Whitehot Magazine

October 2010, Interview with Lee Ranaldo

Lee Ranaldo, Noah Becker at Studio 16 1/2, 2010
Photo credit Big Tiny Smalls

Lee Ranaldo
Studio 16 1/2
16 1/2 Fan Tan Alley
Victoria, BC
V8W 1W3

Curated by Todd Rosenbaum of The Hogar Collection as part of Artlandia
Presented by Rifflandia and Whitehot Magazine
Polaroid Photography courtesy of Big Tiny Smalls

Lee Ranaldo, artist, poet and founding member of Sonic Youth recently brought a solo exhibition and avant garde performance to Rifflandia, one of Canada's fastest-growing music festivals. His visual art was presented as part of Artlandia. Curated by Noah Becker, Artlandia was a multi-venue, multi-artist project launched this year as a genre-bending extension to a local festival that has quickly become a nationally recognized event. Other artists featured included Paul Zone and Bobby Grossman, who have both provided cover images for Whitehot's print editions, as well as a host of local talent. In the midst of some chaotic border crossings, masses of last minute dry-wall, and a disorientingly extensive lineup of performances, we found a few almost-quiet moments for a quick conversation about Ranaldo's Artlandia installation.

Kyra Kordoski: As far as what you're doing for Rifflandia, how much connection is there between your music performance and the art show?

Lee Ranaldo: It's kind of hard to say. They have some relationship, but I'm not really sure I can put my finger on it. My way of thinking about it is, whatever your concerns are as an artist they go across the mediums that you're working in. I could be working in poetry or working on visual art or working on music and there's something about the sensibility that's powering all those different things. So there is some kind of relationship, but I guess I don't work hard to draw the lines between them.

Kordoski: Is this something you do a lot, where you have an art show and a music show in the same context?

Ranaldo: Somewhat... as I was saying to someone last night, it's very easy to tie the music into the art shows. It almost always happens that an art show has some kind of either performance quotient or music quotient, because it's a way to be celebratory at the opening, or something like that. But there are plenty of music concerts that are just that - they don't have an art show in the next room. I mean it occasionally happens... Sonic Youth just had a museum show traveling around Europe for a couple years and we would play a big concert at the opening of every show and sometimes do little performances in the galleries... but it was mostly an art show.

Kordoski: There's definitely a strong sound element to the show at 16 1/2. The soundtrack for the video installation is very loud and heavy. It's pervasive.

Ranaldo: I liked the idea of having a sound component and at one point we were going to have just simply a sound component. Then they sent us some floor plans and we were looking at that stairwell, wondering if we could project something in there... I gave Todd two or three different videos with completely different sound and image - they were more like short films that were music-based. He picked that one and it kind of provides an ambience for the room. Since a lot of the pieces are particularly music related, like the drypoints on vinyl records, or the Ronettes picture, or the picture of the partying dudes, there's a bunch of relationships there between sound and image.

Kordoski: ...which is always a very dynamic interaction.

Ranaldo: Sound, like cinema, is a temporal medium. It's there and then it's gone, so you have to experience it. Where as a visual artwork just sits there and you kind of soak it in differently. Sound is evanescent. It's a live event. Visual art is seductive in a different way because you have to allow it to enter into your sphere.

Lee Ranaldo, Studio 16 1/2 Installation view, 2010
Photo credit Noah Becker

Lee Ranaldo, Studio 16 1/2 Installation view, 2010
Photo credit Noah Becker

Kordoski: There's one piece of kinetic sculpture in the show.

Ranaldo: I found these small little turntables you could mount on the wall and I had this idea to do a series of spinning disks that would have almost Haiku-like wordage on them, so there's a few of those pieces out there right now. There is actually a sculptural quotient to a lot of the stuff I do. I've done a lot with physical records over the years. I did a series of spinning disks back in the mid-80s where I painted oil paint over the top of records. And I've done a series of sculptural guitars. [shows image] It's like a painted guitar with a video in the sound hole. This particular one is kind of a hippie era one, so it's painted all psychedelic and there's a quote on the wall that somebody I knew said into a tape recorder when they were tripping on acid. I like the idea of tying in the music with the art in that physical sense.

Kordoski: So how do you find objects relate to music? Vinyl has a huge cultural presence.

Ranaldo: The record is a really fetishistic type of object because it's very graphic and it really looks like something, as opposed to a cd, which doesn't look like much, really.

Kordoski: How do you feel about records personally? Do you have a strong emotional reaction to them?

Ranaldo: I guess I do. I guess I'm, to a certain extent, fetishising guitars and vinyl records and things. To a degree. I mean they're iconographic, in a way, of a format, and it's something I work with a lot. Maybe it's substituted for the classic artist's naked female form - the shape of the guitar... I don't know.

Kordoski: I wonder if there's kind of a relic quality, too, like the devotional aspect of fandom and how that refers to something that's become sort of mythic...

Ranaldo: Yeah, there definitely is that as well, and playing around with the idea of what a mythic thing is... Sometimes I hesitate to delve too far into it, though, I try to keep it a little spontaneous.

Kordoski: With the pieces that you do based on newspapers, it's a really interesting process, the way you take something fundamentally ephemeral and make it permanent.

Ranaldo: That's partly the idea of it. The newspaper's an interesting thing because it's filled with photographs, they're these images that are here today, and tomorrow you wrap your fish in the paper or throw it in the trash or whatever, and they're gone. But then some images that have come out of newspaper photographs are incredibly long lasting in our culture.

I'm a real newspaper addict and I can't exist without sitting down at the breakfast table every morning with the New York Times and going through every section of the paper. And I got to this point where we travel so much, I started aping that procedure in other countries, even if I couldn't read the text, because you absorb things anyway, and you absorb a lot of it through the pictures. And there's a different graphic quality to each newspaper. A different color saturation level... I was reading some paper in Finland or Norway where the reds were so saturated they were just like dripping off the page, they were really amazing.

But even when I'm reading the Times, my eye will be drawn to an article based on how interesting the picture looks. And so I started looking at the pictures as these graphics that existed outside of whatever the articles were about and seeing like, well this is just a beautiful image and this one was framed nicely, and this has got a beautiful black to white moody thing going on... I just started pulling out images that I liked and I didn't care at all what the stories were, so when they're reproduced as drawings they're done in the same way. In the first ones I wanted to make really clear it was part of a newspaper and I put in little bits of the headline and such. Now I'm really working with simply the images, and they're not even always based on papers anymore. It's all about graphic reproduction and the seductiveness of the actual graphic quality of the paper.

Kordoski: How do you feel about yourself in the press?

Ranaldo: It's interesting to be on both sides of it, to sometimes be in the newspaper and sometimes be using it as imagery in a different way. Being in the press you realise how distorted the press is and how inaccurate it occasionally is, so you see it from this other side, but I never really thought about that as correlative to the fact that I'm working with newspaper images.


Lee Ranaldo, Studio 16 1/2 Installation, 2010
Photo credit Noah Becker

Kordoski: How long have you been doing the record dry points?

Just a year and half or two years. I was doing this residency in Paris for a couple of summers that was specifically about printmaking. Printmaking is something I have a long-standing relationship with. It just struck me that I could use vinyl records as plates, so I started experimenting with them. The ones in the show are really the first ones. There are a couple of them that are the final prints, but most of them are kind of like working states, test prints, in a way - one of a kinds. I'm just finding it really interesting. I'm working on a bunch more with different-sized records. I found these weird records that were made in the 30s that are 16 inches big, which is quite a bit bigger than an album size, and I'm working on some of those in my studio right now. It makes the music connection kind of obvious and it's very graphic.

Kordoski: And there's a relationship there to how a newspaper presents information in a serial, mass-produced form. A record does the same thing.

Ranaldo: Exactly, it's a real, reproducible thing. And printmaking is that as well because you're making multiple copies off a stamper - which is how records are made, they're stamped. So that's kind of an interesting thing, too. I hadn't really brought that up before.

Kordoski: It's pretty far away from the immediacy of a performance...

Ranaldo: Performance is a happening. It exists and then it's over and it can't but be kind of a personal experience, just because there's a live, flesh and bones body on stage doing something, and you either love it or you hate it, but it's a person to person experience in a way very different from an art exhibit where you come into kind of an anonymous gallery and it's a bit cold and sterile and you have to kind of let the work open up to you. They're very different, and I'm very happy to have both, to be able to work in both areas.

Kordoski: The relationship with audience and the varying levels of intimacy is interesting... is there a strong distinction for you between your music audience and your art audience and how those interactions work?

When you're known for one thing it's kind of hard to be known for another thing. Musicians who make art are always known as musicians who make art. They're not know as artists in the same way. Occasionally one or another will transcend that labeling... but there's nothing you can do about it. I'm much more well known as a musician and so I make art and I just put it out there and if people respond to it that's fine, and if they don't, you know...

Kordoski: Do you find your art audience consists mainly of your music fans, then?

Ranaldo: No, there are people who know me just from what I do visually, but it's a minority. Because I do a lot of different things, poetry and spoken word stuff and various types of performance and installation and visual art I think people kind of are willing to go with that ride - that there are bunch of different aspects to a person's working career.

Kordoski: To take that sort of quite fine but fundamental difference between writing poetry and speaking poetry... that maybe distills some of the things we were talking about.

Ranaldo: Right, yeah, playing around with imagery and words, and then reciting it, and then that relates to song lyrics, and speaking poetry relates to performance... To me they all just get bound up together at a certain point and it really depends on what's the best avenue to get at a certain thing, you know? Is it a live performance with body kind of thrashing around on stage or is it something manufactured in a studio that's put out there with a less physical face?


Lee Ranaldo's Rifflandia performance
Photo credit Noah Becker


Lee Ranaldo, Noah Becker, Alex Morrison at Studio 16 1/2, 2010
Photo credit Kyra Kordoski