Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fabric Workshop and Museum
12 December 2014 – 5 April 2015
by LILLY WEI
Based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Jennifer Allora (b1974 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) and Guillermo Calzadilla (b1971 in Havana, Cuba) have worked together as a collaborative team since 1995. Their art, rigorously conceptual and experimental in nature without sacrificing visual splendour, addresses an ongoing series of ontological, semiotic questions that explore contemporary culture and its connection to the beginnings of human consciousness. Intervals – at two sites, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fabric Workshop – is the largest solo exhibition they have had in the United States, and probes the present by interweaving it with the past through language, science, and music. They exhibit widely and represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 2011. The following is an edited interview with the two artists.
Lilly Wei: Your show, Intervals, is currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Fabric Workshop. What is the thinking behind this recent body of work?
Jennifer Allora: The films are the result of in-depth research into particular artefacts, and a conceptual reconsideration of our relationships to them. Music, sound and vocal traces serve as a connective theme for these works and the exhibition as a whole. Together, the films reflect our interest in the history and origins of human music not only as a means to define the boundaries between man and animal, but also to communicate across their social, historical and creative divide.
Guillermo Calzadilla: We are interested in new materialism’s radical displacement of human subjectivity through its focus on the power and “vitality” of matter (written about by political theorist Jane Bennett) and the place of embodied humans within the material world. At the same time, our work is very much engaged in questions of language and discourse, and we’ve found a bridge between the two in biosemiotics. This emerging field reconnects agents, actions and objects in a set of sign relations not reducible simply to human modes of perception and apprehension. We are also deeply interested in the subjects of prehistory and geology, and in the material traces and remains of the deep past.
LW: Tell me a little about your themes in Raptor’s Rapture (2012), which you made for Documenta 13. Bernadette Käfer is playing a prehistoric flute created from the bone of a vulture. With her is a live vulture. Do you think that might seem a little unfeeling, even if it’s a scavenger?
JA: Raptor’s Rapture (2012) involves a flute that was carved by Homo sapiens about 40,000 years ago from the wing bone of a griffon vulture. Unearthed at the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany in 2009 by a team of archaeologists, it’s the oldest musical instrument found to date. It’s really a remarkable discovery and further evidence of the role of music in the development and expansion of early human social networks, and, ultimately, in evolutionary survival.
GC: We invited Käfer, a flautist specialising in prehistoric instruments, to attempt to play the flute in the presence of a living griffon vulture, an evolutionary descendant of one of the oldest creatures to have inhabited the Earth, and currently near extinction. We see it as sharing the musical remains of prehistoric human culture with this scavenging bird of prey, while the acoustic trace, emitted from the flute, presents itself as a time capsule of sound from the historical moment when music, speech and humanity were born. We were interested in the figure of the vulture as an animal that feeds on remains. In this case, we were trying to make a specific connection between the griffon vulture and the remains of both its own evolutionary ancestors and the musical remains of our early human culture. We were also trying to make a correlation between remains, remainders, traces, remembering and memory.
LW: And Apotomē (2013) is also about remains? The voice of singer Tim Storms is startling; you said it was the lowest human voice ever recorded?
JA: Yes, it is. Apotomē is an archaic Greek word referring to an interval of musical sound in the Pythagorean scale and is quite precise. The normal voice can’t produce it, and the ear can’t detect it. Literally, it means “what’s cut off”.
GC: The starting point for this work is the incredible story of Hans and Parkie, two elephants that arrived at the Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle in Paris in March 1798 as spoils of war. A concert was organised that same year in the Jardin des Plantes for the elephants. The musicians wanted to see if human music might elicit a reaction in a non-human form of life. The very concepts of man, life, nature and the boundaries between them as defined by relations to war, captivity, slavery and other forms of social and political domination and control emerged in this period. The musicians’ (as opposed to scientists’) experiment added questions about the nature of music, as a possible interspecies meta-language, a proto-linguistic, non-symbolic and affective trans-human mode of communication whose basis is biological and evolutionary.
JA: Apotomē is an experiment of another kind, involving Storms, an extraordinary vocalist who has the world’s deepest voice, so deep that only animals as large as elephants are able to hear his lowest tones. In the film, he sings music from the original concert to the elephant remains currently in the Zoothèque of the Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle.
LW: And what about 3 (2013), inspired by the Venus of Lespugue? I thought the theory that the voluptuous proportions of the famous fertility figurine corresponded to the Dorian mode of the ancient Greeks and the diatonic scale of the Vedic Aryans fascinating.
JA: The film 3 is based on the Venus of Lespugue, one of the world’s best-known Upper Paleolithic Venus figures and explores the relationships between proportions and disproportions, harmony and disharmony, the commensurable and incommensurable.
There are many hypotheses surrounding her exaggerated proportions, related to fertility, prehistoric religion, a “realistic” representation of the physical population, or eroticism. Ralph H Abraham, a mathematician and chaos theorist, and William Irwin Thompson, a social philosopher, critic and poet, however, argue that measurements taken from the Venus correspond so closely to these musical modes that one must consider the possibility of this being intentional. So we decided to make a film that attempts to portray, in visual and musical terms, a transcription of the Venus figure into music, using the proportions of the statue as a musical scale.
GC: We asked composer David Lang to write a score based on the Venus for solo cello, a modern descendant of the ancient monochord (the instrument Pythagoras allegedly used to perfect his theory of harmonic intervals). For the film, Maya Beiser plays David’s composition to the original Venus of Lespugue in the storage room of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. David’s composition and Maya’s singular performance stood, in some ways, as a bivalent measure of the distance between our present and past humanity.
LW: Interludes, a sound project for the exhibition, presented in both venues, is again about remains, traces, consisting of breaths from vocal recordings that are usually muted. Would you describe it?
JA: We worked with audio recordings from the Sigma Sound Studios Collection at the Drexel University Audio Archives in Philadelphia. The common practice in professional studio mastering of songs is to record each performer on a separate track and then mix the sound channels together to make the master track. The noise associated with breathing (the singer’s inhaling or exhaling) is usually eliminated. We became interested in these breath fragments or remains as not only a necessary biological function, but as the very material that causes the vocal chords to make sound. Essential but unwanted, these breaths presented an interesting paradox to explore. ForInterludes, we recovered these discarded breaths and played them back without the song, bearing witness to what was discarded, making present what is normally absent.
LW: Why does music play so pivotal a role in these videos, and is this body of work the first time you’ve used it so exhaustively?
GC: Music has played an important role in our work. Earlier projects, such as Returning a Sound (2004) and Clamor (2006) among others, looked to the social and political underpinning of music, especially in relation to militarism and war. This more recent body of work explores music as a signifying element of a larger cosmology – from its evolutionary and biological origins to its translatability into mathematical properties. At the same time, these works, revel in the unknowable, in what resists representation and quantitative units. They find in music a reckoning with incomplete presences and remainders, with elusive forces and the abyss that lies between them.
LW: And would you comment on the performance presented at the preview, In the Midst of Things, an arrangement of Joseph Haydn’s The Creation; how did it relate to your project?
JA: In The Midst of Things consists of a vocal ensemble performing The Creation, an oratorio that celebrates the creation of the world and the origins of human kind, the libretto taken from Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s poem follows the epic tradition of starting in medias res (Latin for in the midst of things), the action already begun, the background story to be recounted later. We explore that tradition, along with other non-linear storytelling methods as structuring devices for the musical arrangement. Reversals, inversions and interruptions of chronological musical time and the accompanying back-masking and phonetic reversal of the sung words are emphasised through a parallel stage direction. The singers physically move forward when singing the piece in a forward direction and backwards when they sing parts of the oratorio in reverse. This musical experiment delves into the structural mechanics of musical composition and considers what makes a certain arrangement of notes, chords, or other tonal progressions resonate with human emotions. Likewise, it explores what new meanings can be generated by pushing language to its limits. The resulting combination of alien, yet structurally coupled sounds and words, open this famous oratorio to a reconsideration of humankind’s origins and time itself.
LW: These themes are picked up again at the Fabric Workshop. Would you discuss Lifespan? It is the only object in the gallery it occupies and seems to have – or acquire – a presence that is completely disproportionate to its size, which is small.
GC: Lifespan focuses on a single rock estimated to be more than four billion years old. This Hadean period rock sample, suspended from the ceiling, is “played” by three vocalists whose whistling and breaths, following a score by Lang, turn it into a pendulum. Their actions can be taken as an unproductive yet poetic form of wind erosion directed towards this uniquely uncorrupted material from a time when there were no life witnesses to the planet’s geological transformation. With the force of their breath, this ancient piece of the Earth is displaced from its position of equilibrium, while gravity restores it to a state of rest, creating a periodic cycle that refers to the partitions of geological time and musical time.
LW: And would you talk about Intervals? It is another sculptural work, but much larger in scale. Why do you juxtapose clear, contemporary acrylic lecterns with the bones of a long-extinct species?
JA: The transparent lecterns (from the Latin lectus, past participle of legere, “to read”) are reconfigured into supports for the bone fragments of dinosaurs that inhabited the Earth millions upon millions of years ago. The petrified bones are what remain of these giant ancestors’ once living bodies. Placed on top of the lecterns, they function as 3D primary texts written into the geological record. The placement of each fragment also corresponds to the height where they would actually be found in the dinosaur’s body. We might think of them as messengers from a former world, insisting upon a new way of reading, on a new dialogue among and across species and times.
LW: And lastly, would you talk a little about your three-channel film installation, The Great Silence? For me, it is the dazzler of the exhibition. It is so lushly filmed and sweeping, grounded in science and technology, but also haunting and poetic, even sublime, summoning aeons of time and all forms of consciousness, of life, of cosmic communities; the line, “be good, I love you” was very poignant although out of context, it might seem banal.
GC: We had the idea for a long time of making a film about the Arecibo Space Observatory, one of the world's largest single-aperture radio telescopes, located on the edge of a small hamlet in Puerto Rico called Esperanza (Hope). In the nearby Rio Abajo Forest live the last remaining population of the Puerto Rican parrots, once abundant, now critically endangered. We wanted to interweave the activities of the Arecibo Observatory with that of the parrots. In the spirit of a fable, we planned to write a subtitled script – a language translation device – that would accompany the film, functioning, in this case, as a form of interspecies translation. The subtitled text would present the bird’s point of view and observations on current day Homo sapiens’ search for life forms outside this planet. It would acknowledge the lively knots and irreducible gaps between living, nonliving, human, animal, technological and cosmic actors, and cast serious doubts on the anthropocentric perspective.
We had met science fiction writer Ted Chiang in Granada, Spain in 2011 at a conference, as well as brain scientist Kazuo Okanoya, who talked about Alex, the African grey parrot. His story became one of the primary anchors of our film’s text. We loved the parallels that this genuinely scientific study of the cognitive and language abilities of birds had to our fictional film project. Admirers of his writing, we asked Ted to create the subtitles, which he agreed to do, helping us weave our many thoughts into the film with utmost economy, clarity, and elegance.
JA: Ted found the key through which to express some of these ideas when he brought up Alex the parrot and vocal learning – how both parrots and humans (and few other species) are vocal learners. The Fermi Paradox (about the high probability of extraterrestrial life, but with no evidence of it) was important to include, especially since the first message transmitted into space was from Arecibo, sent in 1974. We were also engaged by the relationship between the acousmatic voice and ventriloquism, the philosophical problem of man/animal/continuity/separation and its complex relationship to questions of being. We thought about how the parrot could refer to the ancient Greek conviction that “our thinking is done with the lungs and not the brain” (the corporeal nature of thought) and to the complex spectrum between noise, music, sound, hearing and listening, transmission and reception, sensations and perception that are all at stake in our fictional setup, in our pursuit of extinct languages as well as the living.
GC: Overall, in this exhibition, we were seeking an alternative possibility for the present in which contemporary and past events intermingle, where live entities and ancestors commune and geology, evolution, sensation and emotion intersect in a tangled, evocative synthesis.