Around 9:30am on the Monday after Thanksgiving, MoMA is its typical hub of pre-opening activity. Employees rush through the smaller of its 53rd Street entrances and into the waiting elevators. Conservation and installation staff pace the galleries, washing dirty fingerprints off the white walls, checking that artworks are in their intended states.
Coming up the escalator to the second floor an unexpected sound rises above the din: a piano, playing fragments of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." A black grand piano sits in the imposing MoMA atrium alongside pieces by Kara Walker and Yoko Ono that have, by now, been removed. At first the instrument seems to be playing all by itself. Coming around to face it, one gets the full effect: a young man (a Juilliard student, I learn later) dressed in all-black with stylish white-rimmed glasses, stands in a hole that's been cut into the piano, playing it upside-down and inside-out. His slumped, stretched pose reminds me of Dali's overhead angle on the Crucifixion in "Christ of St. John of the Cross" (1951).
Nearby, another slightly older man dressed entirely in black speaks into his cell phone as he paces the walkway above the museum's ticketing area, where eager tourists are gathering. That's Guillermo Calzadilla, one half of the artist duo Allora & Calzadilla. He's been there for hours already rehearsing "Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano" (2008), which will be performed by five different pianists in the MoMA atrium every hour for a month (December 8 through January 10). He'll be back for more rehearsals that evening, after the museum closes and a private event wraps up. Before going to get some sleep he sits down to talk about the piece, the venue's specific demands, and what he and Jennifer Allora have planned for the 2011 Venice Biennale, where they'll be representing the United States.
The L: How did you find the pianists for this piece?
Guillermo Calzadilla: We did a casting and selected the pianists who were interested in doing this very challenging, very different, absurd task of playing a piano from within and moving it. So they needed to be interested not only in the challenges of the work, but what the work means, what it represents, and it takes a very unique type of trained pianist to be able to do this. Luckily we got amazing pianists, five of them, and each of them is doing a different musical arrangement. Each one is doing a completely different choreography, which means the way they move through the space the way they begin, the way they end, where they stop, each of them has a completely different itinerary. So we have five pianists doing five different choreographies that can be seen as drawings of sorts, especially from the upper floors of the museum when you're looking down.
How much of the performance did you have to modify to fit this space?
Your work often addresses both the material conditions of objects as well as their cultural and historical significance; how do those factors interact in this piece?
It's almost a new exhibition. There's new acoustics in this space and so we have to work with that. We're using speakers in this case; it's our first time using speakers. We're gonna have a concert piano technician come and wire the piano, but of course it's not the same because the piano is moving, so it has to be a wireless mic. Because of that, as the piano moves the sound moves, so we need to find a way to make the sound still feel like it's coming from the instrument, but at the same time be slightly amplified to deal with the acoustics of the space.The space is also completely different, so we needed to design a completely new choreography.
We're very conscious that there's a burden of history, and it's up to you how you want to deal with it. Everything around us has a history to it. This pen that I'm holding in my hand [holds up pen] is not just a pen, but it has a material that came from something, there's an economy that made it develop into the form and function that it has, and somehow it got into here and now I can make a documentary of this object, and see how it has social and cultural significance, but also gravity and shape and weight. We're very much aware of that and interested in it, and also the symbolic dimension of materials, their uses.
In regards to the sculpture itself, it's a grand piano, so it's not just any object. Like you say, it has this very specific cultural history. We wanted to make a cut through the piano, make a whole in the piano, and introduce verticality to the horizontal form of the piano. And of course what that does is it removes two octaves of the functioning keys of the piano and it makes them silent, makes them sound differently because you still hear their ticking: tick, tick, tick and tocking of the keys. So it's not completely silent but it completely negates the musical keys and tones, changing them completely. So this sculptural procedure was done to the object, and its function as we know it has been changed: now the pianist is gonna play from within the piano and is going to be moving the object, so the function of the object as we know it has completely been changed.
We needed to find a piece of music that we could also put a hole through, so that we could make a section of it silent. We knew that it couldn't be any piece of music, it needed to be one specific piece of music, so this sculpture can only play one piece of music. It took us a while to figure out which piece of music; in the end we chose "The Ode to Joy" because of its symbolic and historical uses, and what it seeks to represent and embody in terms of brotherhood, national pride and all of these things. And so we felt like this was the piece of music we wanted to put a hole through. We wanted to put a cut through it, a silence through it. That's basically what happens in this work: it's a combination of this object with this sculptural procedure and this piece of music that has transcribed through it a hole, a silence to it. And so the work sounds incomplete, it sounds unbalanced, it doesn't function the same way it that functioned before, musically. In each of these things we're interested in the symbolic dimension: the fact that this piece of music has a silence in it that it didn't have before; the fact that it doesn't sound the same way that it sounded before; that it sounds out of tune; that it doesn't function the same way it functioned before. All of those things were very interesting to us, playing with the concrete materiality, with things, and playing with the symbolic dimension of things.
Also the piano is a grand piano, so it's heavy: we were interested in this heaviness, the heaviness of this instrument, the heaviness of this music, the heaviness of what the music represents. We wanted this to be felt, to be sensed when the public sees the person pushing the piano. So it's this burden of history, this big heavy thing that you're pushing that has been made partially incomplete and at times it doesn't sound properly. Nevertheless there's this effort to keep moving, to keep pushing. For us it's very important for a work not to make sense. And by that we mean works that don't make sense of the world through logic and reason. Work that has an absurdity to it. At the same time we're very interested in sense and sensing, in terms of emotions and affects. And sound is very important in those terms. Sound can move you. That's a common expression—"it's a moving song"—and that's what we think sound does great. It moves you and before you know what that movement is it becomes language or it becomes something recognizable and you can say "it was a beautiful experience" or "it was an awful experience," before you actually contain it with language and logic it exists as an experience, and we like that very much in this work, and with sound in general.
Most of your work involves addition and combination—adding one object to another—but in this piece you're taking something out rather than adding to it. Was that deliberate on your part?
Completely. We play with two things. With procedures, like cutting something, removing something, adding something, take something and invert it, twist it, bend it. For multiple reasons. Because it changes the way that you see that thing. It changes the function of the thing in question. It changes the understanding of it, it changes the meaning of it, and so these sorts of alterations are very important for us. As long as an object has a scale, volume, weight, function, use, name, it has been frozen in its potential and in what it can be doing, and that's good because then we can all understand what that thing is, how to use it, how to deal with it. We're interested in when that changes. We're interested in when you change the use and function of that form you recognize, you change the way that it looks, you change its use value. That's something that we do often. Transformation, in other words, is very important.
A lot of your works have a very sculptural element, but they also have to be activated by a performer, by a visitor; to what extent does this piece rely on a performer? Can it stand alone as a sculpture?
The work is a combination of sculpture and performance, so it's both. The performance happens for half an hour and then there's another half an hour in which the object stands still, silent, quiet in the space. And then somebody else comes and plays it, so it's important for us that the work has those two moments: the moment of the object being quiet and you can see it, you can see the procedure that has been done to it, you can see it as an object; and then you see it functioning. It's especially important because the work exists like this; you're not going to see a video of the work in a gallery, you're not going to see a photo of the work in a gallery, you're going to see the work functioning this way every time the work gets exhibited.
Can you describe the process that led to this piece? Did you begin with a specific idea? Was there an object that sent you on this route?
Sometimes we have ideas that are developed in a week and are completed like that. Sometimes we have ideas that take maybe two, three years because there's an aspect or component that's just not there yet, and we live with it, and work on it, and live with it until we find a solution or we find a way of completing the piece like a musician would complete a composition or a scientist would complete a formula. With this particular work we had the sculptural procedure determined way, way back. It was simple, cutting a hole through an instrument, which was a piano. And that was that. And then of course we came to: "Okay, well what piece of music are we going to play on it?" And so it took a long time. It couldn't be any piece of music, it had to be one very specific piece of music.
Then, when we were in Istanbul, we made the connection. At that time we were doing research about militarism, music and war. Specifically we were doing research on the Ottoman Empire and how, through wars between the Ottoman Empire and Vienna, music traveled. And so you have pianos being altered and being prepared, and they had bells in the pianos, they had pedals that when you pressed down a stick hit the piano from underneath like a drum. They have all these preparations and all these new tempos from Turkish and Ottoman music that were completely different from Western types of music. And then you see the influence of Ottoman music into Western classical music. So at that time we were doing all this research and then we find out that Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" has a Turkish march in it, in one of the sections that we play in this work. And of course Turkey's not part of the European Union, but "The Ode to Joy" is the anthem of the European Union. And somehow that paradox, that moment, is when we realized this is the perfect pieces of music for that reason, and also for its historical connotations and all the different uses and abuses of this piece of music because of what it represents, because of how it captured the collective imagination in terms of brotherhood and nationality and national pride and things like that. So it took about three years to find this piece of music.
In addition to all these narratives about politics, history, protest and so on, there's a very humorous and playful sensibility in your work; is that combination of tones something you deliberately seek in your work?
I could say that I'm a bit schizophrenic in terms of the range of things that I like, and what makes us even more schizophrenic is that we are two. And Jennifer is also schizophrenic. So there's an abundance of things. That's why I think the combination of our work is so strange. We're very interested in concrete material reality, as opposed to say minimalist artists. There's also an interest in autonomy, which makes no sense when you're thinking of concrete material reality and the culturally based dimension of materials, so how can that happen? Simply because we're two and we like different things. There's never resolution in our work; there is accumulation. In other words, we changed from a time, maybe after the Cold War, of using "or"—"this or that"—to "and," so "this and that, and that, and this and that, and so on." So accumulation is very important for us because we're two and there's an excess of interests and motivations and positions. Absurdity is important and humor is important, and autonomy is important, and politics is important, and hating politics is important, and so we have all of those things in our works.
There seems to be a streak in your work of combining elements to create unified wholes, self-sustaining objects like a piano that one plays from the inside; is this notion of wholeness, of achieving autonomy through hybridity, something you pursue deliberately?
We like glue and adhesives, they're very important to us, and language is a great glue. Because there are two of us and language is required as a means of communication and survival in our case. We see language as a great glue that can help us join things together: etymologies, the origins of words, and how they have developed, how they have changed through time, how we know them now. How can you cut a word in half, how can you bend a word, almost as a sculptural material. So language is a great glue that helps us join things. At the same time we like glue because it's not permanent. Glue eventually falls apart. Entropy is very important with us. We detest permanence. Glue is great in that regards; it's more temporal than welding, let's say. It's been very useful to use language as a glue to make these temporary connections that exist in forms of video and sculptures and performances.
What are you working on for next year's Venice Biennale?
We are working with the body, that's key. The pavilions in Venice are all very nation-based. A few very specific nations have pavilions, and it's all very nation-state oriented. And that's very important to us in how we're handling the exhibition. Another thing is the similarity to the Olympic games: each nation selects their best artists and sends them to compete, and then there's a prize. So we're doing six new projects and all of them take the body as the center, and they involve time. This will be the first moment in the history of the U.S. pavilion exhibition there's been a live component going throughout the entire length of the exhibition. It's going to deal with the Olympic games, the military industrial complex, with the body and there will be lots of absurdity and humor and excess.
Much of your work, including these new pieces for Venice it sounds like, deals with ideas of nationhood, national identity and belonging. Jennifer was born in Philadelphia, but you were born in Cuba, and you're based in Puerto Rico, which is at once part of the United States but not entirely so. What's the significance of nationality for you and your work?
Well, I detest all of those words: nationality, patriotism, because look at what happens with it, the outcome of it. I prefer more temporary terms like friendship or identification or love or capriciousness. All those are terms that can lead to patriotism, but are not so bounded by a fixed structure that involves government and larger scale industries. Puerto Rico's not a compromise, as a location, it's more biographical: I was born in Cuba and my parents left when I was six year old and they traveled to Puerto Rico because my grandfather was there. All my life basically I've been there. And Jennifer and I met in Florence in 1995, a long time ago, and we went to Puerto Rico, but we travel all the time—we haven't been home in six months. It seems like a place where we can think. It's productive for us to be there. And that's a gift, an advantage, when you can choose where you want to live. In a way Puerto's not a place that I would choose, it's where my parents have always been, but luckily it's a place that's productive for us to think about what's around us, think about things that interest us, and produce from there. It's almost like a place where we can recharge our energies and batteries and regain some kind of structure or base to engage things that surround us.
(photo: Jason Mandella, courtesy Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla)