Anri Sala in conversation with William J. Simmons

Anri Sala Artist, Time No Longer in conversation with William J. Simmons Writer and Curator

Anri Sala
Artist, Time No Longer

in conversation with

William J. Simmons
Writer and Curator

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The latest episode of Marian Goodman Gallery Presents takes a close look at Time No Longer, the immersive film and sound installation commissioned by Anri Sala for the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern in Houston, Texas. Sala speaks with writer and curator William J. Simmons about his approach to space as an instrument and the project’s prevailing theme: time, and how it relates to history, music, solitude and outer space.

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00:19
William J. Simmons
Thank you so much for sitting down with me. It's a real honor. You know, I think one thing that's really important to your work, you work in these remarkable places of political significance, over the years, over your career.

00:37
William J. Simmons
And so, I'm wondering, what does this particular site mean for you? What is the connection here? And maybe, how does it connect to a potential political significance of this particular work at the Cistern?

00:52
Anri Sala
Oh, it's becoming increasingly political. So in that sense, it's the Cistern being the very first place where they kept the storage of the drinkable water of Houston. 
01:02
Anri Sala
I think upon receiving an invitation to visit the place, I was of course, struck by the immensity of it. It's very beautiful. It's both elegant and very bold.

01:14
Anri Sala
It's concrete, but yet, it has a certain- The dimensions feel right, the scale. So there's a certain elegance to that. And then when you approach, let me try to find an idea for such a place, of such a scale, it's not just about the idea itself. But it's about an idea that can apply to that scale, that can nourish that scale, that can enter into a dialogue with such a scale.

01:42
Anri Sala
I was interested about the idea of Houston and the horizon. The idea of exploration, the pioneers, and then, the exploration of the riches of the world, like the drilling for oil. And then of course, NASA space exploration.

02:03
Anri Sala
I really had this sort of like an afterimage of something that was to come, meaning, the image of this turntable drifting and rotating in zero gravity.

02:13
Anri Sala
Later on, I came across the story of Ron McNair, this brilliant astronaut, one of the first Black astronauts in the history of the United States. A very good saxophone player who intended to make the first recording of a professional playing music in space, something that unfortunately, it did not happen, as we know that upon that voyage with the Challenger, the disaster happened.
02:42
Anri Sala
So, the performance remained an intention, not a recording. When these two elements came in the idea of a turntable, that is rotating in space, drifting the tone arm and stylus, every now and then, touching the vinyl, there's this sort of a battle for the tone arm to perform its task for the music to continue.

03:14
Anri Sala
I was not interested to play the soundtrack of what Ron McNair would have played, which was eventually performed by another saxophone player in the concert that happened shortly after, as an homage to such a loss, called Rendez-Vous Houston.

03:32
Anri Sala
So I was not interested in making the turntable play that recording, because it would be counter-intuitive. What is the soundtrack of an intention? It was that I was interested in this idea of solitude, that it might be, being out there in space, a wind instrument, because it connects to breath, and that's probably when we are really alone, that's the last thing that keeps us company, so to say.

03:56
Anri Sala
And then little by little, I arrived to this composition of Messiaen, Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps Quartet for the End of Time. I find immediate correspondence between the idea of being so distantly far in the space, the idea of how does time bend in space? What is the end of time?

04:22
Anri Sala
There's only one movement in his Quatuor, which is written for a solo instrument, for a clarinet. And it's the one I use, which is, The Abyss of the Birds, which was originally played the very first time, in the stalag, in the camp where they were captive by Akoka, the core friend, musician, but also core prisoner with Messiaen at the time.

04:54
Anri Sala
So this brought these two other opposites, but also the same. One, feeling captive in space, where your life relies so much on this engineered piece around you, which is- and yet as we know, also unfortunately from the, it's as fragile as it can be.

05:11
Anri Sala
And on the other side this solitude to loneliness, the captivity being a POW prisoner of war in a camp. And in both cases, the idea of trying to overcome that sense of solitude or captivity, where you are not, you cannot be, on command of your will.

05:42
William J. Simmons
I think one thing that really interests me is this question of intuition. So on one hand you have Ronald McNair, a Black musician who is going to play in space, but of course, only produced, as you said, a soundtrack of intention. On the other hand, you have Messiaen's Quartet for The End of Time, which was composed in a POW camp.

06:07
William J. Simmons
And I wonder what you think about this question of intuition. It is such a kind of a masculinist term of, you know, a guy working away in his studio by himself, suddenly having a flashbulb of inspiration. So I wonder how you relate to this concept of intuition, as you bring disparate histories together.

06:37
Anri Sala
Well I think, I mean, intuition does play an important role in my work, because it's- most of the time, it's work that has a process. The idea will change throughout the process, hopefully even. The only thing that should remain stable at best, is the intuition about where the process should bring the work. 

07:01
William J. Simmons
I am really interested in this question of expertise and how it might relate to a project like  the Cistern where you do have these historically hefty moments, neither of which I knew anything about, sort of brought together.

07:17
Anri Sala
I think I do rely on expertise. And I do rely a lot on the expertise of people I work with. Olivier Goinard, one of my oldest collaborators, a sound designer, fantastic designer.

07:28
Anri Sala
He has been part of this collaboration from the very beginning, from together with André Vida, a musician and saxophone player based in Berlin. And then in the case of Olivier, for example, he takes this project from the beginning, when we are mocking up the new continuity of how the vinyl is being played by the stylus, not necessarily the continuity of the music.

08:09
Anri Sala
And then the moments of the recording, the moments of mixing it here in the space, the moment how our recording will be played out in the space with such a big frequency response.
08:20
Anri Sala
We have two reflections in the Cistern. It's the reflection of the image on the water, and the reflection of the frequency response, the way how the space reflects the sound. For example, and there- there is something different with each of them, because the water reflection is just repeating the same image mirroring at once.

08:41
Anri Sala
In terms of sound reflection, because I was very concerned with the frequency response of that space, it's like it's huge, you go there, and it's like it would be, you'd think it would be suicidal for any sound designer to work there. We did a- speaking of expertise, we needed to do a study of the frequency response of the space.

09:05
Anri Sala
There's a protocol about how it's done. It was done by people here, sent to someone we work with in Paris, they did the mathematical preparations, and we knew exactly what was the reverb of the space. 
09:16
Anri Sala
We would even produce it as a plug-in, so you could apply it to a sound, and we could hear the reverb of that sound. Why I'm saying all this, it's not because of how complicated it sounds, but- these became part of the DNA of the composition of the rearrangement of the music, because we knew we'd have a lot of reverb.

09:39
Anri Sala
If you leave the sounds and the reverbs keep on accumulating, at some point, the sound cannot articulate itself anymore. So we used all these moments as the stylus is losing the traction, and therefore there is a moment of silence.

09:58
Anri Sala
These moments of silence often are there in the [inaudible] duration to let the energy of the previous sound die out, dissipate. So we use this frequency response of the space itself as a conductor about the silences that we placed in the soundtrack.

10:15
Anri Sala
And this is what- so there, the reflection of the sound, is not like a reflection of the image that repeats and mirrors the same thing twice. In that case, it entails it, it ensues it, it gives it body, it makes it more present, even after the last note has been played.

10:30
Anri Sala
So this double reflection, I think it was- it's extremely important to what one sees and what one hears, and, and also sometimes how, you start hearing what you see, and vice versa.

10:44
Anri Sala
You start seeing what you hear. But especially the moment that, then the image becomes abstract because of the reflection, and it's the acoustic reflection that helps you materialize in your mind, what it is that is playing.

11:02
William J. Simmons
There is something so profoundly lush and engaging about how your work lives in the space. And it's both terrifying and enjoyable. It's a very corporeal experience, being in there. It's like, it's like being in a bathtub. And so, I wonder if there is an inverse relationship between expertise and enjoyment?

11:31
Anri Sala
No, absolutely. In each case, whether in the current project speaking of André Vida, the musician, saxophone player, or Olivier Goinard, the sound designer. They're very expert in what they do, but they're also extremely open-minded. So, the expertise is a tool. It's not a prison within which they are. To me, it's very important, the constraints of reality.

11:57
Anri Sala
For example, just to give some examples from previous work. For example, Jemeel Moondoc in Long Sorrow, the saxophone player, who is suspended in the 13th floor of a building. And then he's playing there.

12:20
Anri Sala
The only way for him to forget the condition of being suspended there, is just to continuously imagine the moment next, the note next.

12:28
Anri Sala
Meaning, he could not have been a violin player who is, who is playing, an existing score. Therefore how important it was to have somebody who is able to improvise, to negotiate, to  continuously focus on what is next.

12:46
Anri Sala
But in order for that sort of thing to come out, you need to produce some form of constraint in the reality, the constraint of being suspended. In this film, there is a big constraint with Messiaen being captive, a huge constraint with Ron McNair.

13:08
Anri Sala
In terms of technology, there was no constraint for me, because CGI, it's basically, you have no constraint, you can do whatever you want, you do animation. For me it was very important to insert constraints in sight.

13:23
Anri Sala
To me that is very important not to just do anything I wanted, basically do animation, but to inject these certain preconditions of the reality that the tone arm is going to fall back after this completed a certain circle or loop, or add in it sort of dancing in the space. And only then, it could play the music.

13:53
Anri Sala
Producing these limits was very important, first producing, setting the stage for limits, is very important for my work.
14:03
William J. Simmons
There's a wonderful quote from Messiaen saying, "The abyss is time with its sadness, its weariness, the birds are the opposite to time. They're our desire for light." So that's the section of Quartet for the End of Time with the clarinet. But I think it's interesting to think about how at various points in your work, you've pointed to disparities and how bodies are constrained or not constrained.

14:33
William J. Simmons
And of course we are in the South, you know, at this particular site, you know. We're talking about a Black body in particular who, was sent out into space and died. And you know, I surmise a lot of people don't know who he is, even though he had this, as you said,  incredible soundtrack in him. 

14:56
William J. Simmons
So I wonder how race might function in this particular installation, and how it connects to where you've touched upon at other points in your work as well.

15:08
Anri Sala
When I came upon the story of Ron McNair, I was so happy. And, I don't know- it's the pride, I don't know if that's the word, because, but that it was, you had this, sort of like a genius in terms of one of the first astronauts being at ease with traveling in space, and yet being such a good musician, having the idea of bringing his instrument with him. 

15:41
Anri Sala
I was so proud of somebody having those qualities of being a great mathematician that you have to be to do it to the extent that you have to have all this expertise and knowledge, and control of the self I believe must be very necessary when you are so far away captive in space. And yet, being able to play an instrument, which is so much related to a sense of freedom, resistance, unreliability.

16:10
Anri Sala
It's beautiful in that sense. But this is where somehow it ends. How does it fit in the landscape of today? I try to keep my work a step behind the main discourses of the society. However, it's not the first time that I have worked with these issues, indirectly or directly.

16:33
Anri Sala
For example, the mentioning of the film I said, Jemeel Moondoc, fantastic, Black saxophone player, it's like, when you see him suspended, it's like bigger than life in the way of the body, the suspended body, trying to forget his condition, that when you think a body trying to forget his condition, of course one of the first things you think, is also the history of Black people. 

17:01
Anri Sala
And then another example, which has been much focused somehow intuitively but yet focused on this issues is a film I did called, Làk-kat in Senegal about three children who are speaking Wolof, a local, the very important language in Senegal, that over the course of time, during the French colonization, it lost all its terms for primary colors, like red, blue, yellow, green.

17:34
William J. Simmons
Well I think, I think they're all connected  in an investigation of power structures in a certain way, not always in an obvious or not necessarily obvious, but not always in a didactic fashion.

17:51
Anri Sala
Yeah.

17:52
William J. Simmons
That reminds me of a quote from you where you say that, you're hoping to create moments of doubt where there are too many certainties, and moments of certainty, when there are too many doubts. And this also gets me to an inherently political question about irony, because I do think that, not to harp on, it's not about postmodernism per se, but I think that we as viewers, whether we are lay people or art historians or music historians or what have you, we're always looking for that critical element, that ironic element, that self-aware element.

18:29
William J. Simmons
And I love in this quote that you're talking about, not only creating doubt, but creating certainty, so I'd love to hear you talk more about that. And also, if you see any certainty here at the Cistern?

18:42
Anri Sala
Well I think, the main, so to say, the main character in the film, in the world that is presented in this Cistern is the- I keep on saying of the turntable, but actually it's the stylus, that is, it's a little bit like a woodpecker.

19:01
Anri Sala
So that's the main character, and somehow that's what it does, just in the moments where everything is lost, meaning, what are the mathematical possibilities that it will fall back in place, and play music? So in the middle of all this uncertainty, it's able to arrive to length and to play the music in a way that it seems like a real beginning most of the time.

19:24
Anri Sala
Although, in the real piece of music of Messiaen, it's somewhere in between, because it's a very legato, it's a very connected way how the music is written. Or, just in the moment when it looks like finally it can play, that's exactly the moment when it loses it again, it loses traction again.

19:42
Anri Sala
So in that sense, it's just when you have the certainty of a continuity, this is where the rupture is arriving, and when you have this certainty that is going to be a rupture all the time, that's when music comes back. So in a way it's a very cyclic relation, but this is what is happening all the time in Time No Longer. This certainty and doubt and continuity and rupture exchanging places all of the time.

20:14
William J. Simmons
Yeah, I think that exchange is also interesting in terms of your collaborative impulse, but it also makes me want to ask about sincerity. So, being in that space I had a very sort of, sincere and visceral reaction to the- especially in the moments when the lights are out and it's hard to see.
20:40
William J. Simmons
And I wonder about that response in the viewer, or your response to seeing the work, that sort of, space of a sincere reaction, as opposed to, or maybe connected to a critical or intellectual one. So maybe it's a question of sincerity, but also of, what sorts of responses you hope to elicit from the viewer?

21:09
Anri Sala
I would start by saying that at the very beginning, there is this, depending of one comes in, but in the beginning of the loop, one sees this space full of columns, like a forest of columns. It's immense, eventually you might not see the end of it.

21:28
Anri Sala
And then soon, all of a sudden, you see something floating in mid air, in the middle of the space, which is the, thanks to this Hologauze screen, which is translucent, so you can see through, and only the brighter parts of the image are projected on it, and then the black part, you can see through the space.

21:46
Anri Sala
And then there's also this play that I've been doing, with Patrick Gilengeli, the light designer playing with the background. And when you see through more, and when you see through less. In the beginning you see this projection that sometimes it, it materializes, and sometimes it dematerializes. 

22:07
Anri Sala
Sometimes, with the help of the sound, these moments of materialization become even more clear. And then, people start moving around. Like I said, it's like this screen is floating, it's very long, it's 45 meters long, by seven meters, so it almost cuts the space in half, but you don't feel the cutting, because you can see through.

22:29
Anri Sala
And then as you go around, you have these other interruptions which are the columns that they produce this continuous interruption of the image. Somehow your brain has to stitch it back together, to understand what it is, depending on where you choose to stop, or continue to take a stroll.

22:46
Anri Sala
And then the way how we're playing with the lights, when you're still in this first half of the space, it's playing between, being here, being there. Now the whole idea, the machine of the cinema theater or film theater is that, everything is done for you to be elsewhere. And elsewhere is your home, within the time of the film.

23:09
Anri Sala
The columns and the Cistern become the background of the film. But it's at once, it's a landscape, it's a real place. And on that side, between all the- because of the projections, all the play with shadows and lights plus the additional lights that we have, that we program. It just produces this sort of very anatomical body that is breathing, and you don't know whose body it is, because it is like you are already within, you can, you don't have the right distance to understand what you are looking at.

23:37
Anri Sala
So all of a sudden you have this narrative which is mostly all the time, two-dimensional, which is the film. With certain birds of three-dimensionality, when the film is dark and the lights go on in the back, and you can see the space, so the two-dimensionality of the film becomes space.

23:54
Anri Sala
But then as soon as you go around, it's all about the space, and it's all about the anatomy of the background of the film, so to say. So what is behind the film.

24:05
Anri Sala
Also in my work, as well in previous exhibitions, I am very interested in the choreography of the visitor, the pace they choose to go around, how somehow you hint at without obliging, you hint and how you wished at best them to go around it, which pace, where to stop, where to spend longer time, when to move on again.

24:28
William J. Simmons
So I wanted to conclude with one last quote of yours. You are very quotable, which is quite an accomplishment. You say, "What I call a place is where one remembers having been." I wonder how you will relate to the Cistern when you leave Houston, or how you relate to other works that are very dependent on the site.

24:58
William J. Simmons
I think site-specific is maybe an overused and not quite correct term here. But I wonder how you relate to these spaces when you leave them, and if you return to them in any way.

25:12
Anri Sala
Well I think although for example this work whenever it would be shown in the future, in an exhibition or in a totally different context, it definitely won't bring about the same experience, relation. It will be different, not necessarily less or more, just different, because it won't be hosted and surrounded by this magnificent place, which is the Cistern.

25:35
Anri Sala
On the other side, somehow the features of the architectural Cistern are embedded in the work, because like I said, all the rhythm of the silences in between the moment that it plays, are there in a certain duration to make up for what would become the reverb in this place.

25:55
Anri Sala
So in other moments when the film will be shown elsewhere, it's no longer- the silences are still the same, they are there, but they are no longer inhabited by the reverb of the Cistern, they will be inhabited by their reverb mostly of the film itself, of the space station itself, which we have in the mix of the film.

26:20
Anri Sala
So it will have left its imprint in the way how the rearrangement of the music is constructed in the film. But otherwise, I think a place like the Cistern is quite extraordinary because or- maybe even becomes even more so in moments of- after this one year of a pandemic, where we were all or maybe not all, but many of us, we were, it was so different- you are there, you are alone, spending time within a space with yourself.

26:57
Anri Sala
So that was a fantastic transition, because you are still in a space which is real, but extremely mental. It's as big as it can be, but it just, you can contain it within a blink of your eye.

27:13
William J. Simmons
I think that is a wonderful way to put it, and a wonderful way to conclude. Thank you so much for doing this with me.

28:19
Anri Sala
Thank you, Will. It was a pleasure.


About Anri Sala
Anri Sala (b. 1974 in Tirana, Albania) lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He was educated at the National Academy of Arts, Tirana; the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris; and Le Fresnoy, Studio National des Arts Contemporains in Tourcoing. His works investigate ruptures in language, syntax, and music in order to validate or invalidate narrative and composition, inviting creative dislocations which generate new interpretations of history, supplanting old fictions with new, less explicit, and less duplicitous ones. Learn more about Anri Sala's work here.

About William J. Simmons
William J. Simmons is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles and New York. He has degrees in art history and gender studies from Harvard and the University of Southern California. His first book, Queer Formalism: The Return, was published in 2021 by Floating Opera Press.

Special thanks to Weingarten Art Group, The StoryHive; Christian D. Bruun and Teresa Lai
Photographs by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

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