LEE IS FREE
An interview with Lee Ranaldo
We meet Lee Ranaldo in his cozy loft in downtown Manhattan not far from Ground Zero while outside the noises of everyday cosmopolitan city life are floating by. For most people he is the guitarist/singer of Sonic Youth, the most exciting band coming out of the early New York punk wave. Over the past decade however he has emerged on the scene as an inspired writer, a tongue-in-cheek spoken word performer and a remarkable installation and visual artist. At the center of his art stands the American landscape and a scattered vision of a country on the brink. Whether it is in the sonic explorations of his music, in the spontaneity of his writing or in the impulses of his brush-strokes, Lee Ranaldo steps forward as a poignant observer who is adrift in a life on the road. We were particularly interested in the influences he had come across on his trip and asked him to prepare a list of items that have left a lasting impression. It triggered a reflection on the role of the artist in contemporary culture, the urge to slow down drastically and on how a rock band can be turned into an art exhibition.
The Beats were initially of great importance for you?
Lee Ranaldo: 'I went on a trip across the country right after high school. I was a young man who had never really traveled that much and then I spent two or three months traveling around this country for the first time. Afterwards I went immediately to university and 'On The Road' was one of the first books I read. It was almost like reading someone's description of what I had just gone through all summer. The books of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were written in the forties and fifties, but they sort of presage this all American culture of youth culture, drug culture and free culture. They came out of the conservative war years right into what we know as the sixties and the seventies. Those writers just opened up so many doors to so many people. Ginsberg especially.'
Ginsberg has definitely changed American society, being heavily involved in drug experiments, the gay movement and activism. Can the artist be a catalyst for social change?
Ranaldo: 'It's a tough call. I believe it's possible, but I also believe that it's not often that an artist really has the eyes and ears of the world to do that. It's not that an artist is likely to change the course of the next election, as much as slowly change the minds of those who are in immediate contact with the work. You create a personal pool of a certain kind of consciousness or a certain kind of political mindset and it just slowly extends like that. I think that Robert Smithson was somebody like that: there are a lot of gestures within his work that could be turned political, but he didn't go out trying to get someone to win an election. It was a kind of personal philosophical politics that would spread; it's a spread of ideas, that's what art and culture is all about. If it didn't have the capacity to change, it wouldn't be such a big deal. Museums wouldn't be expanding if it didn't have some kind of capacity to change minds. It works on a different scale, the kind of political process that culture moves in is different from the hectic pace of elections and votes and laws and regulations. There is no doubt it's an influence and I don't think it would be nearly as important if it wasn't.'
Maybe an artist can offer conceptual frames but not really change things?
Ranaldo: 'Yeah, but conceptual frames could influence people that come in contact with it. It's interesting to watch certain artists who, whether they are visual artists or musicians or whatever, as they gain a wider audience, whether their message stays as effective or whether it gets slightly more dilute? There are plenty of artists who, as they get more and more popular, lose their powerful aspect.'
People digested it already.
Ranaldo: 'That's another thing as well, many artists have only one thing to say and once people have digested it, they move on. It's what separates great artists from not great artists: they keep having things to say that keep showing you something. Bob Dylan is an example of that in music, he's not stuck in 1966 and he's still doing stuff that people are responding to today. The same is true for artists like Matisse or Picasso; they continued to make inspiring work.'
The list that Lee Ranaldo gave us depict a man taking up by various passions: 'Weekend', the cult road movie by Jean-Luc Goddard; 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac and 'Howl' by Allen Ginsberg; the works of Robert Smithson and Henri Matisse; an electric guitar; the first Beatles album; the Drift-catalogue of the ongoing cinema/poetry/music project with his wife Leah Singer; children's pottery/paintings/toys; a bicycle or tennis racket.
Children's toys? A bicycle? A tennis racket?
Ranaldo: 'I put all those things on the list not to talk about them in particular, but more as avenues into other things. The world is moving so fast and all our lives are so fast because of the internet and modern culture in general. Nobody has time to linger on any one thing. That's the value of doing something like handmade time consuming artworks (Ranaldo refers to his paintings based on newspaper articles). It seems significant somehow, trying to slow things down. This is something everybody is grapping with these days, the lack of time to focus on anything in a deep way. That's why I put bike riding and tennis down there, because those are activities that I do lately that I find great rewarding.'
Maybe we can learn something from kids about the way they spend their time or make use of their time?
Ranaldo: 'They're not hurried and they're sometimes involved in very poetic actions. They have connections that have a different logic than the logic that you grow into as you become an adult. That's the beauty of what kids can do. They jump around beyond that logic; they haven't been indoctrinated by it I guess. Anyway, I like to watch what children do. Like going out for the bike rides: it's one of the few times during the day where there is no media. You're kind of alone with your thoughts and get time to think. When you're traveling you're also kind of excerpted from your life, you're not in your house with all your possessions and you only have a suitcase. So you're kind of free from all that and there's this contemplating time which you don't have in your daily life that makes it very rewarding. It's a motive in my work: the whole notion of that time that you have set aside when you're traveling and when you're forced to sit in one place and not have too much to do.'
Tell us something about The Beatles' first record.
Ranaldo: 'I chose the first American Beatles record, 'Meet The Beatles', because it was the beginning of this intense cultural wave for everyone. For me it was the beginning of this long interest in music that's come all this way to where I am right now. It all started with them, because you can move from their music in all different directions. You can move straight through rock and roll, up through to punk, you could go back to Chuck Berry, you could jump over to Cage, Stockhausen and Varèse. The Beatles were at the nexus when all of those things were coming together. It was an interesting period that they kind of tapped into and triggered in a way, their records started so simple and then progressed to these complex symphonic masterpieces. We could start a really long discussion and travel all through 20th century music and their place in it and pop music's place in 20th century music.'
Would you consider Sonic Youth as a pop band?
Ranaldo: 'It depends on what your definition of pop is. My definition of pop is something that is of its time, so in that sense I would say yes. I don't see us as a sort of isolated theoretical band. In the late seventies when we moved to NY, the musicians on the scene here and ourselves were all middle class white kids who had gone through university, in many cases art university. They were coming to NY and started to apply the ideas that they gathered from artistic practice to music. That was the most interesting thing about it and that's why you found all these reductive forms. There was the no wave stuff that was reducing music to its barest elements the same way the minimalists were doing in the visual amount. People who are able to see themselves in a wider cultural context are making a lot of the interesting music. It always separated us, and some of the people we're associated with, from the more typical rock bands that we end up next to in the record stores. We were a pop band in a lot of different definitions of the word, not just in the pop music definition but pop in terms of looking at popular culture and utilizing it as the raw stuff of what we were working with.'
That's what always been so special about Sonic Youth, that it functions as a pop band in the sense that a lot of people know of them, but on a second level it also functions as an opening to the avant-garde. The whole connection with Glenn Branca and John Cage, with the punk scene, your covers showing artworks by visual artists such as Mike Kelley, Raymond Petitbon, Gerhard Richter and Richard Prince. It opens up this whole jar of connections and links; in a way Sonic Youth is the same to a lot of people as what the books of the beats were for you.
Ranaldo: 'Well, any art that touches your life in that way does that, it opens up all these other connections. It's great for us to hear that about what we do, but I can say that most of the artists that I felt seriously attached to through my life have done the same things for me. An artist that really means a lot to you is often the center spoke of a wheel that spreads out in all these different directions. Yes, people have said that about us and it's one of the cool aspects of what we've done with our career. One thing that's really important to us is this notion of inclusion: our career is not just about our little band driving a wedge through the world, it's kind of a journey you go on and you want to take as many people as possible. There is an exhibition in development right now that would be a Sonic Youth centered museum show. There's us at the core and it spreads out to the artists closest to us, and then a little bit beyond that. You can spring off from what we are doing into the worlds of experimental cinema, experimental music, visual art and language poetry. It's interesting how you kind of characterized exactly how we're trying to present this show. It would be interesting when it gets of the ground.'
Jan Van Woensel & Niels Van Tomme
Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, art critic and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the curatorial advisor of Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer and curator of Studio Philippe Vandenberg. Van Woensel is professor at CCA, dept of Curatorial Practice in San Francisco; Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles; and NYU, dept of Art and Art Professions in New York. Office Jan Van Woensel, a team of assistant curators supervised by Van Woensel, works with international clients such as private collectors, art galleries and artists on exhibitions. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org http://icpabackstage.blogspot.com
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