JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ART
Jonathan Seliger: You perform music and use sound as a subject for your art; were you a musician or a visual artist first?
Christian Marclay: I started as a visual artist. I studied art in Switzerland where I grew up and came to the United States in 1977, to the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. That is where I began to get interested in performance art, and it was through this interest that I started to play music.
Seliger: What was the performance art coming out of?
Marclay: People like Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, and Laurie Anderson, but more directly from Punk Rock. There were a lot of bands, everybody started a band. In New York, a lot of this music experimentation, like No Wave music and Punk Rock, was taking place in clubs and had a strong influence on the art world. Art people would be directly connected to the music, and a lot of bands came out of art schools. At the time there was a lot happening in clubs, and it was more interesting to me than what was happening in the galleries. Right now that symbiosis between music and art doesn't exist anymore; throughout the 1980s the galleries became powerful and things got very commercial, people were in the art business to make money, and that kind of killed live art. People gave up performances and went back to the studios. I feel now there's a possibility of a return to more ephemeral activities. Maybe it's in times of economic crisis, like the one we're experiencing right now, that people find more innovative and daring ways to make art. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the experimentation was really happening in clubs like the Pyramid or 8BC, where tons of things were taking place every night. At the time I was not showing in galleries, I was only performing.
Seliger: Were you performing by yourself?
Marclay: By myself or with a band called Mon Ton Son. I was also starting to work with John Zorn, in his big game pieces based on improvised music. For a few months John Zorn had a storefront called The Saint, where we would play with many different improvisers. There was also a club called The Chandelier.
Seliger: How did the visual art that you were doing relate to all this?
Marclay: I made very little art throughout that period except for drawings and record collages often used in my performances. I would mix the records on turntables, so they were used as sound objects. I cut up various vinyl records and glued them back together in different configurations. As they were played, the needle would sample from different fragments of records. The music was loud and gritty.
Seliger: Would it just play or would you manipulate it further as it went?
Marclay: Yes, I would manipulate it. I was interested in the interaction of the performer with the recorded sound, very much in the fashion of a hip hop DJ, although I was doing it before I knew anything about hip hop. This was before it became popular. I wasn't making dance music, I was influenced more by people like John Cage and the musique concrete. I started using records because I didn't know how to play an instrument, but I wanted to perform. I started as a singer, using my voice with minimal lyrics, kind of talking, singing or screaming. That was with my band, The Bachelors Even, a duo using a guitar, voices, and background tapes. When I made the tapes I would use records, skipping records and things like that. Later, instead of using tapes, I started to use the actual records. I used them like an instrument, and could adapt my playing to a live situation, it allowed for a lot more freedom and spontaneity than tapes.
Seliger: It seems that from the start your work has always had a lot to do with collage, both in performance and with the objects.
Marclay: Yes. I've always used found objects, images and sounds, and collaged them together, and tried to create something new and different with what was available. To be totally original and start from scratch always seemed futile. I was more interested in taking something that existed and was part of my surroundings, to cut it up, twist it, turn it into something different; appropriating it and making it mine through manipulations and juxtapositions.
Seliger: Would you say that's more related to a Fluxus attitude or an appropriation strategy that became dominant in the 1980s?
Marclay: I think that sensitivity came from early on, even before I was interested in Fluxus artists and others using found objects. I've always been very interested in Duchamp and his idea of the ready-made and using mundane things. It didn't come from the appropriation strategy of the 1980s. In a way I think that when appropriation hit the art world, it was also very strong in the music world because of hip hop. That parallel interested me. Richard Prince and GrandMaster Flash were doing the same thing in the early eighties, but with different media. Appropriation is now such a standard thing in music with digital sampling technology.
Seliger: In an interview that you did for the Wexner Art Center, you stated with regard to the records: "I destroy, I scratch, I act against the fragility of the record in order to free the music from its captivity." It seems that the idea of change and time is a dominant thread that runs through your work. On the one hand one might think that by making a static visual object, you are interested in a retrieval or preservation of that thing, but in the performances you break the records or abuse them.
Marclay: The performances are time-based activities, in which I react to the objectification of music. Making an object, a sculpture, might seem contradictory because there's always that sense of preservation. I'm making something that might remain. But when I make objects it's more about change; altering the initial purpose of something in order to extract a new meaning. Change is the creative impulse. For instance, with these new Body Mixes, I combine several record covers in order to underscore that which we take for granted. The seductive covers are mutated into grotesque creatures. I point the finger at certain advertising methods, but I am also interested in a relation between the physical and the mechanical. We have always tried to give objects a human quality. We project on them a body scale, a texture, shape that resemble us. We give machines — or see in them — anthropomorphic qualities. The machine is an extension of the human body and the record is a mechanical object.
Seliger: What's interesting about these assemblages is that the record covers span a pretty broad period of time, from the 1960s through the 1980s, and during this time the whole notion of seduction and how to sell something has become a lot more sophisticated.
Marclay: We are not always aware of how we are being manipulated by the advertising techniques. They may now use more subliminal techniques, but ultimately sex has always been a big seller.
Seliger: In a sense I'd say that the marketing strategy that's typified by Michael Jackson's Bad album is distinctly different from that 1960s-looking Don Giovanni, which is combined with Highway Chile's Rockarama. Is your interest mainly visual or critical? I almost get the feeling that you're as interested in the narrative/discursive possibilities as you are in the figurative combinations.
Marclay: In every period the same kinds of mechanisms appear, and that becomes visible because I've mixed things from all these different times. What sells a classical record is not necessarily sex, but a more subtle patriarchal stereotype. The men on these covers are in control, directing with their hands in the foreground. On the other hand, the women are often shown with their backs to the camera, showing off their legs, looking over their shoulder. It's always a more vulnerable position. The same imagery appears in very different styles of music. The juxtapositions are a mix and match kind of process, it's like making a puzzle and I'm looking for the matching part. The juxtaposition of two different styles or periods is not so systematic. In that sense the initial choice is limited by the visual possibilities of what works or fits; so there is this incidental/accidental juxtaposition.
Within that framework, I still have many choices — I can find a different torso for these legs, but this one seemed to work because of the completely different styles of music, or the combination of the titles. The titles are sometimes very important. They become part of a poetic narrative.
Seliger: Would you say that it's more of an intuitive or a systematic process?
Marclay: Both. I forced myself to mix the genders. If I have female legs, then the torso will have to be male. It's a limitation in the process. The result can be intuitive as well, because of the many choices available. I'm not necessarily representing these bodies from a defined, gendered perspective. I want them to be either mixed gender or genderless or ambiguous, and that's a process that is used in advertising all the time. But my ambiguity is more grotesque, the seduction is disrupted. If I made a collage, say, of just female parts, then I would be playing the same game as advertisers. I had to be aware of that process and distance myself from it.
Seliger: With these pieces and perhaps the three-dimensional ones that preceded them, like the Skin Mixes, it seems like a big step away from some of your earlier work that had been more formally motivated. Pieces like Tape Fall, The Beatles, or the cubes of melted records were very distilled.
Marclay: In a way the new work has as many formal qualities, it is very graphic and colorful, but that's because the material used has those qualities. It's the only kind of serial work that I've ever made, besides the cover collages. In general I tend to work on one piece at a time, but because there were so many possible variations I was sort of forced to keep doing them, and follow their playfulness. The series for me is one piece with various components.
Seliger: I guess what I'm asking is whether there was a specific decision to make them more socially explicit?
Marclay: Perhaps that quality is more apparent here, but it follows a similar critical theme that comes up in my earlier work as well — the commodification of music, how music has become a salable object. I've done it with performances and with the objects. I'm trying to be critical of the whole music industry and the packaging plays a major role. I'm trying to make the recording process more apparent. We're so used to listening to music through recordings, it's a given, that's primarily how we experience music now. The live aspect is minimized. Other works might appear to be more contemplative or minimal, but they were motivated, in part, by the same desire to critique the music industry.
These pieces are dealing with more delicate issues, sex and music, and the question of political correctness. It's a very gray area. Some people see the work as critical, others see it as fun and playful and colorful, surreal or crazy. The seductive covers are turned into grotesque figures, some disturbing, others humorous. The advertising strategies are made visible forcing us to examine these covers more closely. Sex is not a new selling device, it is so old and common that we take it for granted. The woman's body is used everywhere. The woman on the packaging becomes the packaging, the flesh becomes a protective envelope, a protective skin for the record. There is a strange reversal of shape and sexual associations. The record is round, a feminine shape, the cover is square, masculine. But the cover is also the envelope, a slit that encloses the record. I wanted to blur the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, and also the distinction between music stars, idols, and the truncated and commodified bodies of un-known models.
The body is becoming more and more central to the sale of music through rock videos. The body is center stage, allowing a more physical identification by the consumer. The twelve-inch square of the old record cover allowed for an almost life-size representation of body parts. The head was the most common illustration, a teenager could kiss the face of her or his idol, a surrogate face, a life-size portrait. With compact discs you can't do that anymore, so in a sense the video compensates for that lack of advertising space.
Seliger: Along with being critical of the commodification of music, I'm wondering if by implication you're also involved with the art object as a commodity.
Marclay: Not specifically, but the art object is condemned to the same fate. Artists' activities, even those considered marginal and noncommercial, are being commodified by the art market. But these days everything ends up being salable, one way or another. Art like music today is inseparable from money.
Seliger: What is the relationship of your work to the Dada or Surreal object?
Marclay: It's very hard to dissociate oneself from art history, and often I've appropriated formal or stylistic devices to make my work. It tries to be original in content rather than form. People tend to think of the accidental juxtapositions in Surreal terms. But they are also very Cagean or Duchampian. It's hard to limit them to any one source, but I like to think that there is a tradition in art and that these are part of that tradition. People have tended to explain my work through visual association to older art, they drop names constantly and draw endless connections, but I use the process of appropriation as a device to make something that can be understood as an art object and can be accessed more easily. It is almost like a decoy.
For me the relation to Surrealism is more subtle and has to do with the erotic quality of machines as explored by certain artists such as Duchamp, Max Ernst or Picabia. The mechanical quality of the record is still very present for me. The turntable is a perfect machine célibataire in the Duchampian sense.
Seliger: The way that these albums are stitched together brings to mind Warhol's photo assemblages. I thought there was an interesting connection between the idea of repetition and time, and how that was somehow subtly alluded to perhaps through the stitching to Warhol, who in our time is the supreme icon of repetition and mechanical reproduction.
Marclay: I don't mind that association at all, because this whole body of work and some of the things that preceded it were triggered by Warhol's cover for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers album. I did another piece that had covers held together with zippers that were sewn on; I also stitched "sound sheets" together in the past. That's when I got started using a sewing machine, but to me the sewing here implied stitching in the medical sense. I wanted these body parts to be stitched together as a Frankenstein monster. I had that image in mind. I made another piece that was sewn roughly by hand. The repetitive aspect that you were talking about is also reinforced by the fact that these covers are not unique, and when you refer to Warhol it makes them more related to photography. I stitched them rather than glued them because I wanted them to exist in a three-dimensional field, I wanted them to have a presence that I don't think would be the same if they were glued. I wanted them to be record covers and not just photographs, I wanted them to be objects. The stitching more aggressively forced things together and the bond is visible.
Seliger: The way they're stitched together almost brings to mind that a disaster has occurred. The quantity of them makes them into a crowd, and maybe some horrific accident has happened and all these different parts have been stitched together.
Marclay: There is an implied violence in photography because of its cropping quality. Photog-raphy is about stealing, displacing, chopping up. The camera is a sharp weapon. Like sound recording, photography is a mechanical device that tries to simulate life. The recording and the photograph, both incomplete reproductions of nature, come together as record/ album to reinforce each other in their illusion. Like the "Charmin' Chatty" doll, the record is inside the body. You pull a string and it speaks. It's an aural accompaniment to the visual appearance. If you only saw one of the Body Mix pieces, it would have less of an impact, you might think, oh, what a nice coincidence! But when you see so many you have to wonder, what is going on here? Patterns begin to emerge. The amount of crotches and breasts and legs makes them almost so unoriginal and formulaic. The newer albums, like Michael Jackson's Bad, are more ambiguous or subliminal. It's not so obvious, but his hand is on his zipper — he finally unzipped it in the new video — and he's wearing a lot of make-up but, at the same time, he's trying to look very macho. There's a lot of bondage imagery. He is playing with his own gender identity. That confusion is used as a seduction device.
Seliger: To what degree are you simply presenting the imagery, and to what degree do you feel that you're commenting on it? Through the sheer volume and variety, you're presenting a lot of information.
Marclay: The restructured presentation is the commentary. But I don't want to limit the work to just being a critique of the advertising process. These found objects also bring back a whole picture book of memories from our collective past — images and sounds, or rather memories of sounds, not only a collective memory but a very personal one, unique to each viewer, associations that the remembered music might conjure up. I am not just presenting a collection of legs and arms or whatever, but in combining them I'm making fun of this fetishization, twisting it, and through humorous juxtapositions I hope the viewer can distance herself or himself from the initial relation to the commercial object. It is like comedy; while laughing, you can say things that are very pointed.
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.
© Nicolas Alberto Canal Tinius, all rights reserved