Constance De Jong Interivew

By Tony Oursler
Published in
July 2003


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’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’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

composition, sections.

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 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 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

deliver meaning.

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’

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

remain huge.

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.

CDJ: No.

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,

Franklin Furnace....

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.