Steve Roden is a visual and sound artist from Los Angeles. his work includes painting, drawing, sculpture, film/video, sound installation, and performance. This interview took place towards the end of Roden’s residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I have added the links as a contextual tool, but they are not necessary or essential to the interview. Before getting to the interview I want to share a beautiful song that Roden played during a talk he gave at the Marfa Book Co.
In the village of Kapkater, Kenya in the early 1950’s, members of the Kipsigi tribe came across a few 78 records of Jimmie Rodgers music. Convinced that the sounds could not have come from a human, the voice was attributed to a centaur-like spirit named the Chemirocha. This song is played on a pentonic wishbone lyre with vocals by some Kipsigis women. More versions of Chemirocha, can be found through the South African Music Archive Project.
You work in a variety of media, sound, painting, sculpture, artists’ books, how do you see these media as related or different, particularly in terms of practice?
When I first started exhibiting work, actually even before that, during graduate school, I only painted. I didn’t make drawings or works on paper, as I felt like drawings were essentially cheaper paintings to sell. Unless I could approach paper in a way that was different than the way that I could approach canvas or wood with paint, it just didn’t seem to me rigorous enough. It’s a ridiculous thing to think now. I think of an artist like Rodin, where the works he did on paper are more compelling to me in many ways than his sculpture. Some of my favorite works, period, are paper and also I have always responded to small, delicate somewhat insignificant feeling things, which tend to be things on paper. For whatever reason I felt like I could only really work on painting. It was just a form of discipline. At home, I would work with sound, but for a while I didn’t understand its relationship to my visual work. I felt like I was a painter who sometimes made music, even though I can’t play an instrument or read music and I was using stones and weird tape recorders. In a way the music was freer than painting because I didn’t go to school for music. I had no baggage, my heroes I could never touch so I never felt overwhelmed by them. With painting, the relationship to history through study and also through a lifetime of looking at things is overwhelming at times. I’m not concerned with originality but just to feel like you’re at least treading your own water, creating your own small territory within something larger. I think it’s a delicate balance to be influenced by someone or to be conversing with someone and a lot of my work is about conversing with someone. I have this 8 mm camera that my parents gave me when I was maybe 11. My father worked a bit in commercials and was a cameraman around the time I was born. I wanted to use the camera because he had given it me when I was a child and he’s not alive so I thought, “I want to make a film,” and there was no hesitancy in that, which is hilarious because my relationship to film is very strong, but I didn’t feel like I was competing with a film director and I didn’t even feel like I was competing with someone like Brakhage because I was just a painter with a little super-8 camera. It kind of became about permission, and so I made a film. I kept the camera every day with me for a year. I shot ten seconds of sunlight or shadow, some kind of natural light phenomenon. Certainly, there were days that I didn’t film, but the idea was that I would have to think about making work everyday, I would have to make work everyday and I would have to be looking attentively everyday. These things are so funny to me because it was a ridiculous thing to do in so many ways, but when I finished that film I accepted film as part of my practice, because I committed to it and it offered something that sound and painting couldn’t offer me. It was time-based but it was silent, it existed on the wall but it wasn’t static and it was abstract but not through anything other than looking. I was in love with early Bauhaus and Surrealist films, so it certainly took cues from those things. It’s a quite beautiful a film made up of images of things in the world; but it was also somewhat naïve, and I think it was more of a conversation than a realized work because it was the first I’d done in that medium. I still think it’s a strong work, but I think it’s more of a question of being particularly aware of film daily, for a year. It was a first step.
Where does your text-based work fit in with these various mediums?
It’s the same kind of thing. Literature has always been enormous for me and I was not a reader as a kid. I took a class in art school, I mean we had to take an English class and the teacher was fantastic. It was Bernard Cooper. I mean, I didn’t know who Bernard Cooper was; he might have been anyone then, but he made us read and write and I was not much of a writer and I was not much of a reader. He assigned us Calvino, Kafka, and some other things that I don’t remember liking that much, but he gave us totally wacky writing assignments. It wasn’t that I didn’t read at all, but I was reading things that were connected to the visual arts. Discovering Baudelaire through Manet. Discovering Surrealists through painting I liked. So I was interested in experimental fiction, but I had no context for it. The year after that year in school, I did my third year as an undergraduate in Paris and I don’t speak French and I didn’t speak French then and I’m not the most social person in the world. I’d go to school and work and then I would leave school, go to museums, and listen to music, mostly. So on day I went to a bookstore and I bought Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin because I had watched the Fassbinder film when I was younger and it was one of the most profound experiences I had probably ever had up to that point with a piece of art. So I decided to try to read the book and I loved it. It opened up a whole world to me. 26 years later, I still love a lot of German and Austrian writing from 1880 to 1920, and by the time I got to grad school I was reading mostly that kind of stuff. Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, Robert Walser and Rilke. In grad school we were reading Baudrillard and talking about the simulacra and I was still reading for the 400th time Letters to a Young Poet. I was doing work based on Rimbaud, the poems about vowels. And so, as much as my painting interests were Arthur Dove, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and contemporary folks like Brice Marden. There was really no place for me in an institution that was rigorous about going to Disney Land to mock it as a simulated experience. So when I had to write a thesis, it was supposed to be academic, researched and heavily critical, which I can be but I wasn’t interested in academic criticism at all. I decided to write my thesis about the idea of walking and wandering. There were a couple people who were sympathetic. I got some Zen things and some John Dewey things and I was completely obsessed with this book of letters between Schoenberg and Kandinsky. Schoenberg painted, and I think he and Strindberg are the two most underrated Sunday painters of all time. Kandinsky really loved music and wrote about sound. They conversed about each other’s mediums a lot. So my thesis was a piece of fiction about two people coming down from different mountains and passing on this path. Basically the walking part was Richard Long and the other sources and the conversation that they had was basically from this book of letters. You know, I got my ass kicked, but that experience got me thinking about possibly trying to write. Before that, writing had been this one thing that I could never think of approaching because of the writers I admired. How do you deal with someone like Hesse or Thomas Mann? But once I got out of grad school in 1989, I had this idea that I should try and write a novel, so I spent an hour every morning writing a novel. Which was terrible. But the activity was wonderful. The discipline was incredible (and eventually led to the idea of making the film once a day for a year). I also tried to write some poetry based on all the Spanish words I could remember from grammar school as my toolkit. A couple months ago I found them and I realized that they were the beginning of the writing that I’m doing now. I didn’t have a Spanish dictionary. I don’t really speak Spanish. But there were a significant amount of words that I remembered. So the systems that I now use to generate visual work, really evolved out this early attempt to write. I had tried making paintings using systems as far back as graduate school, but the entire process was unresolved. I did a series of paintings in school based on Rimbaud’s Ophelia poem, trying to make a painting for every word. But it didn’t work, and I was forcing things, which made the process and the work feel a bit artificial. It felt too art-like and I was pretty anti the whole idea of feeling like I was making art. I wanted to feel like I was making something I needed to make. And that still carries through. I was reading Agnes Martin’s writings at that time. That was another thing in school that I was getting my butt kicked for. And I was interested in Cage. And Cage, until he was older never copped to the fact that personal taste was a big part of what he was doing. And in a lot of ways the chance systems allowed him to work without intellectual discourse, but going through the material and pulling things intuitively. Some people look at Albers paintings and think it’s just about control, but those paintings clearly come out of a love. It’s this idea of rules equaling freedom. If you limit yourself, how can you articulate something within that framework that doesn’t allow you your repetitive comfort zone.
Considering Cage as an influence, was Ouilpo a literary influence?
I didn’t know much about that, but of course it’s in there. It’s pulling from a lot of different things. There are a lot of Fluxus scores and works that were influential, more towards the process than the outcome. There is a lot of conceptual art— the Robert Morris’s blind drawings, Thomas Marioni’s drum brush drawings, these things where a score should yield action, not a poetic result, yet a poetic result is achieved in spite of the action. That has always been difficult for people to grasp within my own work. They want the work to relate to that history, yet I’m not making crisp minimal drawings, I’m making seriously wonky painter’s paintings. Traditionally, this kind of conceptual work is much more connected to object that generate rigidity or sparseness. There are times when I’d rather make a Tom Marioni drum brush drawing than my own work, but I can’t force the work to be a certain way simply because I feel sympathy with that work. I’m basically setting up a performance system. Even with the work I’ve been doing in Marfa, I looked at this text by Judd and I took the vowel structure of that text and I used the vowel structure as a score. All of the work follows the same pattern but none of the works look the same. Most of the work that I like from that time period, has a clear connection between what was done, how it was done, and what it looks like. I have no interest in doing that myself because those works now exist in history the ideas behind them are as important as the objects, but I have no interest what-so-ever in anyone being interested in my ideas at the expense of being interested in the objects I make. Conceptual art’s history places the idea at the top of the ladder, and the object near the bottom, for me it is the opposite. I feel like good ideas are overrated. I would like people to be able to ignore my ideas, to approach the things I make on their own terms. I don’t want the work to have to fulfill my intentions. This is why I think someone like Agnes Martin is so interesting, because I want to get to a place where the things that I’m initially dealing with intellectually suddenly go away, so i can really be immersed in what I’m making. If we looked at a painting from four years ago I could have said, “every mark in this painting is connected to this score and I could show you where and how.” Now, I’m less interested in that, and it seems much more of a risk to allow the process of making to include moments when I break away from the score because the conversation should allow me to step into the visual field before me, as well as returning to the score – it should be a conversation more than a set of rules. If you had a metal frame and built a sculpture on top of it, that frame would still be there no matter what you placed upon it. Even if you couldn’t see the form, it’s still the foundation of the thing that you’ve built. A lot of people talk about painting as a discipline. The only other thing people talk about in that way is probably sports or spiritual activity. In all three, every time you sit down to do something you are trying to learn something new. You are trying to go to a higher place than you were before. To certain artists that means doing the same thing every time and still feeling like there is something new in it. For me, it’s making something that seems unfamiliar and disconnected from the last one.
Do you use process throughout all of your works?
In the early 90’s, I showed a bit with a gallery for maybe six years and then left. At that time my work was essentially paintings covered with letters. I took a biography of Goethe and notated the first letter on every page and made a painting that used all of those letters on its surface as an image, and that’s how I was using systems at the time. It was arbitrary. It was mostly about taking things out of context. And after two solo shows it seemed a good moment to leave the gallery even though I didn’t have any where else to go and I knew I wouldn’t have an exhibition for probably three or four years. But people were starting to know me as this guy who paints letters, and i realized that my relationship to my sources were not really deep enough. I was spending time with them, and I pulled forms them and exploited them in a way, but i was only scratching the surface. I ended up working on three projects for a year, but I didn’t paint. One was a sculpture that was 490 objects based on all the known land formations on the moon circa 1900. To determine the height and materials of each sculpture, I used the vowel structure of each name, taking cues from Rimbaud – if a vowel could equal a color, couldn’t it also equal a material or a measurement? At the same time I was reading this book by Hesse called “Wandering” which is a series of poems and prose related to his walking through the Alps. It’s not a great book, but there are about 4 or 5 pages about trees that I think are the best thing ever written about trees. Earlier in my painting life I painted that entire text on a canvas. I wanted to go back to it as I had used that text to generate several works. I ended up buying 26 different green colored pencils, different brands, anything that was a variation so I could have 26. Each pencil was a stand in for a letter of the alphabet. I read the text slower than i was ever able to before. For the word “the” I would see the “t” and go through my colored pencils until i found the corresponding “t” pencil, and made a mark in that color on a piece of lined notebook paper. Each drawing follows the letter stream of one page of text.
The other important thing was this book of Swedish poetry by Par Lagerkvist. I found it in a used bookstore and opened it up only to realize that it was only in Swedish. I thought for a long time that I would use it for a painting, but as these other activities were going on I realized that my connection to the object or source material was getting more developed. On a whim I picked up the book one morning and started reading it out-loud. I wondered what the Swedish words could be, but of course even though I was able to speak them, I had no idea what they meant. I had read all of Lagerkvist’s novels in English, so I knew the landscape of the work, so I didn’t want to create a dictionary for every word and then end up with non-sense poems. I actually wanted the book to teach me to write. So I started to play. Some words like “valda” sounded like “fallen” and so I could just write that word down. Some words I could never find a good equivalent for, and if I couldn’t find an intuitive word I would use the spelling of the word and an old dictionary to try and find an English word that started with the same three letters.
You would examine how that felt with the text and how you felt about it?
Yes and I was also trying to look at his rhyming structure. Those three things are actually the three most significant things I did in terms of altering my entire practice. In all these I was allowing something else to direct me. When I had worked with systems before these three pieces, I was directing everything and I was interested in Cage and I was playing with chance, but it wasn’t rigorous enough and it wasn’t going anywhere. All of these things seemed like seeds. The writing in way was the most exciting because it was something I didn’t know how to approach.
Do you find it difficult to move through mediums over long periods of time?
I think moving through mediums provides some clarity for me. I have friends who don’t understand why I spend time on sound; they think I should just be painting. I know sound artists that think I should just focus on sound. These practices are not connected on the surface, the drawings don’t look like the paintings, the sculpture doesn’t look the drawings or the paintings, the sound work is much more minimal than the other things I do, but there is a very strong conceptual umbrella over everything. For me, painting is like the sun and all these other things are the planets that float around it.
So then, would you say that painting is therefore your primary practice?
I would say it’s what I’ve done the longest; it’s what I do consistently. The funniest thing is that every time I’ve had a great shift in my painting it has come from stepping away from painting and working in another medium.
What is your ideal presentation for your works of translation?
In my dream world they would editioned objects. That’s why I make CD’s as well. I design every aspect of them. To me they are a continuation of artists’ publications. They come out of that history. I started making records partially because Dubuffet made records as much as I’m interested in Cage and the whole history of experimental and avant-garde music. The permission came to me from Dubuffet and people like Kaprow. A lot of visual artists have made record objects, and that history is of great interest to me.
The poster for your show at the Locker Plant in Marfa, Texas as part of your residency with Chinati Foundation is a photograph of an opening to a notebook of yours. On the notebook is notational structure that resembles a musical score. Do you ever display objects like this?
In this instance, this is my work journal. There are writings in there that I would consider publishing, but not as a facsimile. I’m leery of pointing back to myself. I don’t want to be the center. I want to offer something to people where meaning can be built by their experience.
I would love to do a book of writings that are essentially related to my work. I write constantly about my work. Since I came to Marfa I have been writing a lot about the idea of site-specificity. I’ve been struggling with the idea that in my own work, the video and sound works are the only aspects of my work that I really think about as being site-specific. I didn’t want to come to Marfa and make paintings that I could have made at home. When I left Los Angeles I was reading about Robert Irwin and then when I arrived in Marfa I received the Chinati packet with the Judd text. I wanted to use what they were talking about not towards the final experience, but towards the idea of making. How can site-specific be a term used towards the process of making something. I’ve been writing a pretty long text about that. Those things I hope I would get an opportunity to publish. When I write about the work, there is not only the ability to organize thoughts, but to have a kind of freedom to write things that would be more difficult to speak – and I can talk about the work in a more esoteric way.
What do you think is the ideal display for your work? I’m sure this changes based on medium, but are there any general features of display that are very important to you?
My shows have become more complex in regards to medium. Now a body of work could include paintings, sculpture, drawings, a sound work and maybe a film or video component. My dealer in LA just moved to a new space with two huge rooms, where her last space was four smaller rooms. The three shows I had in that space, were as follows: paintings were in the center room, drawings were in the back room, sculpture and sound were in different rooms. When my last show as reviewed, the writer was positive about the work, but did not like the arrangements of the work. She thought I had done a disservice to the work by separating the pieces by medium. I have always tried to protect the paintings. If there is sound in the room with the paintings, the paintings become part of a soundtrack, etc. A few months later I did an interview with the same reviewer and we talked for a long time about the installation of the work. Through the conversation I realized that I’d been stubborn about the display, and that the works could converse with each other towards something quite exciting. So, the ideal presentation might be all of these things co-existing. But, it depends on how much individuality the works need. I would not want to compromise a single work’s voice just to make the whole arrangement of works more exciting.
Can you discuss some of the work that you’ve completed during your stay in Marfa?
What I’ve finished are some paintings, some drawings, some sculpture and a little sound piece. With the paintings I used something visual in the Locker Plant to generate a large part of the overall composition. For the sculpture I used wood that the last artist in residence had left behind, and gave to me. There are five pieces of wood. I was already going to use the vowel structure of Judd’s text when i realized the second longest piece of wood was already painted black. The second largest amount of letters in the text is “A” corresponds to black in Rimbaud’s vowel color system, so I had to use it. The drawings feel like I am working on experiments, willing to go wherever they take me. Some of them I would frame and hang in my house and some of them I would be reluctant to show to anyone. I’m going to hang them all in the space. I think it’s important to be able to embrace as well as deviate from the source.
What do you mean by source? The material? Referential material?
It depends. Usually whatever the system is built from. The paintings are built from this Judd text, but that doesn’t mean there is an image of his sculpture in the center of the painting. A number of things came together to determine the visual form and its process of making. The ceiling is a grid, which is where a lot of the imagery came from, but I didn’t sit down and think, “I want to make some geometric grid paintings and I will use this Judd text to generate them.” It’s more like, you start to converse with this thing and suggests a building process and you try to let the source somehow influence your decisions and actions, as well as the forms that are being made.
When I got to Marfa I really wanted to think about the site, it’s history, the conversation around it. I wanted all of these things to come into play. Otherwise I could have just continues what I was working on at home. This work is the next step. There have been two major shifts in my work up to this point. One of them was that time when I stopped painting for a year. This clearly feels like the third big shift. My last show was the most exciting body of work I’ve ever made, but a year and a half later, I see that show as the culmination of something that I worked on for eight or nine years and over the past year I’ve been trying to find a way to step into new territory. My whole practice is built around denying myself any kind of comfort zone so that when something becomes familiar or routine, I pull the rug out from under myself. My time in Marfa has been an unbelievably important first step towards whatever the next step will be.
A VERY SMALL SELECTION OF IMAGES:
(all text about the work by Steve Roden)
the paintings were made using small sections of a 12 page classical music score. the letter equivalents of the musical notes determined numbers which then became a score for actions, images, marks, etc.
when rain is like sun and sun is like rain…
72″ x 72 “, oil and acrylic on linen, 2008