Math and Music
Michael Auping: I remember you telling me that in high school you studied math and that at one point you were very excited about it, even thinking about that in terms of career choices.
Bruce Nauman: I had a very good physics teacher and then a math teacher who offered to work with some of us on calculus, which was not offered, but was needed for the more interesting physics. So when I got to the University I got into some more advanced courses. While I found that I didnt have a great passion for the kind of physics that was being done, or at least the way it was being taught there, the theoretical math that was going on was of interest and I stuck with that for a while
I always liked the structural aspects of mathematics. Its a rigorous language that stays vital by creating problems that then carry the language farther.
MA: But then you got involved in music and youre still involved in it. You studied and played some classical music, right?
MA: And you played some jazz bass.
BN: Right-in high school and college.
MA: Do you think music has had an effect on your art? Can you think of any particular way-well, I suppose everything has an effect.
BN: A lot of the sound pieces have to do with structuring things in time, and some music enters in there. I can think of a lot of situations where acoustical parts are important, and rhythmic structures in the videos and films.
MA: Terry Allen said you are a good musician; the problem is you just wont play for anybody.
BN: I dont know about that. I like music. I got involved with it later in high school. I started to slip into the music department. Again, I was interested in music theory and composition rather than having to practice, and that didnt go over too well. What was interesting was that I had the same feeling for music that I had for mathematics and eventually art. For me a lot of it had to do with the rearrangement of conditions within a discipline; seeing if you could find the edge of structure. The decision to become an artist comes out of all of this somehow, but is still inexplicable to me.
Cat and Mouse
Michael Auping: So what triggered the making of Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage) , and how long did you think about it before you actually began to make it?
Bruce Nauman: Well, I was working on the Oliver [collectors Steve and Nancy Oliver] Staircase piece and I had finished up the Stadium piece in Washington and I was trying to figure out what the next project would be. I was trying to come up with something out of those ideas, thinking about where those ideas might lead me next, and I really wasnt getting anywhere. Those pieces had pretty much finished off a line of thought and it didnt make sense to try and extend it. So a year or so ago I found myself going into the studio and just being frustrated that I didnt have any new ideas to work on. What triggered this piece were the mice. We had a big influx of mice that summer, in the house and in the studio. They were everywhere and impossible to get rid of. They were so plentiful even the cat was getting bored with them. Id be sitting in the studio at night reading and the cat would be sitting with me and these mice would run along the walls and the cat and I would watch. I know hed caught a few now and then because Id find leftover parts on the floor in the morning.
So I was sitting around the studio being frustrated because I didnt have any new ideas and I decided that you just have to work with what youve got. What I had was this cat and the mice and I did have a video camera in the studio that happened to have infrared capability. So I set it up and turned it on at night when I wasnt there, just to see what Id get. At the time, I remember thinking about Daniel Spoerris piece for a book. I believe its called Anecdotal Photography of Chance [An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, 1966]. You know, he would photograph or glue everything down after a meal so that what you had were the remains. For the book, a friend of his did the subtext, writing about the leftovers on the table after Spoerri had preserved them. He wrote about every cigarette butt, piece of foil, utensil, the wine and where it came from, etc. It made me think that I have all this stuff laying around the studio, leftovers from different projects and unfinished projects and notes. And I thought to myself why not make a map of the studio and its leftovers. Then I thought it might be interesting to let the animals, the cat and the mice, make the map of the studio. So I set the camera up in different locations around the studio where the mice tended to travel just to see what they would do amongst the remnants of the work. So that was the genesis. Then as I got more involved I realized I needed seven locations to really get a sense of this map. The camera was eventually set up in a sequence that I felt pretty much mapped the space.
MA: So the final piece is six hours long? How did you decide on that length, as opposed to eight hours or two hours?
BN: Well, it felt like it needed to be more than an hour or two, and then I thought if its going to be that long then it should be
well, it just felt like it needed to be long so that you wouldnt necessarily sit down and watch the whole thing, but you could come and go, like some of the old Warhol films. I wanted that feeling that the piece was just there, almost like an object, just there, ongoing, being itself. I wanted the piece to have a real-time quality rather than fictional time. I like the idea of knowing it is going on whether you are there or not.
MA: It seems to me this relates to that early Pacing the Studio piece [Pacing Upside Down, 1969]. Do you see that?
BN: Somewhat. It generally goes back to that idea that when you dont know what to do then whatever it is that you are doing at the time becomes the work.
MA: In that sense, it also relates to your last video, Setting a Good Corner.
MA: So the fact that youve done two in a row means that you dont have any more ideas.
BN: [laughter] I guess theres nothing left.
MA: Tell me about the subtitle. I think the reference to Cage is fairly clear in terms of the open-ended character of the piece, but why the words Fat Chance?
BN: Well, when I chose the seven spots, I picked them because I knew there was mouse activity, assuming that the cat would occasionally show up too. So the given area that I would shoot over a certain period became a kind of stage. Thats how I thought of it. So, when nothing was happening, I wanted it to still be interesting. These areas or stages, if you will, tend to be empty in the middle. So that became the performance area and the performers are the bugs, the mice, and the cat. So the performance is just a matter of chance when the performers are going to show up and what is going to happen.
Fat Chance, which I think is just an interesting saying, refers to a response for an invitation to be involved in an exhibition. Some time ago, Anthony dOffay was going to do a show of John Cages scores, which are often very beautiful. He also wanted to show work by artists that were interested in or influenced by Cage. So he asked if I would send him something that related. Cage was an important influence for me, especially his writings. So I sent dOffay a telegram that said FAT CHANCE JOHN CAGE. DOffay thought it was a refusal to participate. I thought it was the work, but he didnt get it, so-
MA: So along with the debris in the studio, youre reusing an earlier work in the title as well.
MA: Let me ask you about the issue of cutting and editing for this piece. You refer to Cage, which is about indeterminacy and chance, and you do the piece with that kind of inspiration, and then you go in and cut and edit it-
BN: No. I didnt. Its all real time. The only thing that comes into play in regard to what youre saying is that I only had one camera and I could only shoot one hour a night. So its compilation. There are forty-two hours altogether. So its forty-two nights. The shooting went from late August through late November or early December. I didnt shoot every night. Before I went to bed at night I would go out to the studio and turn the camera on and then in the morning Id go out and see what had happened. And Id make a log of what happened each night.
MA: But you have flipped or reversed and then colorized some of the scenes.
BN: Right. There are two versions of the piece. In the first version nothing had been manipulated, no flips, reverses or color changes. In the second version, there are color changes and flips and reverses. Then there is also a third. Id show the piece to Susan [Rothenberg] and shed get really bored with it and say, Why dont you cut out all the stuff where nothing is happening? And Id say, well, thats kind of the point of the piece. And then she said, Well obviously thats what you should do then, precisely because it is contrary to the piece. So I did do a kind of all action edit. So the six hours gets cut down to forty minutes or an hour.
MA; How did you decide what color to use and when to reverse or flip an image? Was it generally a matter of composition or highlighting certain scenes?
BN: Both. In terms of the colors, I wanted to run through the rainbow, but it ended up having a kind of quiet color. It changes from a red to a green to a blue and then back to red over fifteen or twenty minutes. But it changes at a very slow rate. You cant quite see the color changing. In each of the seven images its changing at different times so you have a lot of different colors at any given moment. Its a quiet rainbow. The flips and the flops are fairly arbitrary at about fifteen minutes apart. Its a way of keeping the eye engaged, to give the whole thing a kind of texture throughout.
MA: In terms of reading this symbolically, were you thinking of the cat as a surrogate for the artist, chasing mouse/muse?
BN: Not really. I was interested in the relationship between the two of them, but more in a psychological way. Their relationship exists as a sort of a paradox between a joke and reality. Theyve been cartoon characters for so long that we think of them as light-hearted performers, but there is this obvious predator-prey tension between them. I wanted to create a situation that was slightly unclear as to how you should react. I think there are parts that are humorous and there are parts that are not at all. But those are glimpses that you might or might not catch. The overall effect is ambiguous, maybe a little anxious. Then you can hear the dogs barking once in a while and the coyotes howling now and again. So there is also an element of whats going on inside and whats going on outside, which I like. There are also two locations on the tape of different doors in the studio. One door goes into the office and two doors go outside and most of the time during the taping I could keep those doors open because it was still warm. Sometimes you can see the reflections of the cats eyes outside through the screen door. The mice also go inside and outside because there is a hole in one of the screens and could come and go. Throughout the piece there is an outside-inside dialogue that deals with being in the studio with all this activity going on and then being aware of a larger nature going on outside that space.
MA: What kind of emotion do you associate with this piece? If you had to assign it an emotion, what would it be?
BN: I dont know about an emotion. What Ive felt in watching it is almost a meditation. Because the projection image is fairly large, if you try and concentrate on or pay attention to a particular spot in the image, youll miss something. So you really have to not pay attention and not concentrate and allow your peripheral vision to work. You tend to get more if you just scan without seeking. You have to become passive, I think.
MA: Theres a kind of forlorn beauty about the piece, almost a pathos. This may sound-well, you just turned sixty, so you are now making what curators and art historians call the late work. Is there any thought here in regard to reviewing yourself.
BN: [laughter] I guess its late work. I hope its not too late. Maybe in the sense that theres ten years of stuff around the studio and Im using the leftovers, but Ive always tended to do that anyway. Pieces that dont work out generally get made into something else. This is just another instance of using whats already there.
MA: Well, I was also thinking about the fact that the camera is an extension of your eye. In the primary sense, you are the observer. We are following you watching yourself.
BN: Thats true. There are times when I see myself as you put it, and times when I dont. There are times when I just see the space, and its the space of the cat and the mice, not necessarily my space. On the other hand, Ive had to re-look at all of this stuff before it finally gets put on DVDs-and Id forgotten that Id done this, but the spaces that Id shot, because I wasnt shooting every night, every hour the cameras move just a little bit. The image changes a little bit every hour regardless of any action thats taking place. I was working in the studio during the day all that time. I would unconsciously move things around. Maybe organize a few things-what you do in a studio when youre not supposedly making art. So the areas that I was shooting tended to get cleaner or have fewer objects in them over the period of six hours. I thought that was kind of interesting. It didnt occur to me when I was doing it, but then I went to SITE Santa Fe and saw Ed Ruschas film Miracle. In the garage as he gets more precise, the garage gets cleaner and cleaner and he gets cleaner as the film goes on. The film made me think that I had done the same thing unconsciously.
MA: Since I havent seen the final cut, Im curious how the piece ends.
BN: It ends pretty much how it starts. It begins with a title and a few credits, and then basically it just starts and then it ends. No crescendo, no fade, no The End. It just stops, like a long slice of time, just time in the studio.
- Interview by Michael Auping