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Woman in A-minor: Ragnar Kjartansson at MOCAD

Brendan Fay

"Ragnar Kjartansson: Woman in E" (15 January - 10 April 2016)
4454 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, Michigan 48201

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Brendan Fay "Woman in A-minor: Ragnar Kjartansson at MOCAD

..we experienced the art world equivalent of such misperceptions: some assumed that we were not the artists, but actors who had been hired by another artist."1 -   Coco Fusco

"The correlative of virtual, sculptural space, then, is the rhythmic, mimetic time of traditional dance and theater."2 - Annette Michelson

“This piece, it’s just this one situation,” states Ragnar Kjartansson: “you can look at it and feel it like sculpture.”3 The comment opens a video interview about his performance installation Woman in E, which was on view at MOCAD from January through April 2016. The basic parameters of the piece included a circular performance space defined by a glittering gold curtain, a rotating gold platform at the center of the space and a single, female performer atop that platform, wearing a shimmering, gold-sequined dress while playing repeated E-minor chords on an electric guitar.

There was a cast of performers who inhabited the role of this “woman” over the run of the installation.4 By chance, though, my first few encounters with the work all occurred while women of color were performing. I frankly wasn’t sure how I felt about a white European man asking me to look at them “like sculpture.” But I wasn’t willing to reject or ignore the performance (or performers) on those grounds, either.

I ultimately arrived at a sense that the work was intelligible as sculpture, but primarily to the extent that it could be experienced as music. It took me a few encounters to sort this out—and then to sort out a strategy for viewing and hearing the performance against the grain. The resulting train of thought, which I’ve sketched out below, eventually led to the charts in figure 1 above.

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The intermittent chords follow me into the darkened space showing Chloe Brown’s Dancing in the Boardroom (15 January - 24 April 2016). When Brown’s soundtrack reaches its peak volume, it takes full command of the screening room, but, as it again fades, the chords return. They’re more or less steady in the background: noticeable and present, but not so loud as to preclude close attention to the film at hand. It’s the second or third time that I’ve been at MOCAD during the run of Woman in E. This time around, hearing the musical component of the performance from other points within the building (within earshot, but not within sight), I start to recognize a specific pattern to my experience of the piece.

The pattern has to do with an occasional chord change. Every now and then, the performer substitutes an A-minor chord for the usual E-minor. This is simple enough. Within a work that will eventually last more than 400 hours of performance time, it’s also understandable enough. But there are two immediate consequences. First, I notice how each instance of that alternate A-minor chord recaptures my attention, momentarily shifting the work out of background presence and into foreground awareness. Second, with each successive return to the A-minor chord, there’s an accompanying feeling of familiarity, of known location—ah, here we are again—that doesn’t pertain to the repeated E-minor chord on its own. The simple chord change superimposes the looping time of pop music onto the linear time of durational performance.

The piece is a woman playing chords on a guitar; even the press release makes the predictable nod to “Detroit’s history as a hotbed of sonic innovation.” What else is the performance about if not pop music? But I’m thinking about time structures rather than visual cues or cultural references, so stick with me.

The verse-and-chorus structure of pop songs provides a first point of reference, but I’m also thinking about the two- to five-minute chunk of time measured out by most examples of the genre. By analogy: imagine that you start playing a single song on repeat and then get involved in some activity; you eventually notice the looping track only when you hear it end and begin again, along with the loose sense that another few minutes have slipped by. But what’s interesting, and slippery, about the version of this experience that occurs in Kjartansson’s performance is that different intervals of time seem to collapse into a general sense of something coming around again. Put differently, the one obvious ‘musical’ change has the potential to wipe out all of the smaller variations in when, and how, and how many times the performer has sounded the E-minor chord in the interim. It threatens to override any measured sense of elapsed time. When the next A-minor chord focuses my attention, I won’t know exactly how much time has passed since the previous one—but it will feel like “a little while,” somewhere between the length of a verse and the length of a track, and I’ll know where I am at that moment: back at the beginning of another loop.

These departures from strict repetition make it easier to listen to the piece, turning hours of continuous playing into something you can hear like a song. The performers in Woman in E have a continuous series of choices to make and actions to carry out (over the course of three-hour shifts, I eventually learn)—but I get to feel like I’ve heard everything once I’ve heard enough to perceive an apparent loop. Another way to put it, then: the chord variations preclude any simple equation between performer time and spectator time.

This starts to put Kjartansson’s piece in sharper relief, framing it against some crucial issues in the historical emergence of sound and performance practices in contemporary art. The gap between a performer’s experience of dance and a spectator’s, for example, is a central concern in Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s extraordinary discussion of “performance visibility and performance time” as problems in the work of Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Dance Theater during the early 1960s.5 Then there are all the modulated or intensified experiences of time arising across sound-based art of the 1960s, differing from one another in specific ways, but all differing from Kjartansson’s looping time as well. On the side of pure repetition, there’s La Monte Young’s 1960 composition Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) to H.F., alternately known as X for Henry Flynt, which is generally understood as an instruction to repeat a single, loud sound an arbitrary number of times at rapid intervals in regular succession. On the side of pure duration, there’s Young’s Composition 1960 #7, which prescribes two specific notes “to be held for a long time,” using indefinite extension to bracket time in favor of the spatial, architectural and physiological dimensions of sound.6 Somewhere between the two, you might locate the layered, recursive repetition of Steve Reich’s phasing patterns and delays, which Dan Graham once described as functioning in relation to “the brain time of the spectator.”7

Their differences aside, all of these approaches to sound fed into the broad shifts of 1960s: the development of instruction-based performance, “tasklike dance,” and Minimalism; the dissolution of the “rhythmic” or “mimetic” time of music and theater into “operational” or real time; the dissolution of the “virtual space” of sculpture into real space.8 And in contrast to these anti-sculptural engagements with time in the 1960s, “like sculpture” actually seems about right for the looping temporal structure of Kjartansson’s chords. For me, it’s not sight but sound—and not the repetition of a single sound but the variation among sounds—that makes Woman in E sculptural.

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Somewhere in the process connecting these dots, I settled on the idea of transcribing or charting a selection of specific performances by individual performers. My basic impulse was to find a way of seeing and hearing the work not as sculpture or as music but as durational performance. To chart the work as a continuous series of decisions; to hear each chord or note as a discrete event; to see if I could align my spectator’s time with the performer’s time—those were the basic goals. I wanted to register the conflicting kinds of time that seem to collide in the piece: the mechanical time of the rotating platform; the musical or cyclical time of the chord changes and other recurring variations within individual performances; the ‘task time’ of the performance decisions that generate those variations.

So, I undertook a kind of listening exercise, governed by a simple set of rules: stand when the performer stands, sit when the performer sits; record the clock time whenever a chord change takes place, but avoid the clock otherwise; try to capture an equivalent amount of time for each performer. (The first performer I recorded finished her shift 80 minutes after my arrival, which established the window of time for the remaining attempts.) The advance preparation became an interesting component of my experience of the work, since I found myself thinking about it from a distance—trying to decide what kinds of information I should attempt to record, and imaging what kinds of possible variations I might encounter based on the actual variations I’d witnessed. I toyed with the idea of creating a kind of pre-printed scoresheet, with boxes that could be checked to indicate the qualities of chords and notes, but ultimately settled on a blank lined page and shorthand annotations invented on the fly.

The charts in figure 1 attempt to visualize what I experienced according to the priorities outlined above: they present performer actions—notes and chords played—as the basic “unit” of the experience, with platform position, sonic content and clock time registered within that framework.9

But the joke was on me, of course. Returning to the performance prepared to chart these loops and cycles, I had my first encounter with one particular performer who, as I later learned at the performer talk, had committed herself to playing the single E-minor chord without variation (“to make it perfect every time,” she says, although I did register a number of subtle variations she introduced over an 80-minute span). At some point during her shift, I had to start breaking my own rules and check the time—I could tell that at least an hour had passed, and, since I was trying to record comparable periods of time for each performer, I needed to know when to end. And even after I’d finished the chart and put away my stuff, I was hesitant to leave the space. I’d been in Kjartansson’s glittering circle for three hours already, but this performer still had half of her shift yet to go. What was I giving up by leaving? How would I feel if a chord change suddenly took place just as I was exiting? What would I miss as I was driving home? It was a brief moment of dilated and expanded time all its own. Maybe the 1960s live on.


1 Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” The Drama Review (TDR), Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring 1994): p. 155.

2 Annette Michelson, “Robert Morris—An Aesthetics of Transgression (1969),” in Robert Morris (October Files), ed. Julia-Bryan Wilson (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2013): p. 35.

3 “Ragnar Kjartansson Interview: Woman in E” Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, published 8 March 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Z27E2IVxlI

4 The details of their casting and scheduling turn out to be pretty interesting. The performers are all musicians, and it sounds like MOCAD’s staff was primarily responsible for their selection, as they were for much of the realization of this piece.

5 See Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Judson Dance Theater in Hindsight,” in Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008): pp. 19-74.

6 Douglas Kahn, “The Latest: Fluxus and Music,” in In the Spirit of Fluxus, ed. Janet Jenkins (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993): pp. 107-108.

7 Dan Graham and Eric Bruyn, “Sound is Material,” Grey Room 17 (Fall 2004): pp. 111-112.

8 In addition to Michelson’s foundational text on Morris (note 2, above), see Branden Joseph, “The Tower and the Line: Toward a Genealogy of Minimalism,” Grey Room 27 (Spring 2007): pp. 58-81.

9 Figure 1 shows the first forty-eight chords or notes I heard played by each performer. My transcriptions of these eighty-minute segments of the piece ranged from four hundred to six hundred lines, depending on the performer, so each column of the chart presents approximately six to ten minutes of performance time.

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This text is by Brendan Fay in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

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