Leslie Thornton – Ground (2020) (excerpt), 13 min, Color and Sound, HD-Video. Courtesy the artist Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
The following interview between Leslie Thornton and Milan Ther was published on April 17th, 2020 on the Kunstverein’s website. It is accompanied by films made available on a weekly basis from Thornton’s exhibition GROUND at the Kunstverein Nürnberg.
“Ground” (2020) was comissioned by the Kunstverein Nürnberg – Albrecht Dürer Gesellschaft e.V. with Arts at CERN with generous support of U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. The production of the film was supported by the Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneva, the Biennale d’Image en Mouvmement 2018 and the Caltech-Huntigton Program in Visual Culture. The exhibition at Kunstverein Nürnberg was made possible by the Zumikon Kulturstiftung.
Thornton’s early work “X-TRACTS” is not featured in the exhibition but appears in the conversation below and will therefore be available online. Please see below for excerpts of all films in the screnning program.
17.04.–23.04. Ground (2020)
24.04.–30.04. Cut From Liquid to Snake (2018)
01.05.–07.05. Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding (1983-2016)
08.05.–14.05. The Last Time I Saw Ron (1994) / Strange Space (1993)
15.05.–21.05. Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981)
22.05.–28.05. X-TRACTS (1975)
MT: We opened your exhibition GROUND at the Kunstverein in late February, about a month and a half ago. At the time of this conversation the world is in a state of crisis and we are discussing your exhibition and in particular your newest work “Ground” (2020), which contains a type of anxiety about the world at large. Throughout four decades of work in the exhibition there has been a persistent thread throughout, an interest in science, language and the formation of knowledge. “Ground” was largely shot at CERN, the mechanical world of the European Organization for Nuclear Research. How did you end up there?
LT: There are stories that are too big to believe. Like when you learn that your father, a young technician in the Army during WWII, signed the atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. People used to sign bombs, and he was told to erase all of those signatures from the atomic bomb right before it was loaded onto the Enola Gay. He did this with a soldering iron, and then he put his own name, and his mother’s and father’s names, all of whom were involved with the Manhattan Project in different ways. My grandmother’s involvement was as someone who worried about the silence of her husband and son.
I would say I first went to CERN because of an anecdote about a physicist, Val Fitch, an American nuclear physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1980, (along with his co-researcher James Cronin.) Using a linear particle accelerator they proved, in 1964, that certain subatomic reactions do not adhere to fundamental symmetry principles, thus upsetting a fundament of physics, that natural laws are governed by symmetry. This is what the scientist in “Ground” is talking about. This is why we sought him out. We wanted to meet someone at CERN who was willing to talk about Fitch’s work, not so much because I was interested in or understood the science, particularly, but because of a story Fitch tells about how he came to be a physicist.
My father, who was Norwegian, was an avid skier, and when he was working in Los Alamos during WWII as an engineer he was in a ski club that included some of the renowned physicists. Val Fitch, a young chemist, arrived at Los Alamos at the same time. As Fitch relates it, he grew keen to meet the European physicists and one way this could happen, since they tended to keep to themselves, was to go skiing on the mountain slopes near the Los Alamos facility. In his own narrative, learning to ski from his Norwegian friend helped open the door to his future life in physics.
Val Fitch, quoting Lewis Thomas —whose essays on science could just as well speak of art —has described his vocation as follows: “You measure the quality of the work by the intensity of the astonishment.”
MT: So it was also the personal genesis, their interests and motivations, the rationales behind becoming and later being a scientist that interested you?
Yes, to some extent, but what happens in “Ground” is going beyond any personal romantic vision into a much bigger and suggestive space that I am currently engaging, and that I can’t yet articulate in language.
What I found affecting in the scientist depicted in “Ground” is that he moves fluidly between outlining the scientific research he has conducted, talking about how hard it is to pull off these kinds of esoteric, no-guarantees projects, and that he also speaks about moments of inspiration, often in dark moments… in the middle of the night. And he is so proud of the fact that people from all over the world work together in science. There is joy in his voice, talking about the collaborative nature of the work at CERN, which is a tremendous break for us all from what we usually hear about what transpires between countries and in politics, that is conflict, repression and ignorance and greed. Truth, truth is not stable, and that is profoundly the case in science. And that is part of what draws me to it, and to the people I have met this year – so passionate and concrete, and honest, and not afraid to try, experiment, and to be wrong. And then, to go on.
“Ground” seems to teeter on an apocalyptic precipice. When it was first presented in public at Kunstverein Nürnberg in late February we were heading into the COVID-19 cataclysm and it absorbed this specific reference.
MT: Your film “Peggy and Fred in Hell” (1983-2016) features two children, initially in a bunker-like, post-apocalyptic space. The audience will not know where they are, or why they are there. Their link to the “outside” world is through mimicking television. Somehow the world of Peggy and Fred seems connected to the universe of CERN…
LT: I do think of “Ground” as related to “Peggy and Fred”. In part this is a structural relationship because I’m entering upon another cycle of works that also feels like it will be cumulative over time. I have the same feeling that I had when I began “Peggy and Fred” of a very open and broad terrain to explore.
I’m going to stick my neck out now and tell you the backstory I had in mind when shooting and finally completing “Peggy and Fred in Hell”. It’s not particularly evident in the film itself, and any aficionado of science fiction would see it as well-trodden territory. “Peggy and Fred” can’t be unraveled into a linear speculative fantasy. And it is not fiction; it’s something else, though it does have a somewhat narrative engine operating over the whole of it. I make a distinction between fiction and narrative here. For me, fiction relates more to constructing a story, and narrative relates more to rhetoric, to form, to the devices used to configure or propel a story.
“Peggy and Fred in Hell” ends beyond apocalypse, if what we care about is all forms of carbon-based life. In the end—and this is why I was able to finally say that the work was complete— the machines (that we have made) fail, close, shut down. People, represented by the children, died long before that. It is in the final passage, “The Fold”, that the suggestion for what caused the penultimate desolation occurs; it’s in the last line: “Oh, the storm!” It occurs when the earth is drained of all resources. Maybe this happens thousands of years in the future. Machines can be smart, but even they have their limits. By eating up the last resources to keep running they eat themselves up. Eat themselves alive.
“Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding”, ends on a bittersweet note. The AI voice that started to enter the scenario about two-thirds of the way through the film is benign, even comforting, but not in a familiar, domestic, Alexa™ sort of way. It’s something more like the opposite of HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It is intelligent enough to have developed an appreciation of the human. It has studied human emotion for a long, long time, and because the humans have died off, this AI hasn’t been monetized into producing predictive algorithms. Rather it keeps learning, by watching television (and subsequent media), the peculiar place the thing called ‘human’ can be observed and data processed.
It feels like these two works speak to each other, like they come from a contiguous space, as if “Ground” is a grownup and present-day landscape of both hope and yet ominous apocalyptic threads; as if “Peggy and Fred” is now a substrate, where there is still light….and it is bound to the earth, and we can touch it. We can imagine the world of those young people, (at least in the first half of the film.) We can relate to them as subjects.
Leslie Thornton – Peggy and Fred in Hell Folding (1983-2016) (excerpt), 95 min B&W, Sound, 16 mm Film transferred onto Digital-Video. Courtesy the artist, Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
MT: Being more than 30 years in the making, how clear was “Peggy and Fred”’s ending to you when beginning the project in 1983? How did the different episodes of the project influence the overall structure of the film, how did you approach each episode?
LT: When I met the real children, what was extraordinary about them was that they were gifted, natural mimics. They saw my equipment as I was moving into the apartment downstairs from them, and they wanted to record their voices right away. So, we just sat down on the front steps and they began performing, and they were incredible. The young boy liked to mimic Jack Nicholson; they could both repeat long sequences from favorite films, but they also just told stories. Kind of like summer camp and bible-school stories, the sort one might hear, and tell, while sitting around the campfire. Their real names are Donald and Janis. I wasn’t used to being around children and I was very taken by the mannerisms of their speech. I loved how they related to language. It was so vivid, observing how they were becoming the social beings; in their exposure to media and social exchange, you could just feel them becoming the subjects they were going to become. I didn’t have children, so it was, perhaps, especially salient, present. When I began filming, this is what I looked for. I didn’t want to interfere with their feelings of autonomy and space, because I needed to hear them just being themselves, in an environment that allowed for their own comfort. It needed to stay in a play-like context. It felt like ‘serious’ play when we agreed to film that first day, and it was fun for all of us..
In the first episode, which focuses very strongly on the voice and speaking, I asked them both to sing a song. Fred starts singing, and doesn’t stop, and he starts singing again and again. The longest take one can make when shooting on 16mm film is 11 minutes, so every second counts, but I couldn’t stop filming because he didn’t stop singing! What was so enchanting is that he’s six years old here. He doesn’t know all the words or even the meaning of what he’s singing, when he’s singing about lovers, for instance. He gets the words wrong. They are deformed, nonsensical, but they hold place, a bridge to keep singing.
When babies are born their crying is symmetrical. When it is recorded it sounds exactly the same whether running backwards or forwards. At about a month you can hear a change in direction; vocalization becoming linear, giving it a shape. What is apparent in Fred’s singing is a latent trace of this linguistic dissymmetry. Peggy is older and she has a different self-awareness in her singing.
As the series progressed, I began to introduce a more eccentric, less linear form of cutting. This first occurs in the episode entitled “[Dung Smoke Enters the Palace]”. The last linear passage occurs at the beginning of the episode “Paradise Crushed”, in the form of an amalgamation of mythological origin stories drawn from diverse cultures, from the Bible to early Chinese, Indo-European, Semitic, and Native American tales. All of these accounts contain floods and light. This passage occurs towards the middle of the work and it is, ironically, the most linear and coherent narrative moment. After this, the rational configuration collapses. There is more fragmentation, discontinuity and enigma; there is a growing sense of another presence, a different mentality; the children begin to dissolve into an incoherence. It’s the first time the logic of the work completely changes in that way, for the duration. There is no return to a stable ground. “Paradise Crushed” was made in the aftermath of 9/11; around this point my own sense of “Peggy and Fred in Hell” as science-fictional dropped away. It became more like a disturbed reflection of the present.
Leslie Thornton – Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981) (excerpt), 11 min, Color, Sound, 16 mm film transferred onto Digital-Video. Courtesy the artist Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
MT: In “Jennifer, Where Are You?” you also worked with a child – younger than Fred or Peggy. What kind of relationship does “Jennifer” have to the camera and the voice from offstage?
LT: Jennifer, who we assume to be the child we are seeing, is voiceless. Her power lies in the fact that she is hidden. She is playing, even being naughty. And she is out of sight. As the film progresses other forces enter, at times quite literally. We see that she is handed matches. Again and again. It is not her space anymore. She grows depleted as the larger world seems to play out around her. Even though we hear a man’s voice calling for her again and again, the same voice, she is, at first, fine, and she has her own imaginary space, and she maintains it, and then she does not. I saw this film as being about coming of age, and becoming conscious of the outside world. That was the narrative for me. Her moment of consciousness comes in the last few seconds, when she stares back — hard — at the flame. She gets it. She is gaining another level of awareness, an awareness that includes surviving. To be somewhat colloquial about it, she goes through her teens! It’s tough. And she will probably survive. That’s the allegory of the film, for me at least. Of course, it’s doing a lot of other things as well, formally, structurally.
Leslie Thornton – X-TRACTS (1975) (excerpt), 8:30 min, B&W, Sound, 16 mm film transferred onto Digital-Video. Courtesy the artist Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
MT: How do you think language relates to the process of becoming a subject?
LT: What first occurs to me in trying to respond to this question is a memory of my own nascent, idiosyncratic awareness of language as a child. And years later, this perception became so central to the core of my work. I seem to have a way of witnessing speech—best to say it this way— that is pretty primal, and it is absolutely central in my work. It is there in “X-TRACTS”, in “Jennifer”, in almost everything else except the Binocular Series. And if ever speech became absolutely, almost frighteningly, dominant, it is in “Ground”. We cannot own that speech. The speaker can. We can’t. We can’t consume or possess it. We can barely understand him, except for his anecdotal comments. It’s a real display of modes of address. And all of it is intensified by what is removed or taken away, which is the sense of a physical context. So isn’t that a bit like this digital world that thrives from us every minute.
But this figure is not a thief. He seems quite wonderful to me, in fact, but we can’t fully apprehend him, and that becomes part of the conscious experience of the work. That it is not our space, that we may feel compelled, disturbed and/or comforted by his words and his demeanor of speaking, and that we are in a place of absolute otherness. What is that place? Well, for one thing, it is trying to imagine the unimaginable— the origin of the universe, a pandemic, an apocalypse, our survival, a nice guy, passion. Cooperation. Not isolation. Not competition. It is a terribly human space, in a way that we can feel but not occupy. It does not yield to the viewer. For me it creates both a feeling of longing and fear. I thought I was making a film about an apocalypse at first, and it became a film about trying. Not erasing. And all of the hope is in the voice. Nowhere else.
MT: Where does the footage in your films come from?
LT: I shoot most of the material myself. A lot of people think I use found footage, but I am always producing my own “archive,”and it is composed of material I film myself. I create a pool of material and sometimes it’s very focused, like in “Peggy and Fred in Hell”. There are no accidents in the filming. There is a certain kind of behaviour that I look for and I would keep the camera running for that. Because it’s expensive to shoot on film, and almost all of “Peggy and Fred” was shot on 16mm film, one has to be very discerning, and even careful, while filming, and this affects the form. I do also work in a really deliberate way with appropriated material. In “Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue”, there are a number of appropriated sounds and images; the opening shot of vocal chords, for example, was filmed at Bell Labs in 1926. I found it in an archive and had it copied. Ironically, it’s silent. The opening vocalization is of two women’s voices, one from Händel’s opera Rinaldo, and, mixed over that, a song by Yma Sumac, who was an American singer with a range of seven octaves. In the next scene a voice-over asks what the preferred pitch is for men’s and women’s voices. I pitch-shifted the male voice down, making it deeper, lower, exaggerated, and more ominous. The female voice was already squeaky and high, so I left it as it was.
Leslie Thornton – Cut from Liquid to Snake (2018) (excerpt), 27 min, Color and Sound, HD-Video. Courtesy the artist, Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
MT: Voices seem to have the ability to rupture linear time in your work. While the image moves forwards, voices can appear fractured and disconnected, sometimes non-diegetically, but also in relation to the physical act of speaking, like in “Cut From Liquid to Snake” (2018)…
LT: In “Cut From Liquid to Snake” there is a passage in the soundtrack that was first recorded on the morning that Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States was announced. It’s from a phone conversation with a friend who usually has a broad historical take on things, and often I would call him at stressful times. All that I’ve done to that material is to leave his side of the conversation out. Chronologically ordered, it is one side of a phone call. I edited out a few lines, mainly the word ‘Trump.’ In retrospect I would say there was even a prescience about wiping out that word. I didn’t want to pronounce that name; I didn’t want to give it any more power. I was marking a crisis, and to an American audience the reference was clear, at least at the time. What I felt and wanted to establish was that this was a crisis of an unprecedented, terrifying and unpredictable, nature. In this soundtrack you hear me talking about how we were watching television in the middle of the night. And then something happened, and it felt like a conspiracy, because the television feed cut out exactly at the moment that the election results were announced, at 3:25am. Did that just happen in my house, my street, in New York City, or was it everywhere? It was so precise; was it intentional? What had happened? “Cut From Liquid to Snake” registers the anxiety of an isolated voice.
In the history of my work this project was a major turning point. There is no escape in “Cut From Liquid to Snake” from a kind of horror, or breakdown. If there is a moment of hope, it is in the conversation about thought. I felt a great sense of responsibility in making this work. As someone who has been working in a way that you can’t pin down too tightly, this was a more direct sounding of an alarm. “Liquid Snake” constructs an environment of trepidation and apprehension. It also addresses an historic moment of great horror—the deployment of the atomic bombs.
When a media work is made for looping in an installation context something interesting can happen as one watches through more than a single cycle. In the case of “Cut From Liquid to Snake” a shift that occurs, such that the historical material seems to get drawn into our present. The woman speaking about secrecy is my aunt, who is reminiscing about my father and grandfather, WWII, and the atomic bomb. Her memory is resonant with current nuclear concerns and worries.
“Liquid Snake” leads directly into “Ground.
“Ground” looks like an abyss, but the inflection of the primary voice, the dimension brought forward in this more or less unedited, linear, commentary, is so far-ranging, and such a detailed representation of the work that this scientist and his research group have been doing, that it almost feels like ideas coming to you in the middle of the night, ideas that rouse you but that you can barely decipher. The voice can’t be located in a natural body — his figure is rendered as waveforms, a wireframe schematic, a diagram that loosely follows the form of a real body. However, as you hear his voice, there is some solace in that presence. If “Cut From Liquid to Snake” addresses only a darkness, an end of days, in “Ground” you may feel hope; there are people who are trying to figure things out. You think ‘thank goodness someone is trying.’ And without meaning to, this directly attaches to the current circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, to carry that identification along, we do not see these people; they seldom appear in the media frontline, but we know they are there.
When I made “Ground” I was worried. I didn’t—still don’t—want this to be a negative image, and I am not sure whether or not it is.
Leslie Thornton – Strange Space (1992), 4 min, Color, Sound, Digital-Video. Courtesy Courtesy the artist Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
MT: You utilize abstraction, but also grids to organize visual elements, like “Strange Space” (1993) and “Last Time I Saw Ron” (1994). The main scientist in Ground is translated into some form of visualized radiation, wavelength, or frequency. It is as if the grid has come alive and has broken up the spatial regression…
LT: When I began working as an artist, I was painting, and I was organizing paint into grid-like structures. I played back and forth between a kind of measured form— a grid or a rectangle within a rectangle, and the fluidity and gestural materiality of the medium. Within the grids there were dashes of color, dripping paint, textures from the brush— in excess of the pattern holding the whole together. I was working between an analytical sensibility and a joyous and excessive exploration, using the same material. Coming from that orientation, making a film like “X-TRACTS” (my first film, made with Desmond Horsfield, in 1976), was perfectly consistent, and made perfect sense: the precise structure of images, shots, and sequences was like a net, catching the unruliness, the patterns and excesses of life.
In later works the relations between structure, or framework, and living/being becomes even more complicated and subtle. Bringing in the gridlines in “Strange Space” is, on one level, an instruction on how to look, a type of reference to a scientific eye. In “Strange Space” the grid is laid over documentary footage of the moon, NASA documentary footage and outtakes. In superimposing the grid over the NASA footage, you are being asked to be more cognizant of what you are seeing. There is an inference of the analytical eye, of the objective medical gaze. This is the strange space.
Leslie Thornton – The Last Time I Saw Ron (1994), 12 min, Color and B&W, 16 mm film transferred onto Digital-Video. Courtesy the artist, Rodeo, London / Piraeus and Kunstverein Nürnberg.
MT: In this selection of films, there are different ways in which music has been deployed. In “Jennifer, Where Are You?”, the music is almost painful and foreign to the image, a force upon the character, while in “The Last Time I Saw Ron” the music by Richard Strauss is genuinely beautiful and very close to him. In “Ground” I get the feeling that the music is very digital – it is like listening to the metaphoric sound of data.
LT: In “Jennifer”, I am using it as ‘movie music.’ The use of music is ‘upping the ante’ of affect. However, I am not making a narrative film and that is significant. I may use music or sound as a manipulation, like in a conventional narrative film, where it is an additional layer, outside of speech and plot. Where it underscores an emotional register. In my detournement of movie music, what I want, on some level, is for you to stick around; I use some of the tropes of conventional cinema to intensify engagement. It is an instance of my thievery from the norms of dominant forms of cinematic storytelling. I also play with continuity in editing. In “The Last Time I Saw Ron”, it’s music as music. It’s with him, with Ron. In “Ground”, the music is meant to drive a visceral overload. What the feminine voice is referencing, while that frenetic music plays, is absolutely phenomenal: it is the locus of data processing at CERN. It feels like things are getting faster and faster, to the brink of failure, yet she is speaking in real time. The only thing that speeds up and grows in density is the music under her voice. It makes our hearts beat faster. It’s a metaphoric, rhetorical, use of sound design to intensify the mass and velocity of information that’s being processed.
MT: So, there are ways in which the music establishes different proximities to the material. I think there is also another formal decision that appears in your work, the inverted use of black and white film.
LT: It denaturalizes the image, so that focus shifts to another register. It’s a few steps before turning an image into waves, noise. These are strategies, just like using my own persona on occasion. I don’t make works about ‘me’: this is only a ‘way in.’ It’s a deliberate manipulation, as is the use of ‘movie music.’ It’s in quotation. It’s also not hidden; I am interested in performance, the figure is a construction. I don’t work with actors— when a version of “Leslie Thornton” appears, there is an immediacy and it is expedient in establishing a site of vulnerability and perspective. In “X-TRACTS” there is a line, “of necessity I become an instrument.” I use myself as an instrument. It is not about the drama of my personal history. I don’t like that. There is no romance in this.