(Editor’s Note: If any one article defines NeoAztlán, it is this interview with John Duncan. I was first introduced to his work in 1988 when he appeared on the Core – A Conspiracy International Project music compilation (Nettwerk Records). I had no idea then how much of an influence he and his work would have on me later. This article first appeared on NeoAztlán in 2007)
By Esteban Peralta
In 2001, the International Artists Studio Program In Sweden (IASPIS), on the recommendation of Swedish sound experimentalist, musician and curator Carl Michael von Hausswolff, awarded artist John Duncan a sought-after IASPIS residency. Two months after beginning his residency, the IASPIS revoked it citing the “problematic nature” of Duncan’s 1980 piece BLIND DATE. Duncan’s friends and colleagues rallied and with the pro bono help of Greenpeace lawyer Jan Palmblad, Duncan was allowed to complete his residency.
The issue was “about much more essential issues than my art, or me personally,” Duncan wrote. “It’s about refusing to accept being dictated to, by anyone, over what can be done and said. It’s about verifying the fact that an atmosphere of so-called ‘political correctness’ in fact stifles the ideals it promotes – that this atmosphere is counter-productive to creative acts of any kind, anywhere, as well as to the people who perform them.”
“Political correctness” carried a particularly blistering resonance at the time. The rubble of the World Trade Center smoldered. Normally passive countries stared blankly at the wrath of the United States government hoping they wouldn’t be picked, but once they were, there were memories of Nuremberg. Duncan would perhaps find himself an unwitting victim of the IASPIS diluted “war on terror.”
Political correctness aside, there remained experimental art and the dialogue it created. Duncan’s work, along with that of other experimental artists, was tinged with a guerilla empiricism with which not even an unsuspecting audience would be safe.
Duncan’s 1984 event piece titled MOVE FORWARD at Plan B in Tokyo (excerpt taken from Duncan’s Web site):
“High-volume sound in a completely dark concrete room for 20 minutes. After 10 minutes, a film collage that includes animated diagrams nuclear explosions, images of pornography, S-M sexual acts and Hiroshima victims, is shown in slow motion onto a paper projection screen that divides the room from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. When the film ends, Duncan sets the screen on fire and sprays the burning remains into the audience with a fire extinguisher.”
Duncan’s 1995 event piece titled THREAT at the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia (excerpt taken from Duncan’s Web site):
“Infrared photo images of vaginas projected several meters high on the rear wall of an open space with a single entrance, guarded at the entrance by an attack dog.”
In his 1990 live installation piece RIVER IN FLAMES (1990), Duncan directed thousands of watts of white light into the faces of the audience while attacking them with intense, harsh music.
“The idea was to overload the audience’s visual and audio perception simultaneously,” said Duncan in a recent interview with von Hausswolff.
Despite the aggression, momentum carries Duncan’s sound work toward introspection. The outdoor installation THE KEENING TOWERS (2003) was created with the voices of a children’s choir and debuted at the Second Gothenburg Biennial. THE GARDEN (2006), an audio installation with six elements based on voice and onsite field recordings and produced with Italian experimental composer, Valerio Tricoli, was built at the Industria Piemontese dei Colori di Anilina (IPCA) in Ciriè, Italy.
In the twenties, the IPCA factory polluted the environment and bodies of its workers. Many died of cancer. Today, the Province of Turin is redeveloping the IPCA Ecomuseum as a memorial to those who were lost.
Duncan, a native of Kansas, doesn’t worry so much about political correctness anymore (not as if he ever did). From his home in Italy, the controversy surrounding BLIND DATE seems a distant memory. What Duncan has found, with the help of his work, is relative success and an enduring home. In this rare interview, Duncan talks about his work and life.
Esteban Peralta: Can you talk a little bit about your background? Where were you born?
John Duncan: My mother came from a family of farmers living in western Kansas. My father’s parents tried to start a farm in New Mexico that failed. In desperation, my grandfather accepted a job in a smalltown Kansas post office and moved the family there. My parents met as university students. They got married and settled in Wichita, where I was born.
EP: Where did you grow up?
JD: In Wichita, until I was about 8 years old. Then we started moving from one city to another as my father was transferred to various cities in the midwest, staying in one place for a year or two before moving to another.
EP: What were you like as a child/teenager/young man?
JD: I remember playing openly with kids who lived close by, sharing experiences and things we liked. I remember learning to read at around 3-years-old, especially fascinated with an illustrated how-to book that explained how to fly an airplane. Some of my first drawings were of that plane – a Cessna 170. I was impatient to start school and was disappointed when classes finally began, staying home secretly on days that I knew would be especially boring. My father had already started travelling a lot then and I remember noticing that the adults in my daily life, all women, were in control but somehow preferred to defer final authority to someone else – someone absent.
Everything that seemed secure and supporting collapsed when we started moving. Wherever we lived the kids seemed hostile and exclusive. The world itself became increasingly threatening.
My parents were often frustrated and distant.
I started spending a lot of time inside, deliberately isolated, mainly reading or drawing.
Each time we moved all this intensified. In my teens, school had become practically insufferable, especially as a source of social life. The only people I could really talk to outside of class were the teachers at their homes.
EP: What’s your educational background? Are there any events while growing up that you feel really affected your decisions later to pursue art and sound?
JD: To keep the family together, my father decided to move back to Wichita. Teachers in one of the local high schools had come up with an informal experimental program that gave certain kids authorization to define and conduct their own study including credit for night and weekend classes at the university and a local art school. I focused on these outside classes and spent the required daily high school hours in the library working on projects agreed upon with the teachers to satisfy their need to prove I’d been studying… along with reading the assigned lists of books. Since I had time to read them all I often asked for new ones or made up my own from titles on the shelves I hadn’t read or didn’t recognize. There was also a records section with headphones.
EP: You mentioned your Calvinist upbringing. Perhaps you can expand on that.
JD: Suffering. Misery. Denial. Of physical pleasure, especially sensual. Sex taboo for inclusion even as a reference in conversation, let alone frank discussion. Questions about details in the Bible (a title on one of those lists) strictly forbidden. Humor forbidden during visits from relatives. All positive references to black people forbidden. What that left to encourage was work. Especially hard, dedicated work that others took for granted, didn’t fully recognize or failed to understand.
EP: Talk about BLIND DATE. Many people are still outraged by the 1980 piece. In 2002, the International Artist’s Studio Program in Sweden (IASPIS) revoked a residency invitation over the piece.
JD: Yes – after granting me the maximum period they offer and I sued them for this. The lawsuit was handled by Jan Palmblad, chief defense lawyer for the Swedish branch of Greenpeace. It was settled entirely in my favor out of court within 60 days. He said it was the easiest case he’s ever handled.
A number of Swedish artists and institutions, especially Fylkingen, organized among themselves to defend me and make it possible to finish the full 6-month period despite IASPIS’s very determined efforts to force me to leave as soon as possible. It was a sincerely humbling and rich experience. I’ll always be grateful to them for that – to everyone involved – including those responsible at IASPIS.
EP: You were reportedly horrified with what you had done. What was the compulsion? What it compulsion at all? Or was it something else?
JD: The driving force behind BLIND DATE was that I was horrified at having failed to give the woman I loved the proof of how I felt for her. Remaining true to my Calvinist male upbringing, I intended to punish myself for that in the most repulsive way I could come up with. My sole focus, obsession really, was to make myself suffer as much as possible. Whether or not I survived it made no difference.
The decision to make it public was intended to point out that the intense hostility I was aiming at myself was simply an extreme version of very widespread, socially supported behavior, to set an open example of where such an upbringing can lead, to encourage others to examine similar characteristics in themselves and hopefully learn to avoid causing themselves or those around them to suffer in this way.
EP: What are your thoughts on it now in the context of ‘John Duncan 2007’?
JD: My body of work effectively proves that my intentions are positive overall, so I believe BLIND DATE will ultimately be viewed in the light of my original intentions rather than the distortions and rumors that have continued to spring up around it so far.
History is full of boisterous misunderstandings that over time prove to be embarrassing. An obscenity case brought against Constantin Brancusi’s Bird In Flight’, to give one example. Even if the sculpture actually did inspire someone to think of using it as an erotic tool, what harm would that cause? What’s the harm in seeing erotic tools as elegant, as sculpture? Harm stems from the fear of being prepared to understand in new ways, feeling threatened by the unexpected. It’s what’s in our minds that’s essential, how we perceive and how our perceptions can be changed. This is what my work has been focused on since the beginning. This is its focus today.
EP: How much of the internal challenges you felt during your early period of work are present today and how much can you attribute those to your decision to move to Italy?
JD: Internal situations have changed and developed over time, as they do for all of us who live long enough to witness them. My decision to move to Italy came from meeting Giuliana Stefani after living eight years in Amsterdam, which followed six years of living and working in Tokyo.
EP: Was part of the decision also a rejection of the American audience?
JD: No. The decision to leave the United States came from a sort of push-pull situation between ex-lovers, close friends and their associates on one side of the Pacific making a determined effort to block any and all public displays or references to my work after failing in their attempt to send me to prison, and audiences on the other side sincerely interested in listening to what I had to say on what BLIND DATE – as well as my work in general – was about. Facing unabashed hostility on one side and respect on the other, the choice was fairly easy to make. Once I’d set up space to work in Tokyo, opportunities began to open up and a momentum began to build. Of course it was a huge struggle to move my possessions there and survive without speaking Japanese or knowing anything about the culture, learning everything one detail at a time, but it was an order of magnitude better than living with open hatred from the people I cared about.
EP: Can you talk about how important dissonance is to music in general and about how your work has matured over the years? Who are some of artists you feel are able to use sound effectively in their music?
JD: That’s a very long list that includes but is definitely not limited to trance (calculated for and performed over multichannel audio systems in soccer stadiums); techno; gabber; early 1950’s Elvis recordings on mono equipment and microphones with vacuum-tubes; the “Madrigali” of Carlo Gesualdo performed by a chorus that’s memorized their individual parts to perform in darkness; Eliane Radigue’s “Biogenesis” composed from the recordings of her pregnant daughter’s heartbeats; Jegog performances on instruments made with bamboo that’s buried in lime for months before being tested, repeating the process until the sound is perfect; recent audio recordings of the NASA probe landing on Titan… One person who uses voice amazingly is Ghedalia Tazartes, especially on the “Diaspora” LP. Another more recent example who´s actually been an inspiration to try singing is Scott Walker’s “The Drift.” In his case, it’s more a combination of voice with lyrics and studio recording techniques. He gives the solid impression that he’s been paying attention to experimental music.
EP: I’m particularly interested in your work while you lived in Japan. You entered into a more visual realm during that time it seems.
JD: Or got back into it a bit more, tapping back into collage/writing experiments that were started in the first limited-edition books (20-30 copies) done in Los Angeles.
EP: Talk in detail about your work as “John See.” The work seems darkly sexual – still with the punishment narrative present in BLIND DATE.
JD: The “John See” series was a brainchild of Nakagawa Noriaki, founding head of Kuki Inc., who acted as a patron of my work in Tokyo. He offered to produce a series of commercial adult videos that I would direct and edit with state-of-the-art video equipment and editing facilities with a cast and crew that he would choose. I’d write and storyboard a basic screenplay that he and I would discuss together with the crew. Then, we’d schedule location hunting trips, 3-day shooting itineraries, block pre-editing and editing time, etc.
The basic idea was to produce a product that I could then rent as a consumer and re-assemble or subvert, using my own material (rather than found TV broadcasts and film releases and ads, as I had been), into video pieces to broadcast over the TVC 1 pirate television project. Two of these were actually made and broadcast despite the abysmal quality of the VHS-edited video.
In the Japanese commercial adult arena I wanted to try and introduce roles for the actors that were at least a little bit outside their standard sterotypes of cruel bastards bent on vengeance by proxy and suffering female victims. I focused especially on giving the women strong, self-assured, dominant characters to play. Getting these ideas across to the actors on the set, in Japanese, was a surreal experience for all of us.
I was given a completely free hand with composing the soundtrack which I still think was a bold gesture on Nakagawa san’s part especially since I always insisted on the liberal use of shortwave and other sources hoping to encourage some sort of introspection in the viewer. I still don’t know how well they sold and to Nakagawa san’s immense credit, he repeatedly insisted that I not worry or even as much as think about the production costs.
After starting to think in terms of directing a cast and crew, every detail became fascinating. I must say I never had any contact with Yakuza members there (Editor’s note: Yakuza refers to the Japanese mob.) or saw any hint whatsoever of anyone being forced to participate in these productions – just the opposite.
The stifling hierarchy of traditional Japanese cinema created an entire generation of film school graduates brimming with talents and dreams who were effectively blocked from using what they’d studied so intently. The adult video industry greeted these same graduates – along with the uniquely talented outcasts from the generation before them – with open arms and paid everyone well. Added to this, Japanese censorship laws made actual penetration impossible to show without masking, which meant it was unnecessary for the actors to have actual sex onscreen. So it attracted a number of very interesting people who, like me, simply said, “Yes.”
The women who worked on-camera made at least ten times the salaries of the men. One of my favorites was a woman who used this to support her true passion: driving a race car in competition. A three-day shoot on my project allowed her to pay her mechanics, track fees, parts and maintenence for a full year. Whether or not she actually understood anything I said, in keeping with her upbringing, she left vague.
Another was a very shy man in his 50’s – a well-known manga artist in Japan who couldn’t get erect, even with a very sympathetic partner half his age, unless he was watching uncensored porn on a video screen… perfect example of a 20th Century male. He was very popular in Japanese adult cinema and had all the work he could fit in.
Then I was fortunate enough to come in contact with two actors who could each work magic onscreen, at that moment actually together as a couple. “Magic onscreen” is an ability to create a sense of personal contact with the viewer through (and despite) a flat image and they both had it in abundance. Both were humble, approachable people who took a sincere interest in every role of the filmmaking process as well as their own focusing especially on the more obscure members of the tech crew. Nakagawa san clearly took pleasure in introducing all these people to each other.
Reviews for the videos split either pro or con. Those who saw them as art films tended to be positive. Those who preferred standard hardcore porn regularly trashed them. For me the entire project was an experiment so these comments became an amusing unexpected offshoot. For Nakagawa san, it was all publicity.
EP: Please talk about what you’re working on now.
JD: In Stockholm, Sweden, two parallel installations: THE GAUNTLET at Fargfabriken and TEMPLE of DISTRACTION at Galleri Niklas Belenius.
THE GAUNTLET is set in a renovated factory with an open floor space about 40×30 meters with a 7-meter ceiling, rendered lightless as a photographic darkroom, with seven infrared sensor controlled anti-theft alarms that become active every 10-15 minutes for a 5-minute interval. The visitors’ movements trigger them until the sound the alarms produce passes beyond the level of a warning and, for those ready to accept it as such, becomes an intriguing acoustic event – “music,” if you like. Whether it’s interpreted as torture or beauty is entirely up to the visitor.
In contrast, TEMPLE of DISTRACTION is a series of clear plexiglas sheets with my blood sandwiched between them in Rorschach patterns, framed to stand about five centimeters from the wall. Light from outside will pass through two of these framed sheets sized to fit the gallery’s two window frames, with their blood patterns cast at angles along interior walls. A subtle ringing 4-channel drone moving at random around the space gives the subdued light the atmosphere of a sanctuary.
In Prato, Italy, the opening of a group show I’m curating called “CROSS LAKE ATLANTIC” with Scott Arford, Gary Jo Gardenhire, Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether, Brandon LaBelle, Teresa Margolles and Fredrik Nilsen.
In Piombino, Italy, the opening of an installation in a large open space on the grounds of an active steelmill.
All opening within days of each other, between the end of August and early September.
EP: What would you still like to accomplish in your work and as a person?
JD: To wake up as fully as possible, in the time that’s left.