Jeanine Oleson: Hear, Here
New Museum, New York
23 April – 6 July 2014
by KATE TIERNAN
In early March, before the exhibition opening, Oleson staged The Rocky Horror Opera Show with a quartet of opera singers performing while an audience of die-hard opera fans were encouraged to dress up, sing along and dance – not something opera buffs would normally do. During her residency at the New Museum, Oleson will develop an additional group of interrelated new works, an exhibition and final experimental opera on 13 and 14 June, public programmes, workshops and a printed fold-out accompanying the show.
From her studio at the New Museum, Oleson spoke to Kate Tiernan. The following is an edited excerpt from that conversation.
Kate Tiernan: Do you feel that the residency programme at the New Museum is unique, being integrated across departments and disciplines, with the opera, workshops, publication and exhibition?
Jeanine Oleson: Yes, maybe that’s why it’s happening within the Learning Programme and it’s seen as research and development. I think education programmes elsewhere are probably in a bit of a panic about what to do. Ten or 15 years ago, they had the money to work with lots of schools. The New Museum does still have that programme, but a lot of places don’t do that any more. We have also been doing a reading group with a mix of people – art historians, artists, singers, composers and writers. It’s cool. It’s within an institutional context, but it feels parasitic and not academic, so it’s really nice. What Johanna Burton [director and curator of education and public engagement] does here is really cool.
KT: You have talked about reactive spaces. What does that mean for you?
JO: I was thinking about objects as catalysts within the opera: that’s something I’ve done a lot in my work. I thought about all the things I couldn’t possibly talk about, or the things that matter to me that I wanted also to have in the space, and in some way make room for. That’s why I decided to do the programme, including the gallery sessions, and not to think about them as one kind of thing. For example, I commissioned someone to come in and play the horn. Then on 1 May, as it was International Workers’ Day, we had protest karaoke [Another Protest Song: Karaoke with a Message, which looks to the karaoke songbook as a potential source of political enunciation]. It’s like, how do we make this place a part of what’s happening in the world today?
KT: How did your collaboration with Laurie Jo Reynolds [an artist and campaigner for change in prisons] come about through Tamms Year Ten [a coalition, set up by Reynolds, of prisoners, ex-prisoners, families, artists and other concerned citizens who came together to protest about the Tamms supermax prison in Illinois where men were kept in permanent solitary confinement]? I was at the Creative Time Summit, where she won the Creative Capital grant [for her video about prison life].
JO: I’ve known Laurie Jo for years. The Tamms Project was huge. She was working on it for eight years and now she’s working on the campaign for the re-election of Illinois governor Pat Quinn [who closed Tamms in January 2013]. I used to go and help with Tamms. I also did Photo Requests from Solitary [a project initiated by Tamms Year Ten in which people held in supermax prisons and solitary confinement were invited to request an image and promised that an artist on the outside would fulfil that request]. She would always be here for Creative Time stuff and, as I teach at Parsons [Oleson is assistant professor of photography in the department of art, media and technology at Parsons the New School for Design, New York], we started to talk about making it part of an academic project so that possibly we can get some funding.
KT: Did you view the Tamms project separately from your other work?
JO: Yeah. We decided to do it specifically in New York State and in California to support all the hunger strikers in California. Also Photo Requests from Solitary is Laurie Jo, me and Jean Casella, who is a journalist and one of the co-directors of Solitary Watch, a watchdog organisation [aimed at highlighting the widespread use of solitary confinement]. For us, it became a way to use our resources. We now have an advisory board that is asking artists to fulfill the requests. We are doing exhibitions and pumping up the programme to do it again. It is a way for me to be an advocate from a creative position; it is also an administrative position.
KT: What is your process like as an artist when you are making new work?
JO: It’s somewhere between crazy ideas and then doing a lot of research and thinking my way through how I want to do it. I usually come up with ideas for a topic that I know I want to deal with somehow, or I put myself in a position where I’ll have to start dealing with it. Sometimes one thing leads to another and it’s accidental.
KT: The work almost feels intuitive, as if there is an immediacy about it combined with a depth of research.
JO: I wouldn’t say I have a classic research practice, which I’m OK about.
KT: I was interested in the ritualistic aspect in some of your work. Do you practise vocal rituals, or have any rituals in the way you live or make art?
JO: It’s funny, I don’t really believe in belief. I have a real problem with belief systems, but at the same time I feel highly superstitious. I also believe that giving time to rituals is important, hence my public art project The Greater New York Smudge Cleanse, which wafted through the streets of New York City. The world’s largest sage smudge stick ritualistically cleansed negativity at four different sites of the city in October and November 2008. I loved making this ridiculous, supersized act to point to something in a particular place. It meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I support that, but I feel a little conflicted about spirituality in some way. I don’t buy it completely, but I also find it important. The act of singing is so important and it’s something I love to do: it makes my body feel good. It’s like letting something out into the world that’s a little scary or embarrassing, which, for me, is like making artwork.
KT: I found myself thinking of In a World, a recent film by Lake Bell, about the journey of a Hollywood female voiceover artist with a vast archive of voice recordings she has gathered over years. As your show is titled Hear, Here, I wondered whether you have an interest in accents in the way someone might capture a moment with a photograph? Do you do the same with voices?
JO: I’m a really good mimic and my dad is an incredible one, too. I grew up with it. It’s something I’ve always done. I love people’s accents, but sometimes I really hate people’s voices.
KT: How can audiences attune themselves to your work?
JO: I was thinking about that a lot in the context of connoisseurship, or how audiences can be highly engaged with someone’s work or field of work. I had done some interviews with opera buffs, aficionados. It’s the act of someone looking and caring about what they are seeing: caring about it is a kind of attunement – taking themselves as an instrument of knowledge and clicking into the register I’m engaging with, whatever it is. In some ways, it’s using a musical term to describe an engagement: people playing along. If you only play along for professional reasons, capitalism has eaten you alive. How do you latch on to people to make them care in some way about things that don’t affect them directly?
KT: What do you see as alternative models for language and voice?
JO: How important is a creative element in visual culture to an audience? It’s pretty important, since visual culture is through the roof right now. But, at the same time, it’s asking for something more than images to do that. Artists should be asking visually to do something beyond what image cultures are asking them to do. That’s a part of that ask: if you want to be here, what is it you want from this? It’s not just saying: “These are the issues this work is about.” That’s why I don’t think I make research-based work.
KT: Looking at The Mountain Cave, I was reminded of Alison Wilding’s work and, in particular, Assembly. Her use of materials, like yours, is very emotive. Also, Spartacus Chetwynd’s performance and installation work, where often you navigate through the space anticipating the performance. Here, the audience are behind the scenes, having the licence to see these objects, to pick them up and engage with them before the performance has happened.
JO: This show is a trip in that way because it’s like the future and the past all in one; here I am in the present, and what do I do with those two things? It puts a lot of pressure on these future objects; they’re not artefacts yet. I love Spartacus’s work.
KT: Several of your works use the language of nature in the titles and content. How important is nature to you? Was nature a part of your life when you were growing up?
JO: I think nature is a kind of language – it means something beyond meaning. That’s why I was thinking a lot about caves in this show, where it’s the unknown, submerged or interior without contact, like another world. I grew up in the country. I’m not afraid of nature or animals: I’m afraid of people. I think about those things as having allegorical and symbolic meaning and that’s very alive for me.
KT: What can we expect from the opera?
JO: The opera is about to go into pre-production and it’s in two acts. The first act is almost like agitprop. It’s really fast. It’s a lot of language that’s been acquired from elsewhere and has been pushed through. For the second act, I was thinking a lot about paradox in those works and political life. The second act is where touch scores come in, and it goes from the mountain to the cave. I described it as getting on the mothership and going away: that act of something unknown and musical while not concretely based in language – so the stretching of language or the meaning of the word, or the sonic quality of pulling it apart in some way.
KT: The instrument you designed for the show – is that something you’ve done before?
JO: When I was younger I used to make instruments, but really impromptu ones. This was a whole other thing. I decided I was going to make a horn, and then I found a horn-repair person, a great guy and a really amazing fabricator too. I would bring in a design and we’d talk it through because there is such a science to instruments. In no way is it conventional, but it works.
KT: Has music and singing always been a big part of your life?
JO: Yes, I’ve never been in bands or traditionally involved in music, but I love music. It does something really different to the experience of time, and I love that. The horn I was thinking of as an inversion of listening to the most bombastic instrument, and then it has all those vocal tracks, 3D-printed vocal tracks with the vowel. So the idea that sound and the human voice go from utterance to language with the use of vowels and those get inserted into the horn in different ways.
KT: How do you experience the more traditional formats that you might be borrowing from, such as Broadway theatre or a gig?
JO: Theatre freaks me out: sometimes I like it, but it’s hard for me. I’m in a research and development writing group all year with a theatre group called The Affiliates and they make really great work. It includes screenwriters and playwrights and directors, too. It’s so fascinating for me to see their craft. Thinking about performance art and then theatre, sometimes it’s as if performance art could use a little craft. I go to a lot of opera. I sit there and criticise the sets, the staging and the stories, but at some point I’m like, wow, because the voices hit a place at some point that I just let it go.
KT: Your work is about questioning and uncertainty for the audience. How do you feel about immersive theatre where it also provokes what theatre is?
JO: I’m interested in what they’re doing. I do like immersive theatre. It has its relevance and there’s still an expectation of what’s going to happen. There are distinct fields still, even though we’re in a multidisciplinary world. Theatre has its form even when it is immersive theatre, and I respect that completely. There is such a craft to how that is put together as a collaborative act. It’s so funny that people talk about collaboration in visual art when in other fields they’re always collaborating.
KT: Do you see the scale of some of your work growing? The Rocky Horror Opera Show you did in March was ambitious in scale.
JO: It’s never that I think, I want it to look like this, but more that I have an idea and wonder how I’m going to get there and then just start. The Rocky Horror Opera Show came about because at first I wanted Diamanda Galás to do it, with an audience of avid fans to be there to choreograph a concert. I was talking with my good friend Maria about wanting to do a traditional concert that goes wrong and she said: “We could do that.” I was adamant that the singers needed to be really good, as it has to be about virtuosity and some sort of relationship to that. That’s how that occurred. Like Rocky Horror but with opera where people can do what they want and all the costumes come from different arias. In that audience, there were people who knew those arias so could sing along, then some who thought it was the Rocky Horror Picture Show and seemed to have a good time anyway. We thought this was a project we could set up to see what happens, while not controlling it. It was a really fun night.