May 28, 2021

Coda: Glitches in the Matrix

Throughout the many months leading up to and around this series, I had the great pleasure of being in conversation with Sarah, discussing matters important and incidental, silly and difficult; our emails, phone calls, and video chats form just one relational layer within Sarah’s work, which is so much about relationships, whether with collaborators, histories, spaces, institutions, or time. As Sarah so beautifully puts it, “Performance opens a fourth temporal space, and that space isn’t past, present, or future, but sits in between past and present, between present and future, where we have an opportunity to engage the world and each other differently.” About a month after Lucid Dreams of the Apocalypse premiered, we met over video to talk through some of the opportunities and invitations within this project. Another live moment, now edited and condensed; another tip of the iceberg. -CLR

Photo by Kimi Mojica

Claudia La Rocco: Hi, Sarah. It’s so good to be talking with you. Before I pressed “record,” you’d just started to tell me about this past year, what was going on for you.

Sarah Cargill: I was talking about my dad’s passing, which was happening during the actual production for this project — and you know, Covid times, you’re never sure if you’re going to actually be able to see the person you have to say goodbye to. I was lucky enough to have been able to do that. There’s something that happens when you are holding space and bearing witness to a loved one as they walk through a portal, to watch them transition from solid to particulate, material to ethereal. The energetic conditions of that entire experience with my dad broke me open in ways that, in hindsight, allowed for me to hold and engage the energetics of the space while performing in the White Box. I think that’s why it felt so important for me to deliberately invite Spirit into the space — to create a portal through which to engage with the particulate and ethereal. Once I made the choice to do that, the arc of the performance fell into place quite naturally — it became clear that I wasn’t just preparing for a performance, I was preparing for ceremony. The opening scene of Lucid Dreams was a live burial, and I used one hundred and twenty pounds of rock salt as the material for a few reasons. Within my spiritual and cultural lineage, salt is sacred; it’s a tool for cleansing and protection, and it can also be used as an ancestral offering. Rock salt, however, is typically used to soften ice, to dissolve, to turn solid into liquid. The live burial was, more or less, a corporeal offering, a way to offer my body as libation and to, also, soften myself for the work ahead. During the filming of that scene, I remember imaging each granule of rock salt to be representative of spirits whose names have faded from collective memory, specifically, the spirits of Black folks whose final resting place remains at the bottom of the ocean. I was also thinking about Korryn Gaines, the twenty-three-year-old Black woman who was murdered by the Baltimore County Police Department in an act of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence in 2016. I have a vague memory of that time, of zeroing in on how petite she was in stature at the time of her murder — about one hundred and twenty pounds. It felt important to physically feel the weight of all that presence and to, somehow, take that with me into the White Box.

I had to get big, physically and energetically, to hold all of that. Sound — particularly when it comes to looping and the layering of sound where the musical emphasis is placed on organic, real time “growth” — was one way for me to get bigger, to stretch beyond the confines of my body and disperse my energy, to cast it wide.

Photo by Kimi Mojica

CLR: Thank you for sharing all of that. The idea of getting bigger makes me think of how durational performance can do this in a way I don’t experience with other forms, such as literary or visual, where each audience member controls how much time to spend with a given work — not to mention video and the screen which can so easily make performance smaller. By limiting its themes or subject matter while extending its duration, live art can create a much bigger space.

In some of our past exchanges you’ve talked about wanting to really emphasize liveness, by embracing glitches or recording the video a single take. I think the length also aided in that for me; by making it a bit longer than what’s often discussed as optimal for online viewing, while pretty strictly defining the work’s registers instead of quickly moving through a bunch of things, for me really cultivated a feeling of liveness.

Photo by Amadeus J. Regucera

SC: Thank you for that reflection. Yeah, I think in a lot of ways the constraints presented by the conditions of the pandemic allowed for me to narrow my focus, while also, in the ways that I can, creating enough spaciousness within the structure of the improvisation itself. I feel like that’s been how I’ve been navigating this pandemic: to use really tight constraints as launching points for discovering pockets of spaciousness that maybe I wouldn’t have noticed before under pre-pandemic circumstances. Really, constraint was something that I needed in order to move forward with the actual performance, because you know, with the added element of film, there’s so many options. And so, finding a way to narrow those options using the conditions of whatever’s happening around me felt like a really important thing to lead with.

I recognize that there is a sonic conversation that’s going on between myself, my instruments, my equipment, the room, the history of that room, the land that that room stands on — I’m in conversation with all of that. So the emphasis on liveness — specifically, the commitment to do things in one take — comes from not wanting to interrupt the flow of that conversation. Trying to replicate the energetic conditions of a performance feels akin to trying to explain an inside joke to someone who wasn’t there to witness its inception. They might get it, but it never lands the same.

CLR: When you talk about all of the things you’re in conversation with, I think some of those things are more immediately apparent, right? Like, you’re in conversation with the acoustics; you’re always playing the room. Other things are perhaps less obvious; for example, what does it mean to say that you’re in conversation with the land that the museum sits on, or the museum as an institution? How does that conversation play out for you in your work?

SC: Yeah, yeah. Performance for me is inherently relational, and music is a natural consequence of the connection and engagement that occurs within relationship. Music is not just what we’re listening to, music is what happens when we listen to each other. This inherent relationality isn’t nullified just because there’s no live audience to perform in front of; the performance is a testament to the conditions that are present in that moment, and those conditions are and have always been rooted in relationality.

This series focuses on my relationship to water and, by extension, the bodies and structures that hold water, including the body of the institution. It’s the element that traverses borders and gives shape to the land we live on. It is also, within the context of my own spiritual practice, a crucial element that keeps me connected to my ancestors. It acts as a portable tool with which I can bring my folks into places where they may not have been able to set foot during their lifetimes.

Much like the push and pull of ocean tides, or the outward ripple effect that we observe when there’s a sudden disturbance in a puddle or a lake, when observing how sound and vibration travel through water, I am reminded of musical structures that are based in call and response. I wanted the music to act as call for and responses to questions like: How might the institution prime its collective body toward technologies of deep listening? What might the movement of vibration through water teach us about decentralization, or horizontal movement? By connecting to the land through the element of water and activating this relationship through sound, I grounded myself in this ongoing conversation.

Elevating water as a central character in the narrative arc generated an opportunity for me to implicate myself in the story on an intimate, somatic level where communication isn’t happening verbally, but vibrationally. To maintain the energetic continuity of the performance and to ensure our adherence to the one-take rule, every piece of information in the room had to be processed on a vibrational level; the water in my body kept me attuned to what was happening externally. Using water as material kept me anchored in my own current.

CLR: One of the things you said in our extensive email exchange [laughter], was that you really wanted to take the idea of “the apocalypse” out of this white colonial impulse in history. Could you talk a little bit about your concept of the apocalypse?

SC: Yeah. Oh goodness. The way that apocalypse is talked about in dominant cultural discourse oftentimes comes from a specific point of view, which is that apocalypse is an impending doom: something that hasn’t happened yet, but that could very well happen. And that’s the crux of the story, right? I wanted to engage in this work in such a way that assumes that apocalypse has already happened over and over and over again. That this has already happened to the vast majority of us. The people of my diasporic lineages have already experienced alien abduction via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I think too about the apocalypse that was brought onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII, and the generational impact that is still unfolding and shaping the day-to-day lives of survivors and their descendants. Environmental apocalypse has already happened and continues to happen in so many parts of the world, including here. I think about the environmental toxicity that plagues Bayview-Hunter’s Point and the post-apocalyptic condition that’s brought on by environmental racism. The museums and cultural institutions built on unceded Ohlone territory are the direct result of the uprooting, erasure, and violent gutting of the Indigenous land and the deliberate destruction of Indigenous communities — it is the product of apocalypse. I think apocalypse is a time of transparency and, also, an opportunity to engage in acts of accountability. And so, it was crucial to ask, “OK, well what are we seeing right now? What’s being revealed right now because of the conditions that are brought on by another ending?” Endings are openings, but only if we’re willing to actually deal with what’s being uncovered.

When apocalypse narratives are written from the perspective of the White male gaze, the collective fantasy and the collective imagination around apocalypse tends to zero in on the fantasy of leaving, of abandoning a place that is no longer viable for life, or at least life determined by the voracious appetite of empire. But for me, and I think for a lot of folks of color, that kind of abandonment is not an option. It certainly isn’t for me. And so, I wanted to return to a question of, OK, how do we get in right relationship with the world around us? How do we get in right relationship with each other, and how do we get in right relationship with our environment in such a way where we don’t have to leave? Because that fantasy around leaving — around doing all this damage, and then just leaving — feels very colonial. It’s something that we see happen over and over again, and it’s a kind of post-colonial violence that I don’t want to be a part of. I would rather ask, OK, what is the relationship here and what needs repair? And how do we find our way to transformation through that kind of relational repair?

CLR: How do you navigate that project inside of an arts institution which is predicated on colonial impulses and legacies?

SC: I think that goes right back to relationships. Relationships are the glitches in the system. Interesting things can happen when we choose our relationships over protecting the institution, whatever that might look like. Throughout the process, throughout production, this kind of sub-performance was happening where the preparation itself and the real-time relational negotiations that were happening became performances in their own right. Or, rather, it helped to contextualize relationship-building as a critical component to the development of the project as a whole. And so what audiences are seeing on screen with the whole digital series, and with the Lucid Dreams film in particular, are multiple performances compressed into one moment. That’s the apex where all the relational work converges. So you’re not always going to get the full story of what happened, but that performance could not have looked the way that it did if relationships weren’t prioritized in the making of it. And that includes the relationships that we can build within the systems of the institution in order to create whatever pockets of spaciousness, or, whatever glitches we can, through our relationships.

CLR: I wonder if you want to spend a little bit more time on “glitches” — it’s a word that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it has such a specific and potent meaning for you.

SC: Glitches became their own character within the larger arc of this project — and this character created sub plots that catalyzed narrative turns and became this kind of motif, giving us insight into alternative possibilities. Similarly to how endings catalyze new beginnings, interruptions — and in this case, glitches — offered a moment of critical pause where we could consider other paths and options. I like to think about performances as temporal glitches in the timeline. They’re meant to disrupt our sense of linear time and, through that disruption, present opportunities for living our way into an alternative reality or temporal landscape. Much like technological glitches, these glitches in the timeline work to reclaim our attention and activate the public imagination. Performances are a moment when the proverbial matrix opens up in these really random ways that reveal possibilities that would not have been there otherwise.

Because there were so many things that were going on during our compressed production schedule, I had to treat these glitches as redirections. One example of this was figuring out how to add captions to the Lucid Dreams film. We had to work with this technical glitch that caused a delay between the live captions and what was actually streaming onscreen; it felt important to find a way to shorten that delay as much as possible, again, to maintain some kind of semblance of liveness for the performance. There’s really no way to get around the limits of technology sometimes, but limitations create structure and form. And so, I thought to add a text score to the video description, so that folks can follow the score while staying engaged in the performance. The text score then became its own narrative device, allowing me to create a whole other layer to the story that would not have existed otherwise. Audio glitches, like mic feedback, became another musical layer that gave voice to the space itself, as if the room was singing back to me in a call and response while simultaneously offering cues for me to stop looping. At a certain point, the feedback becomes too much for my ears to handle, and so that became the cue for me to move onto another texture or to begin a new track.

Glitches presented themselves within the video essays, too. This project was deeply personal. And because I was sharing so much of myself in ways that I normally wouldn’t, I felt the need to find ways to protect myself and my family from overexposure; I wanted to share what felt important to share without forgoing privacy, and technical glitches actually helped me to strike that balance. When I was adding captions to “Postcards From Heaven,” I opted for automated captions that were written in Japanese, because I wanted the captions to reflect my grandfather’s voice as accurately as possible — and you know, truth be told, I only know enough Japanese to get around, but not enough to edit captions. [Laughter] But pretty quickly into the process, I discovered that YouTube’s automatic captions aren’t always accurate, and I can’t really rely on that technology to incorporate appropriate punctuation. And so, there were some words that were just complete gibberish or mistranslated, and there were a lot of run-on sentences that made it difficult to fully decipher what was being said. Rather than edit all of those glitches, they became incorporated as this like, privacy layer that allowed for the kind of protection I needed. So, yeah, I guess if I were to define glitches, I would define them as “unexpected moments of opportunity.”

CLR: It really goes back to what you were talking about earlier, right, about just being as present and open to where you are and what is happening versus what you expected or want to have happen.

SC: Right.

CLR: Speaking of layering and additive elements, I really appreciate the way you talk about accessibility in general as an additive — I think your words were “necessary additive component” versus something that is added on after the fact and not in a thoughtful way, or even felt to compromise the “real” experience. I’ve certainly been guilty of this at times, in thinking about access and Open Space. And you’re wanting to push against that and say, “No, this is not peripheral — this is central to what I’m doing and it enriches things, it doesn’t compromise anything.”

SC: Right, yeah. The glitch that happened when the film premiered live on YouTube, when the sound didn’t work during your introduction, that was a testament to how important it is, and how additive it is, to center accessibility in our regular practice. I think that, part of what prevents institutions from normalizing these practices within workplace culture is the fear of making or admitting to mistakes that could potentially illuminate more insidious shortcomings. The impulse to lean into opacity and perfectionism perpetuates and is a reflection of the true investment that institutions have in upholding systems of oppression. What ableism and White supremacy have in common is that both systems of oppression weaponize perfectionism as a way to uphold the status quo. That moment with the sound glitch, in some ways, proved a point without me having to do much work to explain why it’s important to create accessible events. If we didn’t have captions, if we didn’t have ASL, then everything that was said in the beginning would have been lost. And even if that weren’t the case, accessibility is still a priority that shapes the work in and of itself, not just the presentation. Ultimately, these practices enrich the work and are a benefit to us all.

CLR: And not thinking about these systems is a foundational ableist mindset, that many of us have to really work at to be aware that it is even there.

SC: Right, and I think that that’s especially true within music, because it’s heavy on the sensory experience, the aural experience. And so, part of the challenge, and what felt additive for me, was thinking about how can I share this music in multiple ways. There’s of course the actual performance of the music and what is sounded, but I’m also thinking about ways to narrativize the aural experience without relying on descriptive troupes that attempt to present the work objectively. I recognize that my subjectivity is embedded within the narrative, and I don’t concern myself convincing people otherwise. How would I describe the instrumentation through the lens of my subjectivity? How would I describe the texture and the timbre and what’s going on sonically, so that it also lands as a full experience of the music? These are some of the questions I considered while working my way through the tech glitches. And so, again, all of these technical glitches offered opportunities for me to take myself outside of my own context, and to really think about what it would mean to share this music in multiple ways.

CLR: It makes me think of the disability scholar Georgina Kleege — she’s at Berkeley, she’s fantastic — she talks about how many of the services for people who have visual impairments are set up to be “objective,” when that is not something that the performance itself, that these services are ostensibly translating, is trying for; what if those things were in fact meant to be strange and subjective and artistic in their own right? That would make it an additive layer versus a bad translation, I guess.

SC: Right, right. The ways in which things are made accessible, there’s often a detached quality that feels really robotic and mechanical. The text score was also an opportunity for me to write a description that was as subjective as the sounds in and of itself, and that told a whole other story. My hope was that, as folks engaged with the text score, that additive quality would come to the forefront and would also support folks in thinking about listening as a subjective experience. A composer or a producer would likely offer a different description than that of a performer, and that difference is what piques my curiosity.

CLR: Yeah, it also makes me think of Pauline Oliveros, who I know has been influential for you. But just, the idea of the sound walk, to try and describe sounds and register them not through received wisdom, like “Oh, that’s a car alarm.” Or, “Oh, that’s irritating,” but to really describe and be open.

SC: Yep, and that was the approach. [Laughter] Spot on.

CLR: You described music as an “active and fluid time capsule” in one of your essays. It was in the context of talking about music as a tool to, as I understood it, to both hold memories and keep them safe and available for future use. And I’m curious how — you know, it’s been a month only — but thinking about this project in particular, how you see the traces, for example what’s on Open Space, as fulfilling that or not?

SC: Yeah, it’s my way of understanding the psycho-somatic experience that I have when engaging a familiar piece of music. By using aural perception to reactivate the past, I’m pulled into a temporal experience that scrambles my orientation toward and assumptions about linear time. It’s a moment when temporal logic is queered and slightly skewed from the matrix of linear time as it’s defined through the lens of Whiteness and capitalism. I spent the majority of my life and my training as an orchestral musician, and so, a lot of the music that I’ve played and rehearsed, I’ve played and rehearsed it many times in different settings and contexts. Every time I revisit a familiar piece of music, whether it be a solo I’ve studied or a specific chord progression, it immediately takes me back to that moment of initial encounter. I’m suddenly transported to a different time and place, a different age and moment in my life. The same thing occurs when I am just casually listening to music. I don’t know what does it for you, but for me, it is ’90s R&B and hip-hop that really transports me; I’m able to somatically reactive and re-experience different parts of myself that are, more or less, previous iterations of myself.

There is an undeniable element of Afro-Futurism folded into this work. Within that framework, I treat music as a technology for remembrance and time travel. Many of the techniques I used to build out that sonic landscape — fluctuating intonation, fragmented phrases, airy tone quality, and so on — were incorporated to reactivate abandoned parts of myself. The parts of myself that were unpolished, exploratory, novice. It was a deliberate method of conjuring visions for the future without abandoning the past.

In the Lucid Dreams film, I chose to activate old memories that came before a time when I understood what a major scale was, that came before a time I understood how to position my embouchure to avoid cracks in my notes. It was a chance to explore an alternative sonic trajectory that was denied in my previous life as an orchestral musician, and a way for me to explore the range of my flute and her unique voice. I was interested in her stories of remembrance as much as my own.

CLR: I remember you talking about the preparation as part of the process, and things that maybe would fall outside of a strictly defined studio practice, as enlarging your understanding of process. What are some of the discoveries that you’ve made, or out of necessity, the changes you’ve had to make, during this pandemic? I think you’ve talked about those a bit, but what are the things that feel potentially liberatory, that you want to continue to make space for as we are now moving into this — I don’t know what phase we’re in, but we’re in a new pandemic phase, right?

SC: The pandemic has reoriented my relationship to preparation, namely, that preparation itself has become its own ongoing durational performance. In order to work with the conditions, in order to be in relationship with whatever is happening in the present, I had to legitimize mundane everyday acts of preparation as performances in their own right. When preparation is uplifted and protected as a part of the performance rather than its own isolated and distinct process separate from the performance, it opens up the possibility for me to relate to performance as a distinct form of preparation. It’s a bit of an inverted approach — to consider performance as preparation — that speaks to what I believe to be the role of performance within the context of world-making.

Performance opens a fourth temporal space, and that space isn’t past, present, or future, but sits in between past and present, between present and future, where we have an opportunity to engage the world and each other differently. And because things were and continue to be in flux, there is a part of me that had to approach this performance like a tarot reading, as a practice of divination. In tarot readings, you pull cards first and connect the dots second, and that’s the approach that I had to take in order to work with mutable conditions. It became central for me to prioritize play first, and meaning-making second. To separate the process of creation from the process of analysis. That was challenging, because it feels safe for me to lead with analysis, which offers the illusion of control; it took a certain level of trust in myself and in the process to prioritize play.

CLR: That makes me think of a lot of things. It’s one of the pleasures of talking to you: my mind always gets to go in a lot of directions. Preparation could be so many things, it could be everything, right? It could become all that there is, versus ever making the thing as well. It makes me think of the performance artist Tehching Hsieh, who did all those year-long works, and then did the experiment of “I’m going to tell you 13 years later,” what the art is now. And when he finally resurfaced he just said, “I kept myself alive, that’s the art.” Brilliant! So I wonder, is how you’re thinking of preparation shifting as well? Does it keep echoing out?

SC: There’s this temptation for me to think about preparation as the thing to do before “the real thing.” But in this context — and I think, perhaps, moving forward — preparation is “the real thing” for me. And when I say preparation, I don’t just mean like, practicing new techniques on my instrument or learning how to use a looper. Preparation is negotiating consent. It’s having challenging conversations with people about what feels fraught, what feels like an opening and what feels like a hard no. That active negotiation is the ensemble work. I really wanted to zero in on that, because within the context of my own background and training, oftentimes relationship-building is an afterthought, secondary to “the music itself,” and I’ve always hated that. It feels like a Eurocentric and colonial approach to art-making — distancing a product or art object from the process. It’s very strange to me that I went years knowing the backs of people’s heads really, really well without ever knowing their names. [Laughter] Or to get deeply familiar with someone’s intimate and bodily habits — like, “This person likes to cue the downbeat by doing this with their shoulder,” or “That bassoonist tends to nervously fidget with their reed after playing an exposed line.” So I’ll know these really intimate and specific things about people without knowing their names! That one-sided or even voyeuristic intimacy has always felt discordant. The process is such an integral part of the art itself, and it shows. It’s so obvious when an ensemble doesn’t like each other. [Laughter] You know? Or when the folks there don’t know each other. It’s very, very obvious, and it comes through in the music. And so, throughout the process of producing this work, time and time again I kept going back to, “What exactly am I preparing for?” And, “What is it going to take for me to prepare for that?” And time and time again, it was just relationships, tend to your relationships. And, as I did that, the answers that I needed came up, when they were ready to rise to the top.

CLR: That’s so well-said. It makes me think, of course, of our relationship, of all the conversations we had throughout the artists’ strike at SFMOMA and — yeah, there’s a way in which I could say this project started for me during those conversations, when it wasn’t “about” Lucid Dreams of the Apocalypse, but it also absolutely was. Or even further — all the ways in which I’ve known you over the years. As you say with relationships being the glitches, it’s so important.

SC: Right, yeah. Because when you think about the museum as an institution, of the cultural standards and values it ultimately upholds and represents, I’m not supposed to be there as a subject. I’m supposed to be there as an object. Right? Black femme bodies are, more often than not, objects of the gaze rather than subjects of our own experience. And so, the fact that I was in that space to begin with, that in and of itself was a result of the glitch which is, you know, this relationship.

I consider relationships within the institution to be glitches, because the institution is built to separate people into silos. To divide people as a means to conquer the bottom line. That’s how it works, right? Important things — relational things — fall through the cracks all the time, because the institution, in order to uphold values driven by White supremacy and capitalism, must operate in ways that disconnect people from each other. The machinations of the institution work to reduce relational conflict, often relational conflict rooted in dynamics produced by systems of oppression, into something more manageable and palatable like… a committee or a specialized task force. This is the kind of reactionary response that, ultimately, perpetuates a level of isolation and compartmentalization that enables the same types of relational harm to be replicated in these spaces.

Without resorting to apathy disguised as realism, I had to ask myself throughout: what does it mean to stay tethered to my integrity without conceding to the pressures of performing political purity in a social, political, and economic context where that is, by definition, impossible? What is the difference between strategic refusal and virtue signaling? Relationships became the ground on which to work through these questions throughout the production of this series. For me, relationships activate the fugitivity that lives in my bones, the fugitivity that was passed down to me from my ancestors as a tool for finding openings in impossible places. It’s tricky. Relationships are not straightforward, and neither is the path to shaping a process that’s in alignment with my core values and visions for collective liberation. What I do know is that we need each other, and that is, ultimately, what I hoped to communicate.

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