A Starting Point (or Two) [in conversation with Steve Roden]

August 2010

Steve Roden: when words become forms
Pomona, CA: Pomona College Museum of Art

I interviewed Steve Roden twice as he embarked on creating Bowrain—a sculptural installation incorporating video and sound that is his largest work to date. While his working process might seem mysterious or idiosyncratic, in our conversation Steve was typically modest, open‐minded, and just as curious about the work’s development as a perceptive viewer might be. What follows are excerpts from our conversations.

~JUNE 8, 2010~


Steve Roden: The initial idea for this piece was to try to use the chapter about “white” in Moby Dick as a score towards generating a sculpture reflective of the scale of a whale skeleton that I saw hanging from the ceiling of the Natural History Museum in Bergen, Norway. I was also interested in relating those two sources to a small drawing by Buckminster Fuller. In the end, the Moby Dick text turned out to not feel right, and the skeleton felt too pre-determined. So I was standing in a room holding one piece of paper, the Fuller drawing, wondering what it could generate. Instead of allowing a number of different things generate one work, I am using one thing to generate at least four things: sculpture, drawing, film/video, and sound. The process is like tying disparate things together with string—connecting histories, objects, people, or places that normally wouldn’t be connected.

The system or score I’m using is still a bit complex, but there’s no real transformation of something from one medium to another, which is something I also usually do. Here, I’m using an interpretation of a drawing and a list to build something spatial—which is essentially what Fuller made the original drawing for in the first place. It feels simpler by not having that conceptual disconnect. It is simpler.

MNH: Text is often a starting point for you, and you use it as a score to produce a work, whether a painting or a sound installation. But in this case the act of translation is much closer in some sense, because you’re going from Buckminster Fuller’s kit of parts to your own kit of parts.[1]

SR: Yes, it’s like the story of Rumpelstiltskin, but rather than taking straw and spinning it into gold, I’m taking straw and spinning it into straw. That makes it quite a simple place to start. I am generally not too interested in thinking through everything before starting the actual process of making a work. The Fuller drawing is an ignition switch. I’m interested in how it can influence the learning and conceptualizing that will emerge through the making of this work.

MNH: As opposed to Sol LeWitt’s definition of conceptual art, where the “idea becomes the machine that makes the art” and “all decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair,” my sense of Bowrain is that it’s not a perfunctory affair—which is true of most of your work. There’s a system, but the outcome is not necessarily governed by it in a transparent way. If a painting is a translation of a text, one couldn’t necessarily go up to that painting and retranslate it back into that text.

To what extent do you think it’s important that viewers know what the system is, or that they participate in it?

SR: It’s a difficult question, but my answer is very simple: the viewer should not need to know the system at all. The work is not about decoding. It’s more about privately acknowledging a history than situating myself. I don’t want to use the overbearing weight of the source to give my own work weight. Even with using the Fuller drawing, I don’t want to put Fuller out there as the main focal point. If people have to go through Fuller to get to me, then I’m exploiting the cultural value of Fuller, and my work doesn’t have to perform on its own as a visual, audio, or time-based experience. That’s a dead end for me.

I want the pieces to be able to perform on their own. In a way, the process of making meaning for the viewer is connected to the process of me making the thing, because I’m building meaning for myself during the process of making it.

If the notion of translation is present on the surface, I think it suggests a one-dimensional way of dealing with the object. I think people should be able to have their own experience with the thing they’re confronted with through inspecting and listening. I’m not leading them through it; I’m not handing them a roadmap towards a clear destination. This is very different from most of our experiences with culture at this point; often we’re handed something, and we know what we’re supposed to do with it, or we’re watching something and we know when we’re supposed to laugh and why.

MNH: Whether or not one thinks about Fuller when looking at Bowrain, I do think there is a curious relationship between what you’re doing in the gallery and Fuller’s own kit of parts. I think it’s important to remember that he was an engineer first and foremost, and you’re not. Yet for all of his interest in efficiency, which is one of the things that engineers tend to be most interested in, the kinds of spaces that Fuller’s architecture produced were very unusual. For example, there wasn’t a lot of furniture available that readily fit into a geodesic dome. So in some ways Fuller’s logic produced very illogical results.

Even if you’re winging it as you build your sculpture, you’re generating a structure that eventually produces its own logic. You might close down a space by putting too many parts into it, which then prevents you from using a ladder in that space to build higher. That structures your decision-making. I think there’s a funny, inverse relationship with Fuller in that way.

SR: I think you could probably look at the funkiness of what I’m making as being contradictory in a lot of ways. But I’m not interested in an antagonistic relationship to Fuller’s work at all. I tend to do these things with the hope of a conversation with the source. Because he was an engineer, I think fabrication was the least important part. The conceptual thinking and the plan of the finished design were the main things.

For me, it’s really the opposite. I’m much more interested in wandering within the process of building or drawing. The most important aspect is the time spent making it. Because I have no drawing of the end result in advance, all of my knowledge comes from the “during” part, rather than the “before” part. I will obviously be surprised at the “after” part.

MNH: It seems important that the Fuller schematic that you’re responding to is a kit of parts, rather than a finished work of architecture.

SR: I think that was the most exciting aspect of the drawing. The photo of it in the book [where I found it] doesn’t have a caption. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s an instruction list for constructing something. It seems so fitting as a starting point.

MNH: It’s pure potential.

SR: Yeah. I’ve always been interested in working with something that seems limited. What else can I mine from this information? What else is this telling me to do that it didn’t intend to tell me to do?

MNH: Obviously, it’s very different than if you would have continued to work from Melville.

SR: The thing that sent me to Melville was seeing the whale skeleton; the scale and form of it was really interesting. But when I went back to the Melville text I didn’t see these two things coming together. Moby Dick is a beautiful text, but the “white” chapter is so charged that it would be disrespectful to ignore that aspect. So, it didn’t feel right. Later, I pulled out the Fuller drawing as a way to generate the whale skeleton. But by the time we started building Bowrain, the whale skeleton had left my mind as well.

MNH: This piece started with the question of scale—in part because you were given a specific exhibition space.

SR: Rebecca McGrew initially asked me about rebuilding when stars become words (2007), the pieces that I did in Porto Alegre.[2] That work came about because Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, the curator for the show in Brazil, had asked me to recreate ear(th) (2004), a piece I did at Art Center.[3] I figure I’m not going to get a lot of opportunities to work at that scale, so each time I chose to do a new piece.

This is really the first big piece I’m building incrementally, so that it’s completely connected to the scale of the space. It’s quite different.

MNH: With Bowrain, as well as ear(th) and when stars become words, there’s an immediate relationship to the scale of the body—a mobile body.

SR: At the beginning of the previous two pieces, I was clear about what I wanted to get out of them as spaces. I wanted things you could walk inside of and hear sound, which would be perceived differently when you were outside of them. Bowrain is less an architecture than a fence, trellis, or lattice. It’s a space. It’s evocative of space, but it doesn’t really contain space in the same way that my earlier pieces did. It’s more a sculptural work than an architectural work, but it hovers between the two. Obviously a lot of architecture in the past 100 years has done that.

MNH: Buckminster Fuller included.

SR: Of course.

MNH: When I first encountered your work nearly a decade ago, it seemed so small, tentative, and unassertive in a certain way. What’s exciting for me about seeing this big installation is that the scale is assertive and commanding.

SR: When I got out of grad school in 1989 the prevalent painting was mostly large scale. A lot of paintings were macho, full of bravura, like Julian Schnabel and his broken plate paintings. I’ve never felt that ambition equals scale. Early on, I responded to work by people like Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder, or Richard Tuttle and the inkblot drawings of Bruce Conner. Everything I was responding to was contained, intimate, and quiet. It spoke in a humble voice. That’s where I wanted to be.

My practice was just painting then, and I was making paintings that were mostly twelve inches square or smaller. After ten years of small paintings, I felt that changing scale would push me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t want to be known as “the guy who makes small paintings.” There’s something exciting about what happens when the work grows in scale, yet still maintains that quiet voice. A lot of people would probably think I’m kind of nuts to think a painting with eighty colors is quiet, but that intimacy is something that I try to maintain even when the work grows.

Scale shifts are great because they throw me off. It’s ironic that Bowrain is the largest piece I’ve ever made and the paintings that will accompany it in the adjacent gallery are the smallest paintings I’ve made in about twenty years. They’re kicking my butt way more than the sculpture is.

MNH: You seem most comfortable when you’re out of your comfort zone.

SR: I think struggle is a really important part of the thought process for me. The ability to fail is super important—not only knowing that it’s okay to fail but the notion that failure is a real possibility. I have a hard time with risk when talking about making work in a studio because actual risk is when you’re walking around naked in public and you get hit by a bus! The studio is a relatively safe place.

But I like not having a sense of how to resolve something. It’s hard to work yourself into this situation, but I think it’s important because it allows for things to resolve less consistently. You pull the rug out from under yourself so you’re not always finishing works the same way. The sense of balance isn’t always the same.

MNH: This is kind of a cliché, but I think it’s true that almost anything good comes out of a struggle. In art the struggle is not always legible—or even an intrinsic part of the work. I think a lot of artists want to cover their tracks, and I can’t blame them. I try to do the same when I wrestle with a piece of writing. But I do think you somehow maintain that struggle as a significant aspect of the work.

SR: Honesty is a really important part of making work for me. If you make mistakes, or bad decisions, or whatever you want to call them, they should participate rather than getting covered up. When I was a little kid I drove my mom crazy because I’d never erase stuff; I just scribbled it out. It’s a perfect model for what I’m still doing. Why would I erase it? It was part of the process. It’s important to acknowledge those moments as well.

I don’t know the end at the beginning. I generally don’t even know what I want. There are times when I make things I’m really pleased with because they don’t conform to my taste or to the thing I thought I wanted to make. If the work is honest, then it’s not about technique or ability. It’s about what gets learned through the process of making, which is such a basic thing but it’s at the core of my practice.

 ~JUNE 22, 2010~

MNH: When I was here two weeks ago, you mentioned that the process of building Bowrain called to mind several childhood memories, including you and a friend creating “make-up” models by combining parts from various kits, and an episode of Gumby featuring the Groobee—a bee that inexplicably built wooden cages around animals.[4] Can you talk about what’s happened in the past two weeks?

SR: Yes. The wood structure was half done the last time you were there. It felt fairly skeletal at that point. The scale felt right for the space, but the structure started to seem almost prop-like. It didn’t have enough physical presence. I wanted a kind of unresolved feeling. You can’t walk around the entire thing, like a sculpture. There are places that are inaccessible. And for it to really be architecture, you have to crawl inside some areas so you can be contained by it, because it’s quite open.

We decided to cluster the wood in certain areas, and leave certain areas more frame-like. I am still deciding how the colored string can weave sections of the structure together, and how the video will project through it.

MNH: When we spoke earlier, you noted that the form of the wooden structure had started to remind you of the Philips Pavilion (1958), designed by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenaxis.[5] That’s a funny reference to combine with Gumby—and obviously you’re miles away from Moby Dick!

SR: On one hand, the form of the wood structure is indicative of just using sticks and making triangles, but on the other hand the Philips Pavilion is such a clear precedent for what I’m doing.

MNH: My sense of the Philips Pavilion, which no longer exists, is of a hierarchy of architecture over sound and image. I can see certain formal relationships to the Philips Pavilion, but you’re bringing together those three elements—architectonics, sound, projected image—without that hierarchy.

SR: When I first started to work with sound, there was no physical presence at all. I mean, there were speakers and gear, but there was no sculptural presence. My first film works were silent, and I was always leery of hierarchy. If I had sound next to a sculpture, the sound would have the tendency to become a soundtrack for the static object, you know?

This piece is the largest example of trying to integrate these three idioms in a way where they all have a presence. They’re not supporting each other; they’re conversing with each other. At times they’re pulling away from each other, as much as they’re integrating. They don’t express anything about each other, but they’re all birthed from the same sketch as the sculpture.

MNH: The elements seem like they’re going to change each other.

SR: They do change each other. Because we’re lighting the entire piece with video, and the light is always moving, it’s clearly changing the perception of space with the sculpture. And I think the sound is going to be somewhat slow, melancholic, and episodic. So the speeds of movement within the piece will be different. I think all of those elements will come into play equally. The structure appears to have the largest presence, though maybe the video will take up more square footage when all the projections are up. The sound will be the smallest, but it’ll also be very present.

MNH: With each of the large-scaled works that you’ve done, including the reworking of Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts (1959) at LACE in 2008, it seems like collaboration has been a fairly important aspect.[6] At first that seems like a contradiction, because your working process is seemingly so idiosyncratic. But from my experience working with you, you’re a very thoughtful and enabling collaborator. So, what does collaboration enable in your own practice?

SR: To bring something into my practice, I always need to have a reason. When I got out of grad school, I only painted. I didn’t work on drawings until I found some justification for making them, which was a question of what they offered me that painting didn’t. Slowly, I added sound, then sculpture, then film, and then writing to my practice. Collaboration is the same.

MNH: Are you differentiating between collaboration and working with fabricators?

SR: In my studio, I have no interest in collaboration. I’ve never had an assistant. If I’m going to collaborate, I don’t want to just bring someone in as a technical person to help realize my vision. It’s clear from this project that I don’t necessarily have a vision at the beginning. You know, I set up a situation.

With the ear(th) piece I did at Art Center, I physically couldn’t make the thing. I designed it with help from Julian Goldwhite and John O’Brien, and the entire project was initiated and guided by Stephen Nowlin. If I had made that thing by myself, it would’ve fallen apart immediately, and someone would’ve gotten hurt. Probably me. I was there while they were building, and I continually told them not to do things perfectly. I would have to say, “No, leave the bent nail. Don’t worry about that extra drill hole. Mistakes have to be part of this.” I was nervous that it would not feel like my work. But over time it did. They weren’t totally free to shift the thing, but they were making decisions and suggestions. When questions arose my answer generally would be, “If that’s the way you want to solve that, go ahead,” as opposed to, “No, I need this particular size finishing nail.”

When I did the piece in Brazil, I worked with the architect Rafael Silva, who helped translate my wonky cardboard model into into architectural plans using a CAD program. The guys that built it normally build sets for theater, so it had this great temporary feel to it. When I got there it was half done, and mostly through conversation I got them to weave a bit of imperfection into it, so it still felt human. Fabrication tends to be a question of hiring the people with the best skills, and they make the thing that you can’t make. But that’s not collaboration. That’s a car mechanic or a great porcelain maker. Those two projects were tentative first steps towards collaboration.

MNH: It was fun to see you put in charge of reconstructing Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts, because from the outset it seemed like a great fit for your sensibilities, but also a real stretch in terms of the number of personalities involved.

SR: I was sort of the director by default. Reading Kaprow’s writings, it became clear that this was not a performance that should be based on one person’s vision. Honestly, I think there would have been no way for us to have pulled it off if we hadn’t completely given the thing over to everyone. After initial discussions with Carol [Stakenas, LACE director], I brought Rae [Shao-Lan Blum, choreographer] and you in, and the three of us constructed the main basis of the piece. Then we brought in Simone Forti, which was another level of collaboration, with someone who was part of that history, and then Flora [Wiegmann] and Steve [Irvin], who brought other experiences into the conversation. The piece evolved when all of us were together having rehearsals—not through repetition, but through our conversations. One thing Kaprow wrote about that I found so true was the idea that collaboration can have more value for the participants than for the audience.

MNH: You’ve mentioned that you think of Bowrain as a collaboration with Gary Murphy, the preparator at the Pomona College Museum of Art.

SR: Generally, I show up with my stuff, and the preparator helps me hang it. Gary and I went to look at lumber, and he said, “Well, if you want to use six different kinds of wood, I should mill it.” So when I arrived at the space to begin, he’d already done a lot more work than I had. I felt like he made me a cool toy and I was going to play with it, but I was very timid about screwing up the stuff he made. And initially, he was timid about injecting any direction toward how we put this thing together because I was the “artist.” So we just grabbed two pieces of wood and wired them together to get started. We talked a bit about whether to use stronger or softer wire, and then without much talking, we just started to mold this thing together.

Gary and I had an equal voice in the decisions. So, I think there’s no doubt that that structure is both of ours. If I had built this piece with someone else, it would have looked totally different. It’s an idea exchange, which is what I want.

MNH: You’ve empowered the facilitator.

SR: As you know from the Kaprow situation, I don’t like to tell people what to do. I want to be surrounded by people I trust and have us build something together. Even though there’s a level of scoring or notation, and gathering the materials can be cerebral, my process is still completely intuitive and very organic at its core. I’m not seeking a final form that’s predetermined, ever. So, when you’re doing that with someone else, there are even more variables, and greater potential to be surprised.

MNH: This leads us to the postcards project, which is a three-way collaboration with Frederick Hammersley and with me.[7]

SR: It’s funny, because the idea of a “posthumous” collaboration with Hammersley, or with postcards he left behind, is not inconsistent with my practice. I’ve made work related to other artists’ work many times. But I haven’t made work from images in over twenty years. We know Hammersley gathered these postcards when he was in Europe during WWII. But there’s no sense of them being sources for his paintings, or even things that inspired him in the studio. There’s no immediate sense of their importance in his life.

MNH: They’re very impersonal, or if they are personal it’s coded in a way that we probably can’t figure out.

SR: I view Hammersley—who was an abstract painter from Southern California—as an incredibly important precedent for my own abstract paintings. But I don’t look at these postcards with the burden of that history. I look at them and wonder, “How the hell am I going to make a painting using an image of a church?” So I’m collaborating with someone in a totally different way, allowing him to push me into new territory.

And, of course, I’m also collaborating with you, and in a way we’re making two works that may or may not be understood as one work. But as with Bowrain, both elements of our collaboration are birthed from the same source. I find that incredibly interesting.

MNH: Beyond our initial conversation about which postcards we wanted to work with, and our recent conversations about where my texts are heading and where your paintings are going, you and I haven’t really been aware of what the other is doing. So there is a strange sense of collaboration with blindfolds on.

SR: Picking the postcards together was enormously collaborative; we both responded to certain things instantly, but we are now negotiating them separately. Even though we’re not collaborating on the process of making work per se, the works will be integrated in the book. Because we’re working from the same source, it’s like we’ve been given the same map. We’re going to end up in different places, but maybe we’ll be able to see each other across the river.

MNH: I was really excited when I first saw the postcards because nothing was written on them, which opened the space for me to provide texts for them.[8] A postcard sent in the mail is entirely different than a postcard that’s left blank. That sense of potential was exciting—and somewhat daunting—from the outset.

SR: It’s like you’re finally sending these postcards. I found a kind of freedom in the fact that they don’t have fingerprints, or paint stains, or any other reference to what Hammersley might have used them for. If he was anything like I am, he gathered a lot of stuff that he was planning to use but never did. Maybe this is a way of finally utilizing these things that he never got around to. It’s wonderful to feel some connection to that.

1. The title Bowrain is an anagram of “rainbow.” Roden connects the idea of a rainbow’s spectrum to an untitled, undated illustration by Buckminster Fuller of a kit of six color-coded parts for an unspecified project. Fuller’s diagram in part determined the type and lengths of wood, the colors and lengths of string, the objects used to generate the sound, as well as its composition, and the drawings that resulted in the three film/video works in Bowrain.

2. When stars become words was commissioned for the 2007 Mercosul Biennial in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The sculptural and sound components were determined in part through various translation systems related to a list of fifty star names published by the Adler Planetarium in Chicago in the early 1940s, and to Arthur Rimbaud’s color-vowel equivalents.

3. Ear(th) was exhibited at the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, in 2004. Working with California Institute of Technology scientists Ann Polsenberg Thomas and Mark Simons, Roden used earthquake data to develop a score played by eighty robots attached to glockenspiels, with a large plywood structure acting as a resonating chamber.

4. The Groobee appeared in several episodes of Art Clokey’s Claymation classic Gumby.

5. The Philips Pavilion was designed by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis for the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. The form of the building, guided by project manager and composer Xenakis’s background in mathematics, comprised nine hyperbolic paraboloids. Edgard Varèse composed the experimental electronic piece Poème électronique specifically for the space, which was outfitted with several hundred speakers. Le Corbusier developed a film and light projection to accompany Varèse’s composition, and Xenakis composed a sound interlude, Concrèt PH. For more information, please see Marc Treib, Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgard Varèse (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996).

6. Allan Kaprow’s seminal 18 Happenings in Six Parts was originally performed six times at the Ruben Gallery, New York, in 1959. In 2008, Roden was commissioned to re-present the performance by Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) and the Kaprow Estate, in conjunction with the retrospective exhibition Allan Kaprow: Art as Life at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The re-presentation was performed at LACE on five consecutive evenings.

7. For more information, see “Packages/Passages” in this volume.

8. After the interview, one postcard (“Moorland Rovers”) was discovered to have a note written on it, signed “F.L.N.” It was not mailed.