OHAM Excerpt: Joan LaBarbara
Joan LaBarbara with Libby Van Cleve
17 February 1998, New York City
L. SoHo at that time was still incredibly raw. There were places to play and perform, but they were more like storefronts. There were a few galleries that were opening, but it was still a pretty industrial neighborhood. I did a big solo concert at Washington Square Church, in January of '75. I could check that date. It's either '75 or '76; I think it was '75. And I did an experimental performance piece called Hear What I Feel, which explored, in public, one of the experimental situations that I put myself in to try to discover new sounds. I taped my eyes shut, with masking tape and cotton balls, and sat for an hour before the performance in an isolated space separate from the performance space. I had six glass dishes that had been set up on a little table, and had an assistant who could choose what to put in those glass dishes, the idea being that the audience could see what was in the dishes. The only stipulation that I gave was that the substance should not crawl and shouldn't injure me, so that I didn't have any kind of fear aspect that was worked into that. So it wasn't like a Artaud theater experience. [laughter] And then, when the concert began, I was led out into the performance space--still with eyes taped shut--and touched the various substances, and tried to give an immediate vocal response. Not trying to identify what it was, but trying to just react.
L. Because as a seeing person, we get information from our eyes, from our ears, from touch, from smell. And if I eliminated that sense, my assumption was that the other senses--particularly hearing and touch--would be heightened. I also didn't touch anything for that hour. And once I started doing this piece--in repeated performances--I started to keep a journal about what happened during that hour. So that the piece really started when I taped my eyes shut: what happened to the ears, what happened to the mind, what happened to the various senses. You know, your ears start to reach for information at a certain point into this period of time. And certainly, if I had extended the time period, I would assume that the senses might even have been heightened further. But it was very enlightening, that period of time.
V. Were you, at the time, interested in meditation?
L. Somewhat. I had, several years before that, gotten into Transcendental Meditation. I did that. I did yoga. But I wasn't thinking of that, necessarily, as a meditation. I was thinking of it more as an experiment, and I was using the heightened awareness of the performance situation to get that kind of excitement, that energy that goes into performance. So I used both the sensory deprivation and the excitement and energy of performance to generate some of these sounds.
I got lots of wonderful responses to that piece. Laurie Spiegel came up to me afterwards and said two things: She said it was so emotional that it made her cry. And the other thing she said was, "But the synthesizer can already make those sounds. Why are you working so hard to make them?" And I thought, "Well, [laughter] what have we learned here?" We learned a little bit about Laurie and what she hears. But what I learned was that people responded to that piece on several levels. First of all, there's the gut reaction to the poignancy of someone being led out into the performance space and being so vulnerable in that situation. And then being able to use that vulnerability. And what I was trying to explore was: not only did I want to see if I could startle myself into making a new sound, but I also wanted to get to a pre-verbal communication--where the audience was responding to me, to my sounds, on a level that had nothing to do with words, that had to do with pure communication. Just using the voice to make that leap and that jump.
V. Very interesting, given all the interest you'd had in words and in poetry. Instead it's: "Let's just cut to the chase here." [laughter]
L. Cut to the chase, get rid of the words, and see where we can get just with the pure sound and pure emotion.
V. This is a great segue into another topic that I want to ask you about, which is the notion of a feminine aesthetic. Right now you described something very emotional: relationship to the body, having a sense of vulnerability. It's so hard to make generalizations, but I think that these are things that would be considered a feminine viewpoint. Would you consider that a feminine piece?
L. I didn't. I thought it came out of, in a way, a lot of my experience with performance art, with the kinds of things that I was seeing as I would perform in Europe--Joseph Beuys and various happenings. I was coming into contact with the Fluxus musicians, composers, and writers who were dealing with concepts, conceptual art -- and I didn't really think of it in a gender way. I tried not to think of things in a gender-specific way, at that point in time. Although Carol Webber and I did have some conversations that I can recall, about looking [forward] to a time when women were not going to have to be so tough to get where they needed to go. That we were breaking ground for our younger sisters, who would come along and not have to be quite as tough as we felt we had to be.
A later excerpt:
V. We're preparing for a break, but I wanted to ask you more about Hear What I Feel. What was some of the stuff that was put in the bowls? [laughter]
L. As I said, I didn't make the choices of the stuff. The stuff was chosen by whoever I had chosen to be the assistant.
V. Oh, sure. It had to be a complete surprise.
L. It had to be a complete surprise. And so what was always interesting to me was to find out what these people would choose. And one of the most interesting things was sea urchin.
V. Oh, uni? Like the stuff that you eat? Sushi?
L. Yes, the stuff that you eat, right. [laughter]
V. It's almost foul enough to do the wiggling thing though. [laughter]
L. When you stick your fingers in it, it was the kind of thing that you could keep trying to break down, and it would only break down into smaller and smaller component parts of the thing itself. Not like other kinds of substances, which would become more liquid or gelatinous or something. This stayed itself. [laughter] So that was one thing that I remember, very specifically. There were other things like tinfoil, little crackley things, Jell-O.
V. Pudding, yogurt, something like that?
L. Yeah, substances like that. I have a notebook somewhere about all of these things: about my journeys, about what I thought about in the hours ahead of time, and then who the assistant was, what substances they had chosen. I really made a very careful collection.
V. Where are those journals?
L. They're out in Santa Fe, in my stacks and stacks of stuff. [laughter]
V. Someday, somebody might want to find it. So it's always good to get that on tape. So actually deciding what goes in the bowls and what order it goes in, is part of the design?
L. That's part of the piece--very definitely--so that the assistant then had a great deal to do with the shape and nature of the journey, as it were, of the piece.
And later, after our sushi lunch (when no one ordered uni!)
L. Since we ended the other tape with what was in the dishes of Hear What I Feel, I want to talk a little bit about the involvement of the assistants in the piece. Yes, they chose the substances that went into the dishes and, therefore, had some directing element involved with where the piece would go.