Among the Islands | Audra Wolowiec in conversation with Sal Randolph |
I first met Sal Randolph when she was giving a lecture on her series of public actions that enacted systems of free exchange, and have since had the pleasure of collaborating with her on several projects that involve sound, text, and performance. Her work is multidisciplinary in nature and often draws from her diverse practices of attention, travel, collaboration and experimentation. She recently co-founded Dispersed Holdings, an artist-run listening space on the Bowery in New York City, suitably located in the apartment once inhabited by Eva Hesse.
AUDRA: The acts of reading, listening, and responding are central spheres to your process—how do these actions inform the relationship to your work?
Sal Randolph, Language Drawing (scroll), On Ready Asking, 2011
AUDRA: Your process reminds me of something Pauline Oliveros speaks about when playing music in a new acoustic environment of an underground cistern, she writes (from her Ted Talk): "in order to play in a cistern environment, we had to learn to listen in a new way... we played and learned that the cistern was playing with us. We had to respect the sound that was coming back to us from the cistern walls and include it in our musical sensibility." When creating your sound scores and text notations, can you tell us a little bit more about your process of "recording" these pieces?
Sal Randolph, Ambience Score, Chrystie Street, 2012
AUDRA: I love how you speak about your process and the relationships that form, those transcendent connections we make when meeting on the page. Your new space Dispersed Holdings is in part dedicated to reading and listening—how does the act of reading inform your work?
SAL: Most mornings, as I’m taking the train over the Williamsburg Bridge, I’m listening to songs through my headphones and capturing words from their constrained vocabularies directly into my Twitter project, @languagedrawing. When I get exactly 140 characters, I stop. This is today’s: “stay in with on the ground washing inside and if I fear looks past it's said to long and having sound for years won't wake for sound moments.”
I only write down words I hear in the songs, but other than that I am free to play, letting the words appear like oracles—think transcriptions from Ouija boards, think automatic writing. I like the words that sit side by side to surprise each other. They play with each others’ sounds as well as their senses. Composing in motion, I navigate by feeling but try to keep meanings from closing down. I love all the prepositions and the most neutral and ambiguous words—whenever things feel too tight, I wait for one. Finding an ending requires the slowest and most attentive listening as the number of characters is precise. I try not to read what I write. I never go backwards, never revise. Listening, writing, and publishing are a single action.
SAL: The first language drawings, some years ago, were made on a typewriter, using long scrolls of shoji paper. I was channeling Frank O’Hara standing outside the Olivetti store writing poems on a sample typewriter during his lunch hour; I was thinking of Kerouac’s tattered and taped On the Road scroll. I was trying to develop a drawing practice, a free space of exploration, a refuge, as I imagined more traditionally trained artists might have.
In the beginning, I proceeded deliberately without principle or direction, carried forward by the sheer pleasure of the typewriter. I wanted something daily, a way of going forward, a constant state of rehearsal or training. The radio was often on as I typed, and the words I was hearing found their way into the drawings. Gradually, listening took over of its own accord. I transcribed the ambient sounds I heard through the window and field recordings I made from significant places. I logged the sounds of people playing games, keeping and making a kind of score. I listened to the voices of poets and songwriters and wrote letters back to them through their own words. The drawings became a form of listening, which in turn is a form of writing.
Listening is a method I find both rigorous and freeing. It absorbs all of my attention in a state where receiving and making become one thing. The sounds and words of the world flow through me and what appears through my ears and hands always surprises me.
SAL: Dispersed Holdings is a listening and publication space located in the former apartment of the artist Eva Hesse, on the Bowery in New York. The space gives site to small-scale gathering, slowed durations, reading, writing, publishing, cooking and eating, collective making, collective listening.
This fall we’ve been focusing on the act of reading, through a project called the Ambient Reading Spectacular. We created a small, private reading room in the space, and have been hosting a series of forty Readers in Residence. Readers come, one at a time, for the day or the night; we make them soup, coffee or tea, and then quiet prevails as they retire to the reading room with their books. Contrary to its name, much of the reading “spectacular” has been invisible, or perceptible only to the readers themselves. This very privacy and imperceptibility has come to seem to me to have a political potency, as new thoughts and feelings can be formed in the unsurveilled play between the reader and the book.
Reading, as an act, is closely linked to listening. I’ve been thinking about the way in which written language could be considered as a very lo-fi technique of sound recording. The writer hears sounds in their head, transcribes those into a sort of score (the book), and later that score is re-sounded silently by the reader. Reading and listening are also related in the various forms of attention that they permit and inspire, sometimes focused, sometimes not. During the Ambient Reading Spectacular we have also hosted gatherings for reading aloud, exploring the collective space of simultaneous and reading and listening. Some of these involve experiments in the forms of ambient or dispersed reading and listening that I am especially drawn to: ways of putting language in the room that allow for free-floating attentional drifts
AUDRA: You currently live in New York City but travel often—place seems to have a strong affect on your work. Have any recent trips informed your work with sound?
SAL: I was just in Iceland, at a time of year when there were only four and a half hours of daylight. It was raining most of the time I was there. I had a window over the harbor, and woke every morning to a darkness that lifted with incredible slowness, revealing the shapes of low islands, and of mountains across the harbor. The mountains were also obscured by fog and mist. These definite and monumental shapes were simultaneously present and difficult to perceive. My eyes were always trying to make them out, and what I could actually see was always changing, gradually but inevitably. As afternoon fell, they dissolved into the black of water and sky.
As I looked, as I tried to see, I frequently thought of ambient music. I work with drones myself when making sound and the shifting visibility of Iceland's mountains and offshore islands seemed to be teaching me new ways of thinking about how sounds can be layered and how sonic features that are definite and particular might come in and out of perceptibly.
Sal Randolph, sound transcription featured in the publication MAKING (Dispersed Holdings, 2016)
This piece was written by Sal Randolph in response to the experimental, electronic piece: “Resonant Islands” by Eliane Radigue.
fog horn without the horn fog throbbing then like a boat pushing through waves intensity zinging against the hull in the distance still dark before the sun rises almost something speaking close vibrating huh huh huh huh huh zeee repeating now a new pretty note coming up like light melodic in the distance and then fading the boat still pushing through vibration waves the hull resounding the tone comes back like a feeling of wanting all rising together long horn fog the short day not yet here something begins to insist on itself a sine a sign still the throbbing wave now thrumming a new sine one note harmonics tuning in and out do I see land in the distance against the sea do I see sky for a moment it’s like singing the boat still pushing through regular waves where are we going the glasses on the boat vibrating against the table and some almost song like a ghost wondering wandering in the sound a sound-being the boat slows the land approaches the waves slacken and there are mountains showing against the dim sky snow flanked and a soprano singing the light up such slow light coming up insistently slow with an unstoppable momentum she is singing it into tone bright sun rising up intense we can almost hear her words but the low sun blinds operatic sun and clouds singing in chorus waking day sounds tones ringing together louder chorusing blinding singing the day no matter how short is day is the visible audible sky brightening inevitable the world arriving the body lighting up lying now on the deck of the boat looking up into resounding sky breathing in and out the body weeping breathing at once still and moving unstoppable time irising the soprano singing we singing they singing we they we they all in we they the moment extending itself impossibly elongated waves just moving the still boat no need I we they almost hearing almost seeing only light coming on yes we they and like women singing the body sings in the chorus harmonic taking one note and then another fading in fading out in ecstatic sounding light more sopranos and if we and if we could and if we if we if we could and if lightly and if lightly we could we could and we could and we could and we and we and we if color overtakes light if we and if we bright we and we all and we light light and we slower waves of light overtaking a breath in a singing a sigh a breath out now slowing waves gentling now if we all we distancing we a new throbbing presence of time the boat’s motor humming beneath the deck the boat wondering if it will move the body vibrating thrumming eyes closed in suspension waiting being slowly low sounding motor waiting before motion slow hovering small waves push against the bow against the still boat as if wondering as if half-sleeping eyelids down and breathing body time slowing the note of the motor has a color almost disappearing the body invisible the breath slowed then then a new note distant an island there silent in the water unmoving held harmonics in continuing only halfway between islands in the still ocean waiting sea expanding distances until a new articulation a reverberant step a knock against the hull watery knocking slow someone testing the metallic surface underwater something draining through the pipes ghost presences in the machine body and fear just perceptible something asks something wonders alert to the watery ghost how long have you been how long undernote like undertow current creaking the hull and vibrating the boat into the bones of the body bones of the ear a feeling like memory whispering through a dream just on the edge of remembering an uneasy dream wanting the waking mind to know but the eyes are closed the body held in stasis half waking breathing in to feeling slow waking to knowledge deep sounding moving through the still body and a wind in the cables singing slow breathing of the ship of the metal and bone body on the threshold of fear or wondering ocean life the floor of the ocean making itself felt planetary sounding immense and still the wind high half whistling half whispering in the boat lines the human body caught between forces the crush of heavy water of pressured atmosphere above and below pressing in to the self slow breathing a space between forces permits the feeling being listening body imagining space beyond body beyond sound nothing but question in the body a whistling awe slowing its asking to ring in the bones palms against the decking back against the decking back of the head touching down legs singing down finally just the bones of the ear resounding inside themselves and then the motor begins its hum again the boat moving slowly against waves pushing towards the next island held between tones a tone clearing the way the motor humming below felt through the body the palms the push through low waves the beacon calling the possibility ahead moving through water island almost visible in the dispersing light unstopping vibration unstopping waves island of tone of sine of harmonics going towards ongoing ferrying towards carrying the passenger the resounding body the ear body away and towards through water slowing and becoming close calm in the closening there thereness thrumming there through almost arriving held in the passage the body carried on over through waves towards arriving towards that place the place the placing arriving tone calling steady boat of coming towards landing the steady land approaching humming slowing boat almost the island almost sea almost meeting one and the other quieting meeting always just arriving now
Sal Randolph is an artist who lives in Brooklyn and works between language and action. Her present work includes a language game that that function as meta-instructional artwork (The Game of Art), the performative investigation of the history of attentional practices as part of the research consortium ESTAR(SER), and a series of linguistic interventions in social media, including a novel being written on Twitter (@driftictation). Her projects have appeared recently at Denny Gallery, Cooper Union, Wave Pool, the Akademie der Kunst in Berlin, the Asian Arts Theater in Gwangju, and at Le Centre Culturel de Cerisy. She is also a co-founder of dispersed holdings, a listening and publication space in New York. New language work is in Otoliths, Queen Mob's Teahouse, the anthology Dream Closet, and forthcoming in La Vague.