Interview with Roland Groenenboom | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU
CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU: How did the idea of SONIC YOUTH etc. : SENSATIONAL FIX come up?
ROLAND GROENENBOOM: The idea came up in 2000, when the exhibition Kim's Bedroom, that was curated by Kim Gordon, was presented at MU in Eindhoven (Holland). It was a small exhibition, where artists like Tamra Davis, Cameron Jamie, Mark Gonzales, Susan Cianciolo and others where asked to create works in situ. At the time I knew Sonic Youth as a music band. Working in this exhibition I met Kim and Thurston Moore and we stayed in touch. When I coordinated the exhibition and designed the space for Kim's Bedroom, it became clear to me that there was something more behind Sonic Youth. I could see that they were more than a music band; there were a lot of connections among the disciplines of the art world and them, collaborations of the band or its members separately and other artists.
So I thought that it would be a good idea to organize an exhibition around this phenomonon, since up to that moment they had participated in group exhibitions and projects, but there hadn't been any exhibition mapping the Sonic Universe, that shows the band as a cultural producer and diffusor in the whole cultural field.
I wrote a mail to Kim Gordon asking if they would be interested in organizing an exhibition with me about Sonic Youth, their collaborations and other artists they liked. The group is an absolute democracy; they only do something if everybody wants to do it. Within a few hours I got her reply: yes.
Thus we began to choose the artists. We started out with 300 artists and in the end we limited the list to about 120. It was a total collaboration between the band and me, we worked together very closely, which was great.
C.G.: What's the idea behind the title?
R.G.: At first we were thinking about using a Sonic Youth song title that would have the power to suggest what the exhibition is about. Thurston Moore proposed SONIC YOUTH etc. : SENSATIONAL FIX.
"Sensational Fix" comes from the beatnik poets, who were talking a lot about "fix". If you look the word up in a dictionary, you come across 20 or more explanations, negative and positive ones; but the idea is positive: a fixation, an obsession and more things.
"Sonic Youth etc." was a way of saying that it is not just about Sonic Youth. This "etc." is all the people they've worked with during the past three decades...
C.G.: ...it's the entire Sonic Youth universe...
R.G.: Yes, that's why this "etc" is so important.
C.G.: So, let's talk about this "etc.": In the exhibition there are Sonic Youth albums, video recordings, art works in different media; moreover, there are works by group members and artists they've worked with or they got inspired by or just liked. Is there a common denominator in all this? A "Sonic Youth" aesthetic?
R.G.: Thurston Moore said that beat literature, avant-garde art and music, Conceptual Art, underground poetry, noise music... all are reflected in the production of Sonic Youth, and that he hopes that none of these elements is more important than the other.
Likewise, in the exhibition all the artworks are put together, without differentiating among very famous artists and young artists, visual artists or musicians. Everybody has the same value in the exhibition, no matter how high their value in the art world is.
There's a lot of different aesthetics and they all have the same importance. But if we had to define this aesthetic with one phrase, it would be "Do It Yourself"; or with just one word "collage".
All the artists presented, that form just a fraction of the Sonic Universe, share this aesthetic and are relevant to this universe.
C.G.: This relevance often comes from the collaboration of Sonic Youth with visual artists -like Richard Prince, for example- during their 30 year trajectory in discography. The vinyl was an apt medium for the diffusion of art, whereas today's musicians, that release their music through Internet, will not have this opportunity in the future...
R.G.: I believe that they will.
I think that the size of the vinyl record is the minimum size that an art object can have, in order to have a significant presence.
What has lost its importance is the CD, because as an object it doesn't have this quality. Vinyl is important in the production of the band and their peers. That is why in the exhibition catalog there are two vinyl discs, instead of a CD.
The vinyl disk has a quality that is too good to be lost and there's a new generation of collectors, musicians and artists that are interested in it; in the exhibition there are works by Nate Young, Dennis Tyfus and others that work with limited vinyl editions.
C.G.: At the same time, judging from my own experience, I can say that the record sleeves and the vinyl disks constitute a very strong link to contemporary art; for example, I saw a work by Mike Kelley for the first time when I bought "Dirty" and a work by Raymond Pettibon on the "Goo" cover...
Do you believe that through these collaborations Sonic Youth help the artists reach a wider public?
R.G.: Lee Ranaldo said that "One thing that's really important to us is this notion of inclusion: our career is not just about our little band driving a wedge through the world, it's kind of a journey you go on and you want to take as many people as possible."
Sonic Youth do not have the "rock star" attitude. They want to collaborate and share experiences with other people, presenting artists or other music bands -as was the case with Nirvana, that were "discovered" by Thurston Moore.
My dream for this exhibition was that the Sonic Youth fans, who come to the exhibition, find more than a guitar band with their record sleeves and vice versa, that the art world lives a new experience they didn't expect to find in a museum. That both audiences would be surprised still, despite their knowledge of their field of specification.
C.G.: Do you have an idea about what kind of impact the exhibition has upon people and how the public interacts with the works?
R.G.: The people like it, not just the people from the art world, but the fans as well. They stay for a long time in the exhibition, looking at the artworks or interacting with them -for example, there's works like "Reverse Karaoke", where people can play music to the recorded voice of Kim Gordon.
When it comes to visitor numbers, it has been incredible: 23.000 in Düsseldorf, 90.000 in Malmö, 33.000 in Saint-Nazaire -which is a 3 hours ride far from París, 12.000 in Bolzano. They're very big numbers, especially if we consider that in many cases the exhibition took place in peripheral art centers.
C.G.: It's interesting that although the nucleus of the exhibition is the same, people might perceive certain art works in a different manner...
R.G.: The nucleus is the same, but the way of presenting the works and of making connections between groups of works is different. For me it is interesting to find new ways of presenting the exhibition, according to the space and context.
C.G.: It is a work in progress, therefore. Are there plans for future exhibitions in Europe or the United States?
R.G.: Yes, for the United States.
C.G.: It's interesting that the exhibition has started in Europe and was presented here before it heads to Sonic Youth's home country.
R.G.: As David Byrne wrote in his blog, Sonic Youth is an "art collective" for the Europeans, whereas in the United States they're more like a rock band. On the other hand, since the exhibition has already been presented in Europe five times, the Americans fear that it wouldn't attract so much press coverage, as an exhibition presented for the first time would have.
But the exhibition is never the same; every time there are changes in the content -some new works come and some others go. And this is important, because Sonic Youth keep on working, playing and creating, therefore it is not a historical exhibition about Sonic Youth. In every exhibition there's two new artists designing the posters; in Madrid they were designed by Nate Young and Rita Ackermann.
C.G.: Like a Sonic Youth concert: with new songs, old ones...
R.G.: ...And new ways of playing and performing them. It is interesting to see how they treat their guitars -aesthetically and functionally. They always have a lot of guitars and adapt them to their tastes, tuning them differently, experimenting with the sound. For example, if you put a drumstick below the strings, it sounds differently. They treat the guitar like John Cage treated the piano, putting screws between the strings to change the sound. In the exhibition we also have Tacita Dean's work about the performance by Merce Cunningham of the piece 4'33" by John Cage, the vinyl disks by Michael Morley, that are music disks with painted surfaces, and if you would play them they produce different sounds, losing the original sound on it. Or the vinyl etchings by Lee Ranaldo, that are new in the show.
It is a collage of artists and works...
Roland Groenenboom is the curator of the exhibition SONIC YOUTH etc.: SENSATIONAL FIX. For further information, see http://sensationalfix.blogspot.com/
The exhibition SONIC YOUTH etc.: SENSATIONAL FIX is presented at the Centre of Art 2 de Mayo in Madrid (February 3, 2010 - May 2, 2010). For more information, see http://www.madrid.org/centrodeartedosdemayo/exposiciones/sonic.html
Relevant article in InterArtive: Christina Grammatikopoulou, "A leading role for the audience: Kim Gordon’s sonic challenges and visual reflections", Interartive #7, February 2009