Death Knell: Liz Roberts and Henry Ross

HR: I was writing about industrialism as an ideology, this thing that seeks to replace dignified labor with either automation or non-dignified labor in parts of the world where people tend to ignore. The end goal never really became a fully realized post-industrial situation, but instead it kind of came to a standstill—so thinking about this ideology dying and the death knell as the last noise that something makes before it passes on.

LR: I also like that the death knell is the signifier. It let’s everyone else know that this is what happened.

HR: Yes, exactly. I had also been listening to a Bill Laswell record called Death Rattle at the time and the music on that record is bass and either bass saxophone or baritone saxophone. It’s really industrial, really guttural and brutal, which is kind of what I expected the audio of our piece to be initially, even though it ended up being much more ambient. I initially had the idea of putting contact microphones on something, and this idea of a really long, drawn-out decrescendo that occurs when you are destroying the audio components in an object. Watching videos on Youtube of, for instance, Einstürzende Neubauten doing stuff next to a car, I just made the connection especially with your work with cars. Though the idea of the project was rudimentary at this point, I knew I had to talk to you and from there it turned into what it became.

LR: I think the fact that you were confident in my minimal music abilities from having performed together in the second Band In A Hat showcase, that was when I thought “OK, I think we can do this.”

HR: You were willing to do a performance piece with me after we were forced to be in a band together.

LR: Yes, I’ve never been willing to do performance art until now. That said, all of the previous car work that I have done, I’ve always wanted to destroy it afterward. One got impounded and other parts just scatter, but to be able to follow this out and destroy it was great.

HR: For a performance like this to not descend into free motion that doesn’t result in anything, you have to set some sort of formal restriction. For us, facing each other and playing that role, it is a formal restriction in itself—I’m going to be on this side and you’re going to be on that side—but then when you have to watch the other person and what they’re doing the entire time, you become much more conscious of your own motion and relation to them. I think the fact that we had our eyes on each other through the whole piece allowed for that kind of interaction to happen, which is possibly why it looked more choreographed than it actually was. It was just the one guideline to follow for the whole piece.

LR: When you’re doing something with these chance procedures and also with the possibility of injury, you must have some structure. Even though it was a very minimal structure, that was the only one we set for ourselves.

HR: When I go into a situation where I’m doing musical improvisation, my main goal is to subvert expectations. It’s a sort of play with build ups and not delivering them where people expect them because that’s one of the more interesting ways to go about free improvisation. There are moments when I was consciously thinking of that, like in breaking the windshield: you expect that to be this big, dynamic cue in the whole piece, but instead I took my time with it. That was a big consideration: how can you take people’s expectations, like when someone sees a car get destroyed that carries all of these signifiers, and how can we make it not that?

LR: We talked about different types of disassembly: there could be some aggressive, some meditative. There were definitely times in the performance when I was focused on just one small thing. I also think in terms of the choreography, when I’ve worked with cars and car parts before, I think a lot about the body in relation to the auto body and where the parts of the body interface with the car. For instance, to think about the windshield as a viewfinder, but where else do we interface with the vehicle?

HR: There were moments when we discussed handling the interior of the car, and it definitely happened during the performance, when a movement break would happen when we were touching the interior of the car and having this moment of familiarity with the object we’re destroying. I thought about that too when I finished the performance standing in the car, having these punctuating notes of interfacing with the car and its interior in a more traditional way. The car is this intersecting point for a whole glossary of signifiers. The act of taking it apart is almost like removing those banks of meaning from it, taking it away from its original form. The more you abstract the car from its shape and don’t allow it to serve its function wrapped up in the linguistic semiotic character of a car, this process is taking something so deeply symbolic and making it not that anymore or giving it a meaning that’s exclusively indexical and isn’t anything else. It’s this macabre process of excising the different meanings from an object as you take the parts off.

LR: And for this ubiquitous object that everyone has so much meaning to place on different parts of it. We talk about maintaining and maintenance as this act of keeping whole and functional, but what does is mean to reverse that?

HR: I conceived of us, even down to the way we were dressed, as the backing band while the car was the soloist. Sort of the way that a bass player or a drummer can set up for a saxophonist to come in, the way that they telegraph the chord that’s coming up, that’s how we offered up the instruction for the noise that the car would make. How can we be the anonymous black-clad rhythm section backing up the soloist with the purple jacket, or whatever. How can we remove adornment, interest or spotlight on us and put it on the object? The car is the thing making the noise. A car in a normal situation where it’s driven would do the same thing as ours–come apart–but it managed to do it to itself, an agent in its own deconstruction. We were just the rhythm section and the car was soloing.

LR: Someone after the performance had mentioned that you had gone about the performance more musically and that I had more sculpturally. We both brought our own backgrounds and practices.

HR: I thought about it in relation to indeterminism where it’s not exactly improvisation because you’re following instructions but they’re instructions that you create for yourself in the moment. Imagine a piece of music instructs you to write down an eight bar but then the rest of the piece is to play that over and over. It’s composed and it’s not active improvisation but it’s not determined by the composer. It’s left in the hands of the performer. That is how I was going into this: the piece itself was this indeterministic piece of composed music where we’re not improvising but instead responding to feedback, working within the given constraints that are the result of a process.

LR: I was hung up on the visuals, and we both come from our respective backgrounds. It was a good balance.

HR: I think so too. It would’ve been weird to try and do this with another person. Like someone with roots in contemporary composition or jazz, maybe we both would’ve ended up vying for the spotlight. I like working with you because you don’t have these preconceived notions of what performance is. We didn’t have to try to occupy the same niche in the performance, we both got into our spots and let the car do its thing. I can’t imagine giving this to two percussion MFAs.

HR: My little brother David made the clothing. He works at a steel factory and used things he would wear to work, emphasizing certain features of them. A big aspect of this piece was the idea of the performance of labor: labor as performed rather than performing labor in a traditional sense. I liked this idea of taking the uniform of labor and exaggerating parts that are necessary, and especially from my brother’s perspective working in an industry where the uniform is required. It both exaggerates and anonymizes a person. It also shows the intersection between performance and straight up labor. I mean, what we were doing was physically intensive and involved labor but it was only two hours, not even a quarter of a shift.

LR: We trusted David and he got the concepts and ideas we were thinking about in this piece.

HR: He embroidered the tops, it was a really nice touch because these things are built, constructed in a way that is completely utilitarian. He embroidered on the seams of the clothing and it accentuated these features that are there to make the clothing work better. If you want to get into the ideas of labor and the exploitation of people’s labor to generate a profit for someone else, it was taking the evidence of that and making it much more visible to those outside of those normal spheres. People who might have different perspectives on how this stuff ends up working in a context bigger than an individual factory or an individual work setting. I thought that a lot of interesting things came to light in the way that he worked on the clothing. We didn’t give him any instruction.

LR: It was also important that we weren’t stars of a show, the anonymity was really crucial for that.

HR: I think that at every point we knew that we were doing something, even if we didn’t want it to be, subversive. It was going to be read that way by the audience. The masks were ultimately for safety. The events that happened after our performance, though, maybe they have a different meaning now. These ideas especially in a neighborhood that’s heavily gentrifying and in the interest of individuals, the only way to combat that is people and the people being exploited only have power in their numbers. To anonymize yourself in doing something like this also obscured the amount of people engaged in it. While there were only two of us then, you could imagine supplementing more people. It gestures toward a potential of it being a bigger thing.

HR: At the end of the day, the power of the piece is the ambiguity of the documents. Ideally, the car would be present but in a space removed from the audio and have the audio be present in a totally different space. This scenario would create this ambiguous space between the different types of documentation that exist and allow people to reconstruct the event in their own way. It makes it almost participatory in a way that’s not standard and doesn’t require people to be present while the action happened. I think that the audio on its own will be able to do that. It’s in the ambiguity of hearing sounds that are vaguely familiar to us because we’ve all sat in cars and are familiar with the material of cars, but the sounds are created in a way that’s completely different from what we know the material to do.

LR: I think the events after the performance changed the piece so much. It was planned to go one way, in terms of what parts would remain for people to see, but then it changed. I think it opens up a conversation about art and what’s allowed inside the gallery, what’s allowed outside of the gallery, what happens when you move a DIY project made for a different context to an institutional context. Originally, this would have been a project in the MINT parking lot.

HR: At night with floodlights on.

LR: With our friend’s old truck, with the warehouse’s front garage open as a sort of staging area.

HR: We were going to do everything on our own.

LR: One member would run sound, use the collective’s PA…

HR: Have a friend take the gas tank out instead of a professional.

LR: I think we stayed true to the idea and to the project, but it was very different to be programmed by an institution in a well-funded, legitimate space, to be during the day, a different crowd of people.

HR: A different neighborhood. This is my first time coming into any contact with a traditional museum structure, so I had no idea what to expect. In retrospect, the subsequent controversy shouldn’t have surprised me too much, but maybe deep down I knew the whole time. A very informative experience in that respect. We’re like punks, we flew too close to the sun.

LR: It also gets to the root of my own dilemmas. There are lots of different art worlds and we moved this project from a world decidedly outside of the establishment kind of into the belly of the beast. While it was great to have the support, the consequences were there too. The plan was for the remains of the performance to stay in the parking lot as the installation, as a document of what had happened. Then someone complained—in an Instagram comment—that this was not art and that it was offensive.

HR: And for reasons that were personal and not an interest of the social aspects as to why this piece would exist. Their criteria for art was personal and not a part of a wider cultural circumstance for this type of imagery.

LR: Really reactionary and tied to their personal trauma. It made me think of personal trauma, collective trauma, how it’s tied to automobiles. It’s something that I clearly have thought about a lot, that I’ve been through. For this whole thing to have escalated over an Instagram comment kind of reveals the climate we find ourselves in right now. There were some solutions explored, like going in to clean up the glass and pile the debris inside the car, making it a little less unsafe. Then it kind of spiraled out of control.

HR: In this way, it kind of lived up to its DIY origin of things going wrong at the last minute, but not on our end surprisingly.

LR: I was, however, really happy that we got connected with this label Unifactor, who is producing the tapes.

HR: They’re great. Some of these tapes I’ve had for at least five years, Unifactor now represents them, it’s a lot of interesting artists considered noise and industrial music. It was really cool to hear that they were interested in a project like ours.

LR: And to partner with a label in Cleveland. And the idea to do the double cassette to have the full two hours of the performance audio. There’s also room for some sort of edited, remixed version.

HR: There are talks of a remix compilation, nothing set in stone yet.

LR: I’m excited for these other aspects of the piece. The sound, the remixes, continuing to own this work as ours, and have other iterations of it re-performed in a different way.

HR: I would absolutely do it again.

LR: Looking at doing it in a smaller space, inside.

HR: I initially wanted to do it inside the space.

LR: And that was part of the problem, had it been inside, you know, it gets blessed as art.

HR: The partial aura.

LR: In the parking lot of the gallery, it’s in more of a limbo, which I like.

HR: Right, if it would have been in the gallery, it would have leveled expectations to the actual object. If you allow it to remain as it is outside, it would have taken on the expectations of public art, which actually brings it more to our thinking of the car not as an art object but as a partial document of a performance. But, if you put it in a gallery, people would have approached it as a venerated, capital s sculpture and then upon closer examination the expectations would center again closer to the document. The power in doing something unprepared but also explicitly prepared is that it allows it to not be segmented in either of the two classes: art the exists outside that you can touch and the holy sculpture.

LR: And that people would see without going inside the art space, too. The gallery isn’t neutral, it changes something to put it in the white cube. But of course one of the benefits of institutional support was having the time and space to figure out how to deal with that, to think and discuss and write. Having the time, I really wish every project could have the space and time and funding. There needs to be radical change to our funding structures, but I guess everything needs to fall down before it can change.

HR: It seems like it’s happening. So, part two.

Liz Roberts and Henry Ross in conversation, moderated by Marisa Espe. Photographs by Jillian Baughman. Videos by Will Klein