3 April 2020


Andy Graydon_The Transect courtesy and © the artistAndy Graydon, "The Transect in Three or Four Modes of Observation" (2018), courtesy and © the artist

Andy Graydon works with sound, performance and video. In his works he often questions and analyzes the coherence and compatibility of art and science, which I find most intriguing in terms of our understanding of nature. Andy and I met in Berlin a few years ago, and since then continued exchanging ideas on displacement, islandness and the role of fiction for future imaginaries. A short excerpt from our long lasting conversations to be continued… 

Helene Romakin: Born in Maui, you lived in Berlin, and now you are back in the US. How have these stages of life have changed your perspective on Hawai’i?

Andy Graydon: Setting aside the distinct weirdness and horror of returning to the States just 18 months before the onset of this devastating administration, moving has always been a positive motivator of my work. It was only on leaving Hawai’i, to go to college, that it occurred to me that I might need to be an artist, for example. Each transition between places has also produced a progression or evolution in the way I see the world, make sense of my own experiences, and how my work might address the world and speak it back to me. Once I was living away from the islands, it became more clear how that environment affected nearly all of my choices, my reflexes. I have spent some time trying to understand the islands from this inside/outside position. The islands are not a “theme” in my work, but are a locus, a way of thinking that generates the need to work. 

HR: Your projects are grounded in an ongoing research and exchange with scientists. Can you speak about the beginnings of you approaching the scientific world for your practice, and how this exchange takes place?

AG: I think that working with scientists is just an occasion to focus on an aspect of human behavior that we all share and that I find particularly fascinating: our will to inquiry, and toward world-building from speculations about what may or may not be possible. It’s a commonplace to say that the artist and the scientist are not so far apart, but I like looking at scientists because they agree to work within such a rigorous set of what you might call narrative standards when making their models of reality. They are deeply speculative thinkers and experimenters, but they, speaking very generally, agree to a single plane of the real (a plane of immanence as Deleuze and Guattari would say) that they apply their findings toward. Because of this, the world as it is known is constantly partial, contested and provisional. I love this quality of negotiation of the real, and it is perhaps the background theme of every work I have ever made. The feeling and idea that the negotiation is all we have, that there is no ground we don’t build in order to stand on it. Meanwhile, reality churns away, more or less insouciant regarding our travails in groping toward understanding. It’s about construction, and the impossibility of it at the same time. I find this incredibly consoling, somehow. 

Andy Graydon_The Transect courtesy and © the artist
Andy Graydon, "The Transect in Three or Four Modes of Observation" (2018), courtesy and © the artist

HR: You have been working on several ideas on Hawai’i for over two years now, which resulted in 35mm slides, video and sound installations. What is the documentary fiction “The Transect in Three or Four Modes of Observation” (2018) dealing with?

AG: In 2015 I started following a pair of ecologists on the island of Maui, Kim and Forest Starr. I wanted to know about the projects they were getting government grants to pursue, how they saw the evolution of biodiversity on the island, natural resource management, and so on. They introduced me to their projects on Hawaiian Petrels, moths, caterpillars, and bats. I became fascinated by the Ope’ape’a bat, the only endemic land mammal in Hawai’i, and an endangered species about which too little is known. Forest and Kim record the bat’s ultrasonic calls that trace their furtive movements through the landscape. Through these recorded traces, which are vocalizations for perception and navigation, the ecologists construct a story about what the bat is up to, and where. Which is important because the bat is elusive and very mobile, traversing private land, industrial projects (like wind farms), and into the national parks each with its own set of interests and regulatory demands. How to begin telling this story is incredibly layered and difficult, beginning first with how to record and interpret the bat’s calls. The title of the work refers to the fact that in recording ultrasonic calls, which by definition we can’t perceive directly, the scientist has to make a decision about how to translate, or transcode, the calls into a trace that we can hear or see. So there are three basic ways: time expansion, frequency division, and heterodyning. None of them “are” the bat’s calls and none of them sound alike, but they each are helpful in painting a part of a picture of their lives. The Transect became a story about how narrative traces, frames, and invests its objects.

HR: In a time of enormous loss of biodiversity and species mass extinction the dialogue about the bat doesn’t sound fictive at all. Why have you decided not to use any particular case that actually happened? 

AG: The short answer is that I just don’t make documentaries. Fiction is fundamental to most of my work, which looks at stories as constructions of the real, and I think it’s important to emphasize the construction, especially that which I am involved in within the work. The Transect is a ‘documentary fiction’ in the sense that the cases it describes are true and the narration is edited from interviews that describe those events. But there were layers having to do with language and storytelling, with narrative arc and poetic association that are appropriate to fiction. The old adage holds here: fiction was simply more true to my image of the thing than documentary reality.

HR: In his book “The Great Derangement” Amitav Ghosh claims that in times of climate change fiction is very important to create new imaginaries of possible futures. How do you think about that? 

AG: I haven’t read the book, but I agree with that sentiment for sure. Shared ideas create the contexts for action, the possibility spaces for life. And our ideas can hold us back – sometimes in a world that no longer exists, as we’re seeing now with climate change and especially with the covid-19 emergent crisis – or our ideas can be the engines of our progress, the contexts for action that transform the entire field of possibility. Fiction has a great role in this, as a formalized mode of imaginative speculation, of poetic linking between previously disparate or unformed areas of life. I’m fascinated with the reversibility of the imagination’s role in the world: it can at one turn provide the most effective, radical ideas for a concrete future, it can literally save the day; and then by another turn the imagination opens an escape valve away from our reality, allowing us to turn entirely away from the world into the ‘world’ or worlds of our own conjuring, our internal mental realities where we might find solace, or denial, or at least some measure of control. But even those escapist roles of fiction can bring people together in thought, they are a great platform for meta-communication and for setting ideas spinning in a shared realm that may not yet be ready to surface into the light of ‘plans’ like those of politics or engineering. I basically feel that storytelling is one of the fundamental tools that has made humans so incredibly adaptive to our material and social environments and that has allowed us to thrive. If we are going to have a hope of surviving the world that’s at our doorstep right now, we are going to need our stories and storytellers as much as anything else. 

HR: Can you further comment on how you find the balance in your narrative between fiction and actual science?

AG: Rolling off your previous question, I think that scientists are some of the great storytellers (and image-makers) of our civilization. But you might say their editorial instincts and directives are pointed in another direction – their inclination is to craft findings that feed back into how the world might be understood or manipulated. But those same findings can be registered in many ways; they are important to us for many reasons, and not all of them are apparent before exploring them, kicking them around for a while in an experimental way. As an artist, my own editorial interests are directed toward the resonances that these findings have with thinking and feeling persons in the world: how does a new notion of the world change our resonating sense of being-in-the-world, and then how does that touch other people in terms of ethics, communication, aesthetics? So I like to start with as distinct a sense of the scientific inquiry as I can, then explore it with my own sensitivities as awakened as possible, my antennae up you might say, attentive to how science might be exciting a system or illuminating a situation, and that I may be resolving its significances differently, making different, adjacent sense of it.

Andy Graydon_CRLT_courtesy and © the artist Andy Graydon “Clean Room Light Trap” (2017), courtesy and © the artist

HR: In your work “Clean Room Light Trap” from 2017 you question two very concrete processes of technical construction: the telescope and the light trap. What caught your interest in these particular procedures? 

AG: Forest Starr introduced me to the light trap, basically a cloth-sided lantern to study nocturnal insects without trapping or killing them. I decided to set one up outside my house in Maui to see what I could net, knowing from experience that there are a lot of critters out there. That same month I visited the University of Hawai’i Institute for Astronomy, where I was able to watch work in their sealed “clean room” building telescope optics. I immediately began to mentally pair these two devices, the telescope and the light trap, not only as dispostifs but as two related types of observatory. One used light to hold tiny bugs for observation under a lens, the other used a lens to hold light for observation of gigantic astronomical events; one looked down, the other up; one invited insects into the device, the other attempts to create a sterile environment free of impurities. The two began to feel like one oscillating system, fixed between the intimacy of the ground and the vastness of the sky. So I tried to make a video that showed this tandem system through the work of construction, focused on hands at work, and then on the insects themselves and imagining them as stars in negative. The strobing was an attempt to emphasize the constant collision and recombination of the images of these processes that only really cohere in the mind; their relation isn’t stable or constant, but always teetering, maybe even multistable. 

HR: The Hawaiian archipelago is a very specific geological volcanic site composed of 137 islands. Thus, there is an impressive amount of scientific volcano observatories, an accumulation of ecologists, and also telescopes. Do you think this specific islandness of the site has an impact on the research, which takes place there? 

AG: The Hawaiian-Emperor Chain is the longest and oldest archipelago on earth. It’s quite unique, spanning half the length of the Pacific ocean. And absolutely it is that uniqueness that makes it an exciting place for explorers and researchers including geologists, biologists, navigators, astronomers, anthropologists, historians, artists. I think there is something particularly fascinating about the combination of isolation (“the most remote chain of islands in the world”) and pure span (more than 3,000 miles and 70 million years) that does shape the imaginal space for anyone who lives and works there. Places and ecosystems are not things so much as events. From magma to surface, from land to water, the islands rise and fall like waves on the ocean themselves, just on vastly different time scales. This sense of the islands being events, pulses in a geologic rhythm, is something that I think affects a lot of the work, and the living, taking place there. 

Andy Graydon_A*courtesy and © the artist Andy Graydon "A*", courtesy and © the artist

HR: Your most recent sound and video installation is titled “A*.” What does “A” stand for?

AG: I started off calling the work “Atollepathy,” to give you an idea where I was coming from. Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of spheres was important here, and what he calls “the pre-Cartesian ontology of resonance.” He says, “for me ontology begins at the number two.” In other words there is no unitary identity prior to a relation, a connection. There is no island without its relation to sea, to land, and often to archipelago. So a series of related situations caught my interest, including the protests on Mauna Kea over new telescope construction. This is a critical debate about how land is valued and who gets to speak on its behalf. The Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) are advocating for a wider, more holistic, sphere of public awareness and recognition of the land beyond its use value for development or industry (including the sciences). I began to see this debate not so much in terms of conflict as of productive interference: a series of cancellations and reinforcements that is required to construct a more intricate image, as in the process of interferometry. It’s a metaphor, but I found it powerful to the situation. 

HR: Can you expand on the Event Horizon Telescope that is mentioned in this work?

AG: I was thinking about the relation of looking down and looking up. The archipelago is about our connection to each other in a chain of islands that creates a whole in a community without a traditional territorial center. This very horizontal, distributed idea of space got me interested to make a project that could place these two axes in conversation. I found a natural subject in the Event Horizon Telescope, which is itself an archipelago of telescopes, a distributed array of sites around the world. I learned more about that project, which has two telescopes on Mauna Kea on Hawai’i Island, and became fascinated with the process it uses to create its composite images, called interferometry. Briefly, it is through a registering of the interference patterns between remote observation sites that a single unified image can be made from an array. This idea of the whole entity forming from a complex set of relations and interferences rather than as a centralized mass, this felt very right to me, and worth exploring as a kind of “archipelag-ology “, if you will.

HR: The discourse around the oceanic worldview has increased in recent years. Hawai’i being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean is certainly a place where ocean plays a significant role. How has the ocean shaped your thinking?

AG: I find echoes of the ocean’s influence in my choices and thought processes all the time, usually after the fact, once I’m trying to make sense of my decisions. Being around the ocean was important for my focus on listening and being a listener as an artist; also on my love of interstitial zones, between-spaces, which I learned about from tide pools and estuaries in the islands; and my interest in cyclical change, ellipses and circuitous pathways as opposed to straight vectors of progress, which I think I learned in part from being around tidal changes. For me, the ocean is a key element in working toward the idea I was mentioning earlier: an ontology based on resonance. The sea as a place of waves, of mobile forces, tidal intensities, of pressures as much as territories; a space of energies that are constantly crossing subjects, transducing through them, co-vibrating them, all suffused in the matrix of the sea. Listening underwater, like when you are snorkeling or diving, can provide a good introduction here. We humans are not good at it, our ears are wrong for it, but the sense of our perceptual and environmental sphere opens tremendously when you attend to the sounds in the ocean.

Andy Graydon A* courtesy and © the artistAndy Graydon "A*", courtesy and © the artist

HR: I feel that since we humans are land mammals, oceans remain always more mysterious than land. Something we understand more likely that we are not capable of ruling over. 

AG: I remember snorkeling off the atoll Molokini, where you have a shallow reef on the concave side of the island and a steep undersea cliff that gives way to deep opaque blue on the other, and hearing whales calling to each other somewhere out in the ocean. They sounded incredibly near and I kept looking for them, but then realized this is why they use calls – they traveled so well and created a vast acoustic arena for themselves. To be within that arena, as a stranger and amphibian, floating near the surface where waves of sound in the air meet ocean waves meet underwater acoustics, that was a great moment of ecological learning, of coming to know how delicate and complex one’s placement in the environment is, and how responsible we should be to attending to our roles within it. Stefan Helmreich is a very important writer for me in making sense of the role that waves play in worlds and our perceptions of them. His book Sounding the Limits of Life has some wonderful essays and his new upcoming book is all about waves. 

HR: In your works you often show otherwise inaccessible and invisible matter through sound or video. What is your opinion on the role representational systems in times of hyper-facticity?

AG: I’m fascinated by the working models, the structures, agreements, coordinations, and so on, that have to be constructed for an image to cohere, for sense to be made of a phenomenon or a field of events. Because the only reality we have is the reality that shows up. It has to arrive to us in perception or in effect in order to be real, on some level, and we extend this showing-up to the products of ever-more abstract models that tease the abilities of the mind’s eye. We are taking up this interview just as the global realities of the novel coronavirus are becoming truly clear. So when you mention inaccessible hyper-facticity I think immediately of the knowledge we had from models about how the global pandemic would spread and overwhelm medical infrastructure, and how it was ignored, perhaps because it felt somehow unbelievable, outside of experience. But then in the midst of the facts (and we are going to see this, terribly, more and more as this wave of reality overwhelms us) the world re-models us and changes what we are able to think or forced to think with, and suddenly new facets of the real seem to arrive as if from nothing. Of course they were lurking in potential, which is always hard for us to glean. But sometimes this process is easiest to see at its limits, at its breaking points: as when we try to counter the tactics of a viral threat, or try to render an image of a black hole or the sound of a bat call.

HR: You just released the new album “Volumes in Translation” (2020). The titles of the tracks imply different stories, can you expand on that?

AG: “Volumes in Translation” is a collection of sound compositions that have all been previously released on compilations or split releases of some kind over the past ten years. There is an exhaustive document of liner notes and credits that I submitted to the distributor, but of course with music streaming all of that content is gone, it’s reduced to just tracks and a thumbnail image. Which is too bad, because the record does tell a little story about the contexts and influences of my work with sound and music over the past decade. Untitled (weathering steel), for example, was a piece commissioned by the New Museum for their Unmonumental exhibition about sculpture in the 21st century. All the sounds are field recordings from the Storm King Art Center, a vast sculpture park in New York state; the work is about site, structure, and sound all coming together in the activity of sounding and listening, and then how that interacts with the indoor gallery situation. Untitled (Altbau) was released for a series about sound and architecture, and is made from field recordings inside and outside the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, using Mies’ famous glass and steel planes to filter and shape the environmental sounds and then filtering and processing them until just a thin, even transparent skeleton remains. Microclimates for Paliku is made from processed ukulele improvisations, during a period when I was making a series of environmental works in the islands. Paliku is a small area in the Haleakalā crater on Maui where one microclimate gives way to another in a dramatic way that often results in rolling banks of mist.