Recto/Verso: Michael Snow on the page and on the record
The "Walking Woman" works, Wavelength, Flightstop, La Region Centrale, The Audience, Corpus Callosum – these iconic works in painting, sculpture, film and video by Canadian artist Michael Snow have been recognized internationally for their wit, originality and their contributions to the advancement of the language of visual art. Since the 1950s, Snow's art has challenged viewers' ways of perceiving physical and photographic space and, as he approaches the age of 83, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Among Snow's lesser-known works, however, are several recordings and bookworks that deserve as much recognition as his sculptures, films and videos. In books such as Cover to Cover (1975), which is arguably among the most important and innovative photo-based artists' books ever produced, or recordings with the experimental CCMC music group, visual and aural ideas that come to fruition in the sculptures or films are worked out on the page or within the grooves of vinyl records. An awareness of Snow's artists' books and recordings are essential to an understanding of his practice as a whole. Here, artist and regular Magenta contributor Dave Dyment talks with Snow about these aspects of his practice.
By Dave Dyment
Dave Dyment (DD): I was reading an old issue of October in which you were speaking with Annette Michelson about the distribution of your recordings, and she asked you to clarify a previous statement where you seemed to be distinguishing between your recorded output and your ‘art’. She recalled you saying that, while the records were available at art centres such as Printed Matter, Art Metropole and “places that have to do with art”, they were not art.
Michael Snow (MS): Hmmm… I don’t think I meant that.
DD: The clarification that you made with her was that you wanted another entry point for people, so that listeners who weren’t particularly interested in the visual arts, but liked experimental music. could have a way in; that they could stand alone, without the baggage of the art world. Does that sound right?
MS: It’s a strange thing because I would want the music to be available to as many people as possible, yes. It’s odd that this should come up, in a way, because I met a guy about a year ago who claimed that he could sell the CCMC recordings. We put out many recordings on Music Gallery Editions, which hardly sold at all. When I left the board of the Music Gallery in the 1980s, I took all of the boxes of unsold records and they’ve been in my basement ever since.
Anyway, this guy thought that there was an audience for the material and I recently got an e-mail from him proving that he was right. He has $1,400 for us, because they have been selling, and people in Japan in particular are very interested in the CCMC material. So, this has initiated a series of emails between us about the older recordings. For the last fifteen years, CCMC has been John Oswald, Paul Dutton and myself, and recently John Kamevaar has rejoined us. The other guys – Casey Sokol, Al Mattes and Nobby Kubota – we haven’t played together in a long time, except for the rare occasion. So, we have to discuss what to do with this recent windfall. (lLaughs)
I suggested to the rest of the guys that we republish Volume 3, which is musically very good and long gone. According to Al, there was a distributor in New York that took the entire edition of 500 and promptly went bankrupt. The efforts to get the records back failed and so most of them have disappeared. It’s the one with the red cover that I designed, with the series of possible things that the initials CCMC might stand for.
DD: Because you’ve never really liked the name Canadian Creative Music Collective.
MS: Well… right from the beginning, we thought it was useful for getting grants, but not for much else.
DD: (Laughs) It certainly sounds like a grant-friendly name.
MS: Canadian Catholic Men’s Choir is better.
DD: Are the masters still around? Would you issue it on vinyl or CD?
MS: All of the Music Gallery recordings up to a certain date are in the York archives. Over the years, Casey has been listening to them and digitizing them. So, we could find the original masters. The question of format is another thing that came up in our email discussion. Casey thought that it should be a CD and I said that it should be vinyl, the same as the original. He might not have realized that CDs are possibly on their way out.
DD: CDs are gone. They were a transitional media in between records as objects and virtual digital music, and they have few defenders or enthusiasts.
MS: I suppose, yeah. I think that CDs could still sell to classical music and jazz audiences, whereas downloading an mp3 is a popular music thing. I think most jazz nuts want the packaging and information alongside the music.
DD: For me, that’s possibly the distinction between your ‘music’ records and your ‘art’ records – the packaging. The ones that feel like artworks are the ones where the cover is wholly integrated.
MS: The Chatham Square (Music For Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape, 1972) and The Last LP (1987)? Yes. I’ve been thinking about putting out The Last LP again on vinyl, with a sticker on it saying “Sorry, I was wrong”. (Laughs) Or, call it The Last LP CD LP.
DD: The other thing that distinguishes those two records is that they’re both about the medium of recording.
MS: Both records really tried to work with all of the possible elements to create a unity.
DD: Sinoms (1989), I suppose, falls into the category of Sound Art more than experimental music, though the packaging for it takes the opposite approach of The Last LP and Music For Piano, in that it is entirely under-packaged. It doesn’t even come with a CD booklet. Was that a deliberate move, to under-design it?
MS: Well, it began with an invitation to participate in an exhibition in Quebec City on an anniversary of the founding of the city, and I thought I would make something that had a relationship to the history of the province. I came across this list of all of the mayors of Quebec City. It turned out to be a very interesting list because the names were sometimes archaic French names like Télesphore and Elzéar Bédard – he was the first one. Then there are some names that are written the same way, but are pronounced differently in French or in English, or some Irish names. So, the list turns out to be a bit of a history of the city. And, there’s a mixture of French, English and Irish so I asked twenty people with different backgrounds and relationships to the languages to read the list, which I recorded. I started with people in Toronto, who said that they didn’t read or speak French at all, so they really screwed up the pronunciation, but it became an interesting ‘take’ or ‘rendition’ of the list. Then there are Anglophones who speak some French, but are not bilingual. It ran the scale. I happened to meet a Francophone from Ontario and had him record a reading, too, and then I added Quebecers that spoke English and some that didn’t and also added some readers from France.
So, I made a composition using the different pronunciations. There were men and women readers, so I had soprano and tenors, and I made little choirs out of the recordings by superimposing the recordings. Sinoms is a studio multi-track recording using the recordings of the list of mayors. It existed in a couple of manifestations. First as part of the catalogue and then later a version was published by Art Metropole.
DD: Does that happen often? Didn’t Blackwood Galleries recently reissue Two Radio Solos?
MS: Yeah, Two Radio Solos (1980/88) I put out myself originally, on cassette, and then Christof Migone suggested he could help do it as a CD and make it part of an exhibition that he was working on. But, I tried to retain the original design, which was hard-to-read typewriter.
DD: The Last LP is almost all about the packaging, which slowly reveals the conceit. It contains a lot of writing.
MS: It’s in the same family as the Music For Piano record, in that a text is included that is meant to be as interesting as the music it accompanies.
DD: Did the writing of the text come first, or were you experimenting in the studio?
MS: I worked for about a year in my studio with a whole bunch of tape recorders set up. Whenever I could, I would work for a few hours, and gradually it accumulated over a period of a year, I think it was. I did everything myself except a few things that I needed the Music Gallery Studio for, but nobody else plays on it. One of the two African pieces is all drumming, which is multi-tracked. I played all the drums, and the one that seems to be a bunch of women’s voices, that’s all my voice.
DD: Falsetto or pitch-shifted?
MS: There was a device that you could use to change the pitch without changing the duration.
DD: An early version of the now-ubiquitous auto-tune.
MS: It was really a lot of fun doing it. Part of the inspiration of doing it was playing totally freely improvised music with the CCMC, partly because of the varied backgrounds of the people involved, which led to associations of other musics. This perhaps wasn't intentional, but when we’d listen back people would say, “Wow, that really sounds Chinese (it’s pentatonic)” or that kind of stuff. I never tried to turn that on, it was just the result of the brewing of completely improvised music. Then Casey did a tour in Asia and he bought a whole bunch of extraordinary cymbals and gongs, adding them to the instrumentation of the group. One of our initial goals was to have as wide a sonic palette as possible. So, we had all of these gongs, lots of percussion, including kettledrums and xylophones. Playing these gongs made me think of doing a kind of representation of this music, without copying, but using the spirit of certain musics that are only available on recordings.
DD: To me, it draws out the paradox of using new high-tech equipment to capture raw, primitive sounds. Like Alan Lomax out in the Appalachian Mountains with a 300-pound recording device capturing mothers singing lullabies to their children.
MS: Yeah, it’s sort of an imitation of that.
DD: And, there you are as a Lomax-type figure on the cover.
MS: That’s me as “Mischa Cemep”, which I think is Russian for 'snow'.
DD: Had you done much research, collecting records in advance?
MS: Over the years I had acquired quite a few recordings of Indian and African music that I found quite interesting. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in any way but I had some exposure through the Polydor and UNESCO recordings, which were sort of a model for The Last LP.
DD: And, the decision to move it to CD? Does the reissue become a translation in a way, a different piece? Like the new version of Wavelength (1967) that you made, called Wavelength, For Those That Don’t Have the Time (2003).
MS: Well, in relation to the current debate within CCMC about recordings, I brought up again the idea of reprinting The Last LP, which I think I would do as vinyl. Perhaps with the joke addition of the sticker, saying I was wrong.
DD: One of the elements of The Last LP was that it was not only memorializing the dying (fictional) cultures but also the medium of vinyl records themselves.
MS: We’ve all been victimized by obsolesce. In my career I’ve made a large number of 16mm films that soon will not be showable. I’ve been trying to save them, but the various means of saving them is also constantly changing, from Digital Beta to HDCam and so on. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently bought two of my 1970s slide works, Sink (1970) and Slide Length, but they bought them with the kind of hedging comment that they couldn’t show them because they’re slides, which are essentially obsolete and you can’t really make them anymore.
DD: Am I right in thinking that A Survey, which is sort of a hybrid artist book-exhibition catalogue, is your first publication?
MS: It is. I think of it as a bookwork, I did design it as a work, but it also has all of the other aspects of a catalogue.
DD: It’s not uncommon to have a monograph or exhibition catalogue made with the artist’s involvement now, and to have it include elements of an artists’ book but, in 1970, that must have seemed pretty unique. The special edition came with multiples, a poster….
MS: Right, but it’s still not a ‘pure’ work, like Cover to Cover, because it does contain information.
DD: To me, the mangled catalogue imagery from the poster hints at some of the things later explored in Cover to Cover.
MS: Yeah. There were two versions of the book. There was a limited edition in a plastic box and we were supposed to make a hundred, but I think we made three or four. (Laughs)
DD: The plexi-boxed edition was incomplete?
MS: Well, maybe they did ten, but I know that we didn’t do them all. That one was more of an artists’ book than the ‘trade edition’, so to speak.
DD: But even the regular edition included a series of photographs uncommon to exhibition catalogues, the snapshots of the ‘photo biography’. There was one that particularly struck me. You were a little boy and you had just learned that if you stuck your feet out you could manipulate the photograph by foreshortening the perspective.
MS: That’s right. I had my sister take that photograph.
DD: It seems particularly prophetic to much of your later work.
DD: Well, there’s the recent publication of your aunt Dimple’s photo album. Is it a straight facsimile or are there interventions?
MS: It’s a very good facsimile. Maurizio [Nannucci] asked me if I was interested in putting something out on his Zona imprint and I had been thinking about this thing for a while, but it documents such an entirely different world that I was unsure if it could be of interest to other people. But, I think in a strange, sort of ethnographic way, it can be. The original book was called Scraps for the Soldiers and it was an empty book that one was invited to put photographs in and then send it to a loved one fighting in the [First World] war.
DD: So that title wasn’t yours? That was what Eaton’s titled the blank book?
MS: Yes, everything is reproduced exactly as it was, other than the identifier on the cover. The idea was that you’d send it to your brother or father, whoever was in France, fighting the war at the time. My aunt bought one and put her photographs in it, from those years, starting, I think ,in 1916. Her brother, my father, was in the war. But, she never mailed it.
DD: There’s quite a lot of happiness in the book, so you wonder if this was a testament to joy despite the war, or if it was deliberately designed to cheer up the soldiers.
MS: The photographs were taken in the summertime. My grandfather’s family used to go to the Royal Muskoka, one of those huge hotels in the wilderness. They were very big, with golf courses and good cuisine. A lot of these pictures were taken in relation to that time, which was admittedly unusual for the Ontario of that era. So, I think you’re right, they weren’t necessarily unhappy times. These are also all real snapshots, with none of the strain that would have been evident a few years earlier. This was a camera that was easy to shoot.
DD: That’s interesting. So, the joy in the pictures was a possible result of being photographed because it was still an uncommon occurrence at the time.
MS: I think the images are from between 1916 to 1919.
DD: I recall thinking that the dates indicated that book was in use well after the war. That when it missed its chance to be sent to a soldier, it just became a scrapbook. Is it your most recent artist’s book?
DD: And 56 Tree Poems (1999) was eight years prior?
MS: Yes. That book was done for a publishing house called Imschoots, which is in Ghent, Belgium. They produce only art books, with a fantastic catalog of publications. I had had a big show at the Palaise de Beaux Arts and they asked me to do something. This one is built from photographs that I took in the winter just looking up through branches. They become these extraordinary – well, I think they are – drawings or engravings in a way.
DD: How did they get described as poems?
MS: Well, I think you can read them. Each one is a different situation, visually, and they actually do contain words if you want to look for them. And, the placement of the individual photos is part of the way that the book is read, too, with comparisons between adjacent pages in different ways.
DD: There was a twenty-year gap between Highschool (1979) and 56Tree Poems. Was there a reason you stopped producing books?
DD: You did a series of advertisement projects for Impulse, Photo-Communique, C Magazine, and I guess the first was the Walking Woman ad in the Village Voice.
MS: Yeah, and also Av Isaacs put out some books of poetry, which I designed. Ray Souster, a Toronto poet made a book called A Place of Meeting, which I contributed some drawings too. They were not unlike Highschool, in that they were done fairly swiftly.
DD: The book presents itself as though it could actually be a straight facsimile, like Scraps For the Soldiers, of your own high school notebooks, the way that Konig Books reprinted George Brecht’s notebooks from the time when he was a student in John Cage’s class at the New School for Social Research. But, you soon realize that these were not drawings that you made in high school. You’ve mentioned the pun in the title. Did you consider these drawings and doodles you might make while stoned?
MS: In the old days, I don’t know how far back now, I used to smoke dope, occasionally. Before playing, and also socially, it was pretty common. And, for some reason – and with other people around – I would do these kinds of drawings and it seemed an interesting subject for a book. And, when I was in school I did doodle in my notebooks.
DD: Cover to Cover (1975) is not only considered your best artist’s book, but is widely thought of as the best artists’ book, ever.
MS: Well, I certainly go along with that. (Laughs) The Nova Scotia College of Art and Design began a press with Kasper Konig as the director, and they put out some really wonderful things, which were mostly artists’ statements about their work. I was asked to do something, which was very nice but I thought, I don’t want to do that. I want to do a work. I didn’t want something about my work, but something that was an example of it. So, I proposed it to them and began looking at books for their, well, bookishness. One thing is that the pages are two-sided. There’s always an ‘other’ side. That led me to the idea of having two cameras take a subject, placing one image on one side, and the other camera’s view on the opposing side, exactly the same size. Then, you get a true physical contact with the two-dimensionality of photographs, and you experience the compression that’s involved in photography, which mostly vanishes in the face of the realism of it. Just that basic formal principal led to a variety of things – the recto-verso, for example. The whole story is of me leaving my house and driving someplace, which was the Isaacs Gallery, to pick up a copy of the book. So, the book is presented as a fait accompli by showing the book to the reader.
DD: It’s a pretty complex piece. How do you think it managed the universal – ahem, amongst the small artists’ book community – appeal? Is it the bookishness? If one were to present a single title to explain an artists’ book, it would be Cover to Cover. Is it because it’s so much about the codex?
MS: That, and it’s also completely visual. The only text in it is the credit line to the publisher. The fact that it’s a visual thing, like a quasi-movie, is maybe what makes it so distinctive. There are a lot of artists’ books and a lot of them are very good, I guess this has a certain purity because of its concentration on the recto-verso principle.
DD: There was talk at one point, when the NSCAD Press started up again, of reprinting the book.
MS: Maybe reprinting it was discussed but it never happened. But, there’s a publisher in New York who put out, recently, a boxed set of facsimile reprints of Avalanche magazine. Whoever that publisher is worked at Printed Matter for a while, and he asked me about reprinting Cover to Cover with them. What they did with Avalanche was really wonderful. It’s worth thinking about. But, I can never find the time to revisit these earlier works because I have so many new things I’d rather concentrate on.
In recognition of Snow's 2011 win of the Gershon Iskowitz Prize, Objects of Desire, an exhibition of 14 works, opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, on July 18 and runs until December 8, 2012.
Dave Dyment is a Toronto-based artist whose practice includes audio, video, multiples, performance, writing and curating. His work has been exhibited in Calgary, Dublin, Edmonton, Halifax, New York City, Philadelphia, Surrey, Toronto and Varna, Bulgaria. He recently authored and edited (with Gregory Elgstrand) the book One for Me and One to Share: Artists' Multiples and Editions (YYZ Books). Dave is represented by MKG127 in Toronto, and blogs about artists' books and multiples at www.artistsbooksandmultiples.blogspot.com.