC: In a different way because it's still, but it isn't. It's like this huge portrait onto the wall. And by the way, I love the way they placed it because they placed it between two galleries, and while you're viewing it, people walk through there to get from one gallery to another. So you're constantly reminded that you're looking at a video image, which I think is terrific because you can see the shadow of the passersby on the screen. And you have to look very, very carefully at that. I mean, you find it's a different looking experience because things are moving so very, very slowly, and time just seems to stretch. And, speaking for myself, I'll get caught up in two or three of the, is it five or six people? I get looking and I say, "I want to detect the change." In the meantime, because I'm looking at one area, I look at the other two characters in the group and the hand has moved, and I didn't see it. It's so subtle. So that time really becomes something almost concrete, truly palpable. And I think the people that he used were interesting because of the formality of their position. It makes me think of formal portraits—I thought of Goya, I thought of Velázquez, I thought of Ingres, I thought of Degas, I thought of Picasso—I mean, just this rush of images comes. But it's not a painting because it's moving. It makes you self-conscious. I think it makes one self-conscious, like how am I seeing what I'm looking at? And then once that question is posed, like, well, how am I? What is going on here? Why am I sitting here paying attention to this? And you get into almost as obsessive a situation as the artist who made the piece. And I think he is an obsessive artist.

MF: Well, that seems to be something that many artists I know; you and Elizabeth King are both in this issue of Blackbird, and both of you are, to a degree, obsessive artists. Quite remarkable and wonderful, I think.

Just to sort of end: it is the twenty-first century. What art that is being made now do you think sort of expresses that? Where would you look to see that and find that?

RC: I think—no, I don't think it's been fully developed, fully plumbed, if it ever could be—but I think in the area of so-called performance art, which is a term I don't like, but there it is. I think that's where you can bring everything, everything, every technology, all of history, all of the images out of history, literature, you could bring everything into a very complex, open-ended interface. It is collaborative, which seems the spirit of the times. This idea of the isolated genius in his or her studio and all that sort of talk seems silly now. But if you bring several geniuses together, and you're not really sure at the outset what's going to come out of it, and everybody has different areas of experience and certain technologies and materials that they enjoy working with, and it's kept in a true collaborative spirit, which is very, very difficult because then you have the ego, you have taste [that] gets into it. And the kind of jockeying that would take place without feeling you're compromising, I think that's a rich situation.  

return to top