3.13 / The Sound Issue

Interview with Paul DeMarinis

By Renny Pritikin April 17, 2012

Image: Paul DeMarinis. The Pygmy Gamelan, 1973; electronic sound. Photo: Paul DeMarinis.

Between February 10 and March 25, 2012, I exchanged a series of emails with a longtime colleague, the artist Paul DeMarinis. Paul and I were part of a circle of artists hanging out during the founding and early years of the 80 Langton Street gallery, later New Langton Arts, in San Francisco. I met him through my teacher then, Jock Reynolds, who owned the building in which 80 Langton Street was housed. Paul and I were on the Langton board of directors together in the late ’70s when we received a proposal from an obscure New York photographer, which had been declined at the last minute by his San Francisco gallery. The images were shocking and dramatic, and I’ll never forget how excited Paul got about them, while almost everyone else was completely unsure of what to make of them. It turned out the artist was Robert Mapplethorpe, and we ended up showing the X Portfolio in 1979, a decade before it became a scandalous success. Paul’s reaction was that of the true artist: thrilled at new visual information, unafraid, open to life. He was also making small computers and computer music when I first met him in his Berkeley studio in 1974, almost forty years ago.


Renny Pritikin: If I were to ask you for a list of a half dozen of the most seminal pieces, to begin a discussion of your work, which would you suggest?

Paul DeMarinis: What you want is a list of six pieces: The Pygmy Gamelan (1973), The Music Room (1982), Music as a Second Language (1991), The Edison Effect (1989-1993), The Messenger (1998), and Dust (2009).

RP: I met you in ’74, so Pygmy Gamelan dated to just before then. Do you include it because it was an interactive sculptural installation?

PDM: Well, it was before those categories really existed. I had been building electronics for a couple of years, and everyone around me had the idea of building synthesizers, instruments to use to do something else—a performance. I wasn’t interested in that even though I was doing performances then, too. I wanted to make pieces that stood on their own as artworks. The problem was what to do with Pygmy Gamelan, how to place it, and in thrashing around with this problem, I encountered the three terms you defined in your astute question. But my first idea was to mass-produce and market it as a replacement for the car radio; like Max Neuhaus, I have always had some inclination toward placing my pieces in quotidian, even useful, situations. I met a Detroit auto designer and showed him the Pygmy Gamelan and explained how it would play in response to driving through the varying electromagnetic fields of urban landscapes. Nothing came of it, needless to say.

Paul DeMarinis - A Byte at the Opera

Paul DeMarinis and Jim Pomeroy. A Byte at the Opera, 1976 (still); 1977 performance at 80 Langton Street; sheetrock, dried beans, loudspeakers, colored chalk dust, silly string, power tools, Kim-1 microcomputer, digital port drivers. Photo: Marion Gray.

I had by then made about a dozen of them, each playing in a different tuning. It was Jim Pomeroy [a San Francisco performance artist and sculptor, 1945–1992] who suggested that I make an installation of all of them together—that they could move away from individual sound sculptures into the realm of an installed environment. I went on installing them for about three years in groupings inside galleries, where they would infect the space. I think the first one was at the WBAI Free Music Store in New York in January 1974, which got surprisingly rave reviews from Tom Johnson of the Village Voice and John Rockwell of the New York Times. I guess it must’ve been a dull day.

As I recall, the term interactivity, with respect to art, didn’t really exist then and didn’t emerge until the late ’70s or early ’80s. Of course, it has gone through several iterations and now means something quite different. The idea of the viewer participating in the behavior of the artwork hadn’t been formalized yet. On the other hand, to the people who were building synthesizers, it was part and parcel of the territory, continuing the tradition of bongo drums and clarinets. So while the Pygmy Gamelan emerged from that womb and inherited several capabilities of its ancestry, the notion of interactivity was somewhat differently constructed; you could affect the artwork but not quite control it. Nobody could become a virtuoso. So clearly, I had made my desired move away from the experimental musical instrument and gained interactivity and installation in the bargain. I suspect that the reason we accepted the idea of interactive art at that time has something to do with the general problem of making art in a democracy, outlined by de Tocqueville in the 1830s.

The Pygmy Gamelan is not my first piece but the oldest that I would still exhibit publicly; indeed, I did exhibit it in my retrospective show in Oldenburg last year. Since it is a hardware hybrid digital/analog circuit, I only had to take it off the shelf, dust it off, plug it in, and do some minor tuning to get it going again. That is not the case with the many computer-based works I have done since. Endurance counts!

RP: You know, I befriended Syd Mead, the futurist designer who created the look of Blade Runner, and I curated a retrospective of his work. He started out as a Detroit car designer. If I knew him then and could have put you two in touch, the world might be very different now. What does Pygmy Gamelan sound like?

PDM: Here’s a recording of a single Pygmy Gamelan set.

Paul DeMarinis. Forest Booties (The Pygmy Gamelan), 1979. Courtesy of the Artist and Lovely Music Ltd., New York.

RP: One of my favorite memories of your work is the performance in Union Square where, to my knowledge, you first used the Speak & Spell children’s toy to create the faux-guitar work that was eventually made into your wonderful piece, The Music Room, at the Exploratorium. I love when artists appropriate commercial and found objects in the world and turn them into great art. I still think that was one of the most beautiful moments of sheer delight in my career. I now see the connection for you when you say, about the Pygmy Gamelan, “All inexpensive surplus items [were] originally intended for consumer products. Their use here, however, is purely folkloric and tends…to refer to a culture other than that of high technology.”

PDM: I think many people today wouldn’t understand the political stance embodied in such experimental art. I recall that some years ago a grad student showed some work she was really excited about, in which people were hacking Speak & Spells and performing with them. When I mentioned that I had done this in 1978, she became profoundly confused. I suppose the politics of hacking has remained the same over some period of time that predates us all: the Poles hacking the Nazi’s Enigma cryptographic device, Captain Crunch/John Draper’s phone phreaking. But there is so much ordinary and orderly circuit-bending going on now, as there is so much ordinary and orderly political dissent.

Here is a recording of Eenie Meenie Chillie Beenie (1983), the piece in the Union Square performance that the bag lady was dancing to. It was a performance piece in which I controlled the Speak & Spell with a guitar-like touch controller.

Paul DeMarinis. Eenie Meenie Chilli Beenie (1983). Courtesy of the Artist and Tellus Audio.

RP: It seems to me that this work predated Wii Guitar by thirty years.

PDM: The Music Room at the Exploratorium was an interactive piece with five guitar-like controllers. I had been working on a number of different pieces for my performances, first using the KIM-1 computer (1976–78), then the Apple 2 (1979), writing software in assembly language and then in a language called Forth, building my own hardware hacks to control various gadgets like Casio MT-30’s, rhythm machines, and Speak & Spells.

I conducted a concert in the Exploratorium’s Speaking of Music series in 1980 or 1981. Afterwards, Frank Oppenheimer asked me to be an artist-in-residence there. I thought about it for some time, as I couldn’t figure out what to do there. One day in the midst of working on some pieces at home, I took a break and went outside. I was surprised to hear my computer playing itself without me. It turned out to be my son, Grover—then four- or five-years-old—playing. It sounded just like what I was doing. So I figured that it might be possible to make a piece out of what I was interested in, that the general public might also be interested in.

It turns out it was possible, if the success of The Music Room was any measure, but of course also looking at the success of Guitar Hero on a much larger scale. I always had ideas of seeding projects in the public sphere: with the Pygmy Gamelan, it was the car; with The Music Room, it was public spaces and home entertainment. I guess it was my way of realizing the political goals of my generation. Whether I was successful or not depends on how you look at it. I always figured that if I had a coin slot on The Music Room at the Exploratorium, I could have made money.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to make money, though. I went to Tokyo in the fall of 1982 and met with executives from Sony, Yamaha, and Casio to try to sell them on the idea of the touch-sensitive air guitar as a computer interface for games and music activities. Nobody was interested. Shortly thereafter, I got a job as a video game programmer for Atari, which I landed largely on the basis ofThe Music Room. A few years later, by 1987, there were several products coming out, probably most of which were losing money. In many of them, I could see or hear the form of the piece I had made at the Exploratorium. In fact, the designer at Electronic Arts, which was the first company to make any money on the idea of automatic music, told me he got the whole idea and design from playing with The Music Room at the Exploratorium. So in the end, it was out there, and somebody made money.

Music as a Second Language was a CD I published in 1991 (still available on Lovely Music), comprising a series of “songs” based on the prosody of natural language. It was, in its own way, a seminal publication. It is one of the only works for which I am known in the musical world. But, like the rest of the pieces, working on it led me to a great many insights about the sounds of language and moved me into some new places. CDs have a wonderful way of circulating and have lives of their own in ways that art objects never do, unless they achieve masterpiece status.

RP: How about The Edison Effect?

Paul DeMarinis - Musicroom

Paul DeMarinis. The Music Room, 1982; interactive installation at The Exploratorium, San Francisco; touch sensitive guitars, electronics, Apple-II computer, Casio Mt-30s, rhythm box, custom interface electronics, Forth. Photo: Nancy Rodgers.

PDM: The Edison Effect started in 1986 with a chance experiment. I had moved to the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. Rural hell. I built a helium-neon laser with no particular purpose in mind. One winter night I wondered if I could play the grooves in an LP with it. I didn’t have any photocells available to try it with, the closest one being at the local Radio Shack, fifty miles and one and a half hour away. With the urgency born of sheer desperation for something to happen, I plucked an EPROM—the old kind of nonvolatile memory chip that had a quartz window to erase it—out of my Apple II computer, and randomly hooked up its leads in various combinations to an audio amplifier, reasoning that if it was a piece of doped silicon, then some junction in it must generate a photocurrent when light falls on it. And it did. I shone the laser on an old LP rotating on a turntable, and I heard the sound of the music recorded in its grooves. Over the next weeks, I filled notebooks with ideas for playing records with this configuration and plotted my escape.

The first piece I did with it was actually a performance at New Langton Arts in March of 1987, called Laserdisk. It used the gas laser and photo-detector assembly from an old supermarket barcode scanner to play 78-rpm records—of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto, “I've Always Loved You,” and Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite—along with some other experiments with analog optical phasing and filtering that were intriguing and that I always meant to follow up on but never quite got around to. Maybe you were even there?

Paul DeMarinis - The Edison Effect

Paul DeMarinis. The Edison Effect, 1993; records, lasers, moteors, computers, optics, sound, fish, uranium, circuits. Photo: Sven Wiederholt.

Anyway, I set forth to make self-playing sculptures with this kind of hardware, thinking all along about the history of phonographs, which I had studied a lot in my youth. I sat in second-grade class repeatedly daydreaming: first, of a record lathe that could record what the teacher was saying so that if she called on me, I could quickly replay it and know what she was asking about, and then of recording on a huge record everything that went on in the classroom overnight, to recording every sound in the world, the universe, and so on. My father had been on a crash development team for magnetic audio recording in World War II so I understood a fair amount about recording principles by then.

Looking back at my solutions to the problems of interactive music controllers, in the rooted way that they implement musical intelligence, I think they may underlie most of the existing systems today. But I don’t think the whole thing was a good idea. Of course, I feel that way about a lot of things, including the iPhone, the personal computer, the World Wide Web—clever but not good ideas. Nonetheless I discovered a lot about interactivity, enough to eventually abandon the idea—or at least encapsulate it in some broader philosophical framework—and move on in my work.

The first piece I showed was Al & Mary Do the Waltz (about 1988) at the Fuller Gross Gallery—the one with the Edison wax cylinder of the “Blue Danube Waltz” and the goldfish—and, I guess encouraged by a favorable review from Ken Baker, I kept on making more. I did another show of about four or five of them at Het Apollohuis in the spring of 1989, and then they became my main work in sculpture right through the show at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1993; by then, they numbered about twelve pieces. My thoughts and ideas about this work are pretty well-documented inEssay in Lieu of a Sonata (1993) so I won’t repeat that stuff here, except to say that the notion was a very playful, direct but loose coupling between found material, the contents of the records, and the structure of the object, with another leg being the play of attention and observation—how the media object was attended to by the machine that played it and by the listener.

RP: And lastly, can you talk about The Messenger and Dust?

PDM: The Messenger is the most interesting piece for me, of the ones we have discussed, because it participated in the flow or shift of meanings that I think about when I make my works. As you know, I think that by carefully studying the histories of current day technologies, we can uncover insights into the constellation of human and technical arrangements that can help to projectively crystallize an understanding of the real nature of our current condition. This is based on my prejudice that cultures have long-standing currents of agenda—over hundreds of years and often unspoken—and that technologies, like the rest of material culture, are a reification of these agendas. They are neither discoveries nor neutral. They come out of the dreams of people and offer indications of social relations.

Paul DeMarinis - The Messenger

Paul DeMarinis. The Messenger, 1998; installation view, 2005, Manchester Museum of Science and Industry; internet, computer, bowls, toy skeletons, burlap, jars, letters, sound, electronics. Photo: Andrea Zapp.

The piece has a long background stemming from a childhood interest in telegraphy. I was reading a lot about pre-Morse telegraphy and discovering Francisco Salvá y Campillo while I was at Wesleyan from 1979 to ’81 (hooray for open stacks!). And of course, the unstated topic of The Messenger is the opening up of the Internet to the public, which was being much ballyhooed then in 1998. Everybody was assuring us that this was a revolution in freedom: we didn’t need to worry about human rights in China; the Internet was going there; it would bring freedom of communication and commerce; democracy is inherent in this two-way system, et cetera. I knew that these very same claims had been made in the 1840s for telegraphy and that there is nothing inherently two-way about electrical communication—it is only by agreement and appropriate technical arrangements made to embody that agreement that electricity flows in both directions. 

I was lucky to meet the collector, Rafael Tous, who at that time ran a gallery in Barcelona called Metronom, and he asked me for a commissioned piece. This was perfect, as Salvá y Campillo was a Catalan doctor and had been the director of the medical school there in the eighteenth century. Of course, it turned out that no one in contemporary Barcelona had ever heard of him.

Salvá’s first system used electric shocks from Leyden jars, one for each letter of the alphabet, transmitted over an equal number of individual wires and received in a remote location by an equal number of people (presumably illiterate servants) who would call out their respective letter when they received a shock—one-way communication, patriarchy, the old regime, the Internet in another form. Salvá’s ambitions for his electric telegraph were to convey commands, from the court in Madrid to the colonies in Havana or Lima, or merely from the manor to the servants’ quarters. In fact, he was also the first to propose undersea telegraph cables.

The image I started with for the work was the reception point—perhaps a colonial telegraph reception center, ringed with the chairs of servants. The fact that the messages destined for a non-place were intended for my own email inbox constitutes a kind of trace of the manifold that exists between public and private. The point is that during the exhibition period of this work (1998–2006), the entire meaning shifted from two-way to one-way.

We have not explicitly discussed the status of the sounds themselves that inhabit most of my pieces. In fact, I am often pegged as a sound artist, although those who consider themselves sound artists will hardly admit me to their fold. I just don’t care about sound in the same way they do, although I do care very much about the way it connects things together—objects, mental states, sensory attentiveness. Every decade or so, I have reconsidered everything I have done, and the last fold in this surface occurred about six years ago.

Paul DeMarinis - Dust

Paul DeMarinis. Dust, 2009; installation at The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA; phosphorescent pigment, video projector, bass-shakers, computer, sound. Photo: Owen Smith.

I have included Dust (2009) because it is one of several pieces over the past decade that joins in a critique of my previous works, especially of the way that they employed some kind of completeness—something I didn’t feel at the time the necessity of avoiding. The problem with completeness in the kind of work I do is that it often produced a suturing between idea and object and between sound and vision. There wasn’t any way to pry them apart. Of course, this was the result of the way I set out with the Pygmy Gamelan, avoiding making instruments that music could be performed on. But its shadows were long.

So the more recent pieces use a kind of decoy strategy—an unavoidable slippage between the materials and ideas, the sounds and the images. Maybe decoy is a little sinister-sounding when referring to things as flat as art or media objects. But then, really, isn’t what our mind does—when it tries to converge on the same mental state from seeing a picture of a duck, the written word duck, looking at ducks flying overhead, and playing with a rubber ducky—somewhat like what a duck does when it sees a decoy bobbing on the pond?

Dust projects pairs of similar-looking human faces (in this case scavenged from bulk-mail flyers of abducted children) piecemeal onto a bed of phosphorescent pigment powder. There are little pieces of light flitting over what seems like a gently contoured surface for a few minutes. When the projector goes dead black, what’s left behind is a pair of faces, side by side. A sound begins, kind of an eerie, 1950s, sci-fi, abstract electronic sound, which grows in amplitude as the images begin to distort, warping into odd expressions as the powder is moved by the sound waves. This process continues as the sounds deepen and become louder and the pigment powder begins forming little animated worlds—fountains, dunes, strings of pearls moving and dancing before your eyes. The sound fades and the movement abates. In the end, all that is left is an abstract pattern of glowing dust—the patterns of sound waves themselves. Where the faces went is anybody’s guess. The whole thing fades, and the process starts again.

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