Interview of Judy Dunaway by Knut Remond
published in the program for the exhibit Judy Dunaway: Manual Eardrums (interactive sound installation) & The Globe (live audiostreamed performance)
at ohrenhoch der Geraeuschladen
8 and 15 December 2013
(interview from November 2013)
Knut: Why latex balloons in particular?
Judy: In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was a guitarist doing free improvisation in New York City. I saw Eugene Chadbourne using latex balloons on his guitar strings as preparations and decided to add this idea to my arsenal of guitar preparations (I also used clips, pieces of metal, plastic, little motors and other things on the strings). I was fascinated with the interesting sounds I got when amplifying the rubbed balloon via the electric guitar pick-ups. I decided to write a composition using just the sounds of balloons and created Balloon Trio for three people playing balloons. It was presented at both DIA Arts Center and Roulette, and was later presented some other places. Audiences liked it. Around that time, Fred Lonberg-Holm invited me to present an entire evening of my compositions and improvisations at The Alternative Museum in Soho. I decided to write an entire evening of compositions for balloons.
Also, around this time, I took a bad fall and injured my shoulder. I have never recovered completely from the bone damage caused by this fall. The pain from the injury made it difficult to play guitar. A friend (Andrea Nascimben, who is now a lighting designer in Italy) who had performed in the pieces at The Alternative Museum suggested that I make balloon my primary solo instrument instead of guitar. So I began doing solo performances on balloons.
At the same time all this was happening, in the late 1980s and early 1990s in New York City, there was a terrible tragedy occurring. Many people, mainly gay men, were dying from AIDS. Several of my friends died from AIDS during this time. At that point there was no treatment, so people died quickly. Finally they discovered that latex condoms could prevent the transmission. I felt an affinity between my latex balloons and the latex condoms. It seemed that the substance was magical or holy, it was more than just a balloon. This was also a huge inspiration to play latex balloons.
But lastly, you asked why latex in particular so perhaps you mean, as opposed to balloons made of other substances, such as mylar. The answer is that latex is an incredible substance for sound. The latex molecule can stretch to many times its size and then spring back to its original shape. This flexibility allows for microtonal playing and a wide range of tones. Latex has a surface that can be both sticky and smooth, and this functions like the stick-and-slip of a bowed string. But the balloon string is in an orb shape, which yields a wide range of strange overtone patterns and vibrational nodes. Latex balloons also act as their own resonator. Latex balloons have endless sound capabilities, and I have tried to exploit that in my many works for them.
Knut: You work in a very broad, manifold, so called intermedia way. Your main instruments and objects are balloons which, as a composer, you fathom also in their contrast with traditional instruments: What are for you the artistic, musical and compositional points of excitement, namely the mixtures between balloons and traditional instruments, e.g. with string quartet, choir, orchestra?
Judy: It depends on the composition. For writing the second movement of For Balloon and String Quartet I transcribed some time stretched recordings of myself playing the Tenor Balloon (an inflated 16 inch round inflated latex balloon which I rub with wet hands), and then wrote parts for the string quartet that matched what the balloon was playing. For Chorus with Balloons uses many of the techniques I have developed for the balloon reed in my solo playing, combined with the singing of the chorus (the chorus both plays balloons and sings). My Balloon Symphony No. 2 uses text instructions to have the audience play and improvise with balloons, again based on my own studies with balloons. I am a trained composer, so this combined with my extensive knowledge of them as sound producers allows me to successfully orchestrate them, both by themselves and with other instruments.
In Manual Eardrums, the basement installation at Ohrenhoch, the balloons are not used as an instrument, but as a sound transmitter. In this installation people feel sound with the balloon rather than listen to it. But still I am using the special sensitivities and flexibility of the latex balloon membrane in combination with sound. In the upstairs silent video projection at Ohrenhoch [Graticule, a collaboration with Antony Flackett], I use the inherent qualities of the latex balloon to bend light.
Knut: You are a lecturer for art history at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design; what do you think has changed in art in the course of the last 50 years?
Judy: Thats a very broad question. I teach a course called The History of Sound Art for visual art majors in an undergraduate program. If they were music majors, I would probably teach it a bit differently, but these students dont have any background in music. I do a three hour lecture about the history of Western European art music at the beginning of the course, so there is some idea of a delineation between sound art and the popular definition of music. Then I discuss the invention of sound technology, the ideas of John Cage, the changing environmental soundscape, the development of electronic music and other formative movements. Later in the course we get to things that are currently exhibited as sound art, sound sculpture, sound installation, sound poetry, etc. Finally we end with a discussion of categories, because this is all about categories.
50 years ago was merely the 1960s. That was a very innovative time. Thanks to accidental mainstream distribution of experimental work by people like Yoko Ono, the avant garde came to me in rural Mississippi where I lived as a child. Later I was able to listen to far away radio stations with different ideas, such as WTUL in New Orleans. Mass distribution has definitely been a fascination of mine for a long time, though I dont necessarily think it is the only thing that has changed in art in the past 50 years.
Knut: You are active with "Sex Workers Internet Radio Library", an organisation for audio art and activism concerning the rights of sex workers. What is for you particular about "Sex Workers' Internet Radio Library", and what can audio art interconnect or even expand?
Judy: I am no longer active with Sex WorkersÄô Internet Radio Library (SWIRL) because it ended in 2010. The SWIRL broadcast ended in May 2008, and the web site continued to feature new contributions until 2010. An archival website with information about the project and some sound examples still exists online. I started SWIRL in 2006 as part of my Ph.D. dissertation in music composition. SWIRL was a not-for-profit internet radio station that was dedicated to presenting audio works that gave a voice to current and former sex workers around the world by presenting their art and opinions, as well as community news and information. The content was created by current and former sex workers, including original music and sound art, stories and poetry, interviews, panel discussions and speeches. The broadcast ultimately included over 75 participants. SWIRL was primarily intended for use within the sex worker community as a non-literary and artistic sound-action to form alliances and encourage positive self-image.
I saw this work as a composition in that I was organizing sound in time. I wanted to expand the definition of composer for my Ph.D. composition. I also liked that it was continuous (the stream lasting for nearly two years) and that the sound came from a variety of locations around the world. Additionally, the audience (listeners on the internet) were spread throughout space and time.
Knut: You are also active with "The Dada Wurm", an online streaming platform. Do you think in this context that art will concentrate even more in building virtual spaces in the future, and that we also will live and work in these spaces?
Judy: The work The Globe that is being heard upstairs at Ohrenhoch is the latest project using The Dada Wurm as a platform. The Dada Wurm is a live streamed program that allows multiple audio inputs via phone lines. The Globe is an improvisational structure in which I utilize and manipulate the audio artifacts (defects) inherent to low bit-rate streaming and phone lines. People will be calling in live from every continent. I will either mix the vocal sounds with electronic sounds that emphasize the artifacts, or I will process the vocal sounds into electronic sounds that emphasize the artifacts, varying according to caller. I use MaxMSP for the electronic sounds and processing for The Globe.
I have been working with transmission art since the early 1990Äôs. In 1992 I presented a live piece simultaneously on two radio stations (WKCR and WFMU) in the New York City area called Duo for Radio Stations. The composition exists both as two separate pieces, one broadcast on WFMU and the other broadcast on WKCR, and as a single work which can be experienced by listening to both stations at the same time. The reception of the two stations at the listenerÄôs location provides a unique experience for each listener. The piece involved 14 live musicians total (7 at each station), live contributions from Tamio Shiraishi via telephone from Japan and over 20 tape creations. The taped creations were recordings of various transmitted signals as well (radio, television, phone, etc.). The piece is about a half hour long.
SWIRL was a continuation of my work in the transmitted medium, except that was a community art project rather than merely a solo composition. Whether you call it radio art, transmission art, telematic art or whatever, artists have been working in this area for quite some time. Bertold BrechtÄôs Lindberghflug is probably one of the earliest pieces, from the 1920s. He intended audience participation with this live radio work.
Knut: You studied composition with Daria Semegen; I find it interesting that she belongs to the generation of Milton Babbitt or also Mario Davidovsky. What did you learn from Daria Semegen significantly?
Judy: The composition teacher who has most influenced my work is Alvin Lucier. He was my composition teacher during my masters degree for two years at Wesleyan University. He was always focused on stripping down an idea until you get to the core of it, not adding unnecessary things. My piece Manual Eardrums which is the downstairs installation at Ohrenhoch is probably the work I have created that is most strongly affected by Luciers ideas. He often uses slowly sweeping singular tones in his work, such as In Memoriam Jon Higgins. The thing that is the most different between myself and Lucier in Manual Eardrums is the tactile aspect. I wanted something that was more sensual than merely listening to the tone in the space. In Manual Eardrums the listener feels the room, they dont just hear it.
I worked with Daria Semegen when I was working on my Ph.D. at State University of New York at Stony Brook (which is now called Stony Brook University). Daria was a student of Bulent Arel and also was part of the Columbia/Princeton electronic music scene. Darias philosophy is to encourage her students to do whatever they want to do, so she was not concerned with advising me on how to write my compositions. Her main influence would be on my electronic works. In her electronic music class she taught me how to appreciate works in that 1960s Bulent Arel style, working with blocks of electronic sound as almost visual images.
My other teacher for my Ph.D. was visual artist Christa Erickson. Her work is more to do with covert ideas in media. She works with video and multimedia. She helped me bring more visual technology into my works, such as my video scores for my Balloon Symphonies.
Knut: Are there important (women) examples for you, say Niki de Saint Phalle, Virgina Woolf, Jenny Holzer, Rosa Luxemburg?
Judy: Nam June Paik was a really important influence, though he was not a woman. He said Less is less and was the antidote to Alvin Lucier in my art. After writing a large paper about Paiks work for my Ph.D. colloquium where I learned much about Paik, I felt free to be as dense and busy as I like again. Also, Paik was interested in composing with large expanses of space and time. The upstairs sound installation at Ohrenhoch, The Globe, is influenced by Paiks Good Morning Mr. Orwell.
I met Paiks collaborator Charlotte Moorman in the late 1980s when she performed in a festival I was organizing (the 1986 Womens Improv Festival). She was an incredible performer and a wonderful person. I think my approach to performance with the balloons is indelibly stamped by my encounter with Charlotte. She performed the most bizarre (for the time) avant garde works with utmost seriousness. I almost always deal with the balloons in a very serious and formal fashion. It puts them into a certain context for the audience.
I also see Charlotte as a feminist in that she was a performer and organizer when women still were not doing these sorts of things, as well as being a pioneer of the avant garde movement. However, there is a feminist split when it comes to issues of sexuality, so some people saw her performance of Paiks Opera Sextronique as exploitation and others saw it as liberation. In the context of the times, I see it as liberation. Paiks intent at the time was to highlight the ridiculousness of the prudish attitude in both the music establishment and American society as a whole. Charlottes topless performance was not titillating like a strip, it was matter-of-fact. Why can a man be topless and not a woman? It was an expression of freedom.
Many of my feminist inspirations have been women who have seen sexuality as empowerment rather than oppression, such as Annie Sprinkle. I dont think being prudish is empowerment. The new feminist attitude is that being expressive sexually means you are exploited and/or mentally ill. The current debate seems a good topic for Michel Foucault to write about, but since hes dead, I suppose his societal models can still be applied at least.
Knut: I took up a quotation, saying: from PMS to AIDS, from propagation to masturbation, from squirrels to pigs, and on and on,?
Judy: That is a quote describing songs I wrote for my band Judy Dunaway and the Evan Gallagher Little Band which I had from roughly 1989 to 1994. I covered a wide array of unusual topics in my songs. They were based on poems I had written. I had a song about pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), which is a hormonal condition women get sometimes. I had a little sound poetry work about masturbation. I had a song about AIDS because at the time AIDS was an epidemic in the world, especially New York City where I was living. But not all the songs were related to sex. I had a whimsical song about pigs. My song Everything Good, which was also part of the Duo for Radio Stations piece, is a gospel song about religious hypocrisy. Anyway, after 1994 when I stopped playing guitar and started playing balloons, I stopped singing and writing songs. Now my works dont usually directly express my literal opinions or thoughts.
Knut: You are politically active with your artistic work; in your opinion, what has intensified, and why are our works censored consistently for the general public?
Judy: I dont think the censorship is any worse than it has been in the past - in fact, in the Western world, its less than its ever been. I think the internet has given us a platform that bypasses mainstream media, and thats great. Commercial mainstream media in the Western world is about gaining the interest of enough people to get them to look at an advertisement, which in turn gets them to buy something. Its about capitalism. Mainstream media run by the state is about not offending the public too much because they have paid for it with the tax dollars. Or in more oppressive countries, propaganda to support a regime - and generally oppressive regimes dont want people thinking too politically or liberally, so they certainly would not support innovative art.
Another kind of aural censorship is happening though. Data compression mechanisms such as MP3 delete sound information to make the information stream smaller so that it can pass easily through the internet. The same has been true for the last 100 years about phone signals. Also the speaker systems by which we play back the sound information can be discriminatory based on our income level and what sorts of speakers we can afford. Recorded and transmitted sound has its own inherent aural censorship, related to things like income level and whether things are mainstream or not. I will feature and manipulate the distortions caused by some of these systems in The Globe, my sound piece upstairs at Ohrenhoch.
Knut: I find it very interesting that a great many young women work in the field of sound installation and with noises (Geraeusch) especially. What do you think, what are the essential reasons for this development?
Judy: I dont know the actual numbers on this. There are more women in the arts in the Western world because there has been less and less oppression over the past 50 years. Even when women have gained rights legally, it has been a slow process for changes in society overall. I did a piece in 2002 called Affirmative Action that was based on the fact that 90 percent of the professors in music departments at universities in the United States were white males. I sent out documentation of that piece as part of my many job applications to U.S. music departments for many years - and I never got a job from those applications. But other women did fill some of those positions, so I hope my little protest helped. I got a job at an art university instead!
Knut: Until 1995 you had a duo named "Judy Dunaway and the Evan Gallagher Little Band". There is a piece or a song called "Jane and Janet" (1994), which in a way reminded me of Nico /Velvet Underground - and you call your musical spectrum also from "Elvis to evangelists" - what means pop art or the art concept by Andy Warhol for you as an artist?
Judy: I dont pop my balloons in my work. It would be pointless to do this as it destroys the object I am using for my work. Everyone pops balloons, so its not very symbolic. A balloon is not an icon, so theres no need to destroy it.
Knut: What were your significant reasons to make a change from singing and the guitar to noises (Geraeusch) with the balloons, or, to put it differently in relation to your presentation at ohrenhoch: How do you understand the span between your song "Richard" and "Eardrums"?
Judy: I think I answered this already in this interview.
Knut: What are your favorite books, music, films, canvas pictures, your favorite animal, your favorite clothes, and who is the best pop artist of all times for you?
Judy: This sounds like Facebook or social media. I dont have any favorites. Exposure to popular culture is inevitable.
Knut: What would you give the ohrenhoch visitors to take along after your sound installation Eardrums?
Judy: The downstairs installation is Manual Eardrums. The visitors can keep the balloon, the foam earplugs and the printed handout they get for participating in the installation.