Nonsense in the System: Carol Szymanski Interviewed
Artist and artcritical’s London correspondent SHERMAN SAM sat down with Carol Szymanski during her recent exhibition at Tanja Grunert Gallery (Carol Szymanski: My Life as an Index, reviewed in these pages by Anne Sherwood Pundyk) to discuss the evolution of her career from philosophy student and Whitney Studio Program alum via corporate banker to her current incarnation.
SHERMAN SAM: You were at the Whitney program in 1982/83.
CAROL SZYMANSKI: Yes, and before that I was at the San Francisco Art Institute, and received an MFA in video and performance art.
What did you do at the Whitney?
I was making 3-channel video installations, where I would video people having natural conversations. They would talk about their lives, say at a cocktail party. Then I would go back and transcribe what they said, and then bring them back into the same situation with the transcription and ask them to act out what they had said previously. So that was when I think back on that, I think of it as a bit of a Reality TV show.
It sounds ahead of its time, like something people might do today.
Yeah, I think a lot about that. I kind of stopped making video because at the time we had to carry big porta-paks around and it was very cumbersome. You really needed two or three people and no matter how much you set up a situation to prevent things going wrong technically, something would always go wrong. It was quite a frustrating experience.
At that time I was also very much involved in semiotics, I guess many people were in the early ‘80s, and that drew me to thinking about language. The beginning of making sculpture was developing this font based on the phonetic alphabet. I began to make abstract drawings with the font. I thought of doing the phonetic alphabet, which brought me to the phoneme being the simplest expression or thought that has meaning. I thought, “that’s something I wanna break and I can break it in an abstract way and I’ll have something that’s more than what the phoneme is.” So I took these single letters and started drawing abstract shapes with them with that in mind. That brought me into sculpture in the sense that I really wanted to do something more with the shape. I guess on some level I was thinking in a three-dimensional way although I have no sense of perspective in the sense of a traditional sculpture training [laughs].
Its ok, we’re all artists! None of us have any sense of perspective.
So that sort of evolved over the course of many years—working with fabricators and so on. One thing that I find interesting, reflecting back on that period and stays with my work today, is that I think because I don’t approach making sculpture in a traditional sense. For example I never have a base or a way in which the object sits. In fact a lot of my work have variable qualities… like they can be arranged in different directions. [Points at an image of her horn sculptures] So when I started making the horns from the shapes, they were just made to be held or played, then you can just set them down in whatever way you want.
Don’t you think that this notion of “baselessness” corresponds with that idea that it’s all language or sound or expression. And therefore these things can change and be reorganised. So maybe a base would anchor it too much?
I always think of them as sound and verbal expression connected to sound.
So do you think of them as – all across the work– making sound physical or visual?
Yes, definitely… I think it’s an interesting way to phrase it. I do think about making them physical, but they are more sort of conceptual experiments. I’m more interested in examining an idea or making than the physical object/image. It’s the result of a thought process that’s more like a philosophical position. I don’t want to say a remnant.. but, like something left over.
Maybe a proposition?
I have a degree in philosophy, so I think a lot of my work comes out of that study.
When we’re talking about this period where you shift from video to sculpture after the Whitney program are we talking a 10-year period? A 5-year period?
Well, I always considered video as sculpture, as opposed to film. I think 4-5 years. But I think I’m always not completely satisfied with what I’ve done, and that’s what moves me into the next work. I think I was frustrated with the nature of the medium and the expense involved. But now I would like move back into it.
It seems to me like with this show, although you have many, many different types of objects or expressions, they all feed into this basic proposition of working with sound.
Yes, that’s right.
And what strikes me having known you for so many years now is that its not like you think “oh, I can do this, then do that”, its seems more of an organic process..
At the time I was working with language in an abstract sense, which ended with making this phonetic alphabet and making these horns and the idea was shaped breath and that sound of the horn was a function of the shape of the letter. And that moved it into this language music thing. But I felt that I was running away from meaning in the sense of direct verbal expression. My work is about language but I wasn’t dealing with the words. When I went to London to work at the bank, I was not getting to the studio much. The cockshut dummys, [an email project] which was a practice where I could make art while I worked at the bank. I started writing and did this email project. So the cockshut dummys gave me an opportunity to address that distance from language, and that was satisfying. I loved that! And when I came back to New York I really wanted to write and find a way to incorporate writing and make sculpture at the same time. I wanted to use both and have both represented in my work without it being conceptual art, in the sense of text on a wall. Although I have started playing around with that, too.
What started this newest body of work is the thought that it’s hard for people to read texts on the wall. I picked two letter words, and made two letter word poems and then took the shapes from these two letters. So they would be both readable on the wall and abstract. Then I started looking at two letter words, and that’s when I hit the Solfege or the Solfegio, that’s do re me fa so la ti. Those are two letter words and I never saw them as two-letter words! Then I realised, “well they also represent sounds on a musical scale.. Oh my god!” This became a project I had to do to round out the other side of the horns. It was like a gift. So I returned to working with the font and came up with – what I call – the icons of the Solfege. It was invented by Guido Solfeggio in the Middle Ages. I realized that there were many individuals through out history that worked with it and created adjacent meanings, or in Wittgenstein’s terminology, “family resemblances”. So I was really interested in creating meaning with that kind of adjacency, instead of that variation of a theme which is what we see very much of today and is very much a given way you look at art. [ 1832]
So as I began to create a system, and that’s very much how I work, I create a system and work within it. The first thought was that I wanted the icons to become ballons, inflatable sculptures. I wanted it to be the inverse of the horns. They were shaped breath when blown: your lips round and become a shape. In the horns, air went through a tube but in this case I wanted the air to be contained. And that’s why I thought of inflatable sculpture. I really like the idea of not having a rigid base. I wanted the objects to float around people and move, and be variable.
The funny thing about the balloons is that they remind me of the horns.
That’s right, they were the same shapes as the horns. The first horn I made was “D” “O”. Then I made sculpture out of that shape, out of Lucite, where I had a computer carve that shape.
Today you can just 3-D print that. [laughs] I bet back then it was really difficult to do.
That’s why I stopped doing them.
So you were a pioneer of digital printing before it was digital printing!
It was engineered and took a long time back then: they had to be carved out of a solid block of Lucite. So it makes sense that you saw the same shape.
Coming back to your system, tell me a bit these different notations.
The hands are from John Curwen who wanted to created gestures for sight reading. He also assigned meaning – what I call sense – to the hand gestures, but he only did it for the major scales, so in my situation I added the five minor notes. I saw all of these things as creating music or songs, and I saw them as songs of Solfege. What’s important here is that Isaac Newton created this notation system for the colour and it is very much associated with sound. The things I got very discouraged about with myself was that I was just appropriating every body else’s notation systems… so I said this is silly I have to have my own. That I got very excited about.. so I decided to look at the Curwen meaning for the senses and start there, and got very excited about the interjection because that’s the closest thing between sounds and words that have meaning and their emotions. They’re in the zone between meaning and sound, and I just took interjections and assigned them to the twelve notes, or in the Schoenberg case eleven notes.. Then it came so easily, it was perfect! Music is emotional. It really fits to have an interjection as a musical note to me, that I assigned the 12 interjections and that’s what makes it.
The index feels like a summation, the whole show makes sense with it.
I hate to say this, but this is a lot like the kind of stuff we did at the bank! The charts and the graphs seem to be in my system.
In a sense they’re your I-Ching?
I used to throw the I-Ching all the time! Fundamentally I believe that categories create how we look at the world. And in whatever particular country or society, whatever micro/macro situation you’re in, how things are categorized is the way people understand them. So that’s how I became intrigued by the thesaurus. There really hasn’t been one since Roget that we take seriously. I like reading the thesaurus. I think it’s something I’ve been doing since my 20s. Now the question you haven’t asked me is about nonsense.
Most of my understanding of reality or operations of behavior and people is that one never really sees what one gets. So there’s always an underlying message going on that you’re never really picking up on. That’s what I took away from the bank! That was going on where I worked. For instance: if a decision had to be made. They brought everyone in, but it had already been made. They just wanted everybody to believe that they were involved in making the decision. So there’s always that element, and nothing really makes sense. In fact what you’re understanding and what’s in front of you does not always make sense. That’s why the Berlusconi quote [a quote attributed as Qaddafi’s last words to Berlusconi is screen printed to the wall] so perfectly reflects that. That’s why I set up this logical or seemingly logical system where in fact it’s nonsensical. I want that nonsense in the system.