Mira Calix’s latest album with WARP Records, absent origin, is an experiment in musical collage-making; an attempt to link together the history of sampling and appropriation of sound and vocals with the visual equivalents of these gestures as they emerged throughout the history of modern art since the turn of the twentieth century. Calix’s album includes seventeen tracks, each one dedicated to an innovative collage artist whose contribution is explored through rhythmic and other audible means.
A few months before the album was officially released, Calix met with Yuval Etgar, a curator and art historian who specialises in the history and theory of collage, for a conversation about her album. In the excerpt below, the two discuss the potentials and limitations of thinking about collage within the context of composing, making, and recording music.
Mira Calix: I first came across your writing, Yuval, in an exhibition catalogue for a show titled Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage (2019). This was at the early stages of my research work towards my new album, absent origin. The publication then led me to discover your book The Ends of Collage (2017) and to hear a talk you gave at the Courtauld Institute of Art more recently. I think that the way you speak about collage resonates with many of my own thoughts on the subject, particularly with regards to topics like the role of ‘edges’, ‘cuts’, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on the notion of ‘identity’. So, now that the album is finally coming out, I thought that this could make for a great occasion for us to talk and make some connections between your thoughts and my music.
Yuval Etgar: The feeling is mutual. On my part I was excited about the opportunity to have a conversation with you because my research is heading more and more towards the role of sound, music and indeed rhythm in collage, what one might call ‘collage in the expanded field’. And already from what you said just now I am curious to hear about how you interpret terms such as edges and borders in musical terms. Because to me, both literally and metaphorically speaking, these terms are at the core of what I think collage is all about. In fact, collage history depends on the idea of looking at edges, whether in the sense that collage had always departed from the mainstream, or simply because a collage is always an event that takes place on the edges of things – papers, images, texts.
MC: You mean, at once a vertical exploration of collage history and its pronouncements, and a horizontal exploration of the very topology of collage as a medium?
YE: Precisely. And in fact, my interest in the relationship between collage and sound is quite recent. It largely emerged in conversation with another interdisciplinary artist, like yourself, Christian Marclay, who seems to link his music work, his films, his record sleeves, and his silkscreen prints to the idea of collage making and to a practice of making paper-cut collages.
MC: Interesting that you mention Christian Marclay. We worked on commissions for the group Bang on a Can side by side, where he made this kind of filmic montage reinterpreting a score. And I agree, Marclay is an artist who traverses from visual to sound and vice versa in his work almost seamlessly.
YE: He does, and so do you. But this is also the place where difficulties begin to emerge. You see, I am a big fan of the idea that one can think about collage in extended terms, such that include sound, film, etc., but I also try to be careful not to go too far with this idea in fear that the term collage will lose its meaning and become this kind of empty word we use for any combination of things that are not necessarily expected to go together. This delicate border that informs the definition of collage is something that I picked up from the writings of a group of Belgian semioticians who worked in the late 1970s and explored the notion of collage as a tool to think about how language, and more specifically metaphor work. They were called Groupe µ (or Group Mu). The Latin letter MU stands for ‘metaphor’ in the group’s name), and they wrote a text trying to define collage in which they eventually concluded that “the only possible definition of collage must in itself be a collage”. That is, there isn’t a clear set of criteria that can suit all the instances that can be regarded as collages such as the use of paper, glue, or anything like that. But, they did warn us that the risk inherent to this definition is that “everything becomes collage”. That is to say that anytime we borrow an image, we copy or quote a text, or we place two things side by side, we can say that we made a collage. And they were very right in raising this issue because today we can easily see how quickly this term can become worthless, eroded in a way. Now music is one of those realms in which I remain suspicious of the need to use the word collage, particularly as it has its own history of appropriation and quoting which is better known as ‘sampling’, a term that has its own rules and connotations.
MC: Sampling is definitely a practice with a long history, from musique concrète, through reggae, and of course Hip Hop, but maybe there is room to speak about both collage and sampling. Maybe the two can offer different, albeit not unrelated tools to music.
YE: That is precisely what I am keen to learn. So, my first question to you as a musician is why did you choose to use the term collage in working towards your album and not sampling?
MC: I had always been very visually driven in my work. In fact, looking back, I always made collages alongside my music. Initially these were geometric compositions of colours, not so much figurative stuff, that helped me think about music through colours and surfaces. I used to create these collages as sketches for myself but about five or six years ago something changed, and I started sharing these outputs on my portal as artworks in their own right.But to link this back to your question, I always found collage making to be a process of composing and editing, and as such a very interesting way for me to think about my music from another point of view, external to it almost. And while in my own musical work I have always ‘sampled’ materials, these were exclusively my own things – old recordings, sound bites, etc. With absent origin however, for the first time I have decided to “lift” materials from others and to reference other artists, events and voices that intrigued me. So, this is something completely new in my practice that differs from DJing or sampling. It emerged only in the last three or four years.
YE: Do you remember how or why it emerged?
MC: I made this EP called Utopia that was dedicated to the relationship between an artist and their muse, but the muse turned out often enough to be a female artist who was not famous in her own right. Soon after that I began feeling more confident with the idea of working by way of collage, and I realised that this practice has a very close relationship with geo-politics, movement of found materials across time and place, rectifying histories even.
YE: Before we get into the question of collage and geo-politics, I would like to address a point that you made earlier about collage-making as sketch, or preparatory work towards a musical piece. In the visual field one often encounters questions about the nature and value of collages that could have possibly been sketches towards a more finite work.
MC: For example?
YE: Think of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, which I know you have also explored in your own research into the history of collage in preparation for this album. Matisse spoke of these works as “painting with scissors”. But when he spoke of painting with scissors in the 1930s and ‘40s the idea was opposed to the very notion of collage as it was seen by his contemporaries. Collage at the time was seen as a “challenge to painting”, not its ally. So, very often people ask me are Matisse’s cut-outs collages or not collages? The answer is irrelevant, and would be controversial either way, but raising the question is very important because it helps us start thinking about what is it that collages do, and not only how do collages look in our conservative or reductive view of this practice. In other words, finding a single definition of collage is a futile endeavour, but raising the questions that would lead to a definition is extremely interesting and useful. Having said that, I am curious to hear if collage for you was the way to ‘sketch’ the album or was it the ‘outcome’?
MC: There is a short answer to this question, but I will not give it to you so easily. I will start instead by saying that in this album I reference two artists whose work touches on this question precisely. Eileen Gray, who was an architect and a furniture designer, and Ella Bergmann-Michel, a filmmaker, are two artists who saw collage as a way of making sketches to their work. But they also saw it as a way to build their own dictionary of references and ideas, so-to-speak, as they created scrap books of inspirations that now seem like the best expression of their artistic world view. Trying to learn from these artists, I realised that film and architecture are very similar practices to music in the sense that they rely on predetermined parameters and how useful collage can be for such practices. I personally love working with parameters or a brief. For me, making art is 49% problem solving, and I don’t consider that to be a negative thing, I enjoy working around limitations.
But when I started working on absent origin there were no parameters to begin with. The idea emerged sometime around 2017-18 as I realised that I have accumulated enough off-cuts and source materials that I ended up not using in previous projects but could be potentially explored by way of putting it all together. I was toying with the idea when lockdown came and the timing could not have been better because suddenly the parameters were set in place for me – there was no way to collaborate with anyone in person, to record singers or instruments – and these ‘found’ (or maybe ‘lost’?) materials were the perfect set up for a new album. The files I was looking at originally belonged to multi-channel installation works I did in the past, so unlike stereo recordings, they were easily separated or appropriated as fragments. They were also built for environments, spaces you could access physically with your body, which is how I envisioned this album, as a three-dimensional construction, even though it became an album. absent origin really clarified to me that I am interested in world-building in my work.
YE: It sounds as if there are two sides to this project. The first, a venture into your own storage of leftover materials, but there is also this other side, which is all the materials that you “pinched” from others. How did that come about?
MC: Well, when the first lockdown happened, everything stopped. I floated around, and I suppose the psychological effect of that was that I suddenly felt like cutting up my own work into pieces and making something new out of it. Not to throw it out but to explore another direction with it. The idea of exploring collage was somewhat there but not yet entirely formed so I had to turn to others, other artists, other writers, for inspiration and for learning.
My research soon took over my office and my studio. I believe you saw pictures of my studio which at times looked like a warzone where papers and cut up magazines were covering the floors. I was walking over these materials to go and write music, although I kept my office tidier, so I can have a space for thought (and zoom calls). I could not find a good documentary film about the history of collage – anywhere – so I used my own whiteboard to draft something. I began to list the terms that I was picking up from various sources, like your books and others. Every time I read something or heard something I noted it up there on the board – detournement, photomontage, papier collé… And I started thinking about making these tracks that will explore all those various technical gestures that populated the history of collage. Maybe I can approach this track as a montage, and that one as an assemblage, etc. As I started to go through these things, I found myself by the nature of it side-tracked by all kinds of anomalies within this history, such as the work of Hannah Wilke, who used her body as the surface on which she would collate stones and other items. Gradually, as I read and researched more, I shifted my interest from these bigger themes to the actual work of specific artists whose practice shed light to me about this or that aspect of what collages could mean in music. I should say that the group of artists I ended up focusing on in this project were not necessarily the ones I liked the most, but rather simply ones that have something about their work that taught me something new or activated something in my composition process. I was searching and learning things in various ways, some a lot more intuitive than others, but gradually I created a list which became like a blueprint for the project. I would explore an artist and use their methodology and maybe also their interests as a brief to work through my own pre-existing materials and other found materials that seemed relevant to their practice and mine. So basically, I was looking into the process of these artists and trying to envision what the audio version of that would involve.
YE: Can you give an example?
MC: The first track, for example, is dedicated to Hannah Wilke, whom I already mentioned earlier. Her work revolved around creating compositions of found materials, often stones, by placing them on her own body and photographing herself with these elements to create something of a human collage. In the track dedicated to her, titled A Mark of Resistance I use my own body in a similar way only to create sounds instead of visuals, also referencing her feminist position. Another example I can give you is a track dedicated to Raoul Hausmann, a German artist who is very much associated with the advent of photomontage and a major figure in the history of Dada. In this instance, my reference to him is a lot more subtle. I was using the international phonetic library to reference his own fascination with phonetics and language, and how letters can literally become sounds or utterances in his collages and photomontages. It is worth clarifying that I used these artists as springboards, not ends in their own right. They functioned as entry points for me, sometimes mentors, muses if you like. And eventually, when I finished working on all these tracks, I realised that I was working on a very autobiographical album through the work of all these other artists. I was sure that my album was all about identity, and politics, and borders, and maybe it is in fact all those things, but in hindsight I realise that what really attracted me about all of these artists more perhaps subconsciously was that they were all bound to the vagaries of their origins. Did I choose these people because of that?
YE: If so, what does someone like David Hockney do there? I saw that one of your tracks is dedicated to him and assumed his inclusion had to do with his series of famous ‘joiner’ collages from the late ‘70s and ‘80s, which are a very original contribution to the history of collage, but was there another reason for his inclusion?
MC: No. You are right, Hockney ended up in the album very much because I thought the ‘joiners’ were incredibly eye opening to me. They were all portraits of people that he photographed himself from multiple angles to create a kind of mosaic of their presence from various angles at once. My work in the album thus does something similar by referring to an artist friend of mine, in the same disjointed way.
YE: It is worth noting that Hockney’s ‘joiner collages’ are basically a reinterpretation of Cubist portraiture – Cubism being the origin of modern collage – but they are also exploring ideas about three-dimensional rendering in digital technologies. In that sense the joiners are a kind of halfway process between two technological realities, mechanical reproduction and digital ones.
I should add here that the strongest tool collage had and continues to have in its disposal is the ability to displace. The ability to take a semantic unit, be it word, image, object, or all of these things, out of the habitual context in which we are used to seeing them and placing it in a jarring proximity to something else or in an inappropriate context. Collage is therefore the expression of displacement in its most meaningful sense. This is reflected also historically speaking when we look back at how many artists whose life circumstances included migration, life in diaspora, or travel, ended up being great collage pioneers – Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, and many more.
MC: Very much so, but I believe this is true also today.
YE: In that case, I would like to ask you a question about a quote I noticed you copied from Eileen Gray and hung on your studio wall, it goes something like: “the duty of the artist is to be of their own time”. Collage was born out of this imperative, to become the new form of art making in the turn of the twentieth century when modes of mechanical reproduction first became widespread, cheap and available to all. Today, we witness the effects of a more recent, but not altogether different revolution, which is associated with the advent of digital technologies. This is a process that started in the late 1970s but had recently taken a much more significant shape in the way we produce and appropriate found materials using technology, and the way we distinguish amateur practices from contemporary art. As a result, however, cut paper collages are often seen as nostalgic or historical rather than edgy or ground-breaking as they used to be “in their own time”. How do you place your work in relation to this imperative? How is this album of its time?
MC: The simple answer is that I believe my work is political, personal, and deeply invested in the technological means of production in which I operate and characterise the material culture of our time. This reminds me of another quote which guided me along this process, this time by Picasso, who said to his companion Françoise Gilot when trying to remember the reasons he took on collage in the first place that at the time, “the world was a very strange place and not exactly reassuring”. I am mentioning this because I think it is important to remember how hard, not to say impossible, it is to take out politics from collage. Not only because of the matter in which collages are made – as a joining of things foreign to each other – but also because it is hard to remove the politics from the story of this practice and its place within modern art. All the early collages executed in the 1910s, ‘20s and certainly ‘30s and ‘40s were inevitably associated with the political reality in Europe, whether directly or indirectly. So even if you look at someone like Max Ernst whose works seem to be completely surreal and fantastic, it is clear that his work was deeply entrenched in a certain political reality. And interestingly, as my research progressed, and much thanks to your writings, I began seeing Ernst as the ultimate collage pioneer, even though he was not the first to adopt this medium historically speaking.
YE: The work of Ernst is innovative in far greater measures than so far accounted for. His understanding of collage is absolutely brilliant, but most of all, his genius relates to the manner in which he understood the link between the notion of ‘identity’ and ‘borders’ and how fluid the relationship between these terms can be. Ernst understood all that very early on in his life in philosophical terms, but then he also experienced the problems of linking identity to borders during the Second World War when he was forced to move around and eventually flee Europe.
MC: This notion of collage as an intrinsically political practice is reaffirmed to me on a daily basis. Just take a look at the walls of buildings in East London today and tell me that collage is not alive as a platform for political protest as much as it was during the years of Dada? But today we also have other platforms like Instagram for example. And this raises old questions but presents them in a new light, such as what do we know about the world if we look at it only through pictures? That is, what kind of visual – or audible – language we endorse if we rely on making images from existing images?
YE: Hopefully collage continues to advocate for a democratic and open language; one that affords us a portal to criticise those who have the means to make their views published in the mainstream media. The collage artist is always doing something illicit. They can take the words or images of the newspaper publisher and alter them as a gesture of resistance, even if they do so in the privacy of their own home for their own pleasure. In other words, collaging (if that’s a word) is the simplest way technically speaking to respond to what we see (or hear). We just cut and paste what is already there, or otherwise, nowadays we just copy-paste things. This is a fascinating evolutionary step by the way because while we consider the digital age so far removed from the world of yesterday’s manual gestures, we still go back intuitively to the same simple act.
MC: This is where, in your writings, you argue that the role of the edge comes into play. Would you say something about your preoccupation with this idea of ‘edge’ as the most fundamental characteristic of collage?
YE: I argue that there is a historical confusion caused by the word collage whose roots are semantic. The word itself derives from the French word for glue, “cole”, and its conjugation to collage had several other interesting usages before it referred to an artistic practice, such as a reference to extra-marital affairs and a few other interesting ideas. Glue, however, is not a necessary condition for collage-making. Take for example Max Ernst, whom we just spoke of. He used to joke about this one time when a fellow artist asked him what he was doing these days. Ernst said “I am making collages”. When the artist then asked him “and what glue are you using for your collages?” Ernst smiled and replied that his collages had no glue in them whatsoever. And indeed, Ernst was one of the first artists to understand the notion of collage not as a technical procedure but as a state of mind, a way of working and a way of thinking. Or, as his famous dictum goes, collage “is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level.” This definition, one of several he wrote, does not include any mention of paper, or scissors, and certainly not glue.
However, when it comes to edges, or borders, these are without a doubt attributes that lie at the very heart of collage activity, always and without exception, whether they are visible and abrupt – for example when they are executed in the form of a straight line cut or a tear – or whether seemingly invisible, executed carefully with a scalpel and then reprinted to conceal every trace of the gesture such as the case in many of Ernst’s collages which then became known as “seamless collages”. In any case, the only truly essential gesture of collage is to bring the edge, the cut, the rupture from their usual place at the margins of a picture into its centre. The edge constitutes the main event that is in itself what we call collage. This is a reversal of the logic we were used to seeing in painting, sculpture and even photography until the twentieth century. The only other practices that share – not always, but often – a similar approach to edges are music and film, where cuts can form the central event that gives meaning to the two parts connected or disjointed from one another. And I should add a word and say that the fact that collage has this inevitable preoccupation with edges brings us back to its inherent links to political action; one that relies and engages with disjunctions between otherwise incompatible parts, and that always makes use of someone else’s materials, someone else’s images or text.
MC: So, let’s talk about this parallel you now drew between visual and audible edges. For me, sound inhabits us in a way that visuals struggle to do, and I believe that sound has a way of penetrating our existence and affecting our emotions in a more powerful manner than any other sense, through rhythm but also in the way it physically inhabits us.
YE: And yet we have grown to become far more visually literate than musically. So many of us discuss music through images, concepts, and literary narrative. And in this respect, I am curious to hear if you think that your project relies on understanding the histories, people, images and artworks that it relates to or is it now independent of them?
MC: I must admit that this project was very visual to me throughout the process of making it, but then again many of my projects are conceived in this way. The whole idea however, is to continue and evolve in my way of thinking in patterns, colours and shapes, through sounds, rhythms, and all kinds of other sensorial inputs so that these worlds meet but do not subdue one another.
I think that there is a fascinating history of musical collage that can and should emerge in dialogue with that of visual collage. For me personally, I think that the birth of Hip Hop is one of the most important events in this history. Hip Hop emerged as a musical outlet for immigrants and the children of immigrants – who came from the Caribbean, Africa, or Latin America. When discussing the roots of Hip Hop, like in the story of collage, one often encounters a debate around who were the inventors of the music, and what was each artist’s contribution. For example, Kool Herc is often regarded as the father of Hip Hop, while his sister Cindy Campbell is rarely credited for her contribution. Now these people were certainly not aware of the history of collage, at least not in any specific terms, but they responded very similarly to their life circumstances as the first pioneers of collage did, only through sampling and mixing records instead of newspaper clippings. And there are, of course, even earlier precursors in music, whose links are possibly closer to visual collage history, like Pierre Schaeffer who basically operated the first turntable to create music combining pre-recorded sounds, but I really think that the real audible collage emerges when vinyl records come into the picture.
I am curious to hear if you agree that these histories are linked to one another?
YE: I do. But once more, I would put the weight in this comparison not only on historical, political or technological parallels. Rather, also on questions such as how we interpret terms such as edge, and indeed very much so also rhythm, in musical as well as visual collage. Was Rhythm a consideration for you in this respect when working on the album?
MC: Very much so. I think this comes across most clearly in the track I dedicated to Hannah Höch, the first lady of collage you could say. When I started looking into her work, I was more interested in her collages using printed sewing patterns than her more celebrated chimeric figures and Dadaist collages with multiple words, magazine and newspaper clippings. The sewing collages are actually what I started calling ‘data pattern collages’. That is, I saw them as attempts to deconstruct information into its patterns rather than figurative elements that can be easily recognisable and conceptualised. I personally very much associate my work with the idea of coding and decoding as a form of creative activity. So when I created the Höch track I ended up recording my own voice in order to create a repetitive loop overlayed on itself, a bit like Höch’s sewing patterns could potentially be seen as the result of her tampering with the found material until it dissolved into pixels or textures, not fragments anymore. This is something you can easily do with sound; you just rebuild a world on a micro level, and the effect of such composition process is that the origin from which the work originated is eventually almost entirely gone.
YE: So what are you left with now at the end of the process?
MC: Well, going back to Lockdown, I think that when I found myself, like everybody else, stuck at home with nothing but my leftover recordings, I realised that this is inevitably a new moment in history where collage is once more an essential tool to our creative existence. I learned from this moment a lot. I learned from these artists a lot. The last piece I wrote ended up being a twenty-minute-long track which could not fit in the album anymore so it became its own thing, a video work and a musical single. It is a lengthy conversation between my own work and the radical gesture that the painter Lee Krasner made when she decided to destroy all of her paintings in order to recompose new ones out of the ruins of her old work. I feel like this track kind of represents my entry point to this project but also its conclusion. It reveals this forbidden instinct I have as an artist to rip it all up and start again, to see what else could have happened from these materials.
Yuval Etgar is a curator and art historian who specialises in the history and theory of collage. He is currently acting as the Director of Research and Exhibitions at Luxembourg + Co., London and New York, and Adjunct Curator of the Bauhaus Foundation, Tel Aviv. Etgar’s latest book, 'John Stezaker: At the Edge of Pictures' (Koenig Books, 2020), is the first monographic study of the artist. His anthology 'The Ends of Collage' (L&D Press, 2017) is a comprehensive reader of key texts on the history of collage.
absent origin is available now