Subtlemost Sound Force: An Interview with Noé Cuéllar

April 13, 2011 · Print This Article

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.





12 x 12 x 100: An assessment of the MCA’s emerging artist series

January 3, 2011 · Print This Article

Jessica Labatte: The Brightness, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Golden Gallery, Inc.

Jessica Labatte’s just-closed exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art marked the 100th artist featured in the MCA’s long-running “12 x 12″ series, which focuses exclusively on emerging Chicago artists. The series, which was launched in the Fall of 2001, has been going strong for almost a decade now (for more on the history of the 12 x 12 series, see here) . Even a cursory glance at the MCA’s 12 x 12 archive makes it clear that it has showcased some of the best young artistic talents currently working in Chicago (some of the best, but certainly not all of them). Indeed, at times it almost seems like a 12 x 12 show is an inevitability for any Chicago artist who hangs around long enough, though I know that there are plenty of artists still waiting patiently for their 1/12th slice of the MCA pie. After all, who doesn’t want a Museum exhibition on their resume?

And that’s the problem that I have with the 12 x 12 series as a whole. It’s too much about giving every artist their turn, and not nearly enough about ambition, innovation, and critical expansion of an artist’s practice (and an audience’s understanding of it). I’ll be even more blunt: 12 x 12 shows rarely feel special. The work by artists that is exhibited in this smallish gallery off the MCA’s main entryway is no better, and more often than not it’s significantly less good, than the work that that same artist has shown at a local gallery. Take Labatte’s exhibition. I’m a fan of Labatte’s work, and have written positively about it elsewhere. But her MCA show was a bit of a letdown. The exhibition consisted of two large-scale photographs, one of which was exhibited in her recent gallery show at Golden and another large-scale work that to my knowledge hasn’t been exhibited before. Mostly, however, the show was comprised of a large series of smaller-scale photographs that were, in essence, variations on a single idea. Significantly, selections from this same body of work were displayed concurrently at GOLDEN’s solo booth at NADA Miami Beach.

I saw Labatte’s MCA show last weekend, and since then I’ve been trying to parse through why I was so underwhelmed by it – and why I’m not all that surprised at the fact that I was. I don’t think the disappointing aspects of Labatte’s show are due as much to the work itself (which was fine, if not, in my opinion, some of her best). Instead, I think Labatte’s show exemplifies a growing failure on the MCA’s part to think big when it comes to showcasing local artists.

The 12 x 12 series has grown programmatically automated in spirit. It’s as if the MCA believes they need to do little else than place their institutional stamp of approval on the groundwork that Chicago’s gallerists and indie cultural producers have already laid. I have no idea what kind of budget each 12 x 12 project receives but I’ll bet it’s pretty small. This is fitting and often necessary for a Museum project series – up to a point. But in my opinion a museum show by a local artist whose work — let’s be honest — is already well-known to the local art community should be a step beyond the normal gallery fare. A Museum show–even a smaller-scale project-type show–should strive to be ambitious in some way, a knock-your-socks off occasion for the artist to create something that would not otherwise be possible without the museum’s support. I think an important correlary to this last idea is that a 12 x 12 artist should be given the institutional freedom to make a project that is not necessarily the kind of thing that their dealer would want to show (i.e., not easily sellable to collectors).

Jessica Labatte. Surface Effects #2 2010 14 x 17" Archival inkjet print. Golden Gallery, Chicago.

A brochure prepared for every 12 x 12 exhibition would be another step in the right direction. Take the beautifully produced 3-fold brochures for the Hammer Museum’s Project series as an example. The Hammer’s brochures are produced cheaply. They contain full-color illustrations of the artist’s work and, most importantly, each one includes an engaging critical essay written by a museum curator, another artist, or a well-known writer or cultural figure. So not only do Hammer Projects artists get a show, with a curatorial mandate to “think big,” but they get something that lives on afterwards – an essay written about their work that helps expand critical awareness of their practice.  I think the MCA should be doing this too. What if the MCA were to invite emerging, local-area writers and curators to occasionally pen brochure essays for its 12 x 12 artists? Not only would the artist receive lengthy critical assessment of their work, our local writers (many of whom also fall into the “emerging” category) would receive the obvious benefits (and honorarium) of having their work published by a museum. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

If budget is an issue, I think the MCA should cut down on the number of 12 x 12s it does each year (12 is already far too many, in my opinion). Why not do 6 x 6 and up the budget for each show? That way, each exhibition can be more ambitious in scope, include an accompanying brochure/essay, and have more of a lasting impact on the artist and the museum’s audience.

I’m not sure if I would have written these comments at all if an MCA staffperson hadn’t called me at home one evening several weeks ago, shortly before Labatte’s exhibition opened. The staff person asked me if I would be interested in writing about Labatte’s show and/or the fact that it also marked the 100th artist in the 12 x 12 series. So, you know, here you have it, here’s what I think. The MCA staff person was extremely nice and I always welcome such calls, but I couldn’t help thinking that, to a certain extent, the Museum was asking me and other local arts writers to do their interpretive work for them. Those little wall labels provided for each show, which are invariably written in bland museum-ese and which seem to boil every artist’s concerns down to the same three or four issues, are not sufficient. In many ways they do a disservice to artists who have worked so hard to “earn” their MCA slot and are justifiably thrilled at the opportunity to exhibit in one of the country’s top contemporary art institutions.

The MCA needs to do more to make this opportunity count. 100 shows and almost 10 years is long enough to prove the Institution’s commitment to emerging local artists. Now, I think it’s time for the MCA to expand that commitment into something more lasting and meaningful by taking a long look at how they allocate their resources and at what they, and more importantly what their artists, truly want and need from a 12 x 12 exhibition.




MCA Talk with Michael Darling, Michelle Grabner, and Lane Relyea

December 7, 2010 · Print This Article

Can I just say once again how grateful I always feel to people and organizations who post videos and/or audio of their panels, talks, conversations, etc. online? For near-agoraphobes like me, it’s a lifesaver. This talk happened locally at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago–although I fear it’s just another variation on the old ‘what does it mean to be a Chicago artist’ chestnut, hopefully it’ll be of interest to many of you who live outside our fair city as well:

Home Base: Michael Darling, Michelle Grabner, and Lane Relyea in Conversation
What does it mean to characterize an artist by where they live and work? And similarly, what does it mean for a collection to be of a place — to reflect a museum’s history and artistic community, to be shaped by the dynamics of a city, to be used by and be seen as part of the locale where it lives? The MCA’s new James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling, artist and writer Michelle Grabner, and critic Lane Relyea delve into these questions, looking at examples from the United States and internationally.

The MCA just made it available on their “MCA Interactive” page (where–I love this–they provide a helpful answer to the question ‘What is a Podcast’?). The talk is available in two forms – MP3 download and/or streaming media. Click here to access the download. There are a ton of other MCA talks and walk-thru type discussions on the download/streams page for you to peruse, as well.




Studio as Portal : Musing Carrie Gundersdorf’s summer 12×12

October 26, 2010 · Print This Article

I know it was a long time ago. We’re nearing the end of October, already, and for my tardiness I apologize. It’s just that this show has stuck with me for a couple months now, I’ve been doing some writing about it here and there, on scraps of paper or loose napkins–sites for thinking that get lost, wilt, tear or bleed. I wanted to take this opportunity to compile what I remember of those thoughts. I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve always been the sort of person to write at a distance. It takes me a while to process things and put them in perspective. Perhaps for that reason, I have been unable to let On The Make go.

Studio as Portal:  Musing Carrie Gundersdorf

a summer 12×12 at the MCA

by Caroline Picard

We have not only traversed the region of pure understanding and carefully surveyed every part of it, but we have also measured it, and assigned to everything therein its proper place. But this land is an island, and enclosed by nature herself within unchangeable limits. It is the land of truth (an attractive word), surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner, on his voyage of discovery, a new country, and, while constantly deluding him with vain hopes, engages him in dangerous adventures, from which he never can desist, and which yet he never can bring to termination. – Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

Gundersdorf’s show at the MCA this last summer included abstract drawings of planetary bodies. These works simultaneously point to the limits of human perception while embracing the uncertainty those limits provide. Such a philosophical position is difficult to occupy, for it confounds one’s preferred sense of security. Likely for that reason I was totally smitten with the show. While investigating a conceptual perception, Gundersdorf aligns herself with the history of painting, stepping off from Modernism’s abstract platform while incorporating contemporary tools for research and celebrating the very literal limitations of human understanding.


Months ago I heard a program on the radio about stars and galaxies. In that program a woman called up in order to ask if the images she’d seen of planets and stars were accurate. She wanted to know in order to anticipate what her world would look like when she died (and went to heaven). The ensuing conversation was remarkable as the host tried to answer her question. “Will it look like those pictures when I die, that’s what I want to know,” she said. “What will I see?” Although unruffled, he nevertheless paused. “It could look that way?” he said. “At the same time all of the images you see in books have been manipulated to highlight different data. It wouldn’t be as colorful, although I really don’t know what your eyes would be like and how you would see, so you might actually see a whole host of other colors. Or perhaps you wouldn’t see anything. It might be completely dark.  You might only feel the universe.” I believe the caller hung up unsatisfied.


The Cosmic Microwave Background is another illustration of the literal bounds of human knowledge. With a radio-wave telescope, scientists measure the microwave region of that wavelength. In doing so, it is possible to measure the Big Bang’s residual radiation. Because no one can explain this radiation without using the Big Bang as a model, it has become the preferred explanation of where “we” come from. Even with that theory, however, there is a ‘beyond’ to that microwave background. It is a conceptual beyond, however; we cannot “see/feel/measure”  it. We only posit its existence because the alternative would suggest a kind of Shel Silverstein drop off, where the universe ends as his infamous sidewalk. Just as Kant described the limits of understanding so the human being is incapable of going beyond certain perceptual bounds. Nevertheless there is a deep-seated impulse is to press past and conquer.

Not so with Gundersdorf.

She celebrates those boundaries in her work, using a combination of abstraction and lo-fi production (paper, color pencil) that seem so far removed from traditional celestial explications as to be unrelated. Her images, while based on scientific astral data, deconstruct that high-resolution imagery, breaking it down and simplifying it’s celestial character into blocks of color and thick radiating, parallel lines. Via that transcription, Gundersdorf destabilizes the assumptions of knowledge, pointing to an obvious post-modern subjectivity and pairing it with a limited ability. It is not simply that each individual is the center of his or her own universe (and thus create discrepancies in experience because of perception). It is also that our eyes are not astute enough to see  unequivocally. The customary images of outer space suggest an apprehension of that space, a mapping that conveys an impossible physical/visual experience. Consequently Gundersdorf’s work offers a more accurate depiction of my understanding of the environment outside the earth.


While referencing the language of modernism, she also undermines its self-assurance. As I see it, Modernism was an attempt to simultaneously dispute the previously accepted coherent universe (wherein the creator is a watchmaker and the world a watch, for instance) while celebrating the ability of a single individual to create monuments within an otherwise chaotic world. While Gundersdorf embraces and incorporates the impulse of abstraction, just as she is fully aware of the cannon she participates in, she nevertheless undermines the idea of a apprehension. While she interprets light, that light is artificial or illustrative. Even through the process of a single painting, during which time she no doubt studies a single image, she comes no closer to an objective “truth” of that image. Instead she develops a subjective relationship to her already interpretive source material. The light she works from is conceptual, intended to highlight certain scientific truths. The resulting work has a personal touch, creating a signifier of a faraway place.

In each piece her hand is ever present—this is not a slick photorealist surface, rather it is a surface that questions itself, borrowing naive materials to illustrate the naivete of our assumptions. It admits some deep insecurity, one perhaps endemic to present times, where the footing of an individual and his or her beliefs is unstable, shifting, subjective and flat. Nevertheless the character of her line, the painstaking way in which she colors the entire surface, is endearing to the subject and evidence of care. While it may examine unapprehendable distances and imperceivable phenomena, this work is not about alienation; perhaps it’s most important feature. It demonstrates, by of example, a way to deal with subjectivity, a way to deal with historical precedents and dialogues, without feeling overwhelmed. Because this work is  unapologetic–large scale drawings, with large, unaffected blocks of color– Gundersdorf shows a way to embrace the unknowing, to celebrate forays into intuitive and immeasurable spaces—to consider the space beyond one’s ken as a place for inspiration rather than fear.

Astral systems have always been fascinating places—almost inconceivable landscapes through which the earth sails. Rife with different phsyical properties and laws, outer space is bold and full of myth. It is a place we go to examine philosophical questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? It is also a space of hypothesis and conjecture, for outer space does not speak our language directly. It does not afford concrete answers. That’s why On The Make was so compelling to me, even relieving–because it began to talk about translating that space and gently soothing the out-of-focus-ness of existential answers. The answer, after all, is in divining those answers and putting them to paper. Perhaps those modernists were right about monuments after all?




Top 5 Weekend Picks! (9/3-9/5)

September 2, 2010 · Print This Article

1. Street Anatomy at International Museum of Surgical Science

The most recent installment of Anatomy in the Gallery. This round is a group exhibition curated by local artist Vanessa Ruiz and features artists from around the country, including CAKE (New York), Heather Tompkins (San Francisco), Robyn Roth (Kentucky), Jason Freeny (New York), David Foox (New Zealand), Emilio Garcia (Spain), Noah Scalin (Virginia), and Stephen J. Shanabrook.

International Museum of Surgical Science is located at 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr. Reception Friday from 5-9pm.

2. From the Wash at Antena

The first of a pair of introspective, desert themed shows opening this weekend. This one, featuring the work of Pilsen resident Mark Nelson, explores the desert of Arizona through video and installation.

Antena is located at 1765 S Laflin St. Reception Friday from 6-10pm.

3. 12 x 12: Ben Russell at the MCA

The second desert work opening this weekend, Ben Russell’s Trypps. The show consists of a series of screenings of Russell’s Trypps series, included the featured image above, Trypps #7 (Badlands) which, “charts, through an intimate long-take, a young woman’s LSD trip in the Badlands National Park before descending into a psychedelic, formal abstraction of the expansive desert landscape.” Opening is during First Fridays, so get yourself comped in, or wait till after the meat market to see the show.

Museum of Contemporary Art is located at 220 E. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday from 6-10pm.

4. Bare Squared and Bedtime Stories at OhNo!Doom Gallery

Something on the cutely morbid side to lighten your weekend.  Not exactly critical work, but fun. Half the show (Bare Squared) features the work of bro-sis duo Max and Zoë Bare. The other half (Bedtime Stories) features monsters by Amanda Louise Spayd.

OhNo!Doom Gallery is located at 1800 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday from 6-10pm.

5. Autumn Ramsey at Julius Cæsar

Wrap up your weekend at one of Chicago’s awesome alternative spaces, Julius Cæsar. Another kind of creature feature, the paintings at JC by artist Autumn Ramsey reference art history and mythology.

Julius Cæsar is located at 3144 W Carroll Ave, 2G. Reception Sunday from 4-7pm.