Witness to Chance
An introductory essay for Happy Birthday: A Celebration of Chance and Listening by Feldman Gallery Curator Mack McFarland.
OUR LIVES ARE infected with unintentionality. Despite our best efforts to remain in control, too many aspects of this disobliging Earth, its systems, and its inhabitants are in perpetual flux. Dwelling on choice and on “what ifs” in a world like ours can lead down a rabbit hole of regret, while succumbing to a belief in fate is its own abyss. The odds of predicting and thus taming fluky occasions of randomness and coincidence are sagaciously prohibitive. Utilizing their affect and raw potential became the calling card of this exhibition’s ponderer and celebrated figure, John Cage.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: A Celebration of Chance and Listening marks the centennial of John Cage’s birth and the influence of his ideas on the visual arts. The eight artists in this exhibition span several generations and are bound together by a shared ethos and praxis that is intrinsically tied to the ideas and sensibilities Cage fostered and rigorously developed over six decades of holistic creative activity. To pay appropriate homage to this multidisciplinary Zen master, within this volume you will find a varied collection of responses to his life and work. Lisa Radon lets Cage speak for himself, weaving a collaged essay in his own words. Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen muse on his 1959 Lecture on Nothing, which they read and discuss each school term with their students. David Abel utilizes a system of chance to create a poem in the style of Cage. And, it should be noted that our clever designers Anna and Leo Daedalus also used a chance operation in their process of designing this catalogue.
IN ADDITION, TO FURTHER our understandings of Cage, a series of events will be held over the course of the exhibition. Choreographer Linda Austin and sound artist Seth Nehil are organizing an evening of dance and music in the John Cage/Merce Cunningham style, where they have agreed on a set amount of time, but are working independently, bringing the dance and music together for the first time on the night of the event. Leo Daedalus is planning to host a special John Cage edition of his made-for-television but placed on a stage, talk show The Late Now. There will also be an evening of poetry edited by David Abel and James Yeary, followed shortly by Fluxus with Tools, a lecture demonstration performance by Alison Knowles and Hannah Higgins.
THIS EXHIBITION WAS first conceived in the year 2000 after reading an interview with Nam June Paik in which he described his desire to rent Carnegie Hall for a huge Cage Festival in honor of his mentor’s birthday. I was similarly inspired and motivated by Cage, in the accessibility of his methods, his simple and poetic way of unpacking complexity, his compelling ideas of prepared piano, chance operation, and indeterminacy, as well as by the earnestly playful persona present in his writing. These things, combined with the fact that I was observing a surge of DIY sensibility at the time that seemed relevant to a consideration of Cage, drew me to the conclusion that I would dedicate myself to creating an event for his 100th birthday.
THERE ARE, OF COURSE, thousands of artists past and present that operate in and around Cage’s legacy. The majority of the artists in Happy Birthday did not have a personal relationship to Cage, but, as Ray Johnson put it in a 1975 interview, “we all dance in John Cage’s shoes.” Though Johnson’s process is not overtly linked to Cageian methods, his life was shaped, when at the age of 21, he first met Cage and his creative partner Merce Cunningham at Black Mountain College. Johnson is best known for his elaborate mail art project, the New York Correspondance School (his spelling), which was a complex web of creative individuals with whom he would exchange art through the mail. Johnson shared with Cage an interest in Zen, which, according to Johnson’s longtime friend and biographer William S. Wilson, was manifested in an openness to process and a resistance to blind habits. “He was disciplined to use the accidents which occurred while working, because accidents and failures brought real forces into play, and helped him think about what was real for him.” Reading about Johnson, or seeing John Walter’s 2002 film How to Draw a Bunny, one is left with the feeling that for Johnson, the real was his art, which was inseparable from his life, as evidenced in the everyday materials of his collages, objects, and performances.
ALISON KNOWLES ALSO had a long friendship with Cage that grew out of a vicarious classroom experience. Her partner, Dick Higgins, along with Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, and many others, partook in Cage’s Experimental Composition class at the New School for Social Research in 1958. (Several of the students of these classes either during or soon after the course, created key methods and terms that helped shape the art of the 1960’s, such as Kaprow’s Happenings or George Brecht’s Event Scores, a hallmark of the Fluxus group.) This history is eloquently told by Hannah Higgins (Knowles’ daughter with Dick Higgins) in her 2002 book Fluxus Experience. When I approached Knowles about including her work in the exhibition, I had already settled on the title Happy Birthday. When I relayed that to her, she immediately suggested the work included in the exhibition, Twins, writing: “I have a silkscreen and Xerox print titled ‘Twins,’ which celebrated my twin daughters by showing a button and a bean as twins. The nicest part of the print, I think, is a large green bean.” The associative thinking that linked the temporal reasoning of the exhibit— Cage’s birthday—to the conceptual impetus for her print is a lovely example of the embrace of whimsy and play in Knowles’ work and in Fluxus.
THIS PLAYFUL NATURE IS ALSO felt in Stephanie Simek’s untitled work. Her methods tend to resemble those of a mad scientist, building Rube Goldberg-like devices that she often uses as musical instruments for performances. Her Color Spectrum Sounds is a good example, which she describes as a “performance of light wave sonification produced by exposing rewired cassette players to the luminous display of the color spectrum as it is generated through diffraction grating film on an overhead projector.” The resulting rainbow of the diffraction film is projected on her washboard-looking instrument and her body as she manipulates the brightness of light hitting the light sensitive sensors. Each one of which is connected to a cassette player devoted to a color from the visual spectrum. Like Cage’s work preparing a piano, Simek’s inventions are the results of many trial and error attempts to arrive at an unknown place. These complex constructions harness an earnest curiosity and wonder, one that’s also present in The Sound of Ice Melting by Paul Kos.
THE BLACK-AND-WHITE IMAGE of this 1970 Kos work has been etched in my mind since I first saw it. It’s an arresting image, witty and profound; its content and composition have made it the essential image, the one that has come to define the work’s existence. The Sound of Ice Melting seems like the perfect sound piece to include in this exhibition because it’s virtually silent. Kos has said that what a visitor will hear when they come and place their head close to the speaker is “the background noise of the world.” From its premier in Sound Sculpture As, the inaugural exhibition at Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, the piece has been spoken about in terms of its Zen-like qualities. Yet when you speak with Kos about the work, he mentions Samuel Beckett and Theater of the Absurd as jumping off points for the work. An earlier Kos work titled Richmond Glacier, which was made for his 1969 solo exhibition at the Richmond (California) Art Center, clearly operates in and around the absurd. He barricaded the front door with a 7,000lb block of ice, which, after being deemed a fire hazard, was destroyed by firemen with axes. Whether Zen or absurd, the poetic persists in Kos’s work with ice, as realized in his 2004 piece, Ice Makes Fire, a color video recreation of his 1974 black-and-white video titled Alchemy of Ice. Kos cuts a slab of ice and spins it inside of a cooking pot to form a convex lens, which he then uses (like a magnifying glass) to focus the light of the sun, igniting a small campfire. The materials and approach Kos employs in his works illustrate the sense of humor contained in enlightenment.
KOS WAS ANOTHER ARTIST WHO had encounters with Cage during his lifetime, meeting him on a few occasions in San Francisco when Cage was working with Crown Point Press on etchings and monotypes, a practice he began in 1978 and kept up until his death in 1992. I was introduced to the San Francisco-based artist, Brad Brown by former Crown Point Press master printmaker Paul Mullowney, who worked with both Cage and Brown at Crown Point. Mullowney knew I was working on an exhibition for Cage’s centennial, and when he learned I was traveling to the Bay Area, he told me of Brown’s print work.
FOR HIS PRINTS BROWN UTILIZES a formula of accident and circumstance: the application of acid on the plate is determined by chance operation and then it is left to the printers to randomly assemble the various plates into a series of unique prints rather than an edition. Seeing Brown’s work in his exhibition Serials at Hosfelt Gallery, I was struck by his immense output and focus, as well as his profound dedication to a systematic spontaneity. His process is similar to Wilson’s description of Ray Johnson’s discipline. He follows the accidents, leaving room for situations where his work can be marked unknowingly as he traverses and creates in the studio. Predominately working on paper, his conscious marks blend with the accidental, the results are then often folded and torn up, added and assembled into other works in a complex process that resists the conclusion of a finished state. His works lay bare their created life, while simultaneously their poetic, gestural lines obfuscate a quick reading.
BROWN’S WORKS ARE RECORDS of their environment—an environment of looseness within the construction of a constraint-based practice, one governed by rules. These system-based results are in play with the work of other artists in the exhibition like Luke Murphy, who measures the ambient radiation of a given space by Geiger counter and uses the readings as a data set for his algorithmically driven visual works. As Murphy has it, the random ticks mark the moments when the Geiger wand catches “the particles as they follow their ancient trajectories or the ineluctable decay of atoms.” They propel the outcomes of his chance-based system. Murphy finds inspiration and angst in the unpredictability of measuring radioactive decay, stating: “Confronting the fact that no tick interval can be predicted is like accepting the reality of a vacuum… Each tick reminds us of our inability to predict the next tick. This is true anxiety.”
THE MECHANICS OF MURPHY’S APPROACH and its digital presentation connect with areas of Cage’s practice and his interest in the new media of the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as HSPCHD (1969), Cage’s first forays into computer music. There are philosophical differences between the two. Where Cage came to use chance from a perspective of Zen, Murphy cites post-atomic anxieties and Gnostics’ belief in an irrational world as the beginnings of his utilization of randomness.
MOLLY DILWORTH’S APPROACH SHOWS a tighter hold on chance, using it as a method for organizing her creative research, a way of sorting the visual and historical information she collects in her area of interest. Her works presented in Happy Birthday titled 36º 30’ explore the signs and symbols of slavery both historic and contemporary. Her compositional process with these works is tightly linked to Cage’s influence in that she begins with a very defined supply of options in terms of shape, color, and line and builds a chance operation around them, removing her tastes and biases from the construction of the work. The banners of 36º 30’ ask us to look at the abstracted symbologies of global slavery as they lord above us. In an example of the beautiful contradictions of art, Dilworth has created lovely paintings that are laced and embedded with a tragic history in which we are all implicated, meanwhile the banners fly above like celebratory fanfare. These multiple readings are part of the power of the work and are a reality of both abstraction and curatorial context. In the context of Happy Birthday, the process and Cageian ethic of 36º 30’ are illuminated, while the format of the banner in relation to an exhibition celebrating a birth tilts towards one meaning for a viewer. It is only a deeper exploration of process and form that reveals the alter ego of Dilworth’s work.
IN THE PROCESS OF CURATING THIS exhibition, I came to many of the artists with a very open attention to our conversation, allowing space for the suggestion of specific works to come from them: Knowles, Brown, Murphy, Dilworth, and Simek are examples, but with others, like Johnson, Kos, and Walead Beshty there were very specific existing works that I had in mind to create conversations within the exhibition. In Beshty’s case his Fedex® Kraft Boxes fit perfectly.
BESHTY AND BROWN SHARE CAGE’S embrace of chance, his model of attentive openness, and spirit of noble freedom—one partially found in the removal of the artist’s hand—while between them are also strategies of mark-making involving movement, which for Brown occur in the studio, and for Beshty via shipping and handling. The fragile appearance of Beshty boxes’ run contrast to their concrete implications. The process and concept is simple: glass and mirror sculptures are built to the shape and scale of standard-sized cardboard Fed Ex shipping containers, placed in correlating boxes, and shipped overnight to the exhibition venue without padding or packing. Not only does the surface of the sculpture change with each trip, the title is also amended to include the details of the work’s travel, including city names and tracking numbers. Beshty’s photographic series Transparencies, bare some of the same marks of travel, the image’s negative is created by the X-Ray of the airport security machine, and then a corresponding print is made.
OUTSIDE OF CAGE’S 100th BIRTHDAY 2012 seems an odd moment to examine the works and legacy of this Zen-driven chance taker. Questions have come up with colleagues in the past year about what his ideas might lend to a consideration of Facebook, the Mars Rover, or runaway capitalism. That Cage feels at once oversaturated and underexposed, out of place in this cultural moment and at the same time rooted in our collective soil (and emerging technology) is a curious condition for the legacy of an artist. Perhaps Cage has reached the goal set out in his favorite Kwang-tse story, which he pointed us all to in his 100 one-minute stories of the Indeterminacy lecture and recording from 1959: “Cultivate in yourself a grand similarity with the chaos of the surrounding ether. Unloose your mind and set your spirit free. Be still as if you had no soul.” Or perhaps this is what we have done to Cage. In assimilating his zeitgeist, burrowing his presence into all the arts, and hashtagging his ideas for simplifying searches, we have cultivated and spread Cage through our ether, lodging him deep into our thought processes—his habits into our daily dances with unintentionality.
WE DO NOT WITNESS THE CHANCE operations in the background of our computers’ code as they drive the algorithms that fuel our social media feeds and search engines. When comparing a flow chart of an algorithm, Euclid’s algorithm for instance, with the process Cage formulated for the composition of Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, we see more similarities than differences. The current conversation around these data devices places them more in the camp of science than art, the experience more like choice than chance. But with a consideration of Cage this appears to fade. If we look carefully, we see that these technological phenomena reflect Cage’s praxis and ideas. What is sometimes missed is a basic tenet of Cage’s being: that a subtle practice of close observation in the form of a shifted focus opens one up to new experiences that have always been there. This way of seeing can be easy to neglect in our era of live-streamed information glut, where there is often too much signal to enjoy the noise. However if we can be just silent enough, we may find the noise quite enjoyable.