If you are attending an event in Baltimore that includes improvised electronic music, experimental theater, or multimedia installation, the chances are good that you will cross paths with sound artist and poet Bonnie Jones. She is arguably one of the most active and engaged members of the Baltimore art community, and rightly so—she gets things done, and has been doing just that for the past 20 years. Whether she is curating shows at The Red Room, helping organize the annual High Zero Festival, performing a set of her own improvised, noise-based music at the H&H Building, or teaching young girls to build contact mics from scratch through her organization Techne, she is actively bringing art to life, and at the same time feeding her own creative practice. Jones considers creation, performance, curation, and community service all as crucial facets of her artistic persona.
Jones’s music, which fuses electronic noise and text, emerges in large part from the sounds of her childhood, growing up on a dairy farm in New Jersey. She explains, “I grew up in a rural, very quiet, sound space that was punctuated by atypical sounds, which is to say machinery. Like a lot of machinery. The sounds that I remember as a kid were the buzzing of the low flying crop-dusting helicopters that came through. Airplanes overhead. Lawnmowers—big ones, not suburban ones, but huge tractor-like mowers. All kinds of other mechanical sorts of sounds…and the sounds of animals mixed with that.”
Those sounds made an impression, but Jones’s first artistic interest was in creative writing. She studied English Literature and poetry in college, and upon moving to Baltimore after graduation, she became immersed in Baltimore’s experimental poetry community. Her interest in the performance aspect of poetry led naturally to improvised music-making, and soon she was experimenting with combinations of language and sound in live performance contexts.
“When you are writing, or when you have a piece of text, you can talk about the past. And you can take a person to the past in language. It’s not quite as easy to do that musically. It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”
It was while she was living and studying in South Korea on a Fulbright grant that Jones discovered the sonic materials that fit her artistic voice; electronic music pedals that could bend and twist sounds into nearly any form possible. She says, “When I went to Korea, and I was first introduced to these electronic music pedals, the moment that the sound came out of those, I was immediately like: This is the sound. These are the instruments. This is the sound space that I’ve been interested in intuitively but hadn’t really found the instrument for… These are the sounds that nobody wants.”
As it turns out, the sounds are indeed wanted, as she has increasingly been receiving grants and commissions to create new work. Her recent installation, 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes, funded in part by a Rubys Artist Project Grant from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, incorporates text, sound, and objects to create, “a layered, intricate, installation work about bodies in migration, the consequences of borders and boundaries, and the imaginative potential of in-between spaces.” This work marks the beginning of an artistic shift for Jones, from improvised performance to the more fixed, less ephemeral experiences that installation work can provide. She says that her focus will still be on sound but will emphasize different ways to experience the work in real-time, such as moving sound through space, or the effect that objects have on the transmission of sound.
While Jones’ work takes many forms, the thread through it all hinges on creating visceral experiences that can lead to an increased understanding of the materials and subjects at hand. In this interview, she discusses the benefits and challenges of combining sound and text in improvisatory settings, her personal development as an artist, and about elevating the art scene in one’s community through participation and service.
Bonnie Jones in conversation with Alexandra Gardner
November 22, 2019-3:00 pm, Baltimore, MD
Video presentations and photography by Alexandra Gardner
(Feature photo by Branford Bailey)
Transcription by Julia Lu
Alexandra Gardner: You began your artistic life focused on poetry and literature, and later turned to music. Can you talk about how that happened, and what led you towards combining sound and text?
Bonnie Jones: When I was growing up it was a very musical family. My mom was really into Appalachian instruments—she played dulcimer, fiddle, banjo, and hammered dulcimer. We went to a lot of musical festivals. I spent a lot of time sleeping in a camper, falling asleep to old-time or Appalachian music.
And I started instrument lessons… I think it was in third grade maybe, when you start in the band. And so I was playing flute around [the time I was in] middle school, and then I also learned dulcimer when I was even younger, like nine or eight or something, because my mom’s friend had given us dulcimers for Christmas. But yeah, I was doing some music. It wasn’t super rigorous. Also around that time, I was pretty much into writing. And I was a big reader—I was always reading when I was a kid. So that led to me getting into writing. I had kind of an aptitude for it when I was young. I was writing in my middle school, and then in high school I was writing in my journal, and writing poetry, like fraught high school poetry.
I think my earliest aspirations when I look back at my journals is that I wanted to be a writer. I knew that I wanted to study literature and English when I got to college. Even though I had played music all the way through, probably midway through high school; I was in the high school band for a few years before I dropped out. Partially because for some reason, in my high school, if you played an instrument that was both a marching band instrument and an orchestra instrument, you were required to be in the marching band in order to be in the orchestra. And I was like no. I just hated marching band. I didn’t want to play “Louie Louie.” I didn’t want to wear three hundred pounds of marching band uniform. I did want to play Bach, and I did want to be in the orchestra, but I didn’t get to do that.
Anyway, I get to college and I am studying English lit, and poetry, and fiction, and I’m taking creative writing classes. That’s where I really sort of became much more invested and much more interested in writing. I had gotten really into experimental poetry towards the end of my undergrad experience. Then after I sort of met my community of artists in undergrad, I did also end up playing music again. It was more of a kind of improv fashion in this very large ensemble, like a large, indie rock, jazz band. I don’t know how to describe it.
We called ourselves Anomie like the dark concept of cultural ennui. Anomie. So I ended up playing music but didn’t really study it in school. When I got out of school and came to Baltimore, I was very involved in the experimental poetry community. The poetry community in Baltimore’s really awesome, and it’s really vibrant, and there’s a really long history of it. I was in that community for about a year or so, focusing on writing. Then because Baltimore’s music community is also awesome and very vibrant, I had started making friends with people who were involved with the free improv, noise music, experimental scene. Actually, I started collaborating musically with a couple of the musicians I met who at the time were organizing High Zero Festival, which is the annual improvised music festival in Baltimore.
They were like, “Come in, play this instrument, and join this band, and it’ll be great.” So that was the first moment when I was really moving into improvised music and music-making. It was getting here 20 years ago and having people just ask me to play music with them or improvise with them. I still kept the writing portion of my practice, and it’s still a big part of my practice. I just ended up doing both for a really long time. I would say in recent years, the writing is not as prominent. I’m not producing as much poetry and writing anymore, but then I’ve moved also into these other spaces musically.
AG: So it was the performative aspect of the experimental poetry and the music that got you excited?
BJ: Yeah, I think so.
AG: Often writers don’t want to put themselves out there that way, but so much of your work has hinged on performance.
BJ: That’s true. I can clarify that. Now that I think of it, that’s exactly when my writing practice changed. I was getting into experimental poetry, and into poetry and writing in a performance context. My writing practice shifted to be more focused on performance because I was more interested in that. Writing off the page or something. I aligned a little bit more with the musical performance part of my life that I was getting into.
AG: You seem to consider yourself a text-sound artist in the way you talk about your work.
AG: Can you describe how those two worlds meld for you? For example, you’re not writing an opera. You don’t have a libretto, and you’re not setting text to music, so how do words figure into your art?
BJ: Most of the work that incorporates language incorporates poetic language. And usually, that’s poetry that I’ve written myself. And maybe as I move forward into these next bodies of work, I’m starting to imagine that the language will probably not be mine. I’m starting to work on a project that has some interviews and some other kinds of material, so I think the language will become transcripts or will somehow come from other sources and move a little bit away from poetry.
I think the thing that I’ve always been interested in exploring about language is that it gives another dimension that music can’t offer. That’s the obvious dimension of meaning, symbolic meaning, but there’s also an interesting historical dimension that language can offer. When you are writing, or when you have a piece of text, you can talk about the past. And you can take a person to the past in language. It’s not quite as easy to do that musically. It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.
So I was always interested in doing performances that would utilize the thing that sound can do that writing can’t quite do, which is an embodiment or a physical presence and a present tense spatial awareness. Because you have to have this remove in order to process language. But then combining them—utilizing that kind of physical present tense-ness with the ability for language to take you through historical time-space… I always liked how you could combine that way of perceiving in one space.
AG: That’s so good.
BJ: If you look at those live writing things that I have on my website, you can see that’s the main way I use text in performances now, which is this process of improvised writing. So I will play some music, and then I’ll also type, and write, and project. And the thing that I got really excited about when I was in specific places with specific histories, was being able to access that very explicitly through language, which I would never be able to do in the sound. It would be very oblique.
Like, I was in Jacksonville, Florida, and I was doing this performance, and I started thinking about Ponce de Leon, because I’m in Florida, and he discovered Florida. I could think about that musically and that might influence some choices if I had some samples, or I don’t know how I would bring that into the improvisation sonically. But in a language form, it’s very easy to bring that in. I just have to say his name. And then everybody who’s there listening with their bodies is now listening with their memory. Or their ability to access history.
AG: So you’re adding context.
BJ: Yeah, I’m contextualizing. I’m getting everybody in this sound listening-receiving space, which is very present and very grounded in the phenomena of the sound in the room. And you know, my music is pretty intricate and really is an invitation to really open up one’s hearing. It’s not so much a reverie. It doesn’t necessarily always like take you into any specific catharsis space. It’s really like an ear-opening kind of music. So I’ve got everybody with their ears wide open, and when I add language to that, it wraps a context around the experience that I always thought was a really interesting thing to explore. Like what happens when your body is in that listening space, what are you ready to receive? If you have language at your disposal, the things that you can do to play with the context of that sound are seemingly infinite. Things that you couldn’t do with sound alone.
AG: I wish I had talked about this to you ten years ago! It’s so interesting.
BJ: I don’t know if I could have articulated it ten years ago. I would have been like, ”Oh, I really like poetry. Poetry’s awesome!” But I always knew that language did things that sound didn’t, and because I had studied language and writing for so long, when I moved to sound, I lamented a little. I have the same feeling now when I go back to writing. I’m like, oh, well I can’t do those things that I do with sound with language, so then I just end up shuttling back and forth.
It’s the reason why I’ve always kept combining that too in my practice, even though it’s not easy to combine sound and text, and most of the time it fails. I think maybe in film I see people being able to really work some of the elements of language and sound, and of course in opera that comes into play. But somebody—a professor of mine—once said, the hardest thing about language and sound is that one is always like the handmaiden to the other, one takes the backseat. Conceptually that’s not interesting to me. They’re both primary practices for me. So I always want them to be on equal footing, and it’s always tricky to figure out how that’s going to work.
I went as far as I could with this combining of the two states of experiencing those two materials, and then I didn’t know if I could go any further. I probably have put it on pause and maybe there’s a new opening to approach it in a very different way going forward, like outside of the performance context maybe.
AG: Well, your sound materials are highly noised-based, and contrast seems like a really crucial aspect of your work, such as the contrast of white noise and sine tones.
BJ: Yeah, yeah.
AG: Where do your sound materials come from? Your work is largely improvisatory, and it uses the homemade circuit, cracked gear approach. What is especially appealing to you about those sounds? Because they have been really consistent throughout your work.
BJ: You caught me at a good time to answer this question because I really have been writing a lot of applications, and maybe just two days ago, I settled on an expansion of an artist statement that was a description of “why these materials?”
I think if I was to trace those material choices, a big part of it probably comes from growing up on a farm. There’s a soundscape that comes from being around certain environments that are very unusual to most people’s experiences, which is to say I didn’t grow up in a city. I didn’t grow up with this sort of city sonic environment. I grew up in a rural, very quiet, sound space that was punctuated by atypical sounds sometimes, which is to say machinery. Like a lot of machinery. The sounds that I remember as a kid were the buzzing of the low flying crop-dusting helicopters that came through back when I was a kid. Airplanes overhead. Lawnmowers—big ones, not suburban ones, but huge tractor-like mowers. All kinds of other mechanical sorts of sounds. Then also the sounds of the equipment that is used to milk cows and the sounds of animals mixed with that. And the sounds of nature. So I feel like it’s pretty different than the typical cityscape. Yes, it’s as noisy; the noise level is a lot higher, and actually my music is closer to that noise level in some ways as it turns out. There’s more interruption and disruption and varieties of sounds layered on top of each other.
But in the rural soundscape, you have much more of an expression of nature which is this acoustic sound field combined with very specific and very noticeable mechanical and other kinds of sonic introductions. So it’s the contrast again to your question, the contrast is really sparse. It’s not so much about layers, that sound space to me, it’s more about counterpoints. Like here’s the mooing cow and then the crop duster buzzes over, and it’s very loud, and it kind of obliterates the soundscape. Then it goes away, and then there’s the mooing cow again.
So that’s probably a big, formal influence. Material-wise, as I got into the poetry that I was interested in, I think the concept of a noise space probably was introduced from a language position first, looking at some of the more experimental Dada or Futurist poets who were a lot of times using nonsense language and introducing noise as a sort of guiding principle for composition and for material.
When I went to Korea, and I was first introduced to these electronic music pedals, the moment that the sound came out of those, I was immediately like: This is the sound. These are the instruments. This is the sound space that I’ve been interested in intuitively but hadn’t really found the instrument for. Maybe part of that is just tracing back to that interest in high contrast, like what I was into artistically before. The other part, I think, was intuitively recognizing that these sounds did not belong. This was the sound space of the not belonging. I wouldn’t have said that at the time, but retrospectively, I look back and I’m like: these are the sounds that nobody wants. So there was some kind of resonance in my 20-year-old brain or something that was like, “I’m gonna work with the sounds that nobody wants.”
BJ: After using these materials for a really long time and improvising with them for 15-plus years, my understanding of the personality of these sounds has really shifted. So when I use them now, I understand that they have certain acoustic and maybe also some subjective or psychological impacts when I use them. In the beginning, I think I was using it almost like a shock, like “Listen to these sounds that nobody wants! I’m going to make you listen to them!”
And now it’s more like, “Listen to these sounds that nobody wants, but notice what they do to you when you listen to them.” Right? The contrast and the materials function as a very explicit invitation to the audience to listen to these sounds. They have enough of a mystique or a curiosity to lean into them, and they have enough contrast or alien-like quality to make you have to be curious and to figure out what’s happening with them, like to imagine: why is somebody using these sounds? What are they going to do with these sounds? How do you make these sounds into music?
I think that’s the thing that I’ve been utilizing more. In some ways, they don’t make one’s normal idea of what music is. I feel like I’ve had people come up to me and be like, “Somehow that wasn’t music, but it was this, that, the other.” I think that turns out to be the physical impact of sound on your body and as a communal experience. What I’ve been realizing is probably what’s happening in this work that I’m doing now, is I’m exploiting these sounds to create these group and individual listening experiences that are very much possible because of the way that these sounds enter the room. Their acoustic properties. Their strangeness. Their contrast. All those things give me a different kind of sculpting tool.
AG: Let’s talk a little about your very large role as an organizer in the Baltimore music community. I know that your roles have changed over the years, but for example, you’ve organized concerts at the Red Room, and you’ve been part of the High Zero Festival since forever.
BJ: Yeah. So, I have like completely combined my organizing, curatorial, and community service aspects of my practice into one thing. I don’t make any divisions anymore—all the parts are my practice. And they are all my creative practice because they’re all interdependently moving and supporting ideas and supporting economics and all of the things. But I always had a strong service portion of my way of being. I always felt that that was really important.
I came to Baltimore in 1999, right after I finished undergrad. I got settled in. Then I met these creative communities that I was really excited about. Poetry communities and then also the music communities, visual arts. In 2001, I started a gallery space with another friend, a super long-time friend and visual artist here in Baltimore, Jackie Milad. She and I started in her atelier that she was running at the time in Canton. We did programming from that space for about two years, I think. It was called CHELA and it was a mix of programming. We were doing visual art exhibitions, and I was programming this performance poetry that I was interested in—experimental poets who were working with performance. We also did film, video, installation, and music in this space.
From that kind of activity with CHELA, the Transmodern Festival—which is a performance art festival in Baltimore that I guess is maybe 20-ish years old as well—happened for the first time at the gallery that we ran. Then it happened outside of that space more or less continuously since then. I’m no longer part of that organizing group, but that was a festival that I worked on really early. There was a three- or four-year period where I programmed a solo performance series, again with Jackie Milad, and it was called Los Solos. I think we did a half-year season where every night featured two artists doing performance works. And the idea was that it was always a series for women artists, though we never explicitly said that. It just so happened that that’s what we programmed.
They were solo artists. It would be writers, musicians, poets, fiction writers, essayists, and visual artists. So I did that for a handful of years. Then probably in like 2010 or 11 I guess, I started doing High Zero. It feels like forever. It’s probably more like seven years. So that’s like the last piece of a 20-year-long period of art service in Baltimore.
AG: And there’s also TECHNE as well.
BJ: Yeah. TECHNE. In 2011, I had just finished my master’s degree, and I was moving into this post-master’s, what-am-I-doing and what-do-I-want-to-do. Like many people who have finished advanced degrees, I really did not want to make art! I was like, I need a break. Fortuitously during that time I met a friend of a friend in New York City—we were at some show in a loft somewhere in Brooklyn. A music show. And we got to talking, and I was expressing my general malaise about the art world, or about the music world, or something. She was agreeing with me, and I said this very clear statement that I just feel like I should be teaching young girls how to make electronic music.
And she said, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!” It turned out that she had already through Met Life Connections from New Music USA, gotten a small grant to fund a workshop that she was going to do. I think it was called Safe Harbors in Newburgh, New York, which was a community art housing project. The music workshop was going to be field recordings, go out with a digital recorder and then make a piece using Audacity or some editing tools. And the idea of this workshop was that it would be for young women, high school age and younger. She was like, “Oh, I have this workshop already lined up. Do you want to come and do this workshop with me?” And I said, “Yes, I absolutely want to come do that workshop with you.” And that was our first. We went to Safe Harbors, and then we also ended up going to the Newburgh Free School and doing a demo with them.
So TECHNE was founded by myself and Suzanne Thorpe. We were both interested in building a series of workshops for young women that would emphasize DIY, handmade electronics building. So building your own synthesizer or, in our case, one of our more popular workshops is making a piezoelectric contact microphone. The idea behind these workshops was that we would combine the DIY electronics building, an improvisatory musical exploration approach, and a contemplative component. Then the final component would be less explicit, but very much embedded in the pedagogy, and which would be a social justice critical dialogue component aimed towards questioning access to technology tools, role models in technology and technology fields, and other kinds of things related to how technology is developed and designed based on the systems in which education exists and inherent racism and sexism in those systems.
That wasn’t always the most explicit part of the workshop, but it’s a big component of it, and it drives a lot of the way we designed the workshops. I think in the future it will become a bigger part because we want to develop retreats where we teach the people who will teach these workshops, and a big component of that will be studying anti-racism and social justice texts around some of these topics. I was imagining it would be really cool to have a gathering of students who would do the workshop, and then we would have them for a longer period, and at the end, we could have this kind of talk back. We could talk about some of these ideas and get a sense of where the students are and what they think about this, and introduce some concepts and ideas around technology and technology design. And how being mindful of designing systems that are anti-oppression can be something that you intentionally do.
AG: I’m curious about how you might work that element into what is a pretty structured workshop situation.
BJ: We work very closely with the Girls Rock Camps. That’s our primary collaborator. Girls Rock Camps are affiliated with each other through an association that they’ve created, but they’re not connected to each other financially. They’re all independent nonprofits, so each organization is very structured for the community that they’re serving.
There’s no template, exactly. The different camps align around the sort of manifesto that they’ve created. There are Girls Rock principles that the association has developed, which is really awesome because it creates the kind of ethical space that they want to inhabit, but individual camps can really cater the structure of their camp to the very specific needs of their community. Like being in Boston is not the same thing as being in Memphis. It’s not the same thing as being in Oakland. I’ve always appreciated that they didn’t try to make some kind of more unified financial, structural arrangement. They usually happen in the summer, so we’ve done a lot of summer tours, going from camp to camp. We’ll usually have 20 students in a group. The Girls Rock Camps are very forward and very social justice-oriented. So their missions are very sophisticated.
They do a lot of work as an activist network. So we’re really at home in those camps. The students are already thinking about feminism, anti-oppression, and anti-racism, and so it’s kind of a perfect union. For the most part, the students will have not ever made a contact microphone or have done any handmade electronic music on their own. It’s a pretty new experience. And we show them the instrument, and we have the soldering station set up, and all of these young women are usually like, “What are we doing? This isn’t gonna happen.” Then we usually only have an hour-and-a-half or three hours, so we launch in hard and fast. We have them wire stripping and doing everything that is needed to prep the microphone, and then they’re building it.
Everything is fast-paced, so I don’t even think half the time they realize that they’re actually building this instrument from nothing into an actual working instrument. Usually by the time we’ve got them soldered all together and everything’s ready and they plug it in, they have that eureka moment, where they’re like, “Oh my gosh; I just did that in 40 minutes!” And that’s a very good moment for us because they’re super excited and they’re really gleeful and they’re super happy. Then we take a brief break. We come back together. We usually do some Pauline Oliveros Deep Listening exercise which is about bringing the action back into the body of the musician. Taking it away from the head, and the doing, and the making, and bringing it back into the active musician as a listener. They’ll sort of decorate an instrument—we have some boxes that we use to build a resonator for the contact microphone. So they’ll decorate a box and they’ll stick their contact microphone onto the box. Then we have a lot of found objects, like a table full of marbles, brushes, and vibrating toothbrushes. And they’ll take some of those objects and then they’ll just improvise. They’ll explore the sounds that they can produce with this contact mic in a very open-ended, super playful way. That’s the way that we’re combining those three kinds of making pillars.
Then the critical thinking, social justice aspect in the Girls Rock context is very easy because it’s already embedded in the way that Girls Rock functions. Specifically the things that I think of as related to that are the first part being that Suzanne and I are role models. Like we are the women making electronic music. And we are the women teaching the technology. The second portion of that is the way we approach the sort of right-wrong aspect of building in technology which is that of course, a lot of the kids are kind of anxious. They’re kind of like, “I don’t know how to do this. My teachers say that I’m really bad at this kind of thing.” So we’re often intentionally trying to break down some of those embedded ideas that a lot of these young girls have about whether or not they can or can’t do technology. A lot of that is enacting some of these social justice ideas by doing them. By telling these kids, “No, it’s fine. We’ll just start over again. It’s not a big deal. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. You’re doing great. This is happening. Don’t worry about it.” Sort of relaxing the rigor around building and technology that a lot of kids are exposed to, as if there’s one path that needs to be followed, and if you get to the end, and your light bulb doesn’t light up, then you’ve done it wrong. Our social justice thinking is in the application of certain ideas that we’re communicating while they’re working with the technology.
AG: It seems as if the making and/or manipulation of objects are a crucial part of your work. Your installations serve to imbue small objects with meaning, for instance in your installation 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes.
AG: It’s an interesting take on object-oriented music.
BJ: Yeah. I think that the emphasis and obsession on objects has happened because of my interest in acoustics, and material, and sound, and its impact and influence on material, like what sound does to materials. I started to get kind of interested because I started attaching transducers to things and learning about resonant frequencies, and that got me into this whole other way of thinking about sound and sound material, but really just sound as it’s impacting a body or a man-made object. Because I’m an electronic musician, I feel like intuitively it was always there. It kind of traces back to what we were talking about earlier, this idea that electronic music and electronic sound does things to the sense of the acoustics of a room that you can exploit in very particular ways. In the ways that say vocalists and choirs exploit the shape of a church. An electronic musician can do things spatially that can be very compelling, and very specific to the room that any musician will do with their instrument. Somehow for me, there’s a higher level of manipulation that I’m curious about, especially pure tones and psychoacoustics. You can start to really shift a person’s sense of space and sense of time in ways that I think are really fascinating and are largely produced because you’re using electronic material.
As I got into that, I got more into thinking about objects from a very pure physics material standpoint. I started to read about the theoretical space of object-oriented ontologies and new materialism. I have this thing where I rarely want to read the theory first. I want to move intuitively through something that I’m kind of stuck on, and then see where it goes, and then maybe sometimes I go back and I’m like oh, look at this theory that seems to be about things that I’m interested in. I hate being influenced before the thing that I’m doing gets done. I have a kind of contrarian nature—I don’t want anybody to tell me what I’m doing until I’ve done it and then I go back to assess what I’ve done.
One thing that has come up out of this kind of object space has a lot to do with the sound and subjectivity. I definitely have started to formulate a sense that an object is a vessel. And imagining an object holding information in a way that a body holds information. It’s a very outlandish thing that’s not super formed. It’s about an object having a certain kind of subjectivity or a certain kind of layered experience and thinking about sound as the medium in which that knowledge is layered onto that object. When I use objects in these performances, and in these installations, the thing that I’m driving at is: what does a material hold? Sound is so physical in its own natural state that you can feel it go into you. You can feel a subwoofer brush the hair on your arm.
Sound vibrates in every material; it’s an impenetrable phenomenon. I got into this more fantastical idea that if you had a childhood object, and it grew up with you, it absorbed the sounds of your life over, and over, and over again, and it accumulated a sort of sonic data or a sonic knowledge. One that’s conscious, because we can access the things we remember hearing when we were kids. Maybe also even a physical body knowledge, like your body can accumulate sound. Then the work that I’ve been doing gets into this fantasy space of trying to access that knowledge. Could you release it again? Can you tap into it? How do you examine it or listen to it? Can you listen to an object? What would that be? It’s almost more of a thought exercise than any real phenomenological thing. But there is something that I get excited about thinking of—this object having a resonance. As a material, but also as a historical thing. The object has some kind of knowledge.
AG: Let’s talk about the “Bonnie Jones Grant.” You made a big impression at the Baltimore New Music Gathering as part of a panel featuring artists outside academia, saying, “I support my practice with the Bonnie Jones Grant. It’s called a job!” And then you wrote an amazing essay a couple of years later for NewMusicBox about the Bonnie Jones Grant, and living life outside of academia as an artist and how that has worked for you. How has that played out?
BJ: At that new music panel, I think I was two years out of my master’s degree, which means I was probably still taking a break from making art. And probably that would have been just before I started moving into this latest body of work which is infinitely more complex with much higher overhead than the career of being a touring musician. I was getting into building work that takes six months or seven months and then during that time I’m not actually able to tour that much because I need to stay focused on production. It’s a different set of parameters. There’s a certain kind of longer, more developed work process that I’ve been trying to create. I think the idea of the Bonnie Jones Grant was really related to how you balance all of the pieces of your creative practice. Earlier in this discussion, I said my creative practice is all of it. It’s the teaching. It’s the making of the work. It’s the job that I have to do in order to sustain the work. It’s the organizing piece and the service piece. It’s all of it. It’s all feeding the same thing which is my creativity. The Bonnie Jones Grant was the economic piece of that spectrum that was just my job. My freelance job, because I was not at a university and I wasn’t teaching, and I wasn’t inside an institution. Fortunately, I had a lot of energy, and so I could work a full-time job and still be pretty productive as an artist and do all the other service things as well. I still kind of stick by that. Especially when it comes to younger artists, the biggest thing that’s gonna stop you from being able to make art is not having any money! Not having any money doesn’t mean your parents pay for some things, or your partner pays for some things—in those cases you don’t have a lot of money, but you have a lot of safety net. Not having any money means you just don’t have any money. What you make is what you have to work with. You can’t take financial risk if you don’t have a safety net. If you’re on your own as an artist, and you know that your parents wouldn’t be able to chip in, and you don’t have a partner, you really do need to get your economics into a stable place. I spent a lot of time doing that. Building my economic life to be very stable on my own, which meant having a job, which meant being really careful around money. And what money I did have, I used to fund my creative life. Fast-forwarding to 2019, my job space is kind of shifting, which I think is natural. I’ve been working a freelance job in the web industry, and the web industry has changed a lot over the last 20 years. My interests are certainly changing. I’m starting to think about other ways to support both myself and my work. That might end up being academia. Maybe I’ll get a totally different degree in social work and become a therapist.
I’m at that mid-life phase where you’re thinking about maybe there’s some whole other career that you just haven’t done yet that you might be really interested in trying. That’s not totally beyond the realm of possibility. I do know that things are definitely opening up again as far as how I want to structure my life and what the next phase of this Bonnie Jones Grant is going to be. It’ll be a job because I’m not sustainable as an artist quite yet. But I am more of a seasoned artist, so there’s more opportunity than there was 20 years ago—things like workshops and teaching gigs, and some grants, and some other kinds of things based on my experience running my own nonprofit. There are a lot of skills that I could tap into for this next iteration of the Bonnie Jones Grant, even if the job that I’ve traditionally held has shifted.
AG: That’s great. I think it’s really important to talk about these things openly.
AG: A lot of the information you see about this is for younger artists in their 20s and 30s. But what happens after 40? What happens after 50? We are both in that place, and there is a definite shift in priorities.
BJ: We still don’t talk about money enough and the ways that artists make a living. There’s the thing about the big grant moment in your life where all of a sudden you think now you’re set. But you’re not set. You’re just set for whatever period of time that grant lasts. And once you hit that space, it doesn’t come back. It’s not like you get it again. If your work is really expensive to produce and it has a lot of overhead, those grants don’t go far at all. Sometimes a project takes $20,000 or more just to make it happen. And you’re often on the hook for that project, and you do have to make it happen, even though they only gave you $10,000.
BJ: The accounting of being an artist is crazy. It’s not sustainable in a real way.
AG: You mentioned that your work has gone to a really different place. Tell me more about that.
BJ: In the last year, I received a small project grant, and I took that opportunity to do a bunch of work that I had been thinking about, but hadn’t really been able to realize. I produced all of this new sound object and sound art work that I had been wanting to do, which had a lot to do with moving into sculpture and gallery spaces. It’s kind of a tricky move I realize now; it’s hard to shift your practice in such a way because then you’re opening the door to learn a new discipline. I’m really still thinking about what that means. I’ve been talking to sculptors and realizing the way that they think about material is certainly not the way that I think about material.
It’s been interesting to start moving into that process, but I would say the thing that I’m moving away from is performance and being a performer. And the thing that I’m moving towards is composition and fixed pieces. Multi-channel is an interesting space for me right now. And sound sculpture and installation. It’s probably going to look more like installation that has an experiential aspect. I’m realizing now that’s probably the space that is most interesting to me. I saw this amazing installation work by Cauleen Smith at MASS MoCA. It’s a really beautiful, solo work—a massive installation work. And I know that she is primarily a video artist, and a filmmaker.
It inspired me to see the leap between experiential and time-based work that she would do as a filmmaker. And then moving into this kind of fixed way of interacting with her video and film in a more full installation space. I feel like that’s probably the gold standard of that relationship between being a performer and a time-based medium person. I want to try to make sound still be the primary medium, but place it within an installation space that can pull in some of these other threads that I’m interested in which have much more grounded subject matter.
AG: A full immersion in the space.
AG: I don’t like the word immersive though; it’s overused and rarely accurate.
BJ: Yeah. Experiential. It’s an installation that emphasizes experience versus an installation that might emphasize sculpture or visual art. I don’t think I’m going to refashion myself as a visual artist at this point. It’s just not something that I can do. I’m a musician for sure. I’m interested in sound, and I’m interested in language, and so I think my installations will probably work towards bringing those things back together again in my practice. The language will come back in. The sound will be a driving force for the way that you experience the whole work.
That was something about the Cauleen Smith that was really incredible—she has a really sophisticated ear. The sound that comes from all the video work, and the sound that comes from different pieces! She does a lot of short loops so that there’s a lot of repetition of a sound. When you’re in the exhibition, it’s really clear that she is heard the way that those different rooms sound. It sounds amazing. And so that was very inspiring. You can make a layer that is a sound piece, even if it’s not explicitly like a speaker producing sound. It can actually be sound interacting in a lot of different ways—coming from a lot of different mediums like a video, or a transducer in an object, or a radio.
I’m going to explore that, I think. It’s going to be a way of opening up the space of the art once again. Now I want to make it even more open, and add objects and sculptural elements, and language, and text. I’m going to do these interviews with Korean adoptees and form an installation based on transcripts from these interviews and musical pieces that I commission from other artists that will use the frequencies of the speaking voice of the person I’m interviewing as the starting point of the composition. So there will be this way of tying sound to the interviews.
AG: That sounds great. I was actually wondering when you were talking earlier about your 20-year-old self being completely blown away by the sounds that nobody wants if that was somehow related to the fact that you were adopted.
BJ: Yeah, I’m sure it is.
AG: Maybe not consciously, but—
BJ: —Probably unconsciously then, but now I’m much more conscious of how my personal history influences my artistic decisions. Even if it’s a very unpopular thing—which I find annoying—that the personal comes into a creative process.
I think it’s important that the personal and subjectivity and difference become embedded in the way that we think of art and the shape that art should take. I know that people would sometimes disparage personal subject matter as being kind of naïve or “art school“ subject matter and then you kind of grow out of it, and you engage in these larger universal themes around form and around content. But I’m sort of interested in something that doesn’t forget that certain individuals and their personal subjective realities haven’t actually been seen in art, or in art history. And that is kind of a curious and interesting evolution for our time—to understand what kinds of people make what kinds of art. So we know what kind of art we have right now, and we know the people who have largely been the producers of that art. So what is the art that people make when certain kind of subjectivities and interests start to take form? Maybe it doesn’t look like what we’re used to looking at, and I think that’s the challenge, but that’s also like the exciting part of it.