The existence of the modern working artist revolves less around an exalted state of being and more around hard work. By the time most artists land a retrospective, they're not long for this world. At 38 years old, Raven Chacon proves an exception to that rule.
Raven Chacon Talks ‘Lightning Speak’
BY SAMANTHA ANNE CARRILLO
The life of an artist is romanticized. Yet the existence of the modern working artist revolves less around an exalted state of being and more around hard work. By the time most artists land a retrospective, they’re not long for this world. At 38 years old, Raven Chacon proves an exception to that rule.
Born in Fort Defiance, Ariz., Chacon is known around Albuquerque as a fervent supporter of experimental art. Among a litany of collaborations, Chacon founded Southwest-based label Sicksicksick Distro and remains a prime mover in performance troupe Death Convention Singers, electronic duo Mesa Ritual and indigenous art collective Postcommodity.
Chacon’s solo work — especially his chamber and noise compositions — are the basis of this UNM retrospective, so further recounting of his many artistic partnerships might distract from the “Lightning Speak” focus. That said, it’s hard to imagine the Southwest art and music scenes without this enigmatic prankster in residence.
ABQ Free Press sat down with Chacon to discuss his retrospective, art as resistance, the role of place in creation and his studies at UNM.
ABQ Free Press: The title of your solo exhibition is “Lightning Speak.” What’s the origin of that phrase, and what does it mean?
Raven Chacon: In Navajo language — which I am continually attempting to learn — the word for lightning is the same word now used for electricity. So in trying to translate the idea of electrically transmitted sound, the medium I work in, it became “Lightning Speak.” I also use the phrase for the sub-label of my Sicksicksick label that releases music by Natives from the region. It also implies that works, ideas or sounds originate from elsewhere, travel through a musician or artist and exit through a speaker.
Of the work on exhibit, what was the biggest challenge to translate for gallery exhibition?
Many of these works existed solely as music compositions, their performance being only half of their realization. So documenting sound works or music performances, especially those that are performed in non-traditional venues can be a challenge. Relaying spatialized or extremely loud sounds usually do not directly translate.
The massive three-channel video installation of Canadian iceberg mural “Gauge” premieres at this exhibition. How did your participation in “Gauge” come about?
I was invited by artist Danny Osborne a week before the project began. As the project began to take on a life as a video installation, sound was going to be a necessary component. I soon realized my role would extend beyond making field recordings; our small crew of six would travel far out onto the frozen ocean, scout for locations, set up camp and equipment, “make” paint, and eventually I found myself painting some of the murals as well.
Has place — the Navajo Nation, the Southwest in toto — informed your work or your path to becoming an artist?
My first work, “Field Recordings,” was completely site-specific and made me realize the importance of capturing, presenting, performing and recording in spaces and places — all while considering and fully recognizing the context of the people involved, creator, audience or innocent bystander (nature). In my work, place equates to pace more than landscape being translated into sound. But concerning the Southwest, it doesn’t take a local to see how easily instances of beauty line up with other instances of beauty around here.
You previously noted that “Drum Grid”’s composition requires external resistance to end the piece. I love that. In the show, it’s represented by video of a 2010 performance by Death Convention Singers. You mentioned a repeat performance may happen sometime during the exhibit’s run.
“Drum Grid” will be performed in the middle of UNM campus on Friday, April 29, during the noon hour. My piece, “Biyan,” written for Chatter Ensemble will be performed Wednesday, March 30, in the entrance to the Art Building on [UNM] campus.
Can you expand on the compositional nature of “Ofrendas De Luz”?
“Ofrendas De Luz” is the documentation of the process and results of the Death Convention Singers (Cobra//group) 2008 album “Brujas.” The album began as an experiment in invoking completely free improvisation by inviting local musicians to attend pitch-black recording sessions in abandoned spaces around Albuquerque and Corrales. The sessions were organized via email and subsequent anonymous interactions and invitations, and the finished album was edited as a group project. Other than the core group, we don’t know who (or what) is on the album.
“Still life no. 3” blurs the linearity of a retelling of the Navajo creation myth by varying intensity of sound and light. Loudness and brightness take on narrative significance. Was that your intention?
Those timed elements are intentional, but while the piece addresses the non-linearity of time, what reinforces the blur or fluidity of a linear narrative is when elements get repeated, or when history repeats itself. For instance, if an action in a story is repeated four times, and so does the next action, a narrative can be seen as less of a sequence and rather a series of overlapping cycles. It fascinates me that some creation stories take on these forms, perhaps expanding without moving forward.
During your studies at UNM, who were your favorite professors?
I learned the most from Manny Rettinger (recording/sound) and Christopher Shultis (composition, conceptual music, silence). I am still learning from Manny.
In contrast to temporal distortion (see “Still life no. 3”), the composition “Report”’s use of gun calibers as note structure for salvo/cantos seems darkly playful. Is that one aspect of the piece’s intent toward cultural resistance?
The calibers do directly correlate to pitch and tuning, but there was an intention for the piece to become the ultimate leveler — to eliminate dynamic and eventually nuance. On one hand, it erases the identity of the performers, but in performance (or video), the identity of the shooters is of great importance, and this provides an opportunity for another kind of resistance or agency.
Samantha Anne Carrillo is a situationist, fourth-wave feminist and associate editor at ABQ Free Press.