DRINK THE NEW WINE | Exquisite Dialogue

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David Byrne
& Matthew Buckingham

DB: We really enjoyed your film Muhheakantuck - Everything Has a Name and the boat trip where it was screened: what a great combination. Cindy and I talked about the piece a lot over dinner and the topic turned to the films of Chris Marker, La Jetee and San Soleil. I love both, and I’m interested to hear what you think of his work.

I'm also curious about the context your work is shown in. Obviously showing that piece on a water taxi made the context part of the piece. The filmic images sometimes moved one way while the shoreline in the window moved in the opposite direction. The silences—which in a gallery might be "difficult"—here gave one time to let the thoughts and text sink in while looking at both the helicopter view and the view outside the window. How are the means of presentation you've used—video, film projector loops, multiple screens, etc.—determined? How are they integral to each piece?

MB: Chris Marker is a very interesting and important filmmaker for me. I suppose this is because he was one of a number of people who created a new space for film by striking a different balance between fiction and nonfiction in their work. I'm thinking of Jean Rouch, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Rossellini, Chantal Ackerman, Yvonne Rainer, Danielle Huillet and [MB: they only worked together] Jean-Marie Straub, and others who, in different ways, seemed to acknowledge the importance or necessity of making truth-claims with their work while emphasizing the difficulty in doing so. 

For me Marker is particularly interesting because he plays so much with authorship, with subjectivity and our expectation for objectivity in nonfiction film. Very often he interchanges “facts” and “opinions,” and leaves the viewer to sort things out. This rearranges the authority of the artist (without attempting to deny it), and brings the position of the artist closer to that of the viewer.

But this is also when his work becomes interesting for some of its problems or apparent blind spots too. As Cathrine Russell points out in her book Experimental Ethnography, Marker doesn’t really use the filmmaking techniques that are described in the film's voiceover. Instead he reproduces many of the ethnographic and mainstream filmmaking techniques that he criticizes. It is endlessly slippery in this way.

Even with, or maybe because of, this strong ambiguity there is also a high degree of synthesis in Marker's work. A “coherent” whole emerges as you watch, and as an artist I'm interested in what happens when we forgo that kind of synthesis, for instance in a project like Chantal Ackerman's News From Home. In this piece, Ackerman hurriedly and quietly reads letters written by her mother over very long, unstaged shots of New York City. A story emerges between the repetitive words of a mother “back home” and the everyday settings that the daughter/filmmaker is temporarily “at home” in—but it is only one of many stories and is constantly at risk of falling apart.

In a way it’s a similar type of spatial juxtaposition that occurs in News From Home that I'm interested in working with in the art context. While the exhibition space is constructed as a “neutral” place, it is also “somewhere”—and “somewhere” is always a place. I like to try to remind or return the viewer to their surrounding environment as much as possible. This is another aspect of the synthesis of cinema that I find not very interesting. Not only the synthesis of montage but the way that movie theaters ask you to forget where you are.

So all of this went into my thinking in planning the water taxi screenings. I wanted to try to experience the images and narratives that are in the film directly in the place that they refer to. The project as a whole looks at the brief and disastrous period of Dutch colonization in the Hudson River Valley in terms of how that story (or its lack) asks us to identify with the city the way it is today. I wanted to disorient the viewer and let them watch the film from outside their normal views of the city, combining the cartographer's aerial view with what was, in the 16th century, the most common view of New York (for both Indigenous people and Europeans alike): the water view.

I plotted the route of the boat so that it would, as you point out, often travel in the reverse direction of what appears on screen and in the voiceover. I hope this contributes to the sense of different timeframes overlapping, where ultimately all we really have is the present and our aspirations for the future.

Related to the questions you've raised after seeing my Water Taxi project, I'm curious how you conceived of Playing the Building, and the way in which it becomes its own environment or context. 

It seems that, conceptually, you've interchanged several elements, including the musical instrument with the concert hall as well as the listener with the performer. Do you see it this way? Is it the first project where you've also exchanged places as “performer” with that of the listener/spectator? 

I'm also very curious about the way that the keyboard scheme of musical notes arranged in a specific pattern is subverted, or possibly supported, by the placement of the various “hammers” or strikers on the infrastructure of the building. Obviously if a piece of “scored” music was played on your keyboard here it would be dispersed and deflected musically and physically. It brings to mind John Cage's prepared piano, but in an exploded version. Is there a relationship here with Cage at all? And have you, or anyone else, written a score to be played in your work? I look forward to seeing this very much and playing it myself!

DB: I think it’s important that the public be allowed to play this thing. It’s not music (or art) as a commodity played by professionals—and no one is better at playing it than anyone else. I can imagine that some more traditional instruments might have gone through a similar process: the very first harp (for instance) probably didn’t have any virtuosos, nor the very first organ…the list goes on. For those reasons, the public seems to have less fear and trepidation playing this thing than they would if it were a traditional instrument. They know that they won’t be embarrassed just because they “don’t know how to play.” And no, there are no scores. That would position it in the universe of musical instruments that only professionals play.

The exploded version of a prepared piano is a good analogy. They both take a traditional instrument as a control and as a starting point, then play with one’s expectations of what sounds one expects to hear. The notes in Play the Building do indeed go from low (the vibrating girders and rumbling steel made by the motors) to high (the pings of hammers striking the columns), and while I haven’t been able to get them to play classic tempered scales it is not out of the realm of possibility. But, as with Cage’s pianos, maintaining tempered scales is not the point.

It’s funny, musical instruments collect an aura, as do works of art. One forgets that a violin is a clunky fragile wooden box with a stick attached and some strings pulled across it. People approach musical instruments as if the sounds and music are inherent in them—precious masterpieces lying untapped until an expert picks the thing up. Well in a sense the music is inherent in the wooden box with strings, but no more so than in a building, a car chassis, or a bathtub.

You mentioned earlier that Marker plays with mixing fiction and nonfiction. Is that different than mixing truth and falsity? I know much of the narrative in Muhheakantuck - Everything Has a Name ruminates on history, maps, vertical flight, and memory—but am I to assume that everything that isn’t obviously opinion is fact? Have you visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where the dioramas and exhibits are all presented as fact, but sometimes it is clear that they are simply made-up? That, of course, calls the whole thing into question—one begins to doubt everything. I’ve seen people get very annoyed in there. I wonder if it would be possible for someone to make a “Wiki” film, similar to the user-generated content of Wikipedia that is presented as fact.

MB: Another good thing to think about! What happens now that anyone can “publish” their own work and potentially deliver it to a great number of people? Do we get new forms of knowledge, or just more information? I haven't visited the museum of Jurassic Technology, but I'm curious to go sometime. It raises a related question about how we use fiction, one that I've always seen as related to the so-called “mocumentary” phenomenon, which came about around the same time as the museum was founded in the late 1980s. But I wonder if the irony in those forms don't actually rely on or reinforce more rigid ideas about what's true and false.

I suppose that mixing fiction and nonfiction is different from mixing “true” and “false,” although in the end what we gain from fictional forms might be similar to what we are left with after realizing that we've been deliberately (even artfully) deceived in order to get at something that eludes the “truth.” That's the way I perceive and appreciate the artist Walid Raad's work, as a fiction that tries to bring our imaginations almost too close to the truth. 

I hope that my film produces some doubt in the viewer's mind, at least enough to consider where the information I'm presenting may have come from. Our access to information about that time period is as much the subject of the project as is the Dutch colony, and its relations with the Lenape. It's one of the ways that I hope the work is really about what's happening not only 500 years ago, but now as well. I noticed in the documentation of Playing the Building that the keyboard controlling your work looks like it comes from the time of the building. Was it built as an organ keyboard? How did you decide on that interface, and how does it work? Sounds produced through striking, vibration, and wind are very complex, so each building will obviously be a different instrument—not only because of its acoustics but also its architecture, age, and materials. Where will you install the project in New York? How do you think it will alter the “timbre” of the piece?

DB: I knew that I wanted the whole piece to be mechanical—no microphones, speakers, or electronics would be used to produce or amplify sound. So, though a contemporary keyboard would have worked just fine, I chose to use an old pump organ.

The piece will be installed in Lower Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building, a landmarked but largely unused building that was constructed in 1909. Many buildings from the Beaux Art era, including the Battery Maritime Building, have cast metal columns, and metal radiators, trusses, and girders—all of which can be made to produce sound in fairly similar ways. Needless to say, this piece can’t be installed in a contemporary art gallery like the ones in Chelsea.

I hope that the film produces some doubt in the viewer's mind, at least enough to consider where the information I'm presenting may have come from. Our access to information about that time period is as much the subject of the project as the Dutch colony and its relations with the Lenape. It's one of the ways that I hope the work is really about what's happening now, and not only 500 years ago.

Related to your idea about questioning where information comes from, I wanted to tell you that I was shocked when you mention in Muhheakantuck - Everything Has a Name that Henry Hudson’s log from his first trip up the Hudson was destroyed. Though I shouldn’t have been surprised I guess. We presume that we have access to infinite information about the present—which we don’t. And we also presume, as you point out, that history (or our stockpile of information about the past) is true and complete, which is also completely false. The notion that history—something we perceive as being fixed is constantly mutating and being rewritten is hard to hold in one’s mind: they seem like contradictory ideas.

I guess there’s information, and then there’s information about information—and then there are links between bits of information that become information in themselves. These links are organizing principals and filters, and I suppose they are the most valuable.

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