Striking Political Notes: A Q&A With Performance Artist Duo Allora & Calzadilla
Striking Political Notes: A Q&A With Performance Artist Duo Allora & Calzadilla
Until earlier this year, Allora & Calzadilla were more or less unknown to the general public, if admired by cognoscenti for their politically slanted videos and performances. That changed in September, when the duo catapulted onto the world stage following their selection as the United States' representatives for the 2011 Venice Biennale, where they will occupy a pavilion curated by Indianapolis Museum of Art contemporary curator Lisa Freiman. Now, Allora & Calzadilla's already classic 2008 performance piece, "Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano," is also being shown in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art.
Composed of a musician playing Beethoven's ninth symphony from inside a hole cut into a grand piano, leaning out over the keys to hit the notes while walking the instrument around the open space, the work is part of a new performance series helmed by MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach (the piece will be continuously on view tonight at the opening of MoMA's new exhibition of Andy Warhol films). ARTINFO deputy editor Ben Davis spoke to Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla about their work.
Tell me about "Stop, Repair, Prepare." How was it conceived, how did it come together, and how did it come to MoMA?
Guillermo Calzadilla: Some of our works come together very easily — it takes maybe a week, a month. But for some, it takes years for us to complete the structure of the work. For this piece we had the idea of taking a grand piano and cutting a hole in it. It's a readymade object, and then there's the procedure of making a hole and eliminating two octaves of the piano. Then, we needed to find what piece of music we could also put a hole through, something which would be symbolically and metaphorically interesting, which would make for a nice relationship to the object. We knew it had to be only one piece of music — in other words, this is not just a piano in which people can play different things, but rather this is a particular object, with a very particular procedure, and a very particular piece of music. We chose "The Ode to Joy," for various reasons, including what it represents in terms of national pride, universal brotherhood, and the fact that somehow it has captured so many people's collective imaginations, from the Shining Path in Peru to the Cultural Revolution in China. We found this to be a very interesting piece of music to put silences in: What does silence mean when it is introduced into the piece? What does it mean when the piece is played from within? What does it mean when it is played inverted and reversed? What does it mean when you introduce weight into the composition, by pushing the piano — the weight of history, the burden of history? All of these moments and points and aspects are what actually make up the work.
And the title, what does it mean?
Jennifer Allora: It's very long, isn't it? Well, As Guillermo was mentioning, the genesis of the work took place over a long period of time. It started with this drawing, this idea of a hole in a piano. And then around 2006, we were going to Turkey to make a film for the Istanbul Biennial, and we were doing research on the relationship between militarism and music. In Turkey, we became interested in the history of the Janissary bands, which were military marching bands from the Ottoman Empire. During the 18th century, when there were battles between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, particularly after the Siege of Vienna and other such battles, the Janissary entered into Western classical music. So Western classical music started to bring into its repertoire of sounds things like the bass drums and the symbols and other instruments that before were not part of the repertoire of sound in the classical music palette. In the 18th century there developed this frenzy for all things Turkish; it was called the "a la turka" style. One of the things that they did was put stops on the piano, these "Turkish stops," so that while you were playing the piano you could press a pedal and it hit the side of the soundboard and made a sound like drum, or it would ring bells inside of the piano so that you could create this Turkish style. So the "stop" of "Stop, Repair, Prepare" comes from this Turkish stop. And of course we chose the ninth symphony, the "Ode to Joy," because the ninth symphony has, in the fourth movement, this Turkish march. That's Beethoven emulating this Turkish style — there is a reference to that in this word "stop." "Repair" refers to another question. We were situating this work originally in the context of a show we did in Germany in the Haus der Kunst in Munich. We were interested in the relation of Turkey and the European Union, and how Turkey is not part of it — so the idea of "repair" is the idea of what needs to be repaired for there to be a union. "Prepare" has to do with preparations to a piano — anything you put between the hampers and dampers and strings of an instrument in order to affect its sound. In this case, the "preparation" is the actual piano player. The piano player is physically placed between the strings of the instrument. So you know John Cage's prepared piano, where he puts nails between the strings? Well, in this preparation, the thing that has been stuck between the strings is the piano player itself. And then "Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano" is just what the performers are doing — they're playing variations on the song.
As you mentioned, the piece was originally conceived for the Haus der Kunst in Germany, where it involved a specific reference to the way Hitler and National Socialism used the "Ode to Joy." The piece is about how this specific piece of music takes on new meaning as it moves across different places. There's an interesting way for me that the history of the piece mirrors the history of the song — it was at the Haus der Kunst, and then it was at Gladstone Gallery, and now its here at the Museum of Modern Art. So I guess I am wondering: Does "Stop, Repair, Prepare" have a different meaning here? Is there a specific new meaning that the piece takes on in this context for you?
Calzadilla: Well, we're in the Museum of Modern Art, right? So all these formal things, such as the sculptural procedure of cutting through, the silences, the weight of the piano, the effort it takes for the performer to push the piano, the choreography, the idea of the readymade, Fluxus — all these art historical references that the work carries become more highlighted in this context. Something also that we are aware of is that a work as it travels to different contexts creates its own history and life, and new meanings come in with the new context. So both things get affected — the work takes on a new meaning in relation to the place, and the place takes on a new meaning in relation to the work.
Allora: We were speaking last night about this very issue, and trying to understand the difference between what we are doing and how the piece of music itself, the "Ode to Joy," has been hollowed out by its successive uses, so that in a way it's like all these different forms of power have appropriated it for their own ends, and as a result the artistic object, the piece of music, in some way has become deflated. In the case of "Stop, Repair, Prepare," as an artistic object, does the same thing happen? I guess our answer is that this work is not being used by anyone for any particular end. Any new change is only going towards some further transformation of the meaning itself, but it is not being used for other purposes outside of artistic ones. Unless you want to get into institutional critique questions, like how is MoMA using it for their benefit. Outside of those institutional critique questions, the transformation of site just brings to it additional readings and meanings. Particularly here, a formal question the new context brings is perspective — having these multi-layered balconies gives an aerial perspective that's never been before possible with this work, which is really nice.
You've already started to talk about the next thing that is on my mind, which is forms of power. I'm interested in the political reading of your work. Including with this piece, as you've already talked about, there are all kinds of political meanings that accrue to it. I guess I think of political art as being about taking a situation and making it concrete, while it seems to me that your art works in the opposite direction, taking a political situation and making it abstract or lyrical or metaphorical. So I was wondering what you thought of this piece and your body of work in general in relationship to the idea of being "political artists."
Allora: Something that I can say that we are interested in with this work is the role of sound and affect, and that is something that is related to questions of power, and the larger sphere of politics in general. An artistic issue that we are looking at in this work is this: How does sound generate something in one's body that is something felt, something that begins to generate reverberations that later become defined in terms of values and judgments — something that makes me think, that makes me feel good, or sad — and then how those things can be folded in to different ideological, or social, or political framings? So I would say that in this work, as in all of our works, the relation to politics starts from these more essential questions about what constitutes the nature of experience, and then later, about how those types of experiences are manipulated or controlled by organizations of power. And that would be the relation to politics that we have. It's not ever any direct, didactic political message. We're not interested in that notion of politics. Politics to us would be essentially this idea of questioning — what is the nature of these relationships that exist today, and how do they fit together, and how can they be untied and organized in new ways? Which essentially is a formal question.
This is an exciting moment for you, because you have just been selected to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. As I understand it, the word is that you will "analyze contemporary geopolitics through the lens of spectacular national competitions such as the Olympic games, international commerce, war, the military-industrial complex, even the Biennale itself." What does that mean?
Allora: You should ask the curator! She wrote that release! I can say that we are going to be looking at ideas of spectacular culture, like the Olympic games, or the idea of sport...
Calzadilla: Because the nature of the national pavilions is very similar to the Olympic Games. Each nation selects their best artist and puts them in a competitive setting. And then one gets a prize. So it is very similar. We are kind of playing with the idea of what other nation-based events there are that achieve the spectacular level of the Venice Biennale. I'll tell you this: No other U.S. pavilion will be like the one that we are doing, in terms of subject matter, in terms of the works, in terms of time and duration, in terms of the presence of performance.
Particularly given the fact that you have a history in your work of being critical of the United States, and given your association with Puerto Rico, which is a colony of the United States, I just wonder how that affects your thinking about the Venice Biennale pavilion. Because it sort of puts you in the position of being goodwill ambassadors for the U.S. to the world. Do you think that this forces you to make your work more critical, or do you feel pressured to be less so?
Calzadilla: We've found a very clever way of dealing with that, by making one of the works deal with that relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico directly.
Allora: But I have to say that at the same time, many people don't know how the process works. We didn't know how it worked -- it seems like no one knows until you actually go through it. But you actually have to make a proposal describing very specific works. Then the State Department has an advisory committee that selects a first round of applicants, and Hillary Clinton and the top officials make the final call on this. They saw what we proposed. We made our work like we always make it and they, to our surprise, selected us. So it's not like we had to change what we were going to do because we were selected. We were one-hundred percent ourselves, and they, for whatever reason, decided this is the direction they wanted to go with this Biennale -- strangely enough.
Calzadilla: What we know is that the people at the State Department told us that in all the years that they have been doing this, there has never been a unanimous decision. This is the first one. So that's totally bizarre.
Allora: Considering that people think of us, as you say, as having this critical perspective, it's interesting that they chose us. Now we have to go and do it.