The Lord of Missed Rules: An Interview with Michael Snow
When the Canadian artist Michael Snow left Toronto for New York in 1962, he had already established a reputation as an artist whose carreer was on the rise. When he returned to Toronto in 1971, that reputation had extended to Europe and the United States, and had been earned in a variety of artistic disciplines, including painting, filmmaking and avant-garde music. Snow was an aesthetic polymath and in New York he was able to investigate the discrete areas of the times, and not a reflection of divisible categories in Snow’s own artistic sensibility. From the start, his interests were uncontainable, and New York provided him with the opportunities he needed to develop fully his myriad affiliations. As he said in 1967, “My Paintings are done by a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a musician, music by a sculptor … sometimes they all work together.” The primary tool Snow used to effect that aesthetic migration was the outlined silhouette of a walking woman, “just a drawing,” he said, and “not a very good one either!”
The “Walking Woman Works,” which he first exhibited in Toronto in 1962 at the Isaacs Gallery, occupied his attention for a significant portion of the years he spent in New York. She was–and remains–an image with the iconographic potency of Wesselmann’s Great American Nudes and de Kooning’s toothy women, although his image is neither fierce nor consistently eroticized. But Snow was able to use the walking woman in innumerable pieces, some 200 in total, which he made before retiring her in his 1967 film, * Wavelength. *”The Walking Woman” was a visual embodiment of the subject in Pound’s poem, “Portrait d’une Femme;” an encounter with her would allow you to “take strange gain away.” Viewers of her multiple incarnations in paintings, sculptures and photographs, and on sweatshirts and posters were variously bewildered and charmed. Snow placed her cut-out black plywood form in different urban contexts in Toronto and New York, and then photographed the reactions of passersby. His assessment of the effect these “often beautiful compositions” had on people is telling: they were “neurotic, erotic, aesthetic.”
They were also generative and recombinant; Snow saw her variations in the context of jazz, “the theme and variation thing,” and her photographed image led him to the medium of film. It was through film that Snow would first reach an international audience. The screening of Wavelength in 1967 was, in Jonas Mekas’s estimation, “a landmark event in cinema.” Snow’s own intention for the film was no less ambitious. “I wanted a summation of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas,” he said of the 45-minute-long zoom that incorporates in its time frame four human events, including a man’s death. It’s safe to say that Snow’s artistic output has been to discover ways to make evident, and expand upon, that initial summary intention. As he said in Artforum in 1971,
“I do not have a system, I am a system.” (It wouldn’t be a stretch to hear in that pronouncement an echo of Jackson Pollock’s declaration, “I am nature.”) Snow has always aimed high. Or, to put to use Steve Reich’s metaphor in recording his initial reaction to Wavelength, Snow likes to “keep all the balls in the air.”
Michael Snow has been carrying on that dazzling, acrobatic act for 40 years now and shows no sign of letting up. His practice is as varied as ever, and lately music seems to be occupying more and more of his attention. The conceptual rigour and the level of visual intelligence in his art are astonishing. He never misses a beat (unless he wants to) and he continues to dance to the rhythm of his own drum. In the following interview, he comments on the attitude he brings to the making of art: “I’m not so much investigating the world as using different kinds of representational situations to make something that doesn’t actually exist in the world.” Later on, he reflects on the possibilities offered by that newly made world. “I make up the rules of a game and I play it,” he says, the observation inflected by only the wryest of smiles. “If I seem to be losing, I change the rules.”
The following interview was recorded in the kitchen of Michael Snow’s Toronto home on Tuesday, March 20, 2007. It began as he was showing me a painting of a rambunctious jazz ensemble that he had done while in high school.
MICHAEL SNOW: This is a painting that I did in 1947 when I was in high school. It’s called Jazz Band. It’s very Picassoid. Seeing it, one would say that the artist had some knowledge of Cubism. How that came about puzzles me.
BORDER CROSSINGS: You say you had some knowledge of Cubism, but you don’t have a recollection of having looked at art books at the time?
MS: No, I’m absolutely certain that I didn’t. I think I remember where I saw my first Picassos; it was in an article in Life magazine, but in my memory, I thought it was when I was actually going to art college. But without doubt, it was when I was in high school. When I somehow graduated from high school, I was awarded the art prize. I was very surprised because as far as art was concerned, I wasn’t doing anything more than the rest of the guys. I was throwing wads of paper. Because of the prize, I decided to go to an art school, to Ontario College of Art (OCA) in Toronto.
Was your intention to be an artist?
I didn’t know what that meant and it took me a long time to figure out what it might mean. I didn’t know what to do, so I took what was known as a design course, as opposed to advertising art or fine art. That turned out to be very lucky because I met my teacher, John Martin, who was quite extraordinary. I started to paint for myself, really. The design course was interesting, but I did these other things and John Martin saw them and discussed them and suggested books I should read. We carried on this conversation. He told me about Mondrian and it was really fabulous. He suggested I put two abstract paintings I had done in the Ontario Society of Artists competition, which was apparently the first time a student had ever been accepted.
You said music, which was the subject of your Cubist painting, saved your life. Since your mother was a classical pianist, I suppose her music contributed to that lifesaving?
She wasn’t professional, but she could play anything and play it nicely. I was a very resistant boy and if anybody wanted me to do anything, I wouldn’t do it. My mother wanted me to take lessons when I was going to public school and she’d make an appointment and I wouldn’t go. Finally, she gave up on it.
But surely music was in the blood?
I suppose. But then, on the radio I heard some early Jelly Roll Morton. In particular, there was a radio program called At the Jazz Band Ball. I was very moved by what I was hearing. Then, as is often the case with the garage band thing, I met some other guys who were interested in the same kind of music and so I started to play. Piano first. That was weird because we had two pianos–we had a grand upstairs and an upright downstairs in a sort of rec room–and I practised on the upright. l learned how to play the blues first, in C, in F and in B-flat, and I learned by copying. I’m essentially self-taught. But to add to the irony, in the piano bench was an introduction to one of the courses my mother wanted me to take, which outlined basic harmony–what’s a third, what’s a fifth? So my introduction to harmony was because of her. We used to laugh because apparently one day I was in the basement playing and she quietly listened for a long time and then said, clearing her throat, “You’re playing the piano.” But she was pleased. What was interesting was that my mother could never understand improvisation. There were things she could do that I could never do–I never really learned how to read–and yet she couldn’t understand improvisation at all, she just had to have something to play.
It was too chaotic for her?
No, I don’t think that jazz improvisation was chaotic to her. She played some written music by Teddy Wilson and Duke Ellington. She wasn’t anti-jazz. It was the process of jazz improvisation that she couldn’t understand. She had to have something to read. Where do you start, what do you start with? My music has developed into free improvisation where I believe I’m playing my own music and it isn’t necessarily jazz. It could be called that, but I have nothing to do with the jazz world. But free improvisation can be puzzling at first. If you’re working thematically or playing the blues, there’s an idiom and you have chord changes to work on, but free improvisation is a method and not a style. In the beginning, I was playing with trad bands and we did all the stuff Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives played, like “Muskrat Ramble,” and quite a few Jelly Roll Morton tunes. There’s a set of Dixieland classics that everyone plays. I started getting jobs when I was in high school. I think our standards were quite low but the other guys seemed to like what I was doing. I have some recordings from 1948 and they’re not bad.
Then, as a young man, you went off to Europe and made a living playing there.
That was after I got out of the Ontario College of Art. In Europe I was lucky to find three or four jobs that kept me going for a while. I went over there with $300.
Did you think you would become a musician?
It was sort of a possibility, but I didn’t think I would exclusively be a musician. Maybe it’s the bourgeois thing of trying to think what is a proper trade. I was so negative.
What made you decide to go to Europe after graduating?
Working for a year in an advertising place where I was really terrible and where I made stupid mistakes. I was very unhappy and I thought, What am I going to do? So I decided to go to Europe to find myself. I went with a guy I had met at OCA, Bob Hackborn, who was a drummer in some of the bands I played in. We went by boat and he had a lot of stuff, including his drums. It was a hell of a lot of shit to move around. I was attempting to play trumpet, so I brought that.
And any piano you could pick up?
Yes. We got to France and we were staying at the Cité Universitaire at the Maison Canadienne and it was all very cheap. There was an ad on a notice board that said, “Band looking for trumpet player and drummer.” So we went to the audition place, and the guys in the band were all black musicians from various French colonies like Martinique and Guadeloupe. They were all studying dentistry in Paris, but they had got the gig to play for the Club Méditerranée. It became quite famous but at that time it had just started. I had just begun to play trumpet and I was really quite shitty. But Bob and I played jazz and the guys were really knocked out because they played something else, tangos and all kinds of stuff that I didn’t know anything about. So Bob and I got the job, and we went by train with these guys to the Club Méditerranée on the coast of Tuscany. Then we were on the island of Elba, and then down the Adriatic to just above Montenegro. I would do a couple of things that I could cope with, and then I’d go out drinking and try to get laid. I played “Lady Be Good” and “Blue Skies” and I never learned anything else because I was afraid to practise because we were all living in tents and you could hear it all over the place. We got paid in drink tickets and board, so I had no money after two months. It was an outside piste de dance near the water. There was a circular bar with all these bottles, so while everyone was playing, I drank a bit of everything. I only got laid once so it definitely has its sad side. Her name was Michelle and I still have a photograph of her. She was a beautiful girl. Anyway, Bob and I played with this band for two months and then they took us back to Paris, where we started hitchhiking around. We had been invited by some people we had met at the Club Méditerranée to drop in on them in Brussels and it turned out there was a jazz club called La Rose Noir where a Canadian friend was playing in a band, which was otherwise all Belgian guys. I asked if I could sit in and play and the owner offered me a job. So Bob moved on–we made a date to meet in Italy–and I played there for a couple of months. We were paid in francs but it was very little. Overall, I stayed in Europe for a year and a couple of months.
What made you come back? Had you used up the European experience?
That’s sort of it, although one of the excuses was I had left a girlfriend with whom I was exchanging letters, which were getting a little cooler, and the next thing I knew she was married. So I fooled myself into thinking I was coming back to fight it out over her, but I didn’t. But when I came back, another one of these miraculous things happened. When I was travelling, I used to draw a lot and I had a show of these drawings. I got a phone call from a man I didn’t know. He said that he’d seen the exhibition and liked it very much. He said that he felt that whoever had done these drawings must be interested in the movies. I had to say that, no, I wasn’t especially interested in the movies. Nevertheless, I met him and he offered me a job, learning animation. The year before he had started Graphic Films, which was the first company in Canada to do animation for television. He thought so highly of animation that he wanted to hire fine artists rather than advertising artists because they could draw. He had hired Joyce Wieland on exactly the same basis because she was such a fine drawer and that’s where I met her. Graham Coughtry was working there for a little while too. But my boss made the mistake of promoting me and the company went bankrupt. I had started to lead a triple life. I was playing music at night and it got so that I was arriving at work at 10:00 and 10:30–we were supposed to be there at 9:00–and the next thing I knew it was noon. A few years later this man, George Dunning, directed the Beatles film, Yellow Submarine. My introduction to film at this time was very influential. With painting and music, I was moved by certain things and I wanted to do something equal to that. I’m not well educated as far as film history goes and I’m not really that interested. But I was introduced to film by seeing the inside, finding out that it was made one frame after another. Once I saw what it was, I wanted to do things with it. George said that if we wanted to do anything on our own and if the animation stand was free and the animation cameraman would work with us, we could do anything we wanted. So I made my first film–A to Z, 1956–because he made it possible. In fact, it consisted of the kind of drawing he had liked, which was somewhat influenced by Paul Klee.
You were something of an omnivore. I’m intrigued by your simultaneous involvement with three kinds of art: painting, filmmaking and music.
Apart from occasional artwork sales, I was making my living playing music up until 1961, most of the time in a band led by Mike White. So Mike Snow played in Mike White’s band. He was a trumpet player.
This is the year before you and Joyce decide to go to New York?
From 1959 on, I was playing piano almost every night. I went back to the trumpet later when the CCMC was formed in 1976. There are some recordings that have some of my trumpet playing; I got a little bit better. I’ve also become a better piano player.
Was New York just a bigger pond in which to play?
Going to New York was about art, not music. Like a lot of artists here, I was following what was going on in New York quite closely and we would go there every couple of months. We’d often drive and sometimes take the bus and spend a few days going to galleries and listening to music. I just thought if I really was interested in what was happening there, I should fight it out and see what would happen. I was planning to stop music when I went to New York because I thought if I wanted to get somewhere, I should concentrate on the one area of visual art. But that didn’t work since I fell in with a bad crowd.
Would you feel the same necessity to choose among your various interests today?
No. I was one of the first people to work in a lot of different media and with a lot of different materials. Speaking of media, there was a real separation between the painting and sculpture world and so-called experimental film then. Jonas Mekas was extraordinarily influential in those days because he wrote a column in The Village Voice and he was involved in a system of distribution for experimental films, the New York Filmmaker’s Co-op and the magazine, Film Culture. He also used to organize screenings and he would find a real theatre and rent it for awhile–it was called Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. It was very influential because it showed the most interesting things.
But the 30 people who showed up at the Cinematheque weren’t going to the uptown galleries?
Mostly not. Joyce and I started going to these screenings and we noticed the same people and we started talking to each other. One of them was this bug-eyed guy, Hollis Frampton. I used to see him at the important openings at the Green Gallery and it turned out he had gone to school with Carl Andre and he was a friend of Frank Stella. When I first met him, he was a photographer and hadn’t made any films. The main crossover was whenever Warhol showed at Jonas’s events, he would bring his whole entourage and the party that followed him.
What kind of art were you making in the ’50s?
There were a lot of drawings, paintings and sculpture of furniture, of tables and chairs, etc. Klee, Picasso and Duchamp were influences, as well as Gorky and de Kooning.
I remember seeing some drawings you did from that period that looked very much like Matisse. Were you canvassing other painters and art history to figure out where you fit in?
I had been doing that all along, which was one of the reasons for going to Europe in ‘53. We went to all the museums and galleries. In those days, you could still hitchhike. It was after the war, so Cologne and Rotterdam were still pretty much flat. It was incredible to see. Especially Cologne, because you arrived at the train station and the cathedral had survived but the rest of the city was just rubble.
I want to talk about what may be your most famous image. Did you have any idea when you did the first Walking Woman, 1961-67 that it would take on the iconic significance that it has?
I didn’t know where it would go, or whether it would go anywhere. In 1954, ‘55 and ‘56, I had done some collages where I cut the paper shapes with a matte knife. They were de Kooning-esque in some ways although more realistic. Their colour was distinctive, I think. I used photo-dyes as if they were watercolour. It was interesting to draw that way, using an exacto knife to make the shapes. The Walking Woman came from a return in 1961 to this cutting-out method. Between these two figurative periods in 1959 to 1961, I went through a phase of totally abstract work, of which I’m very proud. That ended in 1961. They were all very pure colour-surface things. Lac Clair, 1960, and Shunt, 1959, which are in the National Gallery, are good examples. I was working on the objectness of painting and painting became sculpture. Don Judd made similar assumptions. I tried warping the surface and made a number of things I called “Foldages.” There’s one called Red Square, 1960, which I like a lot. It was made by folding the canvas, painting over the folds, then unfolding it and stretching it. There’s a stencil connection. At the same time, I was also thinking about some way back to the figure. I thought about the way I’d cut out those figurative things in the ’50s. Then I thought that it might be interesting to have the cut-out figure on a wall and not against a ground. So I did four or five of these cut-outs that went against the wall and one day I did the Walking Woman. I’d been using stencil effects in some of the abstract things that I partially got from de Kooning, and when I made the Walking Woman one, I realized that what I had made was a stencil, that it was repeatable, and maybe it would be interesting to make others. Then I started to think of the surface as something on which anything could go–it could be figurative or it could be a single colour–and I quickly realized that the background could be anything other than an art gallery wall. That led to my first photographic work, Four to Five.
Was this was a natural progression of ideas? Were you consciously codifying ideas?
It didn’t start out with a chosen direction at all. I had made four or five cut-out figures. They were just the figure. The background was the real wall. The one that became the Walking Woman was one of those. I decided to repeat it but to always use the original one as the source, so that there wouldn’t be any variation on the contours. My rule would be that I would stick with this contour.
In some of the earlier drawings, she’s a much more complicated figure. There’s much more detail than what you ultimately ended up with.
Everything I did started from this one constant, the original cut-out, but there is one work that is perhaps what you’re thinking of. It’s called Forty Drawings, 1961, and was an attempt to draw the cut-out figure I’d put on the wall, but when you draw just an outline, it’s very easy to lose proportion. So this was an attempt to draw the figure correctly and they were all wrong. Sometimes mistakes are edifying.
Was taking her out into the street a fairly radical thing to do at the time?
I think it was. It might have been influenced by Happenings but when I did Four to Five, 1962-64, I wanted to make a photographic work, and even that category didn’t exist at the time. It so happens that the current history of artists’ work with photography, apart from Man Ray, starts with Ed Ruscha and his books, which happened at exactly the same time as I did Four to Five. I didn’t know anything about his books until a couple of years later. Initially, I became interested in making this one work, which was going to be black and white and was going to record this black silhouette figure I had designed in different locations in the city. But I didn’t want to provoke exchanges with people on the street. It was just to put the figure in three-dimensional space in order to make these two-dimensional images of the situation. But another thing started to develop: it became interesting to see what happened when different materials represented essentially the same thing. My work had a lot of variety in that period from 1961 to 1967, even though it used the same contour. I made films. New York Eye and Ear Control and the film installation, Little Walk, were both done in 1964. I also used every kind of medium as far as the paints go–I used spray enamels, oil, acrylics and watercolour. I went through mediums.
The Walking Woman became this armature on which you could hang your entire art practice. You even did pillows with your variation on the naked and the clothed Maja.
Yes. Those were hand-done embroideries and they were very nice. Unfortunately, they got lost and have since disappeared.
You also got pretty down and dirty with her?
Doesn’t that stand to reason?
She also appears in Wavelength, 1967, doesn’t she?
Yes, I was thinking about that as her bowing out.
Why was Strawberry Fields the song used in Wavelength?
When I shot the film, I knew that as far as the sound and the images went, I had to accept what the traffic was going to do. So when these two women go in and one of them turns on the radio, I felt that I had to accept whatever sound came through in the same way that I accepted the sound from the street. But what came out was Little Drummer Boy by Joan Baez, which I really hated. I just couldn’t see that it had any place in the film. If she had turned on the radio and it was scrambled news, I would have used it because it was coming in from outside, but then I was faced with having to make a choice. “Strawberry Fields” had just come out and seemed appropriate. Incidentally, John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw Wavelength many times and liked it.
Did you have a sense of how radical were the films you were making at the time? It sounds like audience members did: some of the reactions make them seem like a modern version of Rite of Spring.
The first time New York Eye and Ear Control was shown, which would have been 1964, the year it was made, it was on a program with a work-in-progress by Warhol. Some of his entourage were in it. They showed his film first and then Eye and Ear Control and the entourage hated it. They booed and hissed and threw things at the screen. It was really quite unpleasant. But I was in the projection booth when the film ended and I saw Warhol and Gerry Malanga jump up and run to the projection booth. They were ecstatic and said, “That was fantastic, who the hell are you?” So those two guys were enthusiastic but they were surrounded by all these assholes.
Did you think of your films as being unusual?
I was hoping I was doing something unusual in the sense that I wanted to make a contribution. I certainly didn’t hope for riots, but I got them sometimes. The funniest one was connected to Back and Forth, 1968-69, which is basically built on back-and-forth panning. It was showing in the auditorium at the Museum of Modern Art and about 10 minutes into it a guy jumped up and said, “This is basically a piece of shit, I want this stopped,” and another guy said, “Shut up, we want to watch this.” They were facing each other and they started to fight. There were 20 or so people in the audience, all of whom got up and left once they started fighting. The thing was that they were swinging at each other back and forth in front of the screen, so that the shadow of the fight was cast onto the screen. It was amazing. Joyce arrived late and when she came down the stairs, all these people were putting on their coats and rushing out.
Working in these three art forms must have been pretty heady in lots of ways.
When I showed Wavelength, there was a huge change. I finished making the film and I wanted to show it to a few friends. I asked Jonas if one of the theatres he was using was available for a closed party to show my new film and it turned out the 41st Street Theatre was. I invited certain people whom I respected, Ken and Flo Jacobs, Shirley Clarke, George Kuchar, Richard Foreman, Amy Taubin and a couple of other people. I showed it and everybody was knocked out. Jonas said, “There’s a festival coming up in Belgium and I think you should send the film.” I hadn’t made a mixed soundtrack with the electronic sine–I had that on a separate quarter-inch tape–because I thought that whenever it was shown I’d be there and I could control the quality of the sinewave. It turned out that it did all kinds of interesting acoustic things. Jonas and I talked about whether anybody would even do it in Belgium if I sent it in that form. We both agreed that it would be better if we had a mixed optical track. I was really poor at the time and I said, “I don’t know if I can afford that,” and Jonas said, “I’ll pay for it,” and he was probably poorer than I was. So I got the transfer made and a new mix and sent the film and it won the $5000 first prize. But from the start I didn’t feel negative about its prospects, I just didn’t know that anyone else in the world would be interested in such a thing, I thought there would only be interest in New York. I figured I would show it a couple of times; after that it might get a public showing or two, and that would be the end of it.
Did winning the prize change your attitude towards film?
It didn’t change my attitude towards film. I had ideas about films I wanted to do after Wavelength anyway. So I started to work on Standard Time, 1967, which was done in 1968. It turned out there were enough people in Europe who were interested in what I was doing that I got invited to show Eye and Ear Control and Wavelength in England and a couple of other places, including Norway and Denmark. So it certainly opened up a lot of things. My films were pretty influential in England for a while, especially Wavelength, Back and Forth and La Région Centrale, 1971.
I want to talk about La Région Centrale and its search for absolute aloneness. This may be my bias, but it strikes me that there is something Canadian about the way it uses space as an arena for contemplation. When you talked about wanting to make a film that was the equivalent of the grand landscape painting tradition, you include among them the Group of Seven. Did you think of the film as emanating from a sensibility that was inescapably Canadian?
I did think there was a landscape tradition and that it would be interesting to consider what I might do in a film as part of it. But equally important is that it’s a camera motion picture–it’s about moving the camera in a totally open three-dimensional space that turns out to be a landscape. In the course of it, your vision is directed by speed and directions in a way that I don’t think any other film has ever done and that, of course, relates to reading the landscape as three-dimensional and having a top and bottom. But cameras, which are usually stand-ins for the human eye, can turn any way at all. With Eye and Ear Control, I realized that the relationship between sound/image situations had hardly been touched. Basically in fiction film, anyway, everything was sync sound, which supports the realism of the image. So there was lots more to do. That’s one line in my work, which I think culminated in Rameau’s Nephew, 1974, a four-and-a-half-hour-long film, which is the best sound film ever made.
Were you interested in perception and in how the world actually is? I think you’ve been described as a cinematic philosopher.
It’s not so much investigating the world as using different kinds of representational situations to make something that doesn’t actually exist in the world. It’s adding to the world, more than commenting on it.
What kept you going with the films?
Well, they’re so good.
What I meant was, did each film generate the idea for the next film?
Slightly. Wavelength uses a zoom, which is not a humanly possible visual thing. It’s a function of lenses, so it has a certain sense of artificiality; it’s an experience that can be had only by a zoom lens. A camera can also truck, and I have made a trucking film called Seated Figures, 1988, that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. And Breakfast (Table Top Dolly), 1976, is a trucking film. But Standard Time was a sketch trying to see what would happen with circular pans in a closed space, mostly, and that led to Back and Forth, which is built on back and forth and up and down. All these films were in rooms, in measurable spaces. Then I started to think about trying to work in a bigger space and in other kinds of spaces, which led to La Région Centrale. Somewhere in there is One Second in Montreal, 1969, which is a film only about duration. There’s no motion in it at all. In general, I’ve been working on camera motion and sound-image relations. One of my favourites of my films, Presents, 1981, is in three main sections, the first five minutes that concern the stretching and squeezing (electronically) of the image; then a longer section that seems at first to be shot by a trucking camera, but, in fact, the camera was stationary and the set, an apartment interior, was moved. This is followed by a 60-minute section that is all short, hand-held pans. A recent film called SSHTOORRTY, 2005, is transparency, super-imposition, and *Corpus Callosum, finished in 2002, is a digital shape-changing film that came out of the first part of Presents.
You have said that what you do is set the rules for a game and then see what you can do playing inside those rules.
I wrote that a very long time ago in the ’50s and it’s often been quoted back to me. I suppose I do that. It’s: I make up the rules of a game and I play it. If I seem to be losing, I change the rules.
It remarks on a few things: intelligence, the game and humour. Do you think of your work as having a sense of humour?
People tell me that some of it is funny. Mostly I don’t think of it that way but there seems to sometimes be a by-product that is amusing for some people. There are things in So Is This that are funny, but, in that case, that was what I intended. It’s for a group of people in a cinema theatre who are reading together. That/Cela/Dat, 2000, an installation DVD work, involves similar humour.
Why did you come back to Toronto in 1971? Had New York given you what you needed by that time?
It was a mixture of things. Joyce hadn’t really wanted to go initially, and when she was there, she did some very interesting work but she never showed it to anyone. She was really afraid. She also got interested in Trudeau when he first ran and we had been coming back and forth quite frequently. I had had shows every year at the Isaacs and so we weren’t totally away, by any means. But our coming back was slightly patriotic in that because of Trudeau we started to look at the country. Those were also the Vietnam years and the Kennedy assassination and we got very involved in those things; we marched in anti-Vietnam demonstrations and we started to think that while this was important, it wasn’t our country and maybe we should be doing something in our country.
What were you doing with music all this time?
At first I stopped, but a couple of things happened. After Wavelength had shown publicly in New York, I got a letter from a man saying how much he liked it and that he had written this text and he wanted me to have it and wondered if we could meet. It turned out it was Steve Reich and we became very close friends. Oddly enough, I shot Wavelength at 300 Canal, which was only a block away from his studio. I didn’t know anything about him but after we met, I used to drop in and listen to rehearsals.
So you were more a listener than a participant?
I was a listener in other respects. New York Eye and Ear Control has this classic free jazz group I chose, playing some of the most powerful music ever played. I had started struggling with trying to find different ways of improvising in Toronto before I left. In addition to the Dixieland band I played with, I had had different bands of my own. Don Owen’s film, called Toronto Jazz, includes a group I played with. We played what we called modern–Thelonious Monk, Charley Parker, Miles Davis themes.
So the music never really went away?
The Free Jazz Movement was very underground and generally looked down upon by jazz people, so there was almost no work for these guys. When I was working with Mike White, he got the idea to invite various American stars to play with us every once in a while. So I worked with some of the greatest original jazz musicians ever, like Cootie William and Rex Stewart, who were both with Ellington, Vic Dickinson, Dickie Wells, two of the most extraordinary trombone players, and Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer. He liked my playing and I did a couple of other jobs with him. In New York in ‘62 I met Roswell Rudd, who was doing the most interesting things with the trombone, he was playing free but he brought back the truly trombonistic things that guys like Vic Dickinson were doing–growls and slurs and that kind of stuff. At that time, the dominant stylist was JJ Johnson, who was a wonderful musician, but he was a very neat player and none of that ragged stuff was left. Anyway, it turned out that a few years before, Roswell had played with some of the same guys I had played with. His foundation was early jazz–so-called Dixieland, New Orleans, swing–and we became pretty good friends. One day he said, “Do you want a piano? I need the money and I’ll sell it to you for $100.” So I bought it. When we first moved to New York we had found a place on the south end of Greenwich Street, exactly where the World Trade Center was, and we got one loft over another for $30 per month. There was no heat, of course, but one was Joyce’s studio and our home, and the other one was my studio. So I put the piano in there, announced I had a place to play, and over the next year or so some amazing people played there, like Paul Bley and Archie Shepp and a group called the Jazz Composers Orchestra, which started in my loft. I didn’t play with any of these people, I didn’t really know what was going on, so I was just listening and learning. That accounts for a certain amount of the time. I had learned a fair bit, by osmosis, which I started to apply. Of course, another participant in all this was the Artists’ Jazz Band, (AJB) which started here in Toronto in the ’60s. I’d join them when I came back on visits to Toronto. Basically, they were sessions at Gordon Raynor’s, with Bob Markle, Graham Coughtry and a few other people, where everybody got totally zonked on everything that was possible. At first, I was snooty about the music because I was a professional musician and they couldn’t play tunes and they just got plastered and played. I couldn’t take it very seriously, but then I really started listening and it was miraculous, I mean, how can this be, it’s so fantastic. They were totally free, so that when they played tunes, it was funny. They’d occasionally try Mood Indigo and it would be wild. Another tune came around Christmastime, which was Joy to the World, and it was fabulously bad. It’s just a scale that nobody could play, but then getting it wrong was much better than getting it right.
You have talked about consciously wanting to flirt with chaos in the music you do.
That was with the CCMC, where there was more of an intellectual approach to improvisation. The Artists’ Jazz Band didn’t have to seek after chaos, it was already there, having arrived about three in the morning.
Did that quest for chaos carry through into your other work?
No, it was really about music. It’s more of a question: What could chaos be? The other thing I should say about the AJB is that certain professional musicians I had played with, like Larry Dubin, who could play modern jazz, were really knocked out with the band. They played with them too.
Was it just a helluva lot of fun?
Yes, but it was really amazing music too. Listen to the recordings. The Isaacs Gallery put out a double album, and I did the next one with the Music Gallery, which had a record company, for which I made the selection of the AJB stuff.
Had you priorized any of these activities you were involved in, or did they congenially feed different parts of your head?
I wanted to pursue the improvisation thing, which I had been involved with since high school. When I moved back to Toronto, Larry Dubin, a great drummer whom I’d played with in the Mike White band, had met these other guys and some sessions developed that included Nobuo Kubota, who had been in the AJB. It was a very mixed group, but they were totally into free improvisation and they wanted to keep the whole thing going and wondered whether there was a way for us to play professionally. Al Mattes, who was a genius at organizing things, worked out some applications for grants and so we, now named the CCMC, started the Music Gallery, which was for us and for any kind of experimental music that didn’t have a home at the time. It turned out to be really fabulous and wonderful things happened there. For the first few months, we played twice a week, every Tuesday and Friday. I still can’t believe how I did that because I was working during the day, doing my other stuff. The thing about the CCMC was the mixture of backgrounds–mine was jazz, Nobuo’s was the Artist’s Jazz Band, whereas Casey Sokol was classical music (he could play and read anything). We always had two grand pianos and we’d always have two Fender Rhodes and some of the other guys could play keyboard, so you’d have four pianos. Peter Anson was a synthesizer expert and that was completely new to me, and we also made and had made a lot of percussion instruments so that we could play pieces that were all percussion.
Isn’t the synthesizer an instrument that you have played?
I’m still playing an instrument I got in 1976, an analogue synthesizer called a Cat, which I just played in New York last week. A couple of years ago, a man named Alan Licht got in touch with me from New York. It turned out he was an improvising guitarist, so we ended up playing a couple of concerts together, two recently in Chicago. Incidentally, he has written a book on sound art, which Rizzoli is publishing. Anyway, he started playing with a Japanese guy named Aki Onda and then they both got interested in having me play with them. So we did a concert in New York at a place called Tonic. What Aki has been doing is to record with a cassette recorder any sound that he finds of interest anywhere, so he has a collection of these things that could be anything. He modifies them, he can play one against the other; he can speed them up or slow them down in performance. He improvises with this personal palette and sometimes they become totally abstract: you wouldn’t know that what you’re hearing is the sound of a crowd in a restaurant.
Are the sounds sometimes recognizable?
A little bit, which is one reason why I’ve been playing radio with them. I started using radio for the first time on the soundtrack for Standard Time, and I’ve since used it quite a bit. So we played and they were knocked out and wanted to keep going with it, which is fine by me, except that everything has to be juggled. So we’ve played at the Goethe Institute in Toronto, in New York at Roulette, and then, in the meantime, we are invited to play in Victoriaville, a small town in Quebec that has one of the best New Music festivals in the world. But the last concert was really superb and it worries me because I’m running out of time to do things, since I’m also playing with the CCMC.
Your reputation followed you to Canada from other places, didn’t it? Europe always seemed more appreciative of what you were doing than North America has been.
I had a big, one-man show at the Centre Pompidou in 1979, then another smaller solo show there three years ago. I’ve been in many very interesting group shows in Paris and elsewhere and many one-man shows. The major one was the retrospective of my photo-works, organized by the Palais des Beaux Arts in Bruxelles, which toured in Europe. The best writing about my work has been by Europeans. Two good articles by Jean Arnaud and Erik Bullot were published in English in October magazine in the Fall 2005 issue. Since the retrospectives at the AGO and the Power Plant in 1994, most of my activities have been in Europe. Perhaps these big retros and my antiquity here have made some Canadians think I’ve been thought about!
I suppose the work that has received the most attention is Flight Stop, 1979, and Audience, 1989, your two forays into public sculpture. Was there as much controversy attached to Flight Stop as there was to Audience, which seemed to receive a mixed reaction, especially in the art world?
Absolutely. It’s hard to predict how people will react but I was really surprised at how amateurishly Audience was looked at. People thought they could look down the street and get its number. But it’s sculpture, you have to walk underneath it and look at it sideways. I found that people think it’s a picture of a bunch of fans acting up and they don’t really go any further. There’s a lot more to it than that. The art world’s response was quite disappointing. I think the piece was seen as a sell-out, since it had to do with sport, which is really pretty ridiculous and a measure of how anti-sports the art world can be. But Flight Stop has been very well received and so has my newest public work, The Windows Suite, 2006, which is a permanent video installation in seven windows on the façade of a new building near Massey Hall. It’s on every night from six to three a.m.
You describe The Audience as the Laocoon of the People and you acknowledge Robert Crumb as someone you had been looking at.
I don’t know what the style of it is. It’s not realism. Each figure has slightly different formal characteristics, although they all belong to the same family. But it’s not an imitation of some particular style of sculpture, although I was thinking a bit about Bernini. Each of these public things came out of a consideration of where they are and what can be done in that particular place. And I do admire Robert Crumb.
I sense in your work much of the time a search for a relationship between the classical and the expressive, the improvised and the natural. It’s not a rigid dialectic but it seems to be a frame in which you operate.
I know that formally my work does have these extremes because I have been interested in total, spontaneous composition, but I don’t do that except with music. There is a bit of an intersection in one of my most recent pieces. I did it about three months ago, a 55-minute-long DVD called Reverberlin, 2006, in which the sound is an unmodified concert that the CCMC played in Berlin at Kunstwerke in 2002. It may not be the best we’ve ever played, but for various reasons I thought this would be a good way to use the CCMC’s music, which I’ve never used before. I’ve never really used my solo music, either, because, in a way, all the soundtracks for my films are sound constructs that in themselves are a kind of music. But, at any rate, I had been thinking for years whether there was some way that I could do something to include the CCMC. No images were shot of the Berlin concert. But over the last three years, I and several other people have shot other concerts of the same group, so I have this bank of things, which I used to compose the images with all the wonderful things you can do with Final Cut Pro. You can reverse things and change speed. While it respects who’s playing, there was no attempt at a sync of hands on a keyboard or anything like that. So you have a parallel of music that you’re not hearing with music that you are hearing. I showed it publicly in Chicago three weeks ago at the School of the Art Institute. In a way, it’s a kind of an unpopular music video.
You seem more able to take risks in music that you are in any of the other art forms in which you work. You seem freer there.
Freer, yes, although I don’t know about running more risks. I think there is a kind of purity to improvised music. Played music is always of the moment. It may be somebody playing Chopin, but you have a seat here and the pianist feels this way and this particular piano sounds that way and it’s an occasion. One of the things about free improvisation is that it’s a radical rediscovery–one of the most radical in the arts in the last 100 years, as far as I’m concerned. Because free improvisation disappeared. Many musics have improvisation, like Indian music, but they’re not totally free, they’re all thematic in one way or another. Maybe since the neolithic, totally free, spontaneous playing hasn’t existed. It was rediscovered. When you play on a particular occasion on a particular instrument, you are playing the music of that time and of that place for that time and place, for those people who happen to be there, and for yourself. So, in a weird way, it’s purer than playing composed music because you play out of and for the situation you’re in.
Why bother recording, then? It seems to sully the purity of the recording.
The recording becomes an artefact, that’s for sure. And there are arguments about whether it should be done. But we record everything.
I’m interested to hear you say that the piece you recorded in Berlin wasn’t the best you’ve ever done. How do you know? What is the frame of judgement?
The Berlin concert is very good but one of the reasons why I used it was its construction. We started with solos, which are each about eight minutes long, Paul Dutton first, who does these amazing vocal improvisations, then John Oswald, who plays solo saxophone, and then me on solo piano and then ensembles. It set up a very clear identity for the individual players and everybody used the little bit of echo there was in the space, quite beautifully. I used the echo as superimposition in the images.
But how do you decide whether that performance would be the best one? What would be the criteria for making that judgement?
The one that has the most moving new inventions. Everybody plays new stuff, every time. It’s all about interchange and how everything affects everything else. Every social gesture can be part of playing. You can interrupt if you don’t like the way it’s going, you can try to drown them out. People think that it’s a nice-guy, supportive thing but it isn’t necessarily. It isn’t that it gets hostile as much as that someone who wants to change direction can attempt to do so.
Does it obliterate the line between art and life when that happens? Does it make them the same?
An important part of it is that you’re living the music. And you’re living in a way that’s very purely trying to recognize what is happening in the present, in order to modify it in the future. Usually, there’s not enough time to think. It’s all reaction and reaction. But it is as present as almost anything can be.
Do you miss the fact that you can’t achieve that in visual art and sculpture?
Well, they’re all different mediums that have different beauties to them: film and video are recording devices and they allow you to do things that are spontaneous but those effects are fixed. The thing that is good about composition is that you can change things, and so any form of composition has to be susceptible to re-examination. You find out that didn’t work, so you do it again. But the excitement of improvised music is another matter.
You have said that the best photography could never equal the best painting. It’s as if you have a hierarchy of some kind in your head.
I said that, did I? Well, in order to rectify that, I’ve been trying to work with the object status of photography, which I don’t think anyone else has, recognizing that whatever format is used, it should be part of the work. There are a lot of different things you can do. On the wall beside us as we speak is D’abord Alcibiade et puis … , 1996, which is printed on canvas. I’ve worked with slides, for example, Sink, 1970, and back-lit transparencies. Powers of Two, 2004, which is two years old, is a huge, 8-by-16-foot transparency that’s not a light-box but just the transparency itself, like a great big slide. It’s suspended and two-sided. Going from one side to the other, you experience that physically the image is almost non-existent. It’s this thin thing, two dimensions that represent three. You see through the work, you see the place it’s in, while the photo represents another place–and you see the other spectators. One can be involved in the abstraction that photography is but also its realism.
You seem to accept certain rules about photography–from the question of scale to a frame within which you can operate.
Well, I think the size is part of the work, like the one called Multiplication Table, 1977. Others, like Door, 1979, are measurable, so that your apprehension of them has the norm in mind, that such and such a thing should be a certain size. I think every photographic work I’ve done has included some sense of why the photo is the size it is. In Medias Res, 1998, which has never been shown in North America–it belongs to the Centre Pompidou–and it’s a photograph, taken from above, of some people who are standing on a Persian carpet. It’s shown on the floor and it’s exactly the same size as the subject rug, three metres by four metres. The focus is on the pattern of the rug and the focus goes out as the image goes up. So there’s a legibility of recreating space but it’s not in a window; you really go through the experience that everything there is as flat as the rug, but our perception “reads” the depicted space and event.
When you choose a medium to make a piece, is the choice of one over another made because the idea fits? In talking about your work, you say that one of the determining factors is that nobody else has done it.
I enjoy discovery. I just try to keep on finding something. All artists do things for themselves first; you have to test it on yourself. I’ve been trying to make art using photography that doesn’t necessarily relate to the fine photography tradition of Steiglitz, Weston and Cartier-Bresson, which I’ve never really been interested in. I’m trying to use the camera as a tool of some kind, and one of the things you can do to make art with the camera is assemble, or make what it is you’re going to photograph. So Still Living, (9 x 4 Acts) Scene 1 is a series of still life variations from 1982 where I put all the objects to be photographed together. It has a lot of range and it’s not just imitative of existing traditions of still life. All the 36 constructed images are on the same background and floor. Immediate Delivery, 1998, is a light box photo of a construction that was made to be photographed.
You say at one point that what you are trying to do is create a sensuous philosophy, both for yourself and for the viewer. I find that a very compelling aspiration.
Yes. I like the description but I don’t know whether I’ve done it or not.