Constance De Jong Interivew
By Tony Oursler
TO: I want to focus on the objectification of language in your career and also the
installation of language. I actually saw you perform before I met you in Minneapolis in
the early 80’s. You were doing performances, which I think were up to two hours long. It
struck me in retrospect that there was a fountain of language in perpetual unloading.
You became kind of physically installed on the stage. There was nothing else. No light.
No props. There you were. Without even a paper in front of you. For two hours. That’s
my first question. Do you consider that in any way installation?
CDJ: I never thought of installation in the way you’ve articulated. I always said I’m just
an instrument; I’m transparent, like a medium, the language passes through me. Which
is a bit like saying I’m a recording device, I start and I go. I had a real connection to
ongoing, language production in real time.
TO: So you are an apparatus delivering all this language, all these characters flowing
through you like a medium. I’ve always felt that in your work there’s a kind of character
shifting, or a shift of the viewer’s relationship to the text. In a certain way the reader
becomes you when they are reading, or you become them when you’re speaking the
text. There’s this shifting back and forth...can you speak to that?
CDJ: Well, hmmmmmm (long pause). That isn’t something that I think about either in
terms of producing the language or of producing the forms the language takes. The
relationship to the viewer isn’t something I consciously structure. But at the end of your
question...what struck me is that I have extreme closure with other people’s writing
when I’m reading. I love the merger of the mind through the act of reading or through
the act of listening. With the act of listening, the merger is with a voice, a sound. I can
be made nearly drunk on the sound of certain people speaking. And reading for me is a
mindfulness where my mind is the language.
TO: So that is a kind of relationship, it’s a blissful one. You put yourself over to the
language and then the language becomes you. That’s interesting...that happens to you
when you’re reading?
CDJ: It does. That’s my relationship to language.
TO: That’s fascinating. Because I remember seeing you perform for the first time. It was
very much of a drug like experience. And being possessed of the language during the
performance was really incredible. Your voice either neural linguistically or sonically
....I’ve had a pet theory that somehow you’re able to hypnotize your audience and
hypnosis is a kind of almost drug like state. So here we have this wonderful language
taking this wonderful form...almost like a gas coming down ....I hate to use the term
anesthetize. But taking us into an altered state. So you have this cloud of language
enveloping people’s minds. I’ve seen it happen. Where people become hypnotized.
What about that state that your language weaves onto the viewer?
CDJ: In a way...what I’d like is that the viewer and the word are the entire moment. I
wouldn’t say the viewer and me...because it’s not me...it’s the sound of the language. I
would never use the word hypnotize. But in my performances there’s nothing to look at,
no action, there’s nothing to distract you, so there’s the possibility that you can listen to
the text word for word and there’s nothing else. The moment you hear the word, it
disappears. You hear it, it disappears, it’s always falling away behind you and there’s
no going back to it, you stay right with it syllable for syllable and there’s nothing else.
(Or, you walk out.)
TO: That’s also is at the heart of the difference between narrative and installation.
Because inherently a narrative reaches back on itself as a kind of self referencing
structure which enables the viewer to build in a classic way, a kind of empirical way.
You know a narrative always has characters and action link up in a certain way that
informs a structure or a plot. But what you’re talking about is radical because you’re in
the moment resonating on the word as it comes along. Letting each word have its
meaning. It’s almost like a minimalist structure overlaid on language. Because you have
the material honed down to a precise state ....it’s unfettered by composition.
CDJ. Well that’s an interesting description...that it’s honed down and minimal. I would
agree with that. But I do have an idea of structure or composition in each work. Right
now, it’s forward moving composition. So that if the start point is A, then when the text
is finished you’re at M. But M is so unrelated to and disconnected from A that you can’t
reconstruct how you got there. The text is moving, linking moment to moment to
moment without the pretense of character development and plots driven by timeordered
events or psychological underpinnings.
TO: A little like life.
CDJ. Well yeah. And we don’t get confused by so-called unrelated events occurring in
the course of things.
TO. What I’ve always been interested in is the difference between installation and
narrative. If it’s an installation, it can’t really be a narrative. because if you have
narrative, it’s not an installation anymore, it’s a story. It’s the difference between being
in a movie or a play or a performance and being in a sculpture where you can come in
at any point and feed on it. You’ve of course straddled that line really wonderfully in a
lot of ways. So this forward structure where does it fall? The focus of our interview is
installations. But you’re talking about something that falls on the cusp.
CDJ: Sorry I was going off the direct subject a bit, I was talking about something I’m
working on now, a written text that may be spoken but primarily is meant to be a
reader’s read. I agree with you about installations...they have to be functioning,
delivering at every moment since at any moment a viewer will enter and engage with
the work. You’ve done that very well. Your spoken language appears to emanate in the
present, no sites or times outside the text . For my audio installations I had to think
about rescaling my language. My long continuous threads of prose weren’t right for
ambient outdoor listening. My solution was to write chunks of language that last 30
seconds to a minute and a half. So within a very short period of time, the viewer
experiences a complete text and if a viewer listens over a duration of time, the small
chunks also interrelate. So the sections both stand alone and are parts of a
TO; Okay sections. That’s not very illuminating. Okay so they’re fragments....
CDJ: No not fragments. In the installations the so-called sections focus either on some
aspect of the installation site or on a specific theme. So that all the parts have a pivot
around which they’re written. That’s enough structure for my installations. But the
sections aren’t fragments. They stand alone as discrete small finished entities and they
all spin around a theme or a couple of themes.
TO: So there you have a theme park.
CDJ:( laughing) Yeah just like a theme park.
TO; No seriously. The piece is a theme and it’s in a park. I was thinking, okay I’m going
to veer off here to language and landscape. Another form I wanted to bring up: the
CDJ: Yeah, the billboard seems a logical form I might use. It would have to be an LED
board. Otherwise there would be no time element. I hate language that’s just a slogan,
or a phrase, or even just one paragraph that has to stand in place over time and
convey meaning. It’s just not adequate.
TO: Well that leads us to your Times Square project where you did use a billboard. As I
remember it had to do with an inter species subject, but I can’t quite remember, can
you speak to that?
CDJ: It was really a long time ago, maybe twenty years. I had an interest, still have it
today, in how language can deliver meaning and be visual at the same time. So for that
electronic Times Square billboard I made the language be visual by writing a kind of
wacky acrostic. You read up and down and across and there’s a form made out of
intersecting words. I had to bend out of shape a true, classic acrostic. But in mine
anyway, you looked at it and the language had a shape made by an arrangement of
words that also made meaning. And there were three screens to the piece, a sequence
of three. It was titled Ally.
TO: So this is two hundred feet in the air above Times Square. The classic billboard
everyone was used to seeing televised on New Years. Right at the pinnacle of Times
Square, a fantastic site to put language. Which brings me to the point of when you
started out. You invented your own form of writing which ended up being serialized in
booklet form and mailed out and later compiled into a book called Modern Love. So
from that point on you had an increasingly experimental relation to the printed word.
You started out with an eccentric kind of book that some lucky people received in the
mail...in how many, five, installments.
CDJ: mailed to a five hundred person mailing list.
TO: Five hundred. So then 10 or so years later, you’re making a language billboard.
Can you speak of your rejection of the printed page as a format and the struggle to take
language away from the page and what that’s meant to you.
CDJ: Well the struggle is present in my first text, the serial that became Modern Love.
At the time I thought, okay fine, I’m just going to write and keep writing one long long
chain of numbered installments. So I named the text : Volume One, The Complete
Works of Constance DeJong...and thought I would keep numbering the volumes from
there until I died. This was in 1973.
A fiction writer receives a few literary conventions--the short story and the novel. Maybe
the novella. That’s it. My difficulty was with those conventions. I cast them aside early
on. And as I continued to write what became interesting was the productivity. Not the
struggle against something but a question: What forms could language take? How
could it perform? How could language operate in a meaningful way and be what I
consider literature and not adhere to these two conventions--the short story and the
I came to New York as a graduate student at a time when there was a good deal of
work that was cross discipline and there was quite a lot of cross pollination between
artists of different forms. That was the environment I grew up in...in which traditional
forms were not revered. On the contrary, part of the business of being an artist was to
invent forms. I was really influenced by that. By seeing what a dancer like Yvonne
Rainer would do as something called dance. Or what a filmmaker like Michael Snow
would make as something called a film. Joan Jonas, Meredith Monk.... there were
numerous musicians and visual artists doing this. So I was influenced by an older
generation of people for whom part of the business of making work was to make the
form. I took that on as a person of language and that became my instinctual, natural
way to work That very first mail serial was also a series of performances and a
recorded one hour radio show. From the very beginning I didn’t adhere to working in
one discipline or one form. The printed text of Modern Love, the performances of
Modern Love, the radio adaptation were all primary forms, no one more than any other.
TO: Well let’s get the story of Modern Love down here. Tell me about the recorded
C: At the time I wrote Modern Love, I got wind of a group named ZBS, obviously a play
on the CBS name, which was a recording collective in upstate New York. I heard they
gave artists a residency to make projects. I’d already adapted Modern Love into
performances that were speech driven, it wasn’t a big step to think of making a
radio/audio version. Plus a greater radio lover never existed. So I applied and was
given a ZBS residency. I took the entire text of Modern Love the book and scripted it for
four speaking voices and sound. It was my good fortune that my first recording
engineer was Bob Bileki. He was a member of the collective. That’s who I worked with
on the entire piece, really good fortune. He was incredibly patient, maybe even
indulged me, and would sit for hours while I got two voices making a perfect cross fade
on a syllable. Or, whatever I needed to do. We made and recorded all the sound
effects together there. I’d asked Philip Glass to write some thematic music for the
recording. He wrote two signature themes and came up and played them on a Farfiza
recorded with overdubbing of his keyboard playing. One of the pieces he wrote in waltz
time, what is that four four time, I’m not sure. But it was called the Modern Love Waltz.
TO: Well hearing you talk earlier of your influences, I think you knew Richard Serra and
Don Judd. And knowing you over the years and seeing your utility of language, or what
I call language as material....I’m wondering about that.
CDJ: Well before I moved to NYC, and had living, collegial influences, I had been
moved by certain people. Gertrude Stein for instance was a huge moon in a dark sky.
When I was an undergraduate she was my first exposure to someone who treated
language as a material. Stein is a giant. Once I found her, I found other writers who
used language as material, often very economical language. Very precise. I’m thinking
of Marguerite Duras. Virginia Woolf. Writers for whom language was not at the service
of conventional story and putting you the reader in relation to a past tense of events
that had already happened. But no you were in the present tense of the words
themselves on the page, the language itself an event happening in real time.
TO: So would you say that Minimalism grew out of a linguistic movement?
CDJ: No I wouldn’t. I think artists were addressing formal and ideological concerns of
their specific discipline. The minimalism of music, sculpture, painting, language...each
has its form-based issues, even if there is some parallel history going on. The
Minimalism of sculpture is very specific to a history of sculpture.
TO: But sculptors were among those to first draw attention to materials instead of
CDJ: Yes there is an analogy. But not one thing growing out of another, not sculpture
growing out of linguistics. I thought you were asking that.
TO: No. Which was first.
CDJ: There were writers contemporary to minimalist sculptors who shared concerns of
materiality, among them, the French Nouvelle Roman writers. I became obsessed with
the possibility of a kind of double time in writing: that it could be material and also
TO: Just to go back to this cross pollination history. William Burroughs said the art
world was twenty or fifty years ahead of writing. Because he and Gyson did the cut up
writing. But Max Ernst and others had done that long before. Im just still trying to get to
the bottom of Minimalism. You’re younger than the Minimalists. ....oh I don’t know my
CDJ: I suppose lining up histories is interesting. Regarding your Burroughs’ quote...in
one way I could leap to agreement. That seems to be the case today. I can remember
being in love with Tristan Tzara and Alfred Jarry, writers who seemed to me very in the
forefront of art. Dada and Surrealism were literary movements at the start. They had
such appeal to me as writing that had social and cultural concerns and
more...automatic writing, pasting together of the unconscious and dreams and pieces of
real, as well as being very in your face in terms of historical conventions. They put
performance on the stage as a legitimate art and literature form.
TO: Do you think that’s where you got your first idea of doing performance?
CDJ: Sure, I know it is. Those people opened my eyes. Oh and Cocteau was another
one. Because Cocteau worked in many different forms and to my mind was very good
in the different forms. It isn’t that he had a premier form and then did these other little
things on the side. No he did all the different forms as Cocteau. That was huge. I’ve
heard lots of my contemporary artists be disparaging about the Dadaists and
Surrealists. They are put down as a minor little group. To me they were huge and they
TO: So that’s about methods of production. I wanted to also touch on philosophies of
language. One thing that comes up is semiotics. The idea of the sign, the question of
what a word is, right down to the core of it, letters put together. Does Semiotics have
anything to do with you.
TO: Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer are two omnipresent artists with language.You did
work somewhat similar that didn’t get out much -- your Rolling Texts which I helped you
tech on. That work came out of the Kyron which was new at that time, kind of a visual
typewriter. Jenny kind of continued with Situationist posters...Kosuth...Nauman’s
wonderful texts....and your friend Carlota Schoolman produced a fantastic video of
Richard Serra’s with rolling text. Can you talk about all that letter and language work?
CDJ: Well artists from quite different perspectives shared that moment -- they injected
language into visual art. This wasn’t eye-based art. It wasn’t picture or shape based.
People with very different ways of working participated in language work. I never lost an
engagement with language as a phenomenon that occurs in time. Rolling Texts was a
way to place language in a visual context but not sacrifice the element of time. Same
with the Times Square piece, Ally. I could have just put up one frame but I put up three-
-a sequence--and each one of the three changed within itself. Language for me needs
to be happening in time, in a sequence. Freezing language outside of time is not how I
chose to work, I find that difficult. I never have isolated a phrase or a little collection of
words and presented them as a work. In the cd rom (Fantastic Prayers) I was able to
continue my interest in visual language, and time became an element through
TO: I find it fascinating that a standard placard of a sign was never satisfactory to you.
CDJ: Not for me to make. But when I saw my first Nauman show which had neon
language pieces and language in the titles, like Hand to Mouth, which aligned the
language with the physical forms,wow they were something. Very playful, too.
TO: Yeah but one of your first audio installations was just a radio, you did a series of
radios that had text coming through them. Can you speak about those. You’ve spoken
of how you really love the radio. I somehow have memories of you as a little kid with
your head next to the radio late at night listening very softly just at the edge of audibility
to some distant transmission coming through. And it was very profound for you. With
the tubes in the back warmly lighting up.
CDJ: Even better than that, I was given a transistor radio, or we maybe we just had one
in the house, but I could go to bed with my great love: radio. Because it was a tiny radio
that didn’t have to be plugged in, it could just be on my pillow. And Wolfman from
Chicago came dancing across the air to Ohio. Late at night I listened to disembodied
voices. I loved disembodied voices. I ended up producing disembodied voices in my
work without even consciously thinking about radio love. Franklin Furnace, I think that’s
where I sat with a radio playing my text. I was performing at places like the Kitchen,
TO: (yelling from across room) You were a staple of the performance scene in the late
70’s and 80’s
CDJ: Yeah. Me and spoken language. I wrote a text that had a passing reference to a
character listening to bits of radio. For a reading/performance I brought a radio in that
was tricked out...a radio casement with a tape recorder inside. I put it in the show, a
kind of tableau vivant, I sat next to the radio, the audience came in and we all listened
to the radio, it just happened to be me on the radio!
TO: In a way that’s your first object. I’m trying to get to that. So what was the date.
CDJ: Can’t be exact. Between 77 and 79. I didn’t think of it as My First Object. I tricked
out a ready made. I still do that come to think of it. I trick out objects that already
exist...benches, chairs, tables. I don’t make the objects, I’m happy to go to IKEA and
buy something. My first talking chair came from there. With speakers and a hidden
player and sensors so that when you sit down the chair audio starts up and it becomes
an audio experience. It still just looks like a chair.
TO: Well there’s something very funny about the radio being commandeered by you.
It’s so simple, but so perfect, I never heard of any one doing that before. It reminds me
of this Philip K Dick story where the radio was speaking directly to him. It was kind of
the reverse of mass media where the radio just speaks to everybody at once and the
listener is fully aware of that. But in the Philip K Dick story, I think it was Radio Free
Album, the character was just going into a psychotic break and all these paranoiac
things were happening. One of which was the radio speaking directly to him, cursing
him.....that sort of reminds me of your radio.
CDJ: That sort of paranoid vision of radio is just an exaggeration of what people
experience commonly. Radio is so intimate. Often it’s a solitary experience, not like the
communal experience of going to movies. I used to think of the radio as one of my best
friends. It kept me company. Probably many people experience the radio speaking
directly to them in a very unparanoid intimate way. It’s not a mass experience. Actually
frequently people have said to me after a show: “I was just alone in the audience and
you were talking to me.”
TO: That reminds me of an old joke you used to tell: you fell in love with the guy on the
CDJ: That’s such a great joke. More recently I think in fall in love with guys on the
But you know it’s interesting sometimes what an audience gives back after a
performance. Actually it’s very little, most people keep their thoughts to themselves. But
I have had two things said repeatedly. One is that people have that feeling of being
spoken to directly. And two is people often say: “I don’t know why you just didn’t keep
going.” Well, I was just up there for two hours and people experience it as much less
time. I’ve heard that a lot.
TO: That goes back to working with time. Some people are overwhelmed by it, some
don’t want you to stop. You definitely weave a spell in the performances that’s not like
anything I’ve experienced.
CDJ: One thing that’s been interesting to do in the recent bench works I’ve done with
Diane Shamash for Bear Mountain and Madam Brett park in Beacon is that I’ve begun
to incorporate voices in addition to mine into the spoken texts. As I said I do love
people’s, some people’s speaking voice. It occurred to me to interview people and
record them speaking to a specific subject for me. I first did it in London with local
people from the area where my installation was sited. Asking, what is your relation to
this specific piece of water in London (Thames at Docklands)? What is your relation to
light on water? Things that are both abstract and very part of daily life. I don’t use the
interviews to present stretches of natural speech. I edit them like a surgeon-- cut and
suture, take them apart and put them back together. From many hours of recorded
material I use a few bits structured into spoken texts.
TO. Let me go back. When did you do your first outdoor installation.
CDJ: Early 80’s. It was for the Woodland Park Zoological Gardens in Seattle.
TO: I believe that took the form of a contemplative spot, a bench. Was that your first
CDJ: Yes, actually there are three benches. Two are sound equipped, one has no
sound. They’re in a very quiet spot in the very hectic environment of the zoo. The
benches face a small stream. They’re landscaped, giving you the feeling of being
enclosed within an outdoor space...embraced.
TO: How much were you involved in the landscaping. How much did you have to do
with the positioning, the landscape, the making of the benches, all that.
CDJ: I chose the exact site within the entire Zoological Gardens, I positioned the
benches. The benches were customized outdoor park benches fabricated by a
company in Oregan. The company completed some of the customizing; the artist Ken
Feingold figured out how to outfit the benches with sound and he actually did a lot of
the installing, all that didn’t involve union people digging and burying electrical lines,
things like that.
Zoos have too much signage, too much “information,” and there’s a hectic atmosphere
of racing from animal to animal to see the polar bear, see the giraffe, the tiger, oh
where is the lion, it’s not there, okay next.
I wanted to make quiet reflection part of being on the zoo grounds. An experience
where language had a big role but not as information in this interpretive, signage world
that zoos and museums have created. I chose to write about captive animals, non
captive animals, and animals of the imagination, three categories. I produced about
forty minutes of audio material that moved freely between the three categories. No
pretense of providing routine information. The piece is called “Duets Between Animals
and People.” I wrote short texts 30 seconds to a couple minutes long, took them into
the recording studio, had all kinds of people record them...this was a work for the public
so I used voices of a public. Each speaker is heard in duet with an animal voice. Two
kinds of vocalizing. You sit with your back to the crowd, facing a stream. The person
who managed the work was Diane Shamash who at the time was director of Art in
Public Places in Seattle. She paired me with a landscape architect who works in Seattle
and we landscaped the site.
TO. Okay so what year was that again?
CDJ: We started in 1980, installed in 1985. The idea is from 1980.
TO: Those public projects take a long time. So you’re doing sound installation and
performing and working with objects and I know you’re also doing some collaborating.
You worked with Philip Glass and made the opera Satyagraha. What year was that?
CDJ: The premier was 1980.
TO: So at the same time as you were developing the benches you made a major
American opera. A double bill? Or triple?
CDJ: We had an original team who made the premier performance and we thought of
ourselves as collaborators. Philip and I are the double bill collaborators as composer
and librettist. Robert Israel was the set and costume designer for the premier
performance. Richard Rydell was the lighting designer. David Pountny was the original
director, he became a director of ENO, English National Opera in London. We were
responsible for getting the piece on its legs, on stage.
TO: Was that Philip’s first opera?
CDJ: Second. It was the first opera commissioned by the opera establishment. It was
produced by the Netherlands Opera based in Rotterdam. The first opera, Einstein on
the Beach, was artist produced.
TO: Give in a nutshell the theme.
CDJ: Satyagraha is the Sanskrit word meaning peace force and the word Gandhi chose
to name his first practice of nonviolent civil disobedience. His idea was that you had to
use the language indigenous to the people fighting not the language of the oppressor.
Gandhi’s first practice of nonviolent civil disobedience was in South Africa where there
was a large Indian population. Later he took those practices to India in the uprising
against the British Raj for which he became much more famous. We chose the moment
of inception, the first large scale practice of nonviolent civil obedience which became a
practice later for Americans in the civil rights movement.
TO: Your text was a translation of what?
CDJ: There are two texts. Two parallel texts. The scenography describes in detail the
staged action in parallel to the vocal text being sung. What the cast sings is from the
Baghavad Gita which was Gandhi’s guidebook of how to perform nonviolent
disobedience. In effect what we imagined was that the cast is singing theory and is
portraying practice. Theory and practice on stage in parallel motion. That was a central
TO: Did you design how people moved around on stage?
CDJ: Actually we got the director very late in the process of making the opera. At
premier rehearsal time. We had input, we were all in Amsterdam, building the piece.
TO: Was that original movement and directing retained?
CDJ: The piece has had maybe four or five different productions. And no, people take
the libretto and the music score and that’s what they use in a production. Every
production is its own vision.
TO: Was the original documented anywhere?
CDJ: We made a book. Sara Seagull was the designer. There are images from the
premier production in the book. There’s some video somewhere. I have a vague of
dream of making an anniversary production when I’m 60 and I’ll be the director.
TO. It’s just interesting that your whole idea of theory-practice is a kind of conceptual
And your writing this text that has to do with inter species politics. So your first opera
and your first big audio installation are in the same relative time. You’re working in a
very expansive way at that moment.
Then I’m happy to say we met a couple of years later and were able to dream up some
kind of video performances, tapes, etc. I don’t really want to talk about here. I want to
focus on installation work here.
CDJ: After Satyagraha I had a real renewed interest in how language could operate on
stage. I was searching around in my thoughts of another kind of stage form to develop.
Not opera. But not these solo works of my past. That was part of my thinking when we
met. You immediately after seeing me perform asked to collaborate on a performance.
Really good timing. I was searching around for a way to perform, it turned out the way
was to collaborate. Collaborate with you. Relatives which came out as one of our first
works really was a way for me to enlarge how language could perform on stage. It was
a duet between language and video, between me the live performer and a television.
TO: What year was that?
CDJ: It didn’t premier until 1987.
TO: That piece toured a lot. What was it twenty or so cities in Europe and the U.S. Kind
of amazing that it got around like that. I always had thought of matching your linguist
abilities to the television. These two ways of audience control battling it out. We’ll talk
about that later.
In the mid eighties also comes you Kyron works.
CDJ: I never thought of it at the time of the Kyron “Rolling Texts”, even though I’d done
the Times Square sign, I never thought of occupying a billboard with the ‘Rolling Texts”
and just have it play on and on maybe for years. I was using the TV, such a domestic
TO: Well it’s not too late. You can do it now. I guess the audio installations culminate
now in the Bear Mountain and Beacon benches. Both produced with Diane Shamash
and Minetta Brook.
I particularly love the Beacon piece. It seems very very successful in terms of how
you’ve been able to combine your writing and local lore, that kind of ephemeral
language that gets passed along by people. You’ve reached out grabbed that language
in a wonderful way. First meeting local people, recording their colloquial way, then
editing it in a very rhythmic way and mixed with your own writing. Your own writing in
the piece is some historical, some poetic and some geological. The piece has an
incredible scope. Going from millions of years ago to today. So you’re sitting on the
bench and the text is floating around in the air mixing with the birds and air and the
ambient sound. You can’t really tell the difference between some of the recorded and
the actual surrounding sounds. Birds that you recorded mix with live birds.
You talk about how the land was formed in geological time. You mix that with very
individual recollections of locals and with your own very poetic texts. I think it’s very
very successful. As you sit there the landscape becomes invigorated. It’s a non visual
work. But what happens is that the tree becomes more alive. It all becomes more and
more visual as you sit there. The water has further, more extended meaning. It’s really
unusual. It’s different than any kind of installation I’ve seen. You’re kind of bending the
landscape through your language for any person sitting there. Can you just talk a little
about the piece.
CDJ: Everyone knows that when you look at something, anything...what you see is
affected by what you know. If you’re looking at something and you know a lot about it,
you’ll see something different than if you looked at that same thing and you knew
nothing about it.
That notion informs the piece. The tree is there, it’s just there. But another person and
another person depending on what each person knows will see something very
different. On the bench is a wide span of material, a lot of which addresses a
combination of the visible and the invisible. The invisible can be an event that isn’t
present anymore, can be a fact or bit of information that isn’t evident to the eye, can be
an idea, many different invisibles. So much of experience happens to us in our mind,
interior, it’s thought. The benches embody an interiority, embody thoughts. They’re a
kind of hinge. As if the site were an exterior, the language a kind of interior thought, and
the piece conjoins the landscape to an interior space. It’s really a pleasure to hear you
give back your experience of being there which I never hear from anybody.
TO: It’s a great piece. You’ve been kind of cracking this work. You call this piece a
bench but it’s not a bench it’s really a panorama. It’s not a bench, it’s an hallucination. A
controlled hallucination. Not a bench at all. You hear bench and think old folks home,
I’m going to sit there. You should maybe call it something else. People, artists obsess
on the object.
You’ve made objects--radios, chairs, benches--various works through the years that
harness objects. But it’s such a sophisticated relation to the object. I’ve always thought
that about art work. It’s not the thing, the work is what it does to you. We’re so
materialistic, we always want to know: where’s the THING. So here’s the thing, it’s a
bench, but it’s not the work at all. Photographs will never show that, how you load the
CDJ: Yeah, I knew I wasn’t interested in making something that would swivel your
head, make you say wow look at that bench. Originally for Seattle I customized some
ready made park benches. The new benches,Speaking of the River, are the first time I
worked with an architect and artisans to make the object part of the work. Two very
different locations, Beacon and Bear Mountain, two very different looking benches.
TO: We have themes floating around. Peaceful resistance, the political and a very
human story of Gandhi in the opera. Then, very sad stories of extinction and empathy
and inter species. And expanded notions of language itself. Moving onto the idea of
place generating subject and content and meaning which of course has been an aspect
of novels. But your take on it is has been very unique, pulling in information in a very
unique way. Though the form itself is what I find the most unique, the way it unreels is
nonlinear. You found a perfect balance between nonlinear and holding onto the good
parts of what I call linear narrative. So people stay with it--as you described early in the
interview--second by second as it reels out into space. I believe you have it set up for
the parts to play randomly on the benches. How many sections are there in Beacon?
CDJ: In minutes it’s about fifty minutes.
TO: And it recombines randomly.
CDJ: Yes, there’s no meta sequence.
TO: And isn’t there a lot of space in it too? It fades and collaborates with the
CDJ: That’s key when you’re making a work for an environment, an outdoor setting. At
Madam Brett Park in Beacon, I’m not fighting the ambient sound. It’s a bird haven. And
birds are the only other sound, in addition to speech, that is heard on the bench
recordings. I made long elaborate bird composition out of bird song recordings. Sitting
on the bench there’s a kind of crazy real time mix of actual birds and my birds.
Outdoor work is subject to unknowns. This summer there’s been more rain than has
fallen in a hundred years. Everyone local told me don’t have the bench volume turned
up high in June, July, August, the creek that runs in front of the work is just a trickle,
you don’t want the piece blaring out into the environment. Well, the creek is a rushing
gushing body of water making so much noise that I had to adjust the volume up.
Another crazy ambient event happened at the Bear Mountain work. Someone went up
to write about the work and reported the bench wasn’t working. Upon investigation it
turned out that termites had made a huge nest around the sensor to the point that the
sensor could no longer recognize the presence of someone on the bench. The park
had to remove the termite colony.
TO: So you get to collaborate with the termites...
CDJ: I guess outdoor work wouldn’t be a good time for a control freak. Where I’m a
total control, detail person is in the making of the recordings. WIth the advent of
desktop sound editing there’s been a huge change in the way I can work with producing
recorded spoken word.
TO: Well at this point you’re your own producer.
CDJ: I’m my own editor, I have a producer for the pieces.
TO: I mean you do everything. From recording, to writing, to some music.
CDJ. Yes, when I could take over the editing, then editing became a studio process. A
sea change. I didn’t have to go out and hire an editor and come into the recording
studio with ideas which he or she would make happen. The work can develop in a way
it never can develop when you have to take ideas outside the studio for realization.
TO: Let me go back. You have this way of working thematically; people, to animals to
landscape and then with the interactive space of our cd rom and web space. You also
mentioned how when sitting down in a landscape what you see is affected by what you
know. You were also working with that idea earlier with objects--how what you know
about the object changes the view of it. You say okay, here’s a simple blue cup or a
jacket and then you invest them from multiple points of view to an absurd degree. You
have this simple piece of cloth, a jacket, that you reverse engineer through language
and come up with a thousand different perspectives and facets of the jacket, so we look
at it completely differently in the end.
CDJ: Yeah my writing about objects is another example of the interplay between what
is visible and what is invisible. Some of what is invisible is experience, is science, is
historical, all kinds of information that is in the object or in the landscape. There are
many kinds of invisibility. That’s why I can reverse construct a site or an object. It’s not
total invention on my part in the sense of fictional material. What suits me
temperamentally is that in the end it is a fiction, a total fabulation. But it’s built on layers
of real. I know people conflate fiction and nonfiction in all manner of ways. The multiple
perspectives of the sites and objects in my pieces is my way of conflating fiction and
non fiction. I like that it doesn’t require a character to do that. I don’t have to invent a
character to deliver the language as would happen in most literature.
TO: Any time you come up with one topic or one project, it cascades into six other
variations on it or ways of producing. So Modern Love is a book, a performance, a cd.
Fantastic Prayers in the mid nineties starts out as a performance done on Dia’s roof in
Dan Graham’s pavilion, continues into video elements of mine, music elements of
Stephen Vitiello, continues into a massive cd rom with more than 5 hours of material
and took about three years to produce. At one point that project also became an
outdoor installation at the Rushmore Festival in 1998 in upstate NY. When people
visited the grounds of this old estate off the NY Thruway people could wander the
installation before or after the performance they’d come to see. It was great for me. I
hadn’t done that many outdoor installations and I was able to try out a few things, see
what video looks like outside. That was the first time I noticed, you already knew this
from Seattle, how audio blended so amazingly with existing ambient sound. At any
given moment we filter out sounds in the air and only hear what we want. By placing
very well recorded sound outside, you can’t really tell it’s recorded and it becomes a
kind of auditory hallucination. Now all these many years later you’ve really refined that
aspect in your benches.
CDJ: I’m sensitive to outdoor sound. I work with sensors a lot so the sound isn’t always
there billowing out into the air nonstop. My installations are triggered by the presence of
a person and the audio stops when the person leaves or moves away. The audio
doesn’t completely overwhelm the space, invade and occupy the space.
TO: You have a savvy use of technology. You’ve always used technology. Whether it’s
tricking out a radio in the 70’s or making a permanent audio installation in the early
80”s, that was a technological feat. To go back to Fantastic Prayers we made a web
work of that material, probably one of the first art web works.
CDJ: Yes that was Dia’s first web work. The format of the web and cd roms is very
appealing to me in terms of how one organizes material. I like the way material can be
structured non linearly. You have to conceive ways for material to be ordered and
structured that don’t occur in one fixed meta sequence. I've always liked that.
TO: Well things are catching up to the way you think.
CDJ. Haha! When a terminology arrived with home computers and the web-- terms like
links and networking-- I was familiar with that way of thinking and of trying to manifest it
in concrete words.
TO: I find the computer and computer editing just makes it easier for you to do what
you did all along. That’s why I don’t think of technology as the subject of your work but
as a slave to your way of thinking and doing with TImes Square signs, or cd roms or to
other delivery ways....your thoughts are migrating to different ways of delivering
CDJ: Well I’m fortunate to live in this time. I never was interested in structuring
language on the page through different kinds of typography. That just didn’t work for
me, even though now I’m forever noodling around with integrating text and images and
letters on pages, on two dimensions.
TO: You’re doing that now?
CDJ: I’ve been doing it all summer. For prints, for web work. I was doing that a long
time ago in the first pieces I wrote. Articles about Joan Joans and Trisha Brown where I
tried to graphically integrate in one plane the words and the images. I was the writer
who delivered articles all laid out because the lay out was part of the writing, part of
how you moved around the page. Captions and images were embedded, not
secondary to a primary text. No one bought it. The editors said: go away. I should have
called them art, not articles.