Damir Ocko in conversation with Daniele Balit

The Space inside the Music, Damir Očko in conversation with Daniele Balit │ 2012
published in Palais no.16

Daniele Balit: I'd like to suggest a little experiment for our conversation. I want to propose a specific topic that perhaps will take us a bit far from your work, at least apparently…

Damir Ocko: Interesting, let's see!

DB: I would like to introduce some considerations on the Bunraku Japanese puppet theater. I don't remember how I arrived to Bunraku, I think it was through the Czech composer Ondrej Adámek who works on some musical ways to translate the Japanese voice… But I think that there are some interesting issues I wanted to share with you. Either by analogy, or sometimes by contrast, there are some aspects of the Bunraku theater that seem to be relevant to your practice. Or perhaps it is just because I like to imagine your videos as some sort of theater boxes. In which many different elements, from visual to sound, to performing and acting, seem to follow a very unified and structured organization…So, I would like to begin from an aspect which is undoubtedly very important in your work: the voice. In the Bunraku theater, there's a figure called the tayu who has the most important role: he is the narrator and all the voices belong to him, while the actors on stage only move the puppets. So, the tayu with his voice interprets all the roles. He really has to modulate the voice in order to embody all the different characters, all the emotional landscapes of the performance, exploring a full range of different expressions. He has this sophisticated vocal technique which requires something like ten years of learning; using his stomach, which is appropriately wrapped and held tight for the representation. One of the aspects that is really interesting about these vocal techniques is that they are less preoccupied with aesthetics than transmitting the emotions and the vitality of the characters: the tayu's voice has this sort of priority of giving life to the puppets, of animating them…

DO: Well… it is interesting when you put things like that. I think that the way in which the sound, the voice is projected on to the puppet has some similarities with the project I'm working on now (SPRING), where I have imagined the voice behaving as if it's coming from an external, hidden source. A voice that appears as a foreign entity throughout the film and projects itself on to different bodies, landscapes, shapes… It is like possessing the filmed material with the voice; similar to Bunraku, where the puppet is possessed by offstage sounds and voices…

DB: One aspect which is really different form the Western theater is this physical effort of the voice. It is an effort which is not hidden, and is shown in all of its imperfections. In the Japanese acting there's no quest for a “pure” performance, for an ideal of perfection… I was somehow interested in this notion of the physical limits of the voice, which seems to play a role in your work: sometimes it is a voice with no sound, using the language of signs; in other cases it is a stuttering, a voice that doesn’t find its own fluidity. So, the physical effort is really there, quite evident in the film…

DO: The voice came in my work when I felt my subjects were becoming more and more human, and I became interested in this question: what is the most human thing a filmed subject can do? And I thought that it is to have a voice. So, the very first time I worked with a human voice was in The Moon Shall Never Take My Voice, and it was a kind of voiceless voice. A voice that doesn’t belong exclusively to the vocal apparatus: rather it is a presence of the voice in political terms. You see… voice as a tool, as a category…

Then, in We Saw Nothing But The Uniform Blue Of The Sky, I was looking for the actual sound of the voice and I decided to work with a person who has difficulties in speaking, someone who stammers. So, the way he delivered words was through a dysfunctional mechanism of speaking and the result was an amplification of the meaning, a kind of hidden strength of the spoken word.

DB: It makes me think of the famous work by Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting In A Room, where Lucier goes on and on recording and playing back between two tape recorders, with no connection between them, but just through the resonance of the space. And he does this process until his voice is not there any more. And the thing is that Lucier is actually stuttering when reading the score, because he really has this problem. Indeed in the script he says that the process was made to destroy the irregularities of the rhythm of his voice…

DO: I think this is something that I'm interested in right now in SPRING: finding another method of pressure in the way the poems are delivered, in order to expose that kind of primal consistency of voice and the words. I would like to figure out how these pressures expand the spatial depths of the film. There is a very interesting story written by Rainer Maria Rilke where he speaks about the notion of “primal sound”, a sound that he imagined inscribed on the skull of every person. This comes from some experiences he recalls from his memory: he first remembers when he was still a child in a school and how they taught him to assemble a home-made phonograph. The other memory is about years later, when he was studying anatomy in Paris, he examined the skull and immediately compared the zig-zagging on the cracks of the skull with the zig-zagging that the phonograph from his childhood made with a needle on a wax plate. For Rilke, the skull was like a wax plate, containing a recording of a “primal sound”. He wondered a lot about what the sound coming out would be if the skull was “played back”…So, in a way, my idea of “pressure” is related to entering into this realm of primal sound, sort of at the edges of recognition. There are some sounds in the poems that at one point could have been or become words, but remain in a sort of purified, primitive border zone. This is the edge I'm very interested in. To quote one line from SPRING: speaking as “spitting the silhouettes beyond recognition”.

DB: What you are you talking about makes me think to this kind of intensity in the act of listening that the composer Luigi Nono (who I know is a big influence for you) wanted to achieve. For example, by reducing all the visual elements almost to nothing…

DO: He calls that intensity the tragedy of listening…. “La tragedia dell'ascolto”.

DB: Is this idea of intensity, of somehow penetrating the sound, present in your practice? Is it something that are you trying to achieve?

DO: What I try to do is to better understand the ways of listening and looking, and how this intensity emerges from processes like magnifying the details or creating a certain density… I think that the intensity I'm looking for is more a cinematic intensity, when image and sound are working as a dense harmony.

DB: Do you think that this sort of density can be in a way disconnected from language? I still believe that, in sound and music, there is this sort of dualism with language, especially when we speak of an intense listening or of a primitive, primal sound. I'm talking about a dualism between the musical and the textual…

DO: But, you know… what is the language in music? There are many examples where music is able to construct a new form of a language. Ligeti, for example, in his Aventures uses some musical objects that behave like words. He's actually composing with the phonetic qualities from different languages. So, sometimes the words sound like Japanese or German or some ancient, primitive, forgotten language… but there are no recognizable meanings, or we are to look for them elsewhere, in our memories and presumptions of what we think language is.

There is intense sound in poetry too. When you reach a word in composing a poem, you are very aware of its acoustics, you play with it, expose it, disrupt it. It is about pronouncing the sounds, maybe this is a good example of dualism you are talking about: between the familiar and the unknown.

DB: In the notes for the preparation of SPRING, you speak about bodies that are inhabited by an “alien voice”, a voice becoming autonomous, somehow transforming itself into a landscape. A voice that looks for bodies to inhabit…I would like to go back to Bunraku and to this role of the voice being really dissociated from the characters on the scene. Actually the whole mechanism of the representation in Bunraku is very particular, with this separation between the visual and the aural level, with two separate spaces that both remain visible for the audience. What is particularly striking is that the tayu does not see the puppets: He's sitting on this platform at the side of the stage with the musician who plays the shamizen, this three-strings instrument, and they are both facing the audience. So, it is really up to the actors on stage who are operating the puppets to follow the rhythm and the sound of the tayu's voice and of the music. There's this sort of reversed relationship: the voice not being an expression of the body and gestures of the actor, but voice and sound really generating the action, almost in a demiurgical way… It is really some sort of materialization of language through this performative act of the voice, this kind of magical transformation: Voice becoming animated movements through the puppets’ bodies. What I would like to highlight here is the different relationship between sound and the visual level. Sound – which is not only the voice but also the music played by the instrument – is not there to kind of comment on the action. Sound is not being subordinated to the action, but on the contrary is really a principle that generates the action. And that is how this relates to your work, in the sense that you also look for a specific function for sound, using sound as organizational principle. In a way, composing images with sound…

DO: I think about film as a body. It's a kind of polyphonic body. The sound… which is maybe not the word I’d like to use, but the music, the music has the same intensity and importance as the image, and acts as a vital organ. When preparing a film, I work simultaneously on scoring the image and the music and I often use the structure of the music to figure out the flow of the images. So my rhythms, my cinematic rhythms, rely on music too. In The Moon… for example, there is a score for the gestures of the performer which was made in a form of concrete poetry. Then there was another musical structure for the whole film, which is a composition in three movements. What I try to bring forth are complex interactions between scoring, performing, moving through time, sounding…

DB: Speaking about the actor, was she a professional actor?

DO: No, she was an ordinary person that I work with. It was really a big challenge, because at the beginning she didn’t understand what I was asking her to do: to sing with her hands. As she was completely deaf, the concept of music was a hard nut to crack.

DB: Roland Barthes has dedicated some beautiful pages to Bunraku, insisting on the way in which the artistic process is revealed as part of the representation. Something which is related to the fact that the audience has this access to all of the mechanisms of the theater: the origin of the voice, the people moving the puppets, etc. Barthes says that the sources of theater are exposed in their emptiness, while in the Western tradition everything is organized to deliver an illusion. An illusion for example of the unity between the actor and the character, through a direct expression of interiority: the actor really embodying the character in himself. Also, a very nice image suggested by Barthes about Bunraku is that of the puppets that no longer have any threads…

DO: Well… I mean there are “threads”, the three people who are operating the puppets, the whole craft is a “thread”…

DB: Okay, but in a sense, it is really different when you see the threads. If you're seeing them, you are really facing the process, there are no more secrets, no behind the scenes… But what I was interested in putting forward to you was this kind of deconstruction of the representation, and this idea of the process as part of the work. I think it is a bit different in your videos where they are many threads that are controlled by you, looking for very specific outcomes each time. And finally these threads that you hold remain somehow invisible… So I would like you to talk a bit about how you build this space and organize these things, and also, if you're really looking for a sort of narrative unity…

DO: “Narrative unity” is a kind of tricky idea to start with. Especially considering SPRING, a film which is less narrative than my other films. The way I started is with all the meanings of the word “spring”. These meanings have all a sort of an eruptive motion in common. So, I got interested in this motion, because it is so specific: the idea of moving upwards after a period of oppression, to then erupt. This is the “narrative unity” of SPRING: eruption. But I think that there's always a kind of wider narrative structure appearing sooner or later, and that you cannot ignore it... Since everything that flows through time actually has a narrative structure, like music or poetry.

DB: And what about control? I'm interested in knowing more about the way you work with actors… actually it is not only about the actors but also about sound: You have a very personal way of structuring things in the organization of the film...

DO: I mean, the thing of control is more a thing of adjustments. For example when I had a contortionist on the film set I was not really aware of all the things she would be able to do. And we worked together. In this kind of process, many things happen instantly, there on the set. I cannot say that I had complete control, because I was not rigid about anything; I was willing to take what was given to me in the best possible way. Another kind of control was in the Uniform Blue… with the stammering, I could not control the rhythm of stammering, but I had a very precise score with indications on how the poem should be delivered. So, we worked together on the pitches of the words, the way the sentences should be spoken and in what kind of a spirit. I actually invented a set of gestures for the hands and the body that helped the speaker to understand how some sentences should be curved by pronunciation, others should sound like throwing stones... So there was a control, but at the same time there was no control, because I could not write down the stammering in the score. And exactly this notion of no control over the spoken word became the musical part of the film.

DB: You said the other day that the way you work is like karate…

DO: Yes! I like precision very much. But precise doesn't mean being rigid. Film-making is all the time balancing between the precision of a score and recognizing things that happen beside the score… and then to reacting to that, like karate! Also, you have to be really conscious and aware that there are many threads to pull… and the way you pull them should be done with a kind of flexibility, because it's always going both ways….

DB: Coming back to this notion of process, the relation between process and the work, could we say that your drawings and the scores are somehow a way of including the process of the work in the exhibition, putting the process on the same level as the finished films?

DO: It is not only about including the process, but also about providing access for the audience to some less approachable aspects of my works. I usually use different types of scores. There is a set of scores which is made for performers, for the crew and the people who are involved in the process, and then there is another set of scores which is made for the audience.This is also why I like to work in gallery and museum contexts, rather than in contexts like film festivals or cinemas. The gallery space actually allows you to completely unfold all the layers of the work in a very transparent way.

DB: It's interesting, because this idea of the transparency of the work is really something very close to what we were discussing before about Bunraku. Quoting Barthes again, he speaks about a violation of what he calls the “space of lie ” in the Western theater stage. And it's true that Western display, from theater to cinema, is traditionally related to this idea of being a space for the lie, for illusion… Think of the famous notion of the “suspension of disbelief” that is asked of the cinema audience: the fact that you really have to abandon all of your skeptical, ordinary, way of seeing things… In other words, this idea of the black box as a magical box…

DO: The black box in cinema contexts has this ability to create magic, but somehow on uneven terms: by oppressing the audience with a bunch of rules. These rules are not really invented by cinema, they come from theater, concert halls, opera houses… They are rules for only one position of looking and for a silent audience: They say to remain seated and not to speak, (and also to turn off your cellphone!). These are the rules of institutions, and they say something about power relations in a society oppressed by rules. Though there are many other questionable rules in a gallery, there is however a sense of freedom in the exhibition space: People move away if they are not interested. No one feels obliged to remain silent. So, recreating a black magic box in a gallery means working without the oppressive power of the rules of cinema, while still retaining the power of illusion and magic. I am happy if people stay for the whole duration of the film, but the freedom to choose is a great thing.

DB: Since we are talking about cinema, I would like to ask you which are your influences from the cinema?

DO: I don't have many, really. A friend of mine recently asked me if I would choose an artist or filmmaker who has played a major role in the way my work has been developing… and I stood there, thinking and thinking. Then she said it doesn't need to be a visual artist, and instantly I shouted: Ligeti, Nono, Lachenmann, Cage, Varese… (laughing)

DB: Let's then go back to Luigi Nono. A few days ago, you were telling me that a composition like Prometeo was a big influence on your work. You were also somehow comparing Cage and Nono… On the one side Cage, who tried to do a concert with no sound, and on the other side, Nono who tried this very radical act of doing a concert, and a display, without visual elements…

DO: There is a kind of failure which I'm very interested in: the incapability of music to hold a political message. This was a major issue for Nono, who had been trying to surround the music-making process with a political context. A very difficult task, considering the apolitical nature of the music itself. There's a short text written by Ligeti, in which he questions the problems of political music. So, he recalls this royal song in Romania – when he was a child and the country was a monarchy – that was later forbidden by the state. What became problematic for Ligeti, is that the same song was later adopted by the Albanian partisans in WWII, and it become the Albanian national anthem. And so he wonders, quite ironically, what would happen when the Albanian delegates visit Romania, the song being still forbidden. What Ligeti is saying is that if you listen to the song without knowing the story, it would just be what music is: tones, harmonies, acoustic and temporal relations… without the narrative it would have no political meaning. So, the same song can be at the same time completely political and apolitical. This was a major struggle for Luigi Nono. He wrote such incredibly “pure” music and was so keen to understand what the listening mechanisms of society are. He wanted his music to remain pure and at the same time to hold political meaning. A good example is his opera Prometeo, where he tried to ban all visual elements to work against the spectacle of opera. But it was nevertheless an opera, and so he failed. It is the same kind of failure as John Cage's piece of silence, which is never silent… These are important struggles.

DB: I think in an interview, you once talked about this idea of the moon as a “sea of silence”, a sort of “utopian territory”. And I think this is a very appropriate definition for what silence is after Cage. Silence really became a sort of utopian territory…Take the anechoic chamber: In some of the most efficient ones, those that can go up to 99 percent of silence, you cannot stay for more than half an hour, because you start to feel very uncomfortable; and if the lights are turned off you could even have hallucinations. And what's interesting is that this is mostly because, with the absence of sound, you lose the perception of space. Absolute silence is the ultimate utopia, a non place…

DO: Apparently to John Cage, he experienced two sounds in the Harvard anechoic chamber: a very high-pitched tone that was his nervous system and the low drone-like tone that was the sound of the blood circulating through his body. What I find interesting is that this desire to experience silence is actually pushing you toward your own body. It's an extreme desire to amplify the presence of the body, the body sounds one is rarely aware of.

DB: With no space, with no place around, in a way you become sound!

DO: Yes, you become the instrument…

DB: Are you interested in working more with sound in space? In pushing this very important role of sound in your films a step further, toward a more installative way? Not necessarily as sound installation, but perhaps in a more hybrid configuration… not limiting to the frontal setting.

DO: I cannot say that maybe in the future this is something I might not look into, but at this point no. I really think of film space as an absolute space. And, more than in sound, I'm interested in the space of music. I'm not really into exploring how sound spreads through physical space, but I'm more interested in this endlessly rich polyphonic space which is inside the music…

DB: I was also curious to know more about the way in which you work with composers, the way in which you integrate their work… Rather than just incorporating their musical pieces, you somehow transform their work to make it your own work. It's a very interesting collaborative process where the notion of authorship is being somehow rediscussed…

DO: I work a lot with samplings. The way I approach the composer it's not to ask “can you write a piece of music for me?” Instead, I explain that a specific piece has a sound or structure that I would like to re-use and that I will probably be changing it a lot. I have my logic of doing these things, because I usually hear it in a different way, and I want to interact with it, I want my images to interact with it too.

DB: Can you talk about the way in which you write the poems that are part of your films, and about the fact that you write them in English?

DO: Despite many challenges, I find it easier to write in a foreign language, the words always sound a bit alien, and it is easier to focus on how they actually sound. Croatian is too familiar for me: if I write poetry in Croatian everything I write is right there, in front of me, like a billboard. Writing in English is like digging a tunnel or a mine. About the way I compose a poem… it always begins with an image I want to describe. Then, the next step is to describe this image and to adjust it to the various rhythms I'm trying to obtain. For example, the rhythm in which the poem will be delivered, which is very important for me…When things starts to be in place, I then work with dictionaries, and occasionally with translating fragments back and forth between English and Croatian, to fine-tune different levels of meaning.

DB: I guess it's also about finding a sort of musicality of the words…

DO: Yes, the most musical thing you can do to a text is to write a poem …

DB: In conclusion, I'd like to mention this quote by Nono which relates to the figure of Prometheus. Actually Nono turned to another version of the myth, in which Prometheus is not the one who stole fire, but is someone who is always searching for something, in a sort of endless search. This “other” Prometheus is not looking for solutions: This is what institutions are doing, Nono says, while Prometheus goes on with his quest. He could eventually fail, but he keeps going on. He doesn't want to solve problems…

DO: It comes from one point when he actually visited a monastery near Toledo in Spain, and on the wall there he saw an inscription that said: “there are no ways, only walking”. It has been something which runs through most of the works by Nono. He's basically saying that the only solution is to have an adventure…

(Buttes Chaumont Park, Paris.June 24, 2012)