My Heart But Spare My Soul: Interview with Alison O’Daniel, César Leal, and Greg Pond

Chattanooga-based art space Stove Works in collaboration with Tennessee’s Locate Arts + Seed Space opened Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul (Oct. 12 - 28), a multi-modal exhibition of sculpture, dance, video, sound, and installation that sensorially engaged new modes of sonic conveyance.

Exhibiting selections from Los Angeles artist Alison O’Daniel’s two channel filmic work, The Tuba Thieves (2013-ongoing), with the interdisciplinary work(s) of Banning Bouldin, Greg Pond, César Leal, Jessica Usherwood, and New Dialect dancers Emma Morrison and Becca Hoback in guncotton (2018), Melt My Heart aggregated divergent cultural producers to form a dialogic experience beyond language. The first exhibition in Seed Space’s newly expanded statewide programming and the second collaborative satellite exhibition in Stove Works’ LAND AND SEA series, Melt My Heart underscored the generative qualities of unfettered exchange that frames their respective programming—highlighting artists whose work recursively engage movement, space, structure, and aurality as a novel form of being-in-the-world.

Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves is an anachronistic two-channel film that presents historic and fictive events that engage aurality and transformative acts of listening. So named after a series of tuba thefts from high school marching bands in Los Angeles, O’Daniel engages the expanded field of film to sequentially and formally shift narrative and subjective value making through the lens of lost sound. Three specific concert scenes from The Tuba Thieves were exhibited in Melt My Heart; the premiere of John Cage’s performance of 4’33” (1952) in Woodstock, New York, the final punk concert at the Deaf Club in San Francisco (1979), and a fictional concert in Los Angeles featuring Deaf drummer Nyke Prince. Formally inventive in its visual representation of sound, O’Daniel’s film positions the viewer to experience listening with a sensitivity for the individual body.

Installation of Alison O’Daniel,  The Tuba Thieves: Nyke and the New York Kite Enthusiasts  (2015) in  Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul . Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Installation of Alison O’Daniel, The Tuba Thieves: Nyke and the New York Kite Enthusiasts (2015) in Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

guncotton (2018) echoes a similar physicality. Applying the methodologies of contemporary architectural theory found in The Atlas of Novel Tectonics by Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, and principles of computational thinking as parameters for investigating novel forms of spatial interactions, choreographer Banning Bouldin generated dances that were then 3D scanned and video recorded by Greg Pond to produce composite sculptural forms of movement. Working with musicologist César Leal and vocalist Jessica Usherwood, the collective produced a sonic composition that—like the sculptures and 3D scans—translated the continuity of the dancer’s movements.

I sat down with artists Greg Pond, Alison O’Daniel, and César Leal to discuss their work in context of Melt My Heart, active listening, and the current political landscape:

AM: I wanted to start this conversation talking about sound as an object. To me, this seems like the unifying factor across all your works [Greg, Cesar, and Alison]. As I experience your works in Melt My Heart, sound seems to be the object I am encountering.

Greg: We were just talking about how our works don’t seem to have much visually in common until you consider the role of sound in each. What you just articulated is what I think makes this very interesting as a conceptual premise for curating this exhibition.

AM: I agree, I think there is a huge overlap in both works. Not in terms of specific formal qualities, but this interaction with the body that both works necessitate, as well as the experience of them. I think it is difficult to talk about these aural experiences and pose questions about a conceptual and physical interaction that is beyond a normal lexicon of language.

Alison: I have been articulating this in a specific way recently. Because I am hard of hearing and I am collaborating with so many people who are hard of hearing and Deaf, one of the things that has really inspired me is how to move sound away from being this space of entry or refusal, and into a malleable space. Using sound as a thing that I am actively participating in that malleability of, and making it into this object, or putting sculptural language on it. Messing with the elements of control with it so that, on some level, I let it be totally out of my control. I will dictate things to a certain degree and then completely give them up. Sometimes I am micromanaging [sound] to a degree of moving it out of an aural space and into a space of it being an object. I think there are many words you could use here outside of sound or outside of aurality

Greg: This is about rethinking the sonic experience. I think we are probably all taking advantage of the fact that culturally we have a very poor vocabulary for describing our sonic experience compared to what we have linguistically for describing our visual experience. Without that the same degree of sophistication, we really don’t think about sound in the same way we think about image. It is, just as you said, strange to try to put words and I think that’s what, in part, fuels shared approaches to our work. My engagement with sound has transformed the ways in which I think about my production of sculpture, video, and other images. In many ways, such engagement has liberated me from the constraints I experienced before I started really working with sound as a primary material.

Installation of: Greg Pond,  Intensive Extension  (2018) in  Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul . Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Installation of: Greg Pond, Intensive Extension (2018) in Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Alison: I find that very interesting because when I think of when I first embarked on this project, and the limitations of language around it, I started in a way that we have historical precedence for. In visual art, we go back to Kandinsky where there is this Modernist attempt to represent a sound experience through a visual experience; through color, through composition. That was how I started out trying to work through this and—quite quickly—I realized how unsatisfying it was. I don’t think I’ve completely figured out how to articulate this, but it is much more satisfying and interesting to me now to honor it outside of a visual space, while constantly referring to concrete realities.

For instance, in The Tuba Thieves there is a scene of the main character, the drummer, who is Deaf, watching YouTube videos of someone else drumming. The sound is quite different if she’s watching someone else drum vs. just playing without a visual reference. Sometimes visualizing sound is practical and sometimes it is abstract and hard to articulate.

Alison O’Daniel, video still from  The Tuba Thieves: Nyke and the New York Kite Enthusiasts  (2015)

Alison O’Daniel, video still from The Tuba Thieves: Nyke and the New York Kite Enthusiasts (2015)

César: There has always been a reluctance to objectify sound, culturally speaking. This is why I think we have failed to come up with an effective vocabulary to describe sonic phenomena. As a result, we borrow the lexicon from visual arts. Music appreciation always talk about elements of music such as “texture” and “dynamics”, and these are words that do not relate directly to our experience of sound. As artists continue to work with sound, words like “soundscapes” or “acoustic ecology” have emerged. Those are new words that explain better our experience with the sonic phenomena.

As a performer, doing this type of work also poses an interesting question about the relation between physical gesture and sound. The borrowed language I just described, filters the experience of what we hear, and connects it (and makes it codependent) to the experience of what we see. If you go to a performance, every time you see a big gesture you anticipate something loud. There is something about physicality and volume, physicality and character, physicality and strength. When you see a person with a mic and a big speaker next to you, a likely first response would be to cover your ears. Deconstructing such cultural associations to sound—that physicality and all those filters through which we approach the sonic object, including our language choices—allows the listener to just experience it, to decipher how and what it is.

AM: To physically walk in the experience of sound, actively.

César: Yes, and as you see, [in the sonic composition of guncotton (2018)], we used those filters because we were very deliberate in forming those connections and create the expectations I just described. It is kind of upsetting and revealing, for you can hear a sound that seems to come from above, and it makes you lift your head. It elicits a physical reaction. Deceiving those kinds of expectations and preconceived notions of how we experience the sonic phenomenon is what creates an awareness, one that helps us deconstructing reality and our expectations of sound vis a vis the world we live in.

Installation image of  guncotton  (2018), mixed media sound installation;  The Judo of Cold Combustion  (2018), video. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Installation image of guncotton (2018), mixed media sound installation; The Judo of Cold Combustion (2018), video. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Greg: My work is rooted in ideas I wanted to pursue years ago concerning cultural attitudes towards landscape and how those impact the way we engage with the world. I wanted to create experiences within my work to encourage a reorientation of how we perceive the reality around us. Over time I’ve come to understand that sound is one of the most effective ways to achieve this because, even though there are no clear visual signifiers for us to convey this messaging, it’s possible to change, for instance, one’s perception of how big or small the room is or, perhaps, its density when it’s filled with specific sounds. I want to create an experience that is denser and more fundamental to our perceptual orientation—find what grounds us in the world rather than create something intended to be read as a sort of text. Hoping that, when you step out of the space of the work, you walk into the world with fresh eyes and fresh ears. It’s that perspective shift that I want to impart. That seems more important to me than creating objects that are signifiers of specific cultural references.

I did this project at the Hunter Museum of American Art with Jesse Cahn-Thompson where we turned the building’s 60x40’ glass wall in the large atrium into a multichannel speaker with audio transducers. There was no immediate indication of where the sound was coming from but it filled the entire space and spread out to create a sort of sonic lattice. It created this novel sonic space, which you were able to transform by moving through the room and passing through different sound waves. That project was based on the Flammarion Engraving—an image of medieval cosmology—a flat earth at center of the universe enclosed in a bubble. The image depicts this man poking his head through that bubble—we were thinking about that glass wall in the museum and how to transform the vantage it provides high above the river. Sonic experience was very much bound to visual experience in our thinking about that project.

Years ago, I was making these kinetic sculptures, and the soundscape that they created together became really interesting to me. Around the same time, I was finding limitations of the video frame to convey much of my experience in the Sonoran Desert and Death Valley. Although the desert is relatively quiet, sound, without images, provided me a way to convey my experience of being out there—the expanse, the space, the density of the air; much of what I could do spatially with sound seemed to correlate to what I wanted to convey. Around that same time, I encountered the work of Stephen Vitiello and Maryanne Amacher. Through them, I started understanding sound as a sculptural object—thinking more about how it is a physical thing. All sound is, is pulses of energy moving through the medium of air. Below 20 hertz, sound becomes touch—you don’t hear it, you feel it.

Installation of: Greg Pond,  Diagram Deployment 2  (2018) in  Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul.  Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Installation of: Greg Pond, Diagram Deployment 2 (2018) in Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

AM: Alison, this sort of thinking about the physical contact we might have with sound recalls a scene from one of your videos. In 4’33” we see this man leave the performance to walk in the woods and he takes his shoes off. It’s a sort of pause in the narrative where he connects bodily to feeling the source of the sound he is creating as he walks through this space. The shoes no longer mediate his interaction. I found it to be a very poetic and decisive pointing-to this idea of physicality.

Alison: Yeah, I really started out this whole project thinking about Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening Project— which is funny Greg, because you just mentioned that to me—I was thinking about her Deep Listening Project and about adopting Deep Listening as a method for writing narrative, but removing this process from the ears; trying to explore what deep listening meant without it being an aural space.

Alison O’Daniel, video still from  The Tuba Thieves: Hearing 4’33”  (2014)

Alison O’Daniel, video still from The Tuba Thieves: Hearing 4’33” (2014)

Greg: In many ways, the way in which we organized the sound [in guncotton (2018)] and the specific devices we used to deliver sound, are very much trying to recreate the same concepts of the dance; bodies interacting and moving in space. I think the best way for this work to be viewed is with the dance in a separate room, completely silent, with the sound in another room. The experience of both would happen adjacent to one another but would be more focused around the core elements.

AM: That makes sense. When I first talked with you about this work last year, the sound component didn’t even exist. Experiencing the work now, it is such a fuller interaction.

Greg: At that point César and Jessica hadn’t joined the project yet. I was generating all these objects and images that I was approaching as a lexicon, or a new alphabet of objects, to try to translate movement into sculpture.

AM: I was talking with [Melt My Heart curators] Brian Jobe and Mike Calway-Fagen about the thematic of this exhibition, from a curatorial perspective, being about communication and non-verbal communication. Not to politicize your work, but while being conscious of our current political climate, both your works are completed by the viewers interaction with it—the format of the work is open-ended until the viewer watches, feels, interacts with it. What are your thoughts about the compassion that exists in creating a space or experience that must be completed by the viewer? What does that necessitate?

Alison: I have a very specific goal with my project, for the very end of this work. A lot of times I set up these experiments; in the 4’33” piece of Tuba Thieves, the experiment in that scene is to see if I could switch the role of camera movement into a space of soundtrack. Soundtrack usually dictates your emotion, so I was trying to see if camera movement could do that.

The largest goal of this project—and it’s quite simple actually—is to see if I can use a huge range of volume and sonic experiences to leave the audience feeling quiet. And, to unpack what it means to feel quiet. For me, when you ask about a space of compassion, I haven’t articulated this idea with the word “compassion” at all, but I do think that the feeling of being quiet is in the realm of peace and something related to that.

On some level, politically, this is a hard moment. It’s a hard experience and I don’t think that it’s going to end for a while. Film narrative always relies on this prioritizing of conflict. If you pick up any random screenwriting, especially in American screenwriting books, it’s all about the value of conflict to even have a film. If you don’t have conflict you don’t have a film. I am always wondering, who wrote this? The same person who is writing that rule is writing capitalism and politics. That is a very patriarchal value system. I’m interested in changing the value system to a Deaf or hard of hearing value system, to a feminist value system, to the many value systems that are not in the dominant space and which come from a place of kindness and value-shifting. This thinking does come from a lineage of [John Cage’s] 4’33” where all the details are transformed as prominent rather than a narrative hitting you over the head. However, I don’t want to shy away from punk shows and loud sonic experiences. I’m drawing from that feeling, like when you go to a punk show but in the end feel a release of some sort.

Alison O’Daniel, video still from  The Tuba Thieves: The Deaf Club  (2014)

Alison O’Daniel, video still from The Tuba Thieves: The Deaf Club (2014)

Greg: I am interested in getting us to step outside of ourselves, to have a fundamental reorientation. Because of this world we are in right now, we can easily lose sight of ourselves and let the narratives that are presented to us to distract us from what is valuable. Essentially, trying to get us to a point of not knowing—almost to where the coordinates of your reality starts to fracture—and finding that the way you have grounded yourself in the world is not there anymore. I am interested in that space of uncertainty- very similar to what Alison just described. Hearing the world in a different way; experiencing it differently.

César: I think it’s a quite simple intellectual exercise. There is something very close to a parallel dimension that is sound. Just think about the idea of people coming to a gallery with the purpose of hearing something that it’s not what we call music. It’s interesting because sound becomes an art object which uses our ability to listen (something we do 24/7) but removed from the quotidian, from the daily activities. That awareness of the act of listening—the possibility of experiencing reality in a different way—is a way to open the possibility of perceiving the world through our listening abilities. This could change drastically the way we interact with the world. It’s quite incredible that something that is so embedded, that is part of our every day, can be so ignored. Just asking the fundamental question of different ways to approach reality has been a very valuable process for me.

Installation detail of  guncotton  (2018), mixed media sound installation. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Installation detail of guncotton (2018), mixed media sound installation. Image by Sarah-Anne Wagoner. Courtesy of Stove Works.

Greg: It seems, in your work Alison, that the awareness that César is talking about is an important part of your work because of the aural experience that you have. Sharing that plays a large role in what happens in this exhibition and informs our work.

Alison: I really do think of it as offering that as a value system. It’s very interesting, I was just re-reading the curatorial statement as we were all talking, and nowhere in there is the word “listening” used. That’s fascinating because we have all talked so much about the act of listening, it’s so engaged, it’s so active, it’s so important—clearly—to the three of us.

Melt My Heart But Spare My Soul: Curatorial Brief

“Communication isn’t always, or even mostly, achieved by words and mouths. Plateaus of understanding are found when gestures project meaning through fingertips and form, translating what was dark into something less so. Language takes many shapes, some more stable than others. Similarly, silence bears equal significance to sound, with its effect, at times, deafening. This claim is substantiated in Colin Kaepernick’s kneel, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Olympic podium appearance, Tiananmen Square, and also every gap between every utterance. Absolute silence is also a state that many of us have never experienced but some hear indefinitely. And still further, may not exist at all.” 

AM: In writing my thoughts and responding to this exhibition, I have also been phrasing my comments using those same active words— “hearing”, “listening”. Reading that statement, it is so passive in its divergence from our conversation which has centered on a reception of communication.

Alison: It’s funny, I always get nervous when hearing people write about my work. Even this line from the curatorial statement, “Similarly, silence bears equal significance to sound, with its effects, at times, deafening”; the understanding for that use of “deafening” as a verb or an action that happens is maybe pejorative. It’s strange when people say things like, “this falls on deaf ears”, because Deaf people are more sensitive than most hearing people to sound in certain ways. I think these kinds of unexamined conventions are fascinating because, culturally, we are sensitive to many identity politics, but ability is still rarely recognized.

AM: Why do you think that is?

Alison: I think it’s just such marginalized communities.

Greg: It may be that active listening is something most of us don’t put at the fore of our descriptions of experiences because we aren’t necessitated to be as sensitive to it— we don’t really think it about it.

AM: I think that goes back to what you were saying about your work Alison, this need for a change in our value systems.

Alison: Yeah, not a deficit, not an impairment. Not a “wrong” that needs to be righted. It’s fascinating because—and this is a bit of an aside—but parents of Hard of Hearing children are more often than not encouraged to integrate them into the hearing world and not necessarily encouraged to introduce them to the deaf community. It’s assumed you move into the space of hearing. There’s a lot of people that have grown up in the hearing world and—if we even do interact with the deaf world—we may have a feeling about Deaf culture that this is my other half. I have had that experience. We have the language to talk about interracial identities and trans identities, but we don’t talk about between-ability.

César: In that respect, I am very happy that the gallery decided to publish the accompanying curatorial text also in Spanish Language. It recognized and provides visibility to a minority group that is definitely present and wishes to connect with the art scene at a more personal level. This also resonates, I think, with your earlier question about our current political times.