On ViewDia Chelsea
April 16, 2021 – January 2022
I met Lucy Raven 17 years ago, in 2004, when she was working as an editor at BOMB Magazine. She had read my books Between Dog & Wolf (1999) and Between the Eyes (2003), and approached me about being interviewed for BOMB's new “Theory + Practice” section. When she asked who I'd like to be interviewed by, I said Leon Golub, because he and I had been having an extended conversation, and since Lucy was also very interested in Golub’s work, we set that up. The night before the three of us were going to meet to record the conversation, Leon called me and said he didn’t think he was going to be able to come to the recording session, because he was on his way into the emergency room at NYU Hospital. “Leon, what’s wrong?” I asked. “Everything,” he said. “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Yeah,” he said, “you can go find me another body.” He died a month later. We ended up doing the BOMB interview with Hakim Bey asking the questions, and that was published in the Fall 2004 issue.
Lucy and I began our own conversation that continued over the next year, as Lucy entered the Bard MFA program, where I'd been teaching for years. She graduated in 2008, with her film China Town as her final project. We collaborated on various projects after that, and continued our conversation through the years. In 2010, I hired Lucy to teach in my MFA program in Art Criticism & Writing at the School of Visual Arts, and then again in 2013 and 2015, on motion capture.
We sat down in the “Zoom room” on June 9th to talk about Lucy's installation at the new Dia Chelsea.
David Levi Strauss (Rail): I've been able to spend some time with your new installation at Dia Chelsea over the last couple of weeks. It consists of two parts, in two magnificent cavernous spaces: Casters X-2 + X-3, which are two kinetic light sculptures casting beams that sweep the darkened space; and the 45-minute, black-and-white film Ready Mix, shot over two years at a concrete plant in south central Idaho. The film is projected at an anamorphic aspect ratio on a giant curved screen, in front of aluminum bleacher seating, flanked by four massive speakers for quadraphonic sound.
My first impression of the Casters piece was as a combination of spotlights and searchlights, bringing Hollywood/consumer spectacle and the carceral/surveillance state into the crosshairs, and that mixture of spectacle and confinement seemed very timely as the pandemic was just wearing down in New York—the pandemic that spotlighted all of the enduring political atrocities in American society. Casters was also an extremely pared down way of doing cinema—without an “image.” Erika Balsom called an earlier version of Casters “an active iconoclastic reduction.”
But the larger space with the Ready Mix film is a full immersion in sight and sound. That immersion is vertiginous and mesmerizing, a slowed-down epic of resource extraction and the seething matter of development.
I'll point to two passages in the film that caught me and remain in memory. One is the place where the activated grid of a sorting, sifting screen, with stones being thrown around madly, is accompanied by what I think is live sound combined with composed sound, to heighten the frenetic sense. And at a certain point, the whole space, and the whole building, is activated, from the reflective concrete floor to the vaulted ceilings, and it made me remember why Dia is in that space, and why this piece is there, now.
And another passage is when the black center of a cement mixer, I guess, becomes the pupil of an enormous screen-filling eye, and then shifts to become this great maw of consumption and unlimited growth, the kind of infernal maw that consumes everything.
So, from the concrete to the abstract. You’ve talked elsewhere about proposing abstraction as a tool for re-perceiving these sites. How are you using abstraction here in these new pieces?
Lucy Raven: The first iteration of Casters was developed in the aftermath of a body of work that dealt with Hollywood’s outsourcing of images and contemporary digital image production in a very real global geography, economy, and quite complex labor situation. I was questioning the role of story, and the relationship between traditional narrative and contemporary image production. I found myself looking for other models of formal and experiential possibilities for moving images and collective viewing.
In Moholy-Nagy’s writings about the potential of moving images back in the 1920s, he asked why film needs to be horizontal, or projected onto a flat surface at all. He wrote about this assumption as the extension of the proscenium in theater and ultimately in literature, a regressive position, when film’s inherent medium is light and movement in time. He responded with his own light-space modulators, but I feel like he also laid out ontological ground for cinema that hasn't been extensively developed.
You've written a lot about the power of images and how the transport mechanism matters, and in this iteration of the work, I was interested in thinking about that in relation to civic space, and what it would mean to be spending time in a shared space with other people, coming out of the last year and a half.
The Casters move using a system invented for a WWII era anti-aircraft device, which allowed an enemy aircraft to be tracked in any direction without getting its power source tangled as it spun.
The Whitney brothers detourned a surplus version of the system to make the first computer graphics, slowing spinning spirals which ended up in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and then Michael Snow used it to make the device for filming La Région Centrale (1971). Those first explorations had a relationship to abstraction, but also an origin in militarized optics and tracking that I wanted to pursue. The two works play out a choreography over two hours, moving through a series of “locked-off” positions in relation to each other. Their pace is slow, relentless.
When I started filming Ready Mix, I thought about how the term “concrete cinema” doesn't exist, and what it might mean. I realized I’d proposed one answer to that question with the first version of Casters, a work I’d been wanting to iterate.
Rail: A close correlative to concrete cinema might be structuralist film. I’ve always had a conflicted relation to structuralist materialist film, and I wrote something on Kurt Kren (Malcolm Le Grice called Kren’s Bäume im Herbst/Trees in Autumn in 1960 the first structuralist film) in the ’80s for the Cinematheque in San Francisco that engaged the conflict. It was called “Notes on Kren: Cutting Through Structural Materialism or, ‘Sorry. It Had To Be Done.’”
And in that essay, I quoted Le Grice from his Abstract Film and Beyond to say, “In effect, structuralism in art can be seen as a consequence of the awareness that concept can, and perhaps must, determine the nature of perception and experience if it is to avoid determination by existing convention or habit.”
You wrote to me in July 2020 to say you were filming your “concrete film” in Idaho. And you wrote, “I see it as a kind of Western, a material examination of state change, solids to liquid to solid, and also an examination of the literal foundation(s) and (infra)structure the country was built upon, particularly the West in the myth of the frontier as an empty wilderness/horizon.” When I read that, it made me think of Joseph Beuys and John Ford, who have probably never been put together before, but…
Raven: I like it.
Rail: Because, when I walked out of your installation at Dia, I ran into the basalt columns and trees of 7000 Eichen on 22nd Street, and it struck me then to see them with their feet stuck in concrete, because that freezes the whole process, which is the alchemical/spagyrical process and the sculptural principle of the transformation from cold, crystalline form to warm, organic form, and back again, that Beuys intended to activate.
And then John Ford, you know, I think I mentioned to you that the first movie I ever saw, in the little ramshackle theater in Chapman, Kansas when I was 9 or 10, was Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And now I see it every few years, and to me it's sort of the perfect Western, a revisionist Western infused with John Ford's weird politics. And it was shot in Thousand Oaks!
Raven: I think moving to New York from the West, from Arizona, I was confronted with people's view of that place when they would find out I was from there. It felt like a kind of brand, often associated with a very conservative politics that the state was known for (though that seems to slowly be changing) but also a romanticized notion of the desert, and its remoteness from “The City.” I think even as a young person in Tucson, though, I felt aware that my family had moved there, and not that long before. I was from there, but I also felt it as a distance from my Eastern European Jewish ancestry, and from New York, where we’d go visit my grandmother, which I found totally thrilling. I understood their movement to the Southwest in the context of a fresh start and a restorative climate for my parents and grandparents’ generation. Perhaps the myth of the frontier perpetuated in Westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance I’d in my own way internalized in trying to figure out how we ended up there. For me, the setting for films and TV I watched, for action, was in a city. The desert landscape wasn’t reproduced in media very much, other than in Westerns, or in cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, which I loved, or Krazy Kat. I thought about cartoons, and the sound that goes with them (or in the case of Krazy, the onomatopoeia George Herriman wrote into the drawings), for this film quite a lot. But growing up, I found Westerns boring. There were no women in them, for one…
Rail: Well, there are women, but they're mostly all entertaining men in the cantina, or—
Raven: Yeah, or in the whorehouse.
Old Tucson, which is a theme park that I’d go to a couple times a year as a kid when family would visit, was actually where a lot of Westerns were filmed. So you’d head to the outskirts of town to a set that used the same landscape you’d pass on the drive there as a stage for live gunfight shows and film shoots, then head back through it, home to the TV. The Westerns I would watch, which were older Westerns, had the same backdrop, but none of them carried the feeling that I associated with living in that area, which is a kind of vagueness, somehow, to the landscape, and to perspective, where in the harsh sunlight, everything is a bit too bright. There’s not really a focus, no city center, rather a constantly developing sprawl that gets over-articulated because it is spread out and single story, positioned just right to frame a continuous pan through the backseat car window. It didn’t jive with the pristine, empty horizon of the Western with a single cowboy riding through it.
I was interested in taking some of the tropes of the genre, like extreme violence and the image of the open frontier as natural setting, and grinding them through another set of operations.
The idea of state change was something that I was interested in from the very beginning, but came more into focus as I began to shoot and edit. It became clear to me that the film would be a loop; a rechurning of this same material that is both marked and unbothered by repetition.
Rail: The production of cement is an alchemical process. You know, I’m sitting here now, only a few miles away from Rosendale, New York, where a kind of natural hydraulic cement was discovered in the 1820s and the concrete that came from here built a big part of New York City, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Then portland cement came in the 20th century and wiped out that whole industry here. The canal system and all the rest of the infrastructure around here just collapsed when that went away. We live in the ruins of it.
When I talk with people about the piece at Dia, you know, people talk about concrete and cement production being one of the biggest contributors to climate change, because the production process releases so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If concrete were a country, it would be number three, after China and the US, in CO2 pollution. And that's significant because it is the most prevalent artificial material in the world. The only thing we consume more of is water. Concrete is everywhere, especially in China. Since 2003, China has poured more concrete every three years than the US did in the entire 20th century. And today, China uses almost half of the world's concrete. So, all roads lead back to China, again.
Raven: Again. Exactly, I know.
Rail: I watched your making of the China Town film 12 years ago very closely. It tracks the mining of copper ore in Nevada to China, where it is sent to be smelted and refined and turned into copper wire and other things. It's basically a handmade film of photographic animation, built up from 7000 individual images. So, China Town was built up from still images, and Ready Mix is really all about the movement and flow, even the blur. In another interview, you talked about “that purgatorial zone between still and moving images.” Still images lodge in the brain with more longevity than moving images, but moving images have more immediate effects. How do you think about the movement from China Town to Ready Mix in those terms?
Raven: They're very different sculpturally and compositionally. And you're right that they function differently. I'm still thinking about that thing you said about stills lodging in the brain. I've had my students at Cooper reading your new book Photography and Belief.
There is one scene in China Town that I think especially informed a lot of the work that came after. It’s the scene where a woman is walking up a chute away from the camera while raw ore is coming down it. Using that method of photographic animation, everything in each scene moves at the same rate of change, because the only interval you have is the time between still frames. And because they're photographs, each object within the photo is fixed in position, so her walk advances at the exact same rate as the movement of material. Even if you don't know how quickly stuff moves on a conveyor belt of that scale, you intuitively know that those two kinds of movement don't happen in sync, because one is organic and biological and the other is mechanical. That effect is true of the whole film, but editing that scene unlocked it for me.
I was interested in the idea of a figure’s movement yoked to a mechanical time signature, both within the image, but also within that kind of edit. In a way, it’s the opposite of stop-action animation where you take things that are inanimate and you make them look like they're moving. It was this kind of rhythmic restructuring that led me to explore different questions about motion capture, motion control, and movement.
Rail: I always talk with my students about slowing the mechanism down enough so you can see its moving parts, and this has become a central working practice with you, both concretely and abstractly.
Raven: I've generally worked outside of the standard capture rate, and playback rate for moving images, and instead built something that can operate outside of the corporatized speed of production and reception that's inherent to all of our technologies, to the point of seeming naturalized. One strategy to avoid reiterating the ideologies out of which those tools are designed to function is to use animation and hand build a sequence, shaping the rhythm as you go.
In Ready Mix, when I was experimenting with different ways to film the material flows and scale transitions, I started with a very high frame rate. The kind of state change I was interested in was a material shift from a granular array to a viscous liquid to a homogeneous solid that goes through, as you mentioned, an alchemical cycle, and I found that could also happen optically in the film when I slowed the frame rate down to the standard 24 frames per second. The movement of material was too fast to be captured in focus at that speed—there was too much information for the signal to carry, and the result is an artifact: a blur.
Rail: This might be a good time to talk about the sound. Because the soundtrack of Ready Mix is also somewhat different than what I’ve heard you do before. The sound is enveloping, but never overpowering. The mixture of captured sound and composed sound is intricate. Are there times when the sound—this may just be in my imagination or an aural hallucination, but—are there times when the sound of film going through the gate of a projector is actually audible? Like the sound of an SLR mirror slapping up when you take a digital picture with your phone?
Raven: No, but that's great. The musician I worked with, Deantoni Parks, and I are actually making a vinyl record right now, derived from sound in the film. We’re using the conceit of the film soundtrack as a guide, working primarily with the composed sound, which in the film, as you noted, was mixed with production sound from the shoot in a way that’s difficult to separate. He’s also doing a couple of remixes—EDM!
Deantoni Parks is a percussionist and composer I met through Jason Moran, when we were both part of a series Jason curated at the Park Avenue Armory a number of years ago. I initially connected with his Technoself project, where he’s drumming with one hand and playing a MIDI with the other, sampling very granular bits of music, half- and quarter-notes. I’d been more finely cutting the time signature of animations I was working on, using a 60-frame-per-second timeline, and felt an affinity to how we were each thinking about breaking up and reassembling image and sound. I’d recently been asked by Dia to do one of their “Artists on Artists” talks—my first engagement with them—and I’d selected Walter De Maria. I knew that De Maria had been a drummer for this proto-Velvet Underground band called the Primitives, but wanted to dig deeper into that, because when I’d heard it years before, it totally reformed my thinking about his work, and how it relates to interval.
I was compelled by the relation of violence and abstraction in De Maria’s work, and drumming seemed like one way in. I asked Deantoni to collaborate with me, and we made a work, a live performance, called Bullet Points for a Hard Western. I’d thought from the start that I would ask him to work on Ready Mix with me. Then when I started filming, I found the actual production sound was incredible, so rich, and very percussive. And so for a moment I thought maybe I'd just use natural sound. But while shooting at the gravel plant on a subsequent trip, I heard all of these different resonances, and occasional sweeps of bass that seemed to overtake the plant, then disappear. I asked the plant manager what was going on and he told me that each of these machines runs at different frequencies, so you're hearing where they overlap and collide. I knew then that I wanted to explore that idea further and to take the sound out of the realm of complete naturalism.
We thought a lot about perspective and scale in the sound, as well as in the image. Something that I was interested in was how to use sound musically without asserting too much of an emotional affect, or feeling romantic, which is really quite challenging, particularly with the scale of the film. So there was a lot of back and forth and Deantoni was able to do these subtle, incredible things.
Rail: Ready Mix focuses on machine work. And it’s mostly unpopulated, but the human workers who do appear in only a few cases, like the two men helping to guide the concrete blocks into place in the wall, are pretty hapless and ineffectual. And their position is obviously precarious in relation to these massive machines, and to the whole process. They’re out of place.
Raven: It may make sense here to go back to this question of abstraction, which can be a mode that allows you to project yourself into a different space than the one you’re in, either through identification or through another kind of projection—including how the humans who appear in the film are perceived. This range of imaginative association that abstraction can instigate is something I’m really interested in.
I wanted to engage a register wherein the violence of development would come through a kind of ambivalence to the human, to a human time scale, or the scale of the human body, or the laboring body. A structural/infrastructural violence that nonetheless is not without human intention. Quite the opposite.
What does a Western without a human at the center of it look like? Where landscape is not a readymade, but something that’s formed and terra-formed and populated?
Rail: Ready-mixed, not ready-made. It seems to me that the distinction between concrete objects and abstraction has broken down in the realm of the virtual, and this collapse has certainly affected our relation to the real, and shaken the whole question of cause and effect.
Raven: There’s a physical dumbness to concrete that has to do with its opacity and its weight. I think about Guston’s paintings of walls, also of eyes…
Its form is necessarily formed—it has no structural integrity until it hardens and is shaped by some form extrinsic to it as material. So cause and effect press together and have to dry.
Can you say more about how you’re thinking about that collapse?
Rail: Well, the concrete has devolved into what you describe here—it sets up within given forms, in negative space, like Rachel Whiteread recognized. When I was 18, I worked on a construction crew building bridges for the highways in western Kansas, and most of what we did was build forms for concrete—forms that were later dismantled, leaving this malleable material that has a shape and substance, and some resilience, and is now ubiquitous, but it has no real form of its own. And this reactive stuff has come to replace active forms in the environment.
Raven: In the realm of the virtual, that distinction is harder to see, and to fathom. So it’s easy to take the material we do see and navigate through it as active, rather than formed.
Rail: How are the drone camera movements in Ready Mix so sharp and always in register?
Raven: Well, I was working with two great camera operators, Spencer Cordovano and Yancy Caldwell. Yancy was on drone. He’s usually filming snowboarders and mountain bikers, so he's quite good at tracking, and has incredible control. But he’s used to a quite different kind of camera movement, so this was very challenging.
There is a sometimes-sublimated militaristic optics to drone technology that I felt I had to contend with one way or another. At the same time, I wanted the camera to have an indelibly linked relationship to the material it was filming. So a choreography developed, and a language to describe it, between the camera and the material or vehicle it was following. The way you operate those vehicles is with a joystick, which is also the way a drone is operated. So the tether between camera and machine/material is triangulated by a disembodied hand that may control both.
Rail: And the control is really in the fingers. Literally, “manoeuvres.”
What in your mind is your connection to the historical artists represented by Dia, especially the Land artists of the ’70s, because it's something that people think about as Dia goes into this new realm. Some of the connections are obvious to me. But how are you thinking about that now?
Raven: The relationship we have now to land and landscape and images is so different—the supersaturation of time spent looking at screens and technical images, the digital universe that continues to unfold against an abstracted, if omnipresent relationship to very slowly evolving conditions, like climate change or nuclear radiation and fallout, and the impending nuclear waste reality. Lucy Lippard has written about much of Land art’s preoccupation with site over place, and that resonates with me, thinking about and visiting that work today. At the same time, the kind of care and support Dia has offered artists and their work over very long periods of time, then and now—these commissions developed over two years—is a part of their original model that today feels radical in its commitment.
When I went to De Maria’s The Lightning Field a couple of years ago, I felt the violence I’ve always projected onto his work affirmed. Is this Cartesian grid that’s laid out on the landscape a critique, or is it a reiteration of that same kind of logic, of colonialist, surveying development? Maybe it functions as both. I do know I’m coming to the work, and to the idea of monument in relation to place, with a different set of concerns than I think a lot of those artists had at that time.
I think that there are tools in abstraction that feel relevant right now. That there can be room for a kind of individuated projection to happen over time in a collective space. To be in that space right now with others, to me feels grounding.