photo by Jessica Turcios, 2010

I don’t remember the first time I met Noé, but I do remember the first time I saw his work. He and Joseph Clayton Mills performed in a dark room while standing opposite one another. Noé had an accordian strapped to his back and he played, very softly, while Joseph moved closer and farther away. Depending on their distance from one another, something concealed in Joseph’s hand (perhaps a hearing aid?) changed pitch. That performance epitomizes what I’ve seen of Noé’s work. He is dedicated to creating an awareness around silence within a performative space. The manifestation of the body, as a tool for the range of sound is integral, as are the relationships between performative bodies. His ability to instill the necessary parameters for such an awarenes–particularly in collaborative settings–is, to me, remarkable. I wanted to ask him more about that, but felt like direct questions would somehow do away with the very thing I was trying to ask. Consequently I tried to ask around the idea of silence, in order to better understand the way Noé uses sound. Because sound requires space, that seemed a good place to start.

Caroline Picard: How do you think of space?

Noé Cuéllar: Space evokes potential, but also communicates very directly to my sense of placement.  I think a sense of placement paves the way for the rest of the senses… it’s like a background sense made up by all the senses. I enjoy compound forms even when the individual pieces can still be recognized, in this case, space is the glue.

CP: It sounds like you think of space as something both sculptural (3-d figures) and linguistic (i.e. compound verbs). I appreciate the idea that space would be some experiential amalgam of those fields, even though I’m not quite sure how that would work. Is that what you mean? What do you mean by compound forms?

NC: Yeah, it’s like our sense of space is happening before we find out how we actually feel.  I’m in a room now, but a second ago I was just fine without actively thinking how comfortable it is.  I think of artistic expression as a compound form that always involves more than one thing.

CP: How do you use space as a medium for performance?

NC: The outcomes are quite unexpected when the sense of physical space is combined with the spatial sense of the actual sound.  I think my work most often expresses rigidity and confines, but space is what can allow [the work] to be experienced with more spread – perhaps more than I would choose to imply in the work itself.  I would say I focus primarily on sound, but with a sense of belonging in a space.

CP: I’d love to hear about some examples of how this has occurred in different pieces…

NC: Last year I composed Kilter, a piece for Jeb Bishop (trombone) with accordion, and two speakers inside boxes with hinges that would rattle.  I had in mind pressure and magnetic repulsion, yet the site-specific performance gave it a more wide-ranging effect, even in a dark, gritty basement with a short ceiling.

I’ve also been working with Joseph Kramer as Coppice, making site-specific installations and site-variable compositions, recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the space was so large we were able to prevent any of our sounds from becoming part of a whole “surround experience,” but remain dislocated and in motion, scattering the perception of their source.

Coppice performing "Vinculum (Coincidence)", part of Without You I’m Nothing: Interactions, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Photo: Nathan Keay, © 2011 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

CP: What, to you, is the relationship between the space inside of an instrument and the space around an instrument?

NC: The outside speaks for the inside.

CP: Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Joseph Clayton Mills? I was just thinking of the piece where you stood opposite one another and he kept opening and closing his hand, to change the frequency of buzz that magically manifested and grew stronger the closer you moved to one another. Then too, I think of more “traditional” pieces, where you sit down and perform for a definite period of time…

NC: Working with him is very factual, much in natural state.  We share a fascination with the attributes of objects and mechanisms, their hidden sound character and emotional effect.  It makes me think a lot about photography, which we also practice on our own.  A lot of what we do together is often a simple gesture, “subtlemost” more than “minimalist.”  I think we both find that simplicity very lasting.

CP: Will you talk a little bit about the way you use silence in your work?

NC: Silence is space but also glue.  It’s an encouragement that is easy to miss.  I like using silence as a way of pronouncing presence, or as a bearer of tension, or as a moment to coast on something that just happened.  Silences can be essentially the same in different moments, but it is how it is accessed that makes it feel different.  It carries the weight of the three tenses, it can be very prominent in itself, while also reflecting personal inner processes.  It can even be felt even when sounds are present.

CP: Do you feel like you are interrupting silence? Or are silence and sound variations within the same medium?

NC: My listening is constantly active, therefore I wouldn’t say I interrupt silence with my sound work, but rather bring the sound more forward to emphasize the moment.  Silence can be framed between those sounds, but in the end I feel like sound and silence are only evocations of a deeper level of silence – and of sound potential – more than what they simply sound like.  The repercussions of focused listening tap on that depth, beyond the temporal.

Performing "H" with Joseph Clayton Mills & Carol Genetti, part of Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain, curated by Jessica Turcios Photos: Seonaid Valiant, 2010

CP: I know that you regularly collaborate with other performers as well; sometimes you do so in a more traditional improvisation venue (like The Green Mill, for instance) and at other times you seem to locate yourself more definitively within a contemporary art/performance oeuvre. How do you negotiate those different contexts? Does a venue change the work you do?

NC: Venues shape the work more than they change it.  What feels right about performances in site-specific and gallery settings is that the audience-performer space is diffused, with more listening nodes available, and open to variation.  The stage setting has the advantage of centering a performance as a clear message.

CP: Can you talk a little bit about transcription? Or, how you translate and document your temporal, acoustic sound on a static piece of paper?

NC: I’m interested in some precise musical qualities, but also variable, interpersonal, implicit qualities that happen in the process of working one-on-one with a performer.  Transcription varies from one work to another; sometimes I don’t put anything on paper, or very little just for my own reminder.  When working with performers I let them write their own parts over a skeleton score I make for them. We talk, try, sharpen, and write.

CP: Do you use that score as a kind of document? I’m thinking about John Cage’s “score’s'” for instance; do they look like that? Or are they more traditional pages of notes?

NC: It’s a document of an idea but it’s interesting to use that word, especially when thinking of it as a document for a future event.  Sometimes they take a more traditional shape but with custom symbols, sometimes they’re just scribbles, and sometimes they’re graphic.

Drawing 2/3 from Harrow/Dormant (2010)

CP: Can you give me an example?

With Harrow/Dormant I wanted to figure out what my interpretation of a graphic score would be, and what it would be like to suggest sound from a more abstract visual departure.  I combined drawings with directions to set a structure on which the performers can stay afloat their own decisions. Julia Miller has been interpreting it with incredible tact several times now, as part of a study for a larger project of hers… which is great because multiple iterations reveal how sensitive interpretation is to one’s standpoint.

(See this video)

CP: How do you think about sound when it is happening?

NC: Sound is a constant vibration that stimulates our impulse to imagine, stir remembrance of events that perhaps haven’t quite happened to us directly.  It’s kind of way of keeping check of our experiential ability and our location.  It’s a way to be present and also to be somewhere else, beyond our windows.

CP: You enact such precision in your work; I’m trying to understand how you think about that precision, and how you locate the “action” of your work in time and space…so somehow, sound becomes the vehicle for that action, right?

NC: I regard presence and intention very highly as a basis.  In my mind those two things almost make sound all by themselves.

CP: But then what does that mean? For sound to be a vehicle? A vehicle for what?

NC: A vehicle for transportation…

CP: It’s also really interesting to think about intention—I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that…it sounds like you’re thinking of your mind as an auxiliary component—and extension of the instrument?

NC: My sister is a graphic designer, and browsed many art and design magazines when I was growing up.  I have many vivid memories of her explaining contemporary artworks to me and she would talk a lot about intention.  I remember there was an advertisement all white with only one small logo in the middle, and I asked her why they would waste so much space, and she pointed out that the blank space lead our eyes to the logo, that was the focus.  That got me thinking about doing only what felt like enough.  Insights like that built up very solidly, and I’m reminded of that particular one quite often.  The intentional framework for a message.

Caroline Picard

Caroline Picard is the Executive Director of The Green Lantern Press—a nonprofit publishing house and art organization—and Co-Director of Sector 2337, a hybrid artspace/bar/bookstore in Chicago. Her writing and comics have appeared in publications like ArtForum (critics picks), Everyday Genius, Hyperallergic, Necessary Fiction, and Tupelo Quarterly. In 2014 she was the Curatorial Fellow at La Box, ENSA in France, and became a member of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2015. Her first graphic novel, The Chronicles of Fortune, is due out from Radiator Comics in 2017.