Interview with Leah Singer and Lee Ranaldo

Tom Leeser

Tom Leeser:: Let’s start with an explanation of the work Drift. Tell us a little bit about how you went about constructing it and what was behind the piece, in the back of your minds, when you made it.

Leah Singer:: It’s been an evolution, in a way, the performance. When we met in the late 80s Lee was using visual elements in solo performance. I was curating a hand-made instrument festival at the Knitting Factory—five nights of varying kinds of performances. Lee was on a bill with hand-made electronic stuff. He was on stage; it was very dark, with video feedback tapes he had made and a setup with his electronics. At that time, I was just beginning to experiment with Kodak analytical projectors. I was showing a lot in New York at small venues in the late 80’s early 90’s. I worked with Elliot Sharp, Ikue Mori, you know, a lot of downtown people.

Lee Ranaldo:: It was a time when you were starting to do more of this work in clubs and gallery situations with musicians and I was starting to do more solo work, using filmic elements. In this period I began publishing my first early small books, and starting to think about using some of those texts. When we started collaborating, it just seemed natural to try and put those things together.

LS:: Back in Montreal I was doing these expanded cinema shows with a lot of media, slides and manipulations, and then when I got to New York, I sort of pared it down, I wasn’t so interested in that barrage, and I wanted a much more focused and elegant visual presentation. I liked what Lee was doing. It was very direct and simple. I was much more interested in creating abstract narratives.

LR:: And also with your discovery of the analyzers, you found the right device or situation to go in that direction.

LS:: What came before the analyzer was the way I was shooting the film: I began to shoot 16mm film in a 35mm still camera out of a creative necessity. I had been to Europe and bought all this incredible film in Hungary, 16mm and regular 8mm. They had beautiful black and white stock and I bought out this cinema store that was going out of business and I had a refrigerator full of this film and my Bolex was broken. It was really out of this frustration that I figured out a way to bulk-load 16mm film into a 35mm canister. With a cable release, the first thing I shot was a self-portrait. And of course, my little measly piece of film was 22 inches long and jammed into this canister. I begged a motion picture lab to develop it for me and when I got it back, I just loved it. Just as an object. I really wanted to see it projected but I couldn’t project it on a normal projector, it would’ve gone by too fast.

I was very aware of the filmmaker Ken Jacobs and I knew about the analyzer and I got my first one from this sort of projector circuit—there were a few guys who were fixing projectors and could get projectors. It was a little group of people who don’t exist anymore. I got one and I was actually able to project this self-portrait and realize that it was kind of magical that I could slow this thing down and look at these frames and it was sequential and yet it was something else. As I began to experiment and shoot more I became very dependent on the analyzer because there was no other way I could project this film. I wasn’t interested in step printing it on optical printers all the time because then I was changing the inherent good stuff about what it was. I wanted to keep the camera rolls intact. The performances were built around the analyzers.

Lee’s music at the time, the improvising methods, went hand in hand with what I was doing; the projector was my axe. That whole downtown music thing was all about improvisation, and it fit right in, it was a nice marriage of a musician and then a visual person being able to jam together, and yet they were both very distinct. It wasn’t like I was processing them through a video mixer or something. It was a little bit more organic and a little bit more unique to who I was, as the music was unique to the performer on the stage. As a performance, it came together.

LR:: This community of improvisers existed downtown in New York—has always existed in New York—but in the late 70’s and early 80’s when I was getting started here, and when Sonic Youth was developing, we resisted being involved in that, we wanted to be a rock band and to do this other kind of thing so we watched from afar as John Zorn and Elliot Sharp and all these people were doing these improvisational gigs. As the band became established—by the mid-80s—we felt a little more open and free.

In 1986 I released my first solo record ‘From Here to Infinity’ which was a vinyl record of tape loop pieces where each track ended in a locked groove. So you had these tape loops that I had constructed and then at the end of each track on the vinyl, it ran into a locked groove which was created as the record was being mastered, and those locked grooves had a very chance element to them that you couldn’t control; you’d press a button and the cutting lathe would lock on the next revolution—rather randomly.

So I’d made this record and I had all these tapes that I’d used to generate the material on the record, and I started to go out and do some solo performances. I was on stage along with Steve Shelly from Sonic Youth who was my partner in this group and we were mixing cassettes live through mixers and it was just fields of audio landscape, one after the other, it wasn’t violent or especially aggressive, there wasn’t usually drumming or anything. The music I was making at the time became known later, in the late 90’s, as ambient chill-out music—it was a kind of primitive version of that.

I had studied film, specifically the American avant-garde, at Harpur College in Binghamton. When I met her Leah was working with these analytical projectors, aware of the fact that Ken Jacobs was using them, and I had studied with Ken. I’d been making little films and video pieces and as soon as I started performing the ‘Infinity’ music live, right away—from the very first show—I wanted a visual element. I was projecting these video pieces that I had made, a lot of video feedback works that went with the idea of the tape loop music at the time. It eventually evolved into these more colorful video feedback works by the time I did the show that Leah curated.

I realized I wanted to collaborate more; it was a burden doing everything myself, creating both the music and the visuals, and it was more interesting to collaborate with someone. Leah and I had each kind of established certain beginnings with what we were doing and when we started working together we really welcomed the notion that what we were going to do was not going to be a scripted collaboration as much as a series of juxtapositions that we would orchestrate to some degree yet leave open and sort of alleatory. That’s continued as the work has developed, these simultaneous paths when the performance is happening. We’ve got certain places we know we’re going to hit in sync and other places that we’re leaving open to the improvisational properties of a performance.

LS:: It’s interesting because even though we’re setting out to improvise, we hit marks by accident, by chance, and they feel so good and so right that in that next performance they often happen again because you have that memory of them and how they were set up. With the show that we do it’s very exciting if Lee says a word or there’s a certain phrase musically and then a certain image pops up and I have that memory of it; in the next performance I might race ahead to try to hit that mark again, just because I love how it happened in that previous performance.

LR:: We’ve developed some things in that way, yet at the same time, we find that stuff which worked once or twice would not work the third or fourth time and its kept us on our toes to keep it a true improvisational performance, we don’t try to lock it in too much. We’ll cut the film different ways for different shows. I’ll change the text. We never know precisely what’s going to happen although we’ll try to script some of it out beforehand.

LS:: I like that it’s open enough to be all of that. After a number of performances you do get chops, there’s just no question, you’re learning and very aware of what you’re doing, but at the same time there’s the equipment that we’re dealing with—my projector’s decide to stutter and shudder and this creates something beautiful that I wasn’t planning on and Lee’s got issues on stage and there’s all kinds of things, someone taps me on the shoulder and is asking me questions, distracts me for a few minutes. I love all of those chance elements that are always built in when you do performance because it’s live and it’s open to that.

I think what’s interesting about Drift is that the performances are constantly evolving. When Lee decided to introduce text, which was fairly early on, suddenly we were finding ourselves being invited to spoken word events. We went to Stockholm, we went many places specifically for these spoken word events and it was interesting to be in that context with what we do. We were on bills with poets with perhaps some performance element to what they were doing; it was nice because it all continues to inform what we do—the film festival and the punk club in Lyon.

LR:: One of the interesting things about what we’re doing is that it blurs boundaries between a bunch of different genres. We have played in rock clubs, museums; we did the Kitchen’s 20th Anniversary music series. There’ve been all these different contexts into which it’s fit and been sort of slightly oddball—like in a spoken word festival context, it’s got this whole musical side to it, and the films, and then we would play in film festivals and it would have this electric guitar aspect to it.

TL:: You said earlier that you sometimes found things to be frustrating in the sense of certain types of conditions to perform in, certain types of materials and things like that. Talk a little bit about when you engage in the improvisational process that you can turn frustration into something positive, that you can actually use what you’re being pushed against into something that actually has a positive outcome.

LS:: I embrace the mistake. I embrace the challenge of the difficult situation.

LR:: Sometimes a situation is too complacent or too perfectly well set up; a situation that’s not like that is almost more challenging—we’re pushed to really see the thing through and it makes us more aware of the conceptualization of what we want the piece to be. We’ll try to grab it back from these disparate elements that are trying to pull it apart, and make it happen.

TL:: So you’re taking the obstacle onto the path.

LS:: I’ll get a hair in the gate, or my projector will tend to…I have been through so many projectors, a lot of difficult situations with my projectors—they stutter, they stop working correctly. In terms of the audience, they’re often not aware of these things; they’re not perceiving it as a problem or a mistake. I think that, in everything I do, I look at those flaws or imperfections and I just accept those situations.

LR:: In situations where there’s a bit more adversity, there are a lot of struggles to get the show to happen, especially given the various elements we’re trying to put together. We go to Europe and the transformers wouldn’t be right and the projectors wouldn’t be running at speed or the transformers on stage would blow out some of my pedals; you get put in these situations and you have all these obstacles so you spend the day of the set up for the performance dealing with the obstacles rather than really focusing on getting your head together for the evening’s performance. When it finally comes clear, the moment where the show starts and all these obstacles manage to fall away, you realize, yes, this is what we’re here to do and you push it through that much harder. It gives a certain tension to the performance that allows things to happen that take on a life of their own.

We’ve long tried to create a document of the piece that was a visual document that would exist separately from the actual performances and right now I think we’re finally succeeding with that with the piece for the Gigantic Artspace installation. Over the last two or three years, the piece has taken a shape that is very pleasing to both of us. It’s a dual projection system and I’ve got certain background tapes that I’m using and certain texts that we are fond of; we are finally fixing it on a documentary sort of basis that is going to exist.

LS:: Documenting it was frustrating, because we had to recreate this live performance, but there was no audience—we did it in a studio—I’m much more attuned to the live moment. I treasure the live performance, the mistakes that are beautiful. That’s the spirit of it really. I don’t know what you could compare it to.

TL:: Maybe you could compare it to life. Maybe it’s something that you said earlier, you talked about how Drift came out of this curatorial project that was based on the hand-made…I think when I saw the piece and also when I was thinking about it afterward, it seemed like what was interesting to me was that you were dealing with issues about improvisation and also about media in general but from a very hand-made, personal point of view, and the feedback was obviously generated live, the manipulation of the image was obviously being generated by your hand at the moment. I think that there’s a certain energy in life to that process that maybe in the digital world we lose.

LR:: I think so. You trade one thing for something else. It’s not really lost but it’s something different.

LS:: I tried to make a transition, thinking my life would be easier if my end of the performance was digital, because I was stressed by having these projectors that were constantly problematic. But it’s not something that’s interesting to me because my hand is too far away.

LR:: People ask the same thing about Sonic Youth—why do we keep using electric guitars when there are all these new-fangled things to use? There was a period in the late 80’s when everybody was moving to synthesizers, and people asked ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’ It definitely had something to do with a certain physical dimension that’s part of the performative element that is very direct with this analog, this old-fashioned analog system. It may be getting lost in the pages of time at this point on some level…

TL:: Do you think it has to do with the loss of noise? In a way, we’re always thinking about digital culture as being the culture of the copy, the pure copy. What’s interesting about seeing film work, and specifically about hearing the sonic textures that are coming out that are being processed at the moment; there’s noise, and what’s interesting is that there’s something in the noise that is compelling.

LS:: Yeah, noisy both visually and aurally.

LR:: I think of digital culture having all sorts of noise about it, the noise of how much information there is. It’s a different kind of noise. What you’re talking about has something to do with a human element that’s creating it I think.

TL:: That’s the noise I’m talking about. There’s almost a soul within the gesture. Maybe I could give you a viewer’s point of view. The thing that’s interesting for me is noticing the material, noticing that there is an obvious transformation that’s being done in front of me, with the incorporation of both planned action and accidents. There’s this interesting choreography of elements, but what I’m struck with isn’t necessarily just the material, but it seems to me more like a history, the unfolding of a history, and maybe that’s what you’re referring to in terms of its being intimate. There is a re-expression of experience that is showing itself through the various combinations of media. I don’t know if it can be done any other way.

LR:: It’s interesting that you used the word history. I immediately flash on that word from a bunch of different standpoints because that was a word we used in the early days, it’s an uncovering n this certain kind of history. Over the hour of the performance, you get this accretion, or this layering of various types of history. The images and the sounds and everything layer into sedimentary strata or something like that. But it’s also, even though we don’t do this very explicitly, because we’re partners, it has this other intimate history of somehow there’s a story that’s told there that’s a journey that we’ve taken together to get to that point where we’re showing those images and those sounds and reading those texts at the same time. We’re not making direct reference to our relationship, but there’s definitely an element of that in there as well.

TL:: Do you feel when you work together and perform that you’re only causing a condition that requires the observer to complete? Setting up a circumstance…

LS:: I do. I see it that way in many ways. I like that idea.

LR:: There are these paths you can follow, there’s an audio path, a text path, a visual path, and each viewer foregrounds and backgrounds those things in their own way. We’ve tried hard not to prescribe the whole thing, because every person that comes away from it is going to have viewed a different work based on what they concentrated on and focused on at any one moment. It’s a cinematic experience that works more as poetry than as film (or music, for that matter).

LS:: I want to talk about narrative because I always say that my films are narrative. They are these little narratives to me. What happens with Drift is that we do these little vignettes, these little sequences strung together. Each one is a story. The doll’s head, animated next to these black and white, very graphic shots of the old strip in Las Vegas—I see the narrative, I know my narrative, but somebody else puts their own narrative on it. There’s no message, it’s not didactic; it’s very much free for you to walk away with whatever you take from it.