AHC: In your piece 'some people are without guitar' there is this line “Obama's drones turn you into a realist” which is a really powerful phrase among many really powerful phrases throughout the piece, “water under water can't be heard” is another one that comes to mind. I'm wondering if you could comment on the inspiration-creation behind this piece. There were so many different mental-threads that were tugging at me as I listened to it, but most of all I was thinking of precarity, third world precarity, the drone will make you a realist, will make your bodies fragility palpable and inescapable, was this one of the guiding inspirations for you, this sense that abstraction can sometimes be an unaffordable luxury for certain segments of the world?
Danielle: I first made ‘Some People Are Without Guitar’ into video in early 2011, layering different sounds and text tracks for the composition. The text itself, though, came into being, as many of my texts do, beforehand, while I was ‘going about life.’ I had been digesting and assembling my work FIRST ASSIGNMENT, which came out of my experience embedding with a unit of US servicepersons both domestically and in Afghanistan. I was also working on a later project, On the Rocks, in the Land, for which I was traveling to various zones with ‘walls’ – Belfast, Juárez, Ramallah. Both projects attest to my desire to interface directly with or to ‘witness’ first-hand that which I do not know so as to better understand or make meaning. The use of drone warfare could be seen as a refusal to interface directly, a disembodiment from facing one’s effect in the world. In this sense, drone warfare is functioning to abstract, yes, but I would not say that abstraction is exclusive to the known power players of the world. Abstraction is an innate reflex – i.e. ‘Americans don’t care about […],’ ‘people from the city are […],’ ‘the air in […] is,’ etc. In the song-poem, following ‘[…] turn you into a realist’ are the lines ‘We should just be able to kill each other, body on body / People documenting people.’ By “realist” I was thinking of political realism, the form of international relations that takes conflict and competition as a given. From this perspective, an engaged party accepts that war is interface and that devastation will occur. What is striking to me is that five years since my making this video drone warfare has only increased and, subsequently, come more to the attention of the public eye.
AHC: "No time for recreational thinking" is another great line from 'some people are without guitar' it reminds me of a book by Slavenka Drakulic called 'The Balkan Express" in which she describes what it's like to try and continue to live an ordinary mundane life in the midst of a war zone in the Balkan crises, having coffee at a cafe while bombs are dropping, going to the grocery store in the midst of rubble, many of us couldn't imagine trying to adapt our lives to such a brutal scenario, I mention this because these are some of the reasons why I think your piece is so powerful, it brings up all of these really shadowy aspects of existence we would rather not acknowledge or spend too much time thinking about, they are also woven together as fragments, related but also disparate, as much of our mediatized reality seems these days, fragmented, related and disconnected, yet your performance forces or beckons a certain ethical cohesion or call to conscience, is this something that you feel informs part of what you do as an artist? Teasing out the social conscious from beneath the rubble?
Danielle: Thank you for this response. Drakulic’s book has been on my list! My process and my aesthetic are idiosyncratic. I conceptualize my poetic gestures as making sense from or even bringing into fact of being, the fragments that populate us - whether they be media noise, the daily concerns of life, or the grand narratives constantly being reshaped and re-sold to us. In another way, though, ‘what I do as an artist’ comes out of an unselfconscious voice. In my resting state, somewhat akin to how we understand young children, I am always making rhythms, cycling in on things overheard, phrasing images I encounter into bits of text. This to me is like breathing or coping or scanning one’s eyes in a crowd. It is in the composition of my texts, whether performed or otherwise, that these sensibilities intertwine. A social conscious is both bubbling up from my work and also studied and scrutinized within it.
AHC: Have you considered creating a new piece along the lines of 'Hope May' for this current election cycle we are in? Also could you talk a bit about that piece?
Danielle: ‘Hope May’ was generated by collecting and composing all the ‘Hope’ statements I received or sent via email in the month of May 2008, the month nominee Barack Obama announced his ‘Hope’ campaign. The reprise is ‘May Come, May Go.’ It wasn’t until the 2012 election cycle, when President Obama was running for his second term, that I created the video. In the animation I have taken gestures performed in Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ music video and drawn them as disembodied arms and hands, which some have interpreted as intimating ‘a magic trick.’ That video-performance, along with ‘Some People Are Without Guitar,’ are part of my collection of thirteen video-song-poems titled And I Think I Like It. in which I examine many of the phrasings and current events over that election time (2011-13).
Beginning in late 2013 to now I have been engaged in my current project, Caution Bomb, which indirectly and directly deals with the current US Presidential election cycle. Specifically, the three-part project takes up the US Homeland Security slogan ‘see something, say something.’ The project began when I was invited to work with the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart, Germany as a composer. Working with six vocalists and three instrumentalists I created the opera, ‘Caution Baum,’ for live performance and video (“Baum” being “tree” in the German language). The loose narrative of the piece surrounds notions of esotericism within the forests of southern Germany. I met with two known foresters during my research and also spent time at the flagship Waldrof School in Stuttgart and visited the Goetheanum, in Dornach, Switzerland during its eurythmy festival when creating the piece. Throughout the opera the performers whisper the line ‘see something, say something’ with regards to the death and reappearance of a tree/Baum.
The second tier of Caution Bomb resides in Los Angeles, where I live and work. The phrase in this video-performance and accompanying visual material exists in relation to paparazzi and the fantasy of the southern Californian landscape and its palm trees. Over the last year I have been working as an editor at a celebrity gossip blog accruing background for this component. The third and final tier of the project, on which I am now working, deals directly with this election cycle. I attended both Presidential National Conventions this July, the Republican in Cleveland and the Democratic in Philadelphia. The material I have collected and generated will become a dynamic piece for performance, again using the refrain ‘see something, say something’ as in this case, it relates to political agency and protest. In both ‘Hope May’ and this current body of work, the omnipresent slogans, ‘Hope’ and ‘see something, say something’ are repeated, deconstructed, and given space to be reconstituted in the eyes and ears of the viewer.
AHC: You spent some time as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan, which became the theme of your work 'From JBAD, Lessons Learned', could you talk a bit about that project and also what it was like while you were there?
Danielle: ‘From JBAD, Lessons Learned’ is the product upon which my embed with the United States military was premised. My time in Afghanistan and with troops domestically before and after is part of the larger umbrella project FIRST ASSIGNMENT. In January 2008 I performed as a “media embed” with soldiers in Fort Irwin, California where the military base was then dressed to resemble villages in Afghanistan and the soldiers were given a simulated war experience to prepare them just before deployment. In the short time I was on base I was assigned to a young Lieutenant with whom I befriended. Kelly and I are close in age and have at times been mistaken as sisters. After my stint on base we continued corresponding, and at one point that spring while I was driving in my car in Los Angeles listening to news on the radio, I decided that I wanted to follow Kelly in Afghanistan, on her first assignment, as a real embed. Without reportage bylines to my name I approached a literary press I work with – Les Figues is a Los Angeles-based, independent, nonprofit publisher of poetry, prose, visual art, and conceptual writing – to be my “media outlet.” After six months of my application paperwork, pitches, and waiting I was approved to go to Afghanistan, which I planned for the month of November 2008, knowing that I would be with the troops after the US elections and over the Thanksgiving holiday. In sum it was a tremendous experience. I talked with many individuals in the conflict overseas and accrued much audio and visual documentation. From this, I created a series of video-performances, which I performed throughout the project’s trajectory and have since developed into the feature-length work FIRST ASSIGNMENT. The artist book ‘From JBAD, Lessons Learned’ I created and modeled after the US Army and Marine Corp’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The book is an accumulation of phrases I encountered while on base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, loosely and associatively arranged alphabetically, and, particularly, ending with a barrage of statements, from the soldiers, worded in the second-person – i.e. “you gotta be careful of letting your mind,” “you really have to be completely,” “when you try to be like,” etc. Through my role as a “media embed” the project interrogates counterinsurgency and shows that it is not only a strategy used by the military, it is also a rubric of performance.
Interestingly, after Kelly’s assignment in Afghanistan, I was able to meet up with her in her redeployment to Fort Hood, Texas over the Labor Day weekend of 2009. Seeing again some of those I met abroad was an entirely separate and profound experience.
AHC: Could talk about your piece Buoys and the themes that inspired it?
Danielle: In 2010 I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland as the International Artist-In-Residence at Digital Arts Studios. I came to know the three navigational buoys that sit as public sculpture near Ulster University in Cathedral Gardens and are used as a common meeting-up place. My friends there would of course use to the British English pronunciation of the word, which unlike American English, sounds phonetically like ‘boys’ to refer to ‘Buoy Park,’ as it is informally referred. I knew at that time that there was a piece there, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 in a quick burst while back in California that I wrote ‘Buoys.’ The accompanying video is a series of animated water buoys, which bounce and sway upon the black video mass of the monitor’s screen: ‘So I do/ What all the Buoys Do/ Bop-d-bop-bop-bop/ Do What the Buoys Do/ Bounce-Bounce-Bounce/ All the Buoys Do/ Down-Down-Down.’
AHC: In the piece you contributed to Chain Letter, the group exhibition for Shoshana Wayne Gallery, 2011, your quote reads: "HOUSE MUSIC, COMEDY AND PORN are today the most political things one can do." It's a provocative and effective critique of our consumer obsessed society, a type of 'No Logo' aphorism, I am wondering, in the rise of social movements like Occupy Wall St and Black Lives Matter, do you sense a certain turning of the tides in this regard, that people are once again finding their own agency and the potential to reinvest themselves critically in the body politic beyond just the superficial?
Danielle: I turned 35 this month. I fall within that undefined liminal span between Gen X and Millennial. I say this because I find myself with traits characterized by both. Young adults today are for certain taking up identity politics in a way that those coming of age in the 1980 and 90s in the States shied away from. I’m all for this newfound empowerment, particularly of the disenfranchised finding voice. What I also have observed, however, in for example my time at both conventions this July, is a sense of agency in ‘who I am’ veering on overshadowing the very necessary act and encounter of listening and finding out ‘who are you.’ Maggie Nelson whom I worked with at CalArts told me once while I was assisting her at a summer community arts writing workshop many years ago, that one of her favorite expressions – the source I cannot recall – is “Be kind.” This is on the level of Golden Rule basic; you never entirely know the story the person sitting next to you carries. I hear a lot of talking via my travels, social media platforms, news, and otherwise. I can only hope that this talking shares what is true of good conversations, reading, and the body politic itself, which is that to speak to be heard is to also listen.
AHC: Who are some of your literary and poetic influences? Are there any writers in particular who have had a lasting impact on you as a writer? In terms of art and performance art who are some of your inspirations?
Danielle: I have had great teachers who are active in their respective fields. None of whom I am like, but I have crafted my own angle in the presence of their insights. Maggie Nelson is one, also Michael Asher who was my mentor at CalArts, and also painter and scholar Anoka Faruqee. In undergrad, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann opened up new fields of thought to me. I would say, though, I never isolate impact via a single person. Like in the way I feel films are often frames or conditions for particular scenes, my influences are disparate, incidental, and one-off. The approach of Stanislavsky and his American acolyte Sanford Meisner had a large impact on me growing up beyond an acting workshop in which I was exposed to their techniques. In college, I took to Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society,” and other sociologists whom I read – Durkheim, Weber – incited distinct opinions and reactions I had not known within myself at the time. Later, I learned of and became sympathetic to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas and his narrative ethics. If you look at my top bookshelf now you’ll find possibly unsurprising yet still under-recognized female modern and contemporary writers: Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Hardwick, Bernadette Mayer, Lydia Davis, Lynne Tillman, Anne Carson, and surely Gertrude Stein. But I read widely and try to see as much as I can first-hand. When I saw Charlemagne Palestine perform on the world’s largest pipe organ in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles that was pretty great. When I later walked into a performance of his within Anish Kapoor’s 2011 installation for the Grand Palais in Paris, it was exceptional. Being told off-handedly by a friend of a friend that there is a Bill Viola video installation owned by a private collector but maintained on view in a small church in Milan and going there outside of service hours, where the priest guided me, the only visitor, to it – that reaffirmed some things about context and authorship for me. Elizabeth Price’s 2012 Turner Prize winning show, a waterpower plant I took a tour of in Washington State, the Kolumba museum in Cologne, both of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sound installations at dOCUMENTA (13), hearing Wanda Coleman read, the changes in my block in Koreatown, Los Angeles, these are all among an accumulation of influences.
AHC: Judith Butler has been calling for a type of performativity of our political and relational bodies, one that is already underway in many of our social movements, do you find your own philosophy of performance and critique resonating with this concept of performativity at all? Do you think that another alternative to the neo-liberal TINA (There is no alternative) is possible and do you feel that art and literature/poetry/performance has a certain role to play in creating and realizing this, or really language in general?
Danielle: In Butler’s and performative utterance theorists’ speak, ‘I do.’
AHC: Do you have any upcoming exhibits or projects you'd like to tell people about?
Danielle: Caution Bomb will be complete with the third component of the project I am working on now. I am editing video, imagery, and audio I collected while at the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention this July. This work will be become a traveling live video-performance and also adapted for gallery presentation. I will begin showing the work this October in advance of the November elections.
Additionally, I am working on a large non-fiction book project, which takes as bookends my project beginning in 2008, FIRST ASSIGNMENT, through to my new work Caution Bomb, which is capped in this election cycle. In total, eight years will be encapsulated through transcriptions of audio interviews and reflections, bringing together a prose illustration of my artistic ethics and aims. I use performance as my investigative tool, and through inhabiting particular roles and/or institutions commit to reveal where the narratives we ascribe to life and the titles we carry breakdown, when experiential and culturally-generated understandings collide.
For more information please visit danielleadair.com/
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