There’s no doubt that multimedia artist Tony Oursler is one of our time’s most saluted artists: he’s had more than 200 solo exhibitions worldwide and his works are part of the most recognized public collections globally including MoMA, New York, Tate London and Cartier Foundation, Paris.
Since the beginning, Oursler has created a world of his own using the media of film and projection to explore topics such as mental illness and popular culture in a three-dimensional space. His visuals may have been the eye-catching part of his sculptures, but now he’s releasing a collection of some of the words that have accompanied his visuals during his more than 30-year-long career.
Lars Byrresen Petersen: Your new book Vox Vernacular consists of transcripts from your works. Why did you decide to make a book of texts?
Tony Oursler: It seems an obvious choice in retrospect, language has been part of the work forever. In many artworks the text functions as kind of shadow appendage, but my works often speak for themselves. This particular book was inspired by and initiated by my good friends Denis Gielen and Laurence Dujardyn from the Grand-Hornu in Belgium, who just launched a major exhibition of new and old works. They wanted to produce a book which would have an existence somehow outside of the exhibition, and it was really their idea.
LBP: How was the process of gathering these texts? What was the criteria?
TO: I organized the texts chronologically, and loosely around bodies of work. For example, single channel video tapes, installations from the 80s such as L7-L5 and spillchamber, talking lights, electronic effigies aka dolls and dummies, large scale installations such as Lock 2,4,6 and the influence machine. This was done all keeping an organic flow and variety in mind, but overall it was to represent a good selection of the writing as well and to somehow reflect my favorite works. The book represents only some of my writings, and it was often a detective game, I had to laboriously go back to make video and audio tapes to transcribe the works.
LBP: What does language add to your pieces and why is it a crucial part of your work?
TO: Thats a good question, I’m not sure if I can answer that. While I was working on the book I mentioned to numerous people that I was collecting my scripts, and I noticed a blank stare on their face. I quickly realized that people had never really thought of the language in my work as scripts, or maybe ignored it all together. Very little of it is actually improvisational. But I suppose some people may read it as stream of consciousness extemporaneous babble, which of course I like about it. A lot of the new pieces are kind of connected to my interest in neurology. I read somewhere recently that the brain can’t actually read and see a picture at the same time, so there is a profound separation between language and image. But at the same time, I have done a lot of work that exploits the hallucinogenic effects of language, for example using characters who describe elaborate scenarios in works like the director which was a fantastical movie director, who could be confused with a godlike figure.
LBP: Can you give us a short paragraph from one of the transcripts?
TO: From Telling Visions 1995
I can’t really make out what I am saying at this point.
Now I have become a landscape.
Barren, with cracked mud.
Going off as far as the eye can see.
Now I am a family in an old Chevy, stopped on the side of the road.
We’re spilling out of the car for a rest stop.
[ Laughs. ]
There’s something growing out of my chest.
There’s a large object trying to force its way out of my chest and the skin is cracking.
Blood trickles out of the cracks and.
I’m bending back in pain.
My mouth flies open and I scream.
The credits are rolling.
There’s some sort of harmonica music.
Now I’m three little girls watching a mechanical horse walk down a small path.
The horse has long human like hair.
Now I’m a small mannequin on top of the horse, waving at the other girls.
Somebody’s put a, put a rag over my head.
Now three or four guys are holding me.
They’re beating me.
We’re in a classroom.
As I, as I begin to… hit myself.
Now there are animated flowers standing akimbo.
Their leaves as though hands, slapping each other five.
There’s a large animated scene of seeds coming out of the flowers.
Now the flowers are dancing.
I’m out in the suburbs now.
I’m picking up the newspaper in a sunny, emerald, grassy yard.
I’m asking you all to take out bank loans.
Now I’m a young woman in her twenties, eating cereal, talking to myself.
Now raisins are falling.
Now apples and cinnamon are falling.
I’m talking to a cockatoo.
Cereal boxes are flying.
I’m laughing, so is the cockatoo.
There’s a man in a black suit.
Yes, I’m in a black suit.
I’m shooting a gun.
Now I’m five or six people in an old cowboy bar having a fist fight.
Somebody calls cut, and we all stop.
Now I’m a group of children, eating hot dogs.
There’s an incredible special effect where there’s light coming out of my finger tips.
A flame coming out of the car.
Rollerblades flying in the air.
An insignia bursting into flames.
A rocket being launched.
Now there are some sort of credits.
There’s a candybar.
I’m a candybar, being eaten but I can’t see how I am being eaten.
It’s some sort of animation process.
Candy bars just showing teeth marks and getting smaller.
Now I’ve got a candle lighted, and I’m looking at a…
…Some sort of ancient inscription, looks like almost a manhole cover.
But its obviously from another era.
Now I hold the candle up to a box.
I’m a young man with black hair in a sporting outfit.
I open up the old box.
I lift a cloth and there’s some sort of metallic jewelry in the box, attached to the cloth.
There’s an old leather book with some symbols pounded into the cover.
I open the book.
I see pentagrams and circular diagrams.
Now I’m a maid with long red hair and a bandana, dusting some old artifacts that I find on top of a
I pull out a box from a shelf, dust off the top.
Its quite dusty.
LBP: Where do you find inspiration for you writing; is it the same place as for the visuals?
TO: Well one thing that will be apparent from the book, is that my practice involves a great deal of research. My artwork for better or worse, is one of my main ways of interacting with the world and trace my interests in our relationship to belief systems and how they are constructed, the ways in which we incorporate technology into our deeply personal activities, how narrative is created and deconstructed, and so on. While researching this material, of course I am developing visual and sculptural motifs, but also keeping an eye on how language is used, for example one of my favorite moments was discovering the lingo that broadcasters and ham radio operators use to discuss signals and other themes germane to their activities. When I was working on my Bubble or pet series, I really listened to the way people spoke to animals or lovers, I wanted to find a way of imparting a sort of embarrassing intimacy to the viewer. In the 90s I got way into glossolalia.
LBP: I read somewhere that you actually consider yourself a closeted writer. Can you elaborate? Could we expect a collection of poetry or a novel at some point?
TO: I come from a family of writers, my father wrote numerous books, worked for readers digest, edited the book ROOTS by Alex Haley, and started a magazine Angels on Earth. My grandmother on my mothers side of the family was a librarian, my grandmother and grandfather on my fathers side, wrote probably combined over a 100 books concerning mystery, religion, and romance. So you see, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I see myself as a kind of cracked writer. The reason I consider myself a closet writer is because I have a great respect for writers, and I have a hard time seeing myself as one. Although I have written some things that for lack of a better word might be called essays, and i would eventually like to collect those in to a book as well. I included two of them in Vox Vernacular, just to open it up. But I’m keenly aware that language functions as just one element of my works, it was never really meant to stand alone. So its interesting to see these texts like a snail unshelled, withering in the sun, I’m not sure whether it will survive. The performers delivery of the language, the way that the language is often randomly mixed together in the installations, and the language is often quite difficult to hear – all this can’t really be translated onto the page, but we hint at it with some beautifully executed design choices, which were made by Casier/Fieuws, they just did a such an amazing job with the printing and layout, and were so sensitive to the texts, I actually cried when I saw the book.
LBP: The book also contains “scholarly” essays. Are you the author or those and what do they discuss?
TO: One of the more difficult parts of the book was working with Billy Rubin on the descriptions of the various bodies of work. We wanted to keep these simple and to the point but actually really described what the works meant to me and this kind of anchors the text. Denis and Laurence also wrote lovely essays related to my process.
LBP: Tell us a little about what’s going to happen on the 21st?
TO: On the 21st I wanted to gather together artists and performers, the really incredibly creative individuals I’ve had the chance to work with over the years, who have been so kind as to give voice to my dogroll, and renimate some of the texts at the library. We will have some very simple video clips to accompany the live material. The way its planned now, people will read approximately five minute excerpts. Performing will be Tony Conrad, Constance DeJong, Jim Fletcher, Joe Gibbons, Kim Gordon, Josie Keefe, Tracy Leipold, Brandon Olson, Jason Scott, and Holly Stanton.
Tony Oursler launches his new book with a great performance (as described above) at the New York Public Library on May 21st. For more info click here.