Christian Marclay in conversation with Frances Richard

We tend to think of photography as a silent medium, but visual artist and composer Christian Marclay, known for his projects that explore the interplay of image and sound, reveals the sonic dimension of images. For his project Shuffle (2007), Marclay photographed musical notation found in everyday miscellany—on signage, clothing, and objects—eventually publishing the photographs as a deck of cards. The photo-cards are intended to literally be played; when performed, the photographic scores are selected at random by musicians who create improvised compositions. Zoom Zoom (2007–9) similarly employs visual sounds—onomatopoeias photographed by Marclay—that he projects during performances as a prompt for performance artist Shelley Hirsch’s vocal improvisations. Marclay’s other projects with photography include his series of elegant cyanotypes made from the guts of audiocassettes, bringing together two archaic analog technologies. Last April, Marclay spoke with poet Frances Richard at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery. Marclay, who divides his residence between New York and London, was in the Bay Area for an exhibition of his photographs, titled Things I’ve Heard, at the gallery and to open his celebrated video work The Clock (2011), a monumental twenty-four-hour piece comprised of collaged film clips featuring each minute of the day, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. —The Editors

Frances Richard: You laminate so many layers of meaning into a simple gesture. In the Zoom Zoom and Shuffle photographs, for instance, we get a direct depiction of packaging and signage. That brings along references to various visual regimes—street photography, Pop art, Flickr. Then, if we read the images as transcriptions of sounds instead of as representations of objects, we can choose to imagine that sound as abstract. Or as sound that communicates a specific message. We can conjure up audible sound—“Pop pop puff”—or just think about sound-ness: “Ah, onomatopoeia.” So many interpretive options are in play.

Christian Marclay: That’s when things are interesting and successful, when there are many possibilities for entering the work and interpreting it. In Shuffle, the pictures are far from being interesting in themselves. It’s about documenting quickly, and not about composing a perfect image that would stand alone. I was interested in how musical notation is used every day by nonmusicians—by graphic designers, by decorators—to signify “music,” but without any intention of generating real music. Yet, because of the symbols, if I put these pictures in the hands of musicians, they’re potentially playable. They made me think of graphic scores in experimental music. I have to mention that I can’t read or write music.

FR: I was going to ask you about that.

CM: So these, to me, are very abstract. But if you give them to musicians, something can happen, and that’s what interests me: how they get translated. There’s also an element of randomness, because the cards get shuffled and the responses are improvised. So there’s definitely a notion of play. Zoom Zoom is also very playful. In the performance of Zoom Zoom, I select on the fly from a pool of images on my computer while Shelley Hirsch improvises in response. I trigger her, and I react to what she does. I have all these thumbnail images in a grid onscreen, and I click on what I want. So no two performances are alike. Shelley has this incredible ability to tell stories and pick up on details in the image that extend beyond the onomatopoeia. She might comment on a person’s haircut or whatever.

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Shelley Hirsch and Christian Marclay, Zoom Zoom, performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 17, 2010. ©Christian Marclay; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

FR: You’re deejaying images, and Shelley Hirsch is the “dancer”—her voice is responding to the visual “music” you play, in the way that bodies on a dance floor might respond to aural music. You make these complex transpositions from image to music to text, and onomatopoeia seems like a perfect vehicle for that. Was it intentional, to build up a library of images that could be performed this way?

CM: These pictures were taken over more than a decade. I wouldn’t have been able to accumulate so many in a short amount of time, and this project started without my having in mind the idea of a score. It became a score later on, as I realized that I was accumulating these images and that Shelley would be the perfect interpreter. I always have a camera. It’s like a sketchbook, a way to quickly remember. These days the pictures are digital, so I put them on my laptop; I look at them once in a while…But I don’t take a picture with a strong intention. What I like about taking pictures is that it’s instantaneous—

FR: —and in that way playful. Do you record sound in the same wanting-to-remember way?

CM: I don’t do it with sound. I’m thinking of doing it with video, because my phone makes good videos. I don’t even print most of my images. They exist only as digital files. Photography-as-photography is kind of dying. As soon as photography became portable, you could take it on the street. Now cameras are so small, it is even easier. But making a print as a way to share an image is not what is popular now. We’re constantly e-mailing pictures to people, and they have a different nature: more ephemeral, less tangible.

FR: Although here we are in a gallery full of framed prints. And Shuffle presents a box of prints—mass-produced, yes, but still made to be handled, dealt out, toyed with.

CM: There are so many ways to think about photography. It can be tiny, on your phone, or it can be a billboard, or a film-sized projection, or printed in a magazine. I don’t think we’ve been in a time before when so much photography is available in so many formats, when everybody is a photographer.

FR: Isn’t that something people have said about photography since the very beginning, from Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin to Susan Sontag?

CM: Yes, but if you were Baudelaire being a flâneur on the street, it was complicated to take a picture. I used to take pictures with a 35-millimeter camera. It was a small point-and-shoot, always in my pocket. But I had thirty-six shots, and it cost money to process, so I made different decisions. Now, I shoot-shoot-shoot. I don’t think about it.

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Slides from Zoom, Zoom, 2007–9 (slide projection of 150 digital color photographs accompanying performance). ©Christian Marclay; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

FR: Both Zoom Zoom and Shuffle center on performance, collaboration, the real-time interaction of live bodies. Even so, do you think that in some deep way these are digital projects, in that the images depend on that dematerialized, shoot-shoot-shoot attitude?

CM: Yes, in a way, because these images become “live” again. They offer cues for action. As with the way I use records, they don’t document as much as offer material for new sounds. If you put a unique print behind glass, it becomes a precious thing, while the Shuffle images are cheaply available and made to be handled. A digital picture can be sent to a friend with your phone, and you lose control over it—it can be sent around, even go viral. These are new ways to communicate that didn’t exist before.

FR: I read a comment somewhere about your video Telephones (1995)—a compilation of film clips of people using telephones—remarking that many of the movie vignettes stitched together in this piece would never happen now, simply because the phone no longer has a cord. Drama is attached to the fact that we used to have to sit by the phone and wait. And if we wanted to know who was calling, we had to answer.

CM: Right. It is interesting how objects affect our state of mind.

FR: Vinyl albums, even CDs, are moribund formats. Turntablism has revived vinyl for the cognoscenti, but it’s not a universal form the way it was for decades. Even decks of cards are a sunsetting technology. We play solitaire on our phones; we play video poker.

CM: Social game-playing still exists. But it also has an old-fashioned quality because it forces people to sit physically together in one room instead of virtually.

FR: Here’s something you said more than a decade ago: “I’ve always had this theory that recorded sound is dead sound, in the sense that it’s not live anymore. Old records have this quality of time past, this sense of loss. The music is embalmed. I’m trying to bring it back to life through my art.” That’s what we’re talking about, no? Something embalmed by reproduction and obsolescence, that gets re-enlivened by being noticed in new ways.

CM: Technology has a short lifespan. It’s almost as if you need that sunset to be aware of a technology as itself. As in a sunset, there’s this extraordinary view that you don’t get during the day; suddenly it gets very colorful; there’s a sense of, “Oh, it’s almost over; let’s have a better look at it.” You can be more critical, and more appreciative, because it’s on the way out.

FR: So criticality and nostalgia sort of sit in the same spot? Maybe nostalgia isn’t exactly the right word. Retro?

CM: Nostalgia and criticality do seem to be opposites. But there’s always a sense of nostalgia in something that records the passing of time. You can’t escape that. But you can have a critical look at things that seem nostalgic. We assume, because we’re able to capture sounds or images, that they will exist forever—when, in fact, obsolescence makes you feel the limit of those assumptions. There’s a nice tension there. Life is short, and all we have that’s certain is the past.

FR: I slip from thinking about these traces of time past to thinking about realizations that come from seeing repetitions to thinking about, as it were, a score imprinted on the world by accident. This is something I return to as a poet. The medieval trope of the Book of Nature—which is there to be decoded by the initiated—speaks to this idea. The scores in Shuffle and Zoom Zoom are like this; they’re inscribed on the world by the world’s own self-perpetuating logic, hiding in plain sight, waiting to be noticed and interpreted by those who have the eyes to see and ears to hear. Except—and this is a giant difference!—these signs are made not by nature, but by culture. Specifically late-capitalist, consumerist, more-or-less-trashy advertising culture.

CM: I relate this “writing” to the idea of an open score, where there are no rules, really, but a potential for events. You have to interpret it. You have to decipher it in whatever way you can, and everybody has different abilities, makes different connections. I think my work is about showing the multiplicity of interpretations rather than creating a strict, closed structure which is only understandable in a unique way.

FR: I see these images as poised on a threshold, lighthearted but not overly affirmative—

CM: Right.

FR: Not negative. Not positive. Formal, but not intensely so. Curious, maybe—

CM: Hesitant, maybe. There’s a hesitance.

FR: About?

CM: The picture-taking happens quickly, and I don’t know what I’m looking for. I tend to frame things in a fairly classical way. We all have this baggage of compositional devices that are so ingrained in our ways of seeing; we can’t help using them. I still frame things straight-on, try to square the horizon line with the camera. These conventions are reflexes. I’m making the images recognizable for the viewer. But, then, I might pair things within the frame to trigger a possible narrative or critical point of view.

[CM and FR page through his catalog Things I’ve Heard]

For example, here’s an image of a night bell [New York, 2003]. The fact that the sign is posted on a black wall, and there’s nothing else—if it was on a white wall, the picture would be very different. Or, another example: Here are two things side by side. One is a cash register, the other is an accordion [London, 2006]. They are different objects, yet formally similar, and money and music go hand in hand.

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New York, 2003 ©Christian Marclay; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

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London, 2006. ©Christian Marclay; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

FR: Do you think about pseudomorphism a lot?

CM: What do you mean?

FR: Well, you make this proposition, in effect, that Zoom Zoom, or Shuffle, or the group of images in Things I’ve Heard make up a set, that these things—which are so disparate— rhyme somehow, or belong in a series. Take the accordion and the cash register. They both have a vaguely Deco curved silhouette. They’re red and gold and black and white. They have keys. They have numbers. They have a grille or slot where something comes out or goes in.

CM: They also both make a sound. Ka-ching!

FR: But one could argue that’s all pseudomorphism, superficial accident. They don’t really have anything to do with one another.

CM: Yes. But the reason they are together is to offer a third reading, totally disconnected from their initial usage. They tell a beautiful story together. Like if you’re writing poetry, you put together two words that rhyme or off-rhyme, and even though they may be unrelated, that rhyme is going to give the phrase a different weight. It kind of forces them together.

FR: That’s true. This is like a game structure, where the game is about accumulation yielding a meaning that couldn’t emerge in any other way. Like in Telephones, where it becomes about the pathos and repetitiveness of trying to communicate, the relentless similarity in unlike situations. “Hello.” “Hello?” “Hello.” “Hello?” “Good-bye.” “Good-bye.” “Good-bye.”

CM: That’s why I said “hesitant.” When I snap a photograph, I’m just seeing something, and I capture it. It’s very different than, let’s say, if I were to create a set and stage a situation to be photographed, or if I went out of my way to document specific things.

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New York, 2003. ©Christian Marclay; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

FR: You would never arrange a photograph.

CM: No. I might adjust something, the way I scraped the snow off the Yamaha box on the street [New York, 2003]. I’m not a purist in that sense. I wanted the viewer to know there was a picture of a guitar on the box. At first I thought you could see it through the snow, which was a nice kind of veil. But it didn’t come through. So I brushed some snow off. There’s something between the silencing of the snow and this guitar that is not in the box anymore. It’s winter; the box is on the curb with the trash; maybe a kid received that guitar for Christmas. There’s a potential for narrative. For me, there’s always this moment of hesitation when I take the photograph. Is it worth stopping for? At the same time, it’s never a big statement. Most of my pictures are really small statements. There’s a banality to them.

FR: How would you compare that moment, that split-second intuitive decision, with an improvisatory decision in performance?

CM: It’s a nice way to think about it, in terms of improvisation and playing music. It’s not the “decisive moment” of classic street photography. Because my images rarely involve people, the notion of speed is less an issue. But still, there’s that decision to pull the camera out of the pocket and use it. In playing improvised music, you are constantly making decisions; you are reacting to others, and you never know where the hell it’s going to lead. Photography is solitary and there are lags between seeing with your eyes and seeing through the lens, and then seeing the image on your computer, or as a print, and seeing things that you hadn’t noticed. I often see things after the fact. So there’s a revelatory quality. And this definitely includes a sense of playfulness, because you’re not sure what the consequences are going to be.

FR: I’m thinking of John Zorn’s game structures and the open work, the open score.

CM: There are strict rules, but you are never going to play the same thing twice.

FR: Maybe this is my bias as a poet. But, for me, both these projects have that sense of a script that isn’t a script—a graphic meaning that’s printed on the world just off the scale of language. Does that feel right?

CM: Yes, it does. I think of snapshots, often, in terms of poetry, just because they play with language. Shuffle also has to do with the different type of writing that is musical notation, a language I don’t write or read. The project says something about my lack of musical knowledge and these shortcuts that allow me to generate music without knowing what the signs literally mean.

FR: Like the photograph of the night bell—the wit or resonance of the image depends on our being able to read English, to understand those two words. That’s a different role for language than when we see some enigmatic sign that we know has meaning, but in a system in which we are illiterate. Take this image [from Shuffle, of musical notation on a window, with lace curtain and other signage]. Is this Greek?

CM: Yes.

FR: So we have musical notation and Greek—two languages I don’t read. That makes me ask myself about the filigree on the balcony railing or the laciness of the curtain. I’m ready to read those as a secret script too.

CM: Yes, definitely. This is what interests me, how everything in Shuffle is potentially music. You’ve got staff lines; you’ve got the reference to pitch, maybe, and to structure. You have rhythmic division.

FR: You could start playing the decorative metal musical notes attached to the metal gate, and then go on to play the holes in the bricks, the lines of the telephone wires, the lines of the siding on the house, the shapes of the trees…

CM: It invites you to look not just at music, but at the world around the music as its extension.

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Geneva, 1995. ©Christian Marclay; courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until January 5, 2014.

Frances Richard is the author of Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012), and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003). She writes frequently about contemporary art and teaches currently at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.