I ask artists about how they work. Artists evolve their own, even unique modes of inquiry. Reflexive, discursive processes promote this development, among them forms of collegial conversation. In leading the roughly hour-long conversations with artists, I crucially draw upon our shared, professional experiences that enable our mutual attention to subtle cues. This collegial familiarity largely transcends disciplinary divisions.
My own artistic mode turned out to be diagrammatic. I make images that are based on texts. I read the notes over and over again until they give up an image, which I call a ‘scenario’. I think about it as the design of a cognitive engine. After the Fractal 3-Line Matrix came about (more about that below), I began to divide the visualization process into two parts, yielding two types of diagrams. First, the intuitive ‘scenario’, then a more analytic ‘matrix’, that breaks out and visually explodes the dimensions of agency my dialogue partner sketched out in our conversation. Having completed both, I show them to the artist whose remarks they are based on, for a reaction to and conversation about, what I have found. Artist reactions may go as far as creating a new work in response. This is currently where the cycle ends. Diagrams function along a number of dimensions: modularity, mobility, the negation of depth (figure absent ground, figures instantiate ground), the definition of the playing field, and implied invitations to act. To satisfy this last, operative dimension, a diagram always needs to be completed by another conversation.The order the text below follows is first a narrative summary of the conversation, then a description of the Fractal 3-Line Matrix, followed by a very brief, maybe poetic text accompanying the scenario.
The conversation with Lou Mallozzi is part of a cycle of ongoing interactions with musicians, composers, and experimental sound artists. This constituency in addition to being artists also often institute, meaning they create frameworks to best deliver their work. These may be ensembles or various types of organizations necessary because the work has very specific requirements, or because adequate organizations don’t exist widely.
Lou, how do you work?
Lou and I met in my office at SAIC, a late afternoon in December of 2015, on a day when we both taught. We have known each other for many years. Over time I’ve seen and heard quite a few presentations of his work. Lou refers to himself an “audio artist”. He speaks three languages and, while he does so no longer, played bass for 20 years until 1990. At the time of our conversation, he had just stepped down as the executive director of the non-profit space he co-founded in 1986, the Experimental Sound Studio (ESS).
It’s impossible to conduct a regular studio practice, Lou brought up first. Everything is channeled through specific projects. He then cited a conversation with artist and sculptor Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, agreeing that “the best pieces come from jokes, non-sequiturs – a single image, idea or moment.” These images might arise suddenly in response to things, to places, and to social relationships. Next came: “I don’t really write music.” Instead, regarding the musical aspects of his practice, he emphasized listening, attending to environmental cues, and permitting parameters to emerge from bodily interactions and relationships with instruments, collaborators, and social settings. He called these behaviors “virtuosic listening strategies.”
Lou sees all relationships as containing built-in ruptures. Examples of his early works include bifurcated, process-based drawings that are the residue of physical acts. He pushed that notion further and continued to cite Process Art as an influence. His work comes out of the interaction with productive impediments, the testing of limits, and the struggle to accomplish something that actually, physically, cannot be done. Lou values the humility this meeting of limits induces and likens it to the productive ignorance experienced when speaking a foreign language.
Language is the through-line in all of Lou’s work. Still, the work revolves around sound, including improvised music and sound, but not exclusively so. He works individually, with collaborators, but also directs others. He conceptualizes projects for radio, theater, or architectural settings, as interventions, performances, installations, or hybrids of the above. His text-based sound works come out of literary experiments, process-based approaches, and performances. At its inception, there was little theorization of sound art by its practitioners. By resisting the umbrella of musical discourse both personally and through founding ESS as a platform, Lou worked towards a position that contains musical aspects but does not frame the work as a composition. Instead, it is set up more broadly, as sonic/linguistic work.
Asked about texts that relate to his work, Lou cited Roland Barthes’ notion of conjured references. Lou specifically referred to S/Z, Barthes’ analysis of Honoré de Balzac’s short story, “Sarrasine”. In it, Barthes reads the syntagmatic flow of Balzac’s narrative through a paradigmatic set of structuring codes he establishes in the course of his analysis. Similarly, Heidegger’s general perception of language as somewhat autonomous entity rings true. Lou summarized that as “language uses us more than we use language.” To Lou, language is a space, not a tool. It is established between interlocutors, weaving dynamic relationships that are continuously reconstructed. Visualized, language is a sphere, made up of meaningful, poetic utterances, before it becomes a technology of communication or a stream.
‘Projects Against’ are works that Lou initiated in support of the sphere and subverting the stream. As an example he described an open-ended endeavor, in which he deploys existing terms, a list of about 400 words so far, using alternate suffixes, converting -ology (knowledge) to -agnia (avoidance). For example, “biology, the study of life forms, becomes bioagnia, the avoidance of life forms”.
Lou sites artistic voice as operating in a gap that is – seemingly counterintuitively – located neither interior nor exterior to anything else, deploying a spatial metaphor. Pushing this notion further, he stated that artists often make the gap and, referencing an idea from Mladen Dolar, asked: “What if the gap comes first, with borders constructed after the fact?”
Using the Fractal 3-Line Matrix
The Fractal 3-Line Matrix is a tool that I use to generate an interpretation of a text. It emerged from the recurring moves which I made in diagramming large amounts of information, for example from my notes of multiple conference panels. The Fractal 3-Line Matrix offers four levels of interaction, which I deploy in order. These interactions enable the exploration of four types of relationships to be found in meaning- making: triadic, binary, fractal, and symmetric.
- Triadic relation: The Matrix centrally contains 3 main, intersecting axes. Each axis is to be designated with one of the three main themes that a reader determines a text to contain. The axes intersect to avoid ordering them hierarchically, i.e. as a list. (This is an added benefit that will become apparent in the fourth step.)
- Binary relation: The ends of each axis are named with a term that designates the axis themes’ boundaries. These outliers can be any binaries taken to be significant. They do not need to be polar opposites.
- Fractal relation: In a fractal movement that repeats the steps above, the six outliers of the three axes may each be outfitted with their own matrices, and so on.
- Symmetric relation: Finally, the contraption is set in motion. Spinning or flipping the axes around their center, the relations among the outliers and their fractals can be varied, promoting new readings of the material, also horizontally across the field, or along the vertical ‘stacks’ forming left and right.
I find practice theory to be a riveting area of inquiry and also teach courses on research methodologies. Once I had this matrix, I couldn’t help noting resonances with Charles Sanders Peirce’s fascination with triads in his semiotic theory, Saussure’s Structuralist discussion of binaries or Anselm Strauss’ Grounded Theory uses of dimensional coding. I am aware that fractal thinking is a fashionable term. I have to say that I am amongst the least rigorous in setting fractals when completing the matrix. They seem to run into dead ends more often than not. But the name describes the visual appearance of the matrix, given that the pattern recurs ( and could continue to repeat) at progressively smaller scale. It seems to me that symmetric variation is particularly valuable in seeking to understand complexity. I ground the mobility of the matrix along multiple symmetry axes in an extension of the operative aspect of diagrams, addressed here in a joint text by game designer Steffen Bogen and art historian Felix Thürleman1:
The specific strength of genuine diagrams is grounded in what can be designated as their pragmatic potency [italics in the original]. More than other forms of discourse, diagrams are designed to engender activities. These activities encompass the entire realm of social action, exceeding the discourse that verbally explicates it. The diagram appears as an area that trades in meaning, a semiotic stop between producer and recipient. In relation to a specific topic, the producer of the diagram aspires to a synthesis of components which themselves constitute the world scenario that is deemed relevant. Formally, this synthesis is marked by a certain symmetry and boundedness. The recipient encounters this apparently ideal object as one who shall unpack its structures of meaning that are seemingly at rest, to unfold them into discourses and practical activities.
Grasping the central themes of our conversation, the three axes of Lou’s Matrix are “Meaning” (horizontal), “the Body” (top left to bottom right), and “the Social” (bottom left to top right). The horizontal Meaning axis outliers are “Two-Space”, a term I use for his work relating to ruptures and bifurcation (center left) and “Gap” (center right), Lou’s choice of word for the location artists newly establish by making their work. This axis takes hold of Lou’s question: “What if the gap comes first, with borders constructed after the fact?” It loops back to his opening remark, that grounded good work in jokes, or non-sequiturs. A non-sequitur comes from nothing. It is unprecedented and unexpected. It presents as a joke if a joke is defined as a moment that ruptures and thus points to expectations, which a moment ago were just implicit. Similarly, the gap precedes boundaries of sense and meaning. From the gap rise utterances, conjured images that, when related to the already bounded can become jokes. The “already-bounded” I call “two-space”, in reference to Lou’s mention of his often bifurcated drawings. In Two-Space reside models, armatures, and borders into which what once may have been non-sequiturs have been corralled. In Two-Space, the arrangement of things makes sense.
Here the artist is in charge, contains meaning – but also dissolves it again. The second axis contains “The Body’s Actual Being” (bottom left, on the “Body” axis), its innate, physical and valuable resistance as it brushes up against limits of endurance and struggles with impediments. It is made fruitful with “Discipline” (top right). Discipline, in its meanings as self-regulation and a field of expertise, is exercised through “Virtuosic Listening”. This attends to both the sonic and the linguistic, through tactile, improvised, collaborative and performative avenues. An example is the description of moments that occur at a gathering while observing it from an elevated position, amplified enough so it can be noted within the chatter of an art opening.
Traveling along the “Social” axis, is the sphere of “Poetic Language” (right), with its dynamic constellations. These are the forms that the works of art take. To the left on the Social axis language joins the stream of “Communication”, where linear discourse attempts to know, translate, and understand.
Thus, on the left side of the matrix are stacked, from bottom to top, “-Agnia”, “Model”, and “-Ology”. These are the relations to certainty that Lou elaborated. -Agnia foundationally refuses certainty. Model, in the middle, mediating, works certainty. At the top, -Ology owns certainty. The theme of certainty is part of dualistic, even scientific thinking and ordering I call “Two-space”. This name was inspired by Lou’s description of his early, bifurcated drawings on paper. The stack on the right speaks to attention, and to attending as being grounded in perception, in aisthesis. This I envision as a sphere or even a tunnel. As opposed to the more static “Two-space”, the Sphere is in constant motion. It is fed by “Virtuosic Listening”, at the top, ever-ready for arising nonsequiturs. At the bottom right of the Social axis indicates that the work is performed and exhibited as constellations in temporary, public settings. These installations carefully align what Virtuosic Listening has grasped. The work – having found its material and sonic shape through poetic language – is then deployed to melt the entire stack on the left, right back into the gap. This tension between a necessity to order and the need to inscribe the ordered with a knowledge of its artifice, to contain the seeds of its own dissolution in order to be of value, is what I see as the engine of Lou Mallozzi’s work.
The scenario then takes hold of a cycle: The Gap begets Two-space. Two-space must preserve its origin, precisely in being bifurcated, marked by a linear navel. It then forgets the Gap. Lou Mallozzi’s work, reaching into the Gap, melts bits of Two-space back into it, less to forge a new iteration (although it can’t be done without that) but to humbly show up the process. Beget. Forget. Beget.