Kevin Beasley presents a one day only sound performance, And In My Dream I was Rolling On the Floor, at Cozad-Bates House, the only surviving pre civil war structure in University Circle, and MOCA Cleveland on April 12, 2014 from 6:45 am – 8:45 pm. Organized by Rose Bouthilllier and Megan Lykins Reich, Kevin’s performance will take place over 4 arrangements in what he calls, Intersection. IV Arrangements on Presence. MOCA says that the audience will be immersed in a multi channel audio experience, over the changing atmosphere of the day that will link the oldest and newest structures in University Circle. Although space in the house is limited, MOCA offers a full day listening experience in the Gund Commons.
For information please visit MOCA Cleveland’s website.
While Kevin was in town preparing for his performance, I sat down with him to talk about his work, this performance and some other shows happening simultaneously.
Jimmy Kuehnle: So you went to the College of Creative Studies and then to Yale, were you making sound pieces then?
Kevin Beasley: I played drums and have a music background. I played in a prog metal band. It was the best. I played a lot of funk and jazz but it wasn’t until graduate school that I actually started realizing the relationship between sounds, music and more object based visual art. It came through DJing really. I started Djing when I was in graduate school. There were a lot of bad parties with bad Djs, bad music, and I wanted to take that on.
JK: How do you start DJing? Do you just buy a turntable?
KB: It’s funny because nowadays you can just Youtube everything but living in Detroit I was already linked in to DJ culture, techno and electronic music. Not from a creation standpoint or producing anything but listening to it. I downloaded some software, called Virtual DJ. Then I realized that it really wasn’t sufficient but I noticed some potential in the practice so I saved up money and got some turntables. From there the connection between working with turntables, physical music and then also my artwork, just made sense.
JK: Did DJing get you thinking about sound and objects because a turntable is a thing, unlike an iPod?
KB: It bridged the connection between this analog thing for me. It got me thinking about sound as a physical thing, because with a turntable it’s not just in the object itself, it’s in its movement. It’s playing and you hear a sound and then when you put your hand on it, the sound changes. The rate, the speed, the pressure, all of these things in a turntable, they give you different sounds through a direct link or connection between this tactility or being very physical with this motion, in the same way an instrument operates. That manipulation has a correlation with a block of clay. When you start pressing on it you start manipulating its form, the way it’s perceived, how fluid it is. You start changing its properties.
That felt really close to sculpting sound by DJing and putting tracks together. Also, when you are layering, sound there are other accents, spaces and frequencies that start to do things like different phases and how sounds can cancel each other out. This isn’t all in the headphones, you have speakers in the space and the architecture of the space. Sound is so physical because it’s waves and you’re moving particles, you’re moving molecules. DJing for me just made it more obvious, like duh, of course, this is what this is. So then it kinda freaked me out because I had a set of tools that I could use to think about sound maybe in a different way.
Not long after, I didn’t really DJ that much, because I got roped up into that, it became another tool in my studio. I started taking sounds from anywhere, making field recordings of whatever, other music and pulling it apart and finding software or programs to stretch it and change the frequencies around. This opened me up to thinking you should be searching for all these tools, these things that help you manipulate and change the form to ask a questions.
JK: Sound is physical, right, moving through us. You use the word body a lot, and usually in the plural form bodies. You talk about bodies and people affecting sound. How is that audience component necessary to the work, more than you just making sounds by yourself?
KB: It’s so important. I think it’s the crux of why I’m sharing the things I’m working on in the studio. They find resonance when they are in a context, a context made of people, made of places. I think the audience is so crucial because they bring their own personal histories, they bring their experiences and they allow something else to be generated and that’s what I’m really invested in. Maybe developing meaning or if not just developing meaning, generating some type of conversation, thinking about things differently. If I felt the way I was moving through the world was perfect, I would just sit, in a chair. I wouldn’t do anything but obviously its not that. There are so many unknowns, so many discrepancies, and incongruencies. There is a lot of tension, friction and there’s also harmony and love. It’s really complex and ultimately I’m just trying to process my world because I feel that’s the way I’m able to do this, through art making.
JK: You mentioned movement and you also mentioned process. It’s kinda like you’re an organic sound board with your own dials and knobs and then move your own body which is this other physical thing, it is a tool in itself. How do you use your actual body’s motion in a performative aspect both in the creation of the sound and when you perform later?
KB: For this performance in particular, I made a decision to exist outside of the public spaces. There are four spaces and then I’m in a fifth space outside the piece, so you won’t see me at all. That decision was made because I’m trying to allow for a directness between the site, location and the audience. I’m fully aware of what my body and the actions are doing. I think about that a lot even if I’m not sort of dancing because maybe its not music, maybe the compositions and rhythms are spread over a longer sequence of time but my body is still very invested in those movements. Those movements are what produces the sounds.
It depends on different contexts. When I performed a piece in the atrium at MOMA, in that work I was centrally located. Everyone was there and watched that happen. But it wasn’t so much about people seeing what I was doing as much as it was trying to get people to exist in a zone, in a sound field. Because the way the speakers were situated, there was one central point which was the heart of where the work was happening and I wanted as many people as possible to be in that space. I know then the draw of my presence, the draw of my body, my movement also allows for that. It becomes a facilitator for a different kind of arrangement or experience
JK: Does that affect the sound, having that many people or is it too big of a space for that to happen? Having them close, since they are soft.
KB: I don’t think it affected the sound because it was so damn loud. But by me being located in the field of that sound really affected the way I was playing it. Its not like I am sitting in a control booth blowing people’s heads off, sitting it a comfortable cozy room that doesn’t have any of the vibrations.
JK: In the piece here by isolating yourself, are you forcing the viewer to think about the place, the sound, their experience?
KB: Yeah, one thing I’m playing with also is the idea that it is something that is unfolding live. I don’t just hit play on my iPod and sit back. The fact that it’s being performed or that there is a performative aspect, I’m not interested in removing my responsibility or my agency. I’m as connected to that or trying to be connected and to be connected you gotta show up and be there. Totally immerse yourself in a way that also helps facilitate something much broader than yourself.
JK: You said that you make work not just for yourself but you make work for an audience. If you find yourself in the studios by yourself playing could you do the same thing that the audience will hear when they are there? Does even the thought of their presence change the way you move and get into the flow?
KB: No audience at all? I need something. I need some type of substance. Maybe if its actually slow and there are things I can do to make myself even more invested or immersed in what’s happening around me. But I’m really invested in responding to something that carries some type of history, whether personal or broader cultural issues. I’m not trying to look externally because I have to find relevance just for myself for the thing I’m thinking about. The decision between doing it at the Cozad Bates House versus doing it in the elevator in MOCA. It’s not just because the house is historical but I find some connection to the specifics of its history. I can maybe understand something about that.
Living in Detroit and having all my friends buying a bunch of abandoned buildings, I’m kinda fantasizing about that. To think about generating a work in an abandoned building is also another thing I can probably do. I can realize something that allows me to approach that in a different way or I can understand what that experience is or could be. Or maybe not, maybe I just leave a bunch of questions and now it’s even more complicated. Say the house is going to be developed for corporate use. What did I do? I draw attention to something and that ends up being its demise. That house hasn’t been broken into in the past seven years. After i do the performance, maybe it gets broken into now because it has a profile that is much broader than what it is.
JK: You mentioned a thought experiment of someone who had known the house before, maybe had been familiar with it. What would it mean for them to come and see the performance? What would it be like for someone to have that deep experience of the performance and then the experience of the accumulation of the performances?
KB: In using recordings I’m trying to collapse time in some way. What your are going to be hearing aren’t live feeds of what is happening today. In a rapid changing neighborhood, over a year a lot has changed. For example it could be a new experience sonically. If that railroad line all of a sudden got rerouted, which possibly could have happened in a year. What you are hearing in this piece is from a different time. I feel like that is interesting because I’m trying to collapse that into one experience. Because I think when you are accumulating all of these different layers or these layers have sort of built up, at the end you still have to do something with it. It still has to go somewhere or maybe it just sits and you just have to recognize that’s where it ends or that’s where it stops. Or it doesn’t accumulate in the way that it has been, because I think everything accumulates even if you try to stop it. It still finds a way.
JK: You talked about following the chirping of a traffic light, taking a cell phone snapshot of cows along the highway or not having wind when you have an exhibition of wind chimes, and then adapting to those situations. Does serendipity come into play during the collection and in the ultimate performance of the sound piece?
KB: Yeah it does. It’s great that you are bringing that up because I’m trying to process how. When something’s done I feel like I just skated by. If that wind wasn’t there those chimes would have been quiet. It would have been the most atrocious thing ever but they were quiet and people said the opposite. They said, “Are you sure you didn’t time that?” They were totally blown away and I was blown away too. I left room for that possibility and I also believe that if the wind chimes in that performance didn’t go off, that’s fine because that is a part of the way we are moving through the world. That’s the way you are experiencing it. What I’m trying to do is set up for something I can’t anticipate. I couldn’t anticipate what would happen either way. I’m going to do this. We’re going to be present. We’re in this together and whatever it is we’re going to adapt to that and we’re going to accept that’s the moment that it is.
There are still generative qualities in that experience. The people may say, “That was just boring and really dumb.” But I actually believe in that because I think that those minutia and those subtleties, that’s where the challenge is, where the difficult part is. When its raining outside and you are riding your bike it doesn’t feel good but maybe it’s just a point of perspective. Maybe that’s what needs to be shifted because ultimately it goes back to us. It goes back to how we are relating to these things. I’m always up for that, I’m always trying to leave space or leave room in what I’m doing for that. Oddly enough I feel they unfolded in way that has been kind of ideal. Maybe that was the best result? I don’t know because I don’t know what the other result might have yielded. The fact that they did something and people responded, I think that happened because I left room, not because it was so calculated and organized in a way that brought it to that. You have to leave room for something for maybe some other possibilities.
JK: I like that you have a very realistic outlook of the world. This is the thing that is there and that’s how it will react to us who are also here. That’s it and we better try to navigate, as you say process.
KB: Right. And then you are going to die. That’s the way it goes. You know, something’s going to happen, you are going to process it, you will feel something, whatever it is and then you are going to die. It’s not to be morbid or make light of it but it’s just …
JK: It’s an affirming kind of realization because now you better process. Now you better be present.
KB: Right. There’s a work now, this cassette tape thing that I’ve been working on for Casey Kaplan in New York. It’s up an running until April 26. They prompted me saying that the show is going to be up for two months and they wanted a performance. I don’t know but that’s kinda crazy because thinking about sound for two months has all these problems. What is the device that’s playing that sound? What am I going to play? Why would people want to come to a space and listen to anything that isn’t something they selected? Where is the foundation for it? I could just play some recordings of trains? You know? What am I going to do? It almost doesn’t work that way.
Then I stopped thinking about what the sound was in particular and started thinking about why are people going to be coming here, not even for sound but just for anything. I said well maybe that’s just it, maybe people will just be present. I tried to focus people in that moment. The moment you are experiencing is what you get. If you come back the next week you will experience something different, because it is a different time in the same place but what you are experiencing in that space is different. How do I do that for two months? I was like, dang that’s a really big sound file.
So then I started thinking about it physically because its actually more feasible. I started gathering cassettes and thinking about the duration. It’s 52 reels. Each reel has 40 hours of sound and music. It plays 5 days a week when the gallery is open. It’s all cassette tapes spliced together. When you walk into the gallery you’re going to hear Celine Dion or something and maybe the next, I don’t know, the next 30 minutes you will hear an audio clip or you will hear a lecture about Shakespeare or whatever. The range is all over the place.
The idea is that moment is your moment, that’s your like time, because as you are hearing it your’e not going to hear it again. No one is going to rewind it for you. It’s not going to come back next week. That’s the moment. The work relies on human presence so it’s not like an infinite loop that goes 24/7. When the business is open or when that venue is open and there’s people there to turn it on and turn it off, that’s when it’s going to operate. So that’s kinda how I developed that piece.
JK: It seems like you are purposefully putting in entropy and randomness by the human presence, the type of machines, the tape you select and also by your collection method including sources from everything from your mother to some tape head in Brooklyn. Do all these things come together to make it unique and in that moment?
KB: That is the connection for me and where the cultural capital exists. This thing exists in a context. The actual reel to reel itself has an 8-track insert on the side. 8-track was very American. It didn’t make it to anywhere else. This player was made by Akai which is a Japanese company. Also, cassettes are from a very specific time period. For people who know the cassette there’s a relationship there. That’s the way it is connecting and I’m interested in that. I’m not necessarily super invested in tape culture but I grew up with cassettes. There’s a relationship there. Also, for presenting sound as a mass or as a physical thing, it’s the most accurate because there isn’t a clear set way to measure it, the duration of a track. This much tape, this is about 60 minutes, this is about 90 minutes and you record onto it and well it’s not quite full so its not quite 90 minutes. We’re just kinda guessing but it is a mass produced, manufactured system that is supposed to be really precise. Whatever it’s supposed to be, I find it to be really interesting because it’s really organic. It parallels ourselves, it deteriorates over time. Its a bodily type of material.
JK: It almost is a way of giving a farewell to the physical media of our experience that will remain physical as it migrates to digital forms.
KB: Of course, I’m just thinking about all the cassette tapes. There’s almost 5000 cassette tapes in my studio, so many boxes of exoskeletons. The other thing too is that it’s the first sound work and maybe the last sound work that I’ve made that I don’t know what it sounds like. I don’t know what it sounds like in all its entirety. It’s a work I’ve been able to compose and I think I’ve been able to have that relationship because it is such a physical investment to put together. You don’t necessarily have to listen to all of it to compose the piece. It’s exciting because when I do go into the gallery to see, I got an opportunity to experience that aspect. It’s really refreshing.
JK: Hopefully its at a good point when you are there.
KB: I’ve also put in a reel that is total silence. Each week coincides with a week in the year so for the certificate for the work, I said you may not want to program any promotional events during this week because its gonna be silent. If you are promoting a show and the opening is on this week, people are going to be arriving and its just going to be total silence, running but nothing coming out. I felt it was necessary to have a week where it’s not just resting. Its working but its work is to be silent.
JK: You have work up in the Butcher’s Daughter Gallery in Detroit as well?
KB: I have some objects that are there. That’s another thing, that space in between them, that simultaneous existence where these objects are situated in a space. They have their sort of aesthetic and their visceral qualities. There’s also this tape machine running, having a different sort of relationship to its context and then me being here able to do this. The fact that its on Saturday, the fact that I’ll be performing in this space doing something and then that tape piece will also be playing.
JK: Like a thought experiment, what is that experience like to have work in Detroit, work in the Whitney, work playing at a gallery that you never heard before and performing in a house that’s the oldest structure in University Circle?
Its like a crazy constellation. Are they aware? Are they speaking to one another? Maybe. It takes us to tease that out. Because we are the conduits for it.
JK: We’re the physical things thinking about the physical things that we are.
KB: Yeah, exactly.
JK: Like Carl Sagan said that we’re the universe thinking about itself.
KB: Yeah, yeah, I was just watching the Symphony of Science the other day and he [deGrasse Tyson] says, “We are put here by the universe to know itself.” I love that though. Its like, of course. “We are all connected, to each other, biologically, to the earth, chemically, to the rest of the universe, atomiclly.”
JK: Exactly. Kevin that is a perfect place to wrap up. I am so excited to hear the performance. Thank you.