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A Sonic Youth Co-founder and His Partner Talk About Their Audiovisual Experiment

Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer perform 'Sight Unseen' with sound and vision.

Sonic Youth co-founder Lee Ranaldo stands in the center of Issue Project Room’s cavernous performance space in Brooklyn, swinging his guitar through the air and towards the audience. No one flinches. Instead, they lie on rugs crisscrossing each other across the floor, their faces illuminated by Leah Singer’s 48-minute video projection installation. Sight Unseen is an evolving performance based on Ranaldo and Singer’s collaborative efforts beginning in 1991. “I’ve always looked at it as a library or an archive of both sound and image. It’s a very organic process,” Singer tells The Creators Project.

Ranaldo’s signature Fender JazzMaster hangs on a string suspended from a metal frame and its body sways back to him in a rhythmic loop. At times during the performance he catches it. All the while a soundscape fills the air, occasionally distorted. Its elements are found and recorded during Ranaldo’s tours; church bells are layered over a tapestry of voices, or a bird call, while others are produced live. Ranaldo beats mallets on the Fender’s back and drags a violin bow across its strings, or scrapes its head along the ground. 

Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer: Sight Unseen at ISSUE Project Room June 30th, 2016 shot by Yiyang Cao for ISSUE Project Room on Vimeo.

The duo gathers content during their personal travels around the world. Although the piece isn’t intentionally diaristic, each iteration of the performance contains new audiovisual data from their trips, as well as spoken word elements. Some of these are from Ranaldo’s private tapes or are in homage to artists the couple have an affinity with such as Brion Gysin, Charles Bukowski, and Robert Smithson, whose voices are heard intermittently in this version.

Image and sound are not synchronized, with the pair preferring to explore the nature of motion and the idea of chance operations. There is no narrative, only a beginning and an end; the program starts at one point and ends when audience members decide to leave the building. “It’s an environment to spend some time in and let the images wash over you,” says Ranaldo. “Let the sound wash over you. It’s the kind of experience you can’t get staring at your computer screen.” 

Photo by Patricio Jijon.

Music is like film in the sense that it is structured time. Ranaldo believes both are important mediums for the 20th century; the guitar is an iconic instrument and film has the ability to capture a moment. From his earliest days in Sonic Youth, he’s been interested in viewing the guitar as a tool that could be used in nontraditional ways, not just for dramatic effect, but to explore tonal qualities. He was inspired to suspend his guitar, he says, after noticing the way it resonated differently when hanging off his frame and from the strap or touching his body.

He and Singer share this experimental approach to their work. For Singer, the flaws and accidents that arise when making her films are intrinsic to her process. Embracing them, she says, is very Cagian and comes from the improvisational sensibility integral to New York’s artistic community in the late 80s and early 90s. “You never went to a show and it was all songs or set pieces,” she says of performances of those decades. “You got a filmmaker, a dancer, and a musician, and you just threw them together and they kind of hung out. It was all about making it happen in the moment.”

Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer: Sight Unseen at ISSUE Project Room June 30th, 2016 shot by Yiyang Cao for ISSUE Project Room on Vimeo.

Not everything in Sight Unseen is left to chance though. One of the most poignant moments in the performance is the juxtaposition between a clip of Trisha Brown dancing and an Icelandic geyser erupting. The clips share a power and energy while exploring movement and the hierarchies implicit in performance. “We try to break down the expectations of performance,” says Singer. “That’s why there is a lot of imagery of performance, of audiences, and even performers. It’s another way to breakdown expectation of where a performer stands and where an audience stands.”

To this end, Ranaldo plays from the floor and not on a stage as he might have done at the height of Sonic Youth’s fame. At times, he wanders through audience members lounging on rugs, shaking bells from his collection. As their faces follow his movements or witness the images projected in front of them, each experience becomes unique and singular. Sight Unseen has appeared in museums and includes local musicians; each performance is site-specific and this summer he and Singer are taking it to a field. “The idea,” he says, “is that you’re standing or sitting there and really as much a part of it as we are.” 

Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer: Sight Unseen at ISSUE Project Room June 30th, 2016 shot by Yiyang Cao  ISSUE Project Room on Vimeo.

Sight Unseen will be performed in Paris at Cent Quatre on July 9, and at the DU Festival in Sardinia, Italy, on July 16.

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