Liz Phillips

Liz Phillips and the watertable from "Spectral Reservoir"
Pelham Art Center (photo by Heidi Howard)

Interview 10/22/11 with Heather Dewey-Hagborg

New York-based artist Liz Phillips has been making interactive multi-media installations for the past 30 years, which combine audio and visual art forms with new technologies to create a fascinating interactive experience. Born in New Jersey in 1951, Phillips received a B.A from Bennington College in 1973. In 1981, she co-founded Parabola Arts Foundation, a not-for-profit organization created by five media artists from varied disciplines (music, sculpture, film, video) which provides funding for art-related projects. Phillips has made and exhibited interactive sound and multimedia installations at numerous art museums, alternative spaces, festivals, and public spaces. These include The Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Spoleto Festival USA, the Walker Art Museum, Ars Electronica, Jacob?s Pillow, The Kitchen, and Creative Time, among others. Phillips has also collaborated with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and her work was presented by the Cleveland Orchestra, IBM Japan, and the World Financial Center.

“Fish Pings Eclipse”

Heather: Tell us about your background as an artist: where are you from, how did
you begin making work, what kind of work did you begin making?

Liz: As far as I can remember I was always busy making something and exploring some new world. I began as a child observing nature, building birds nests and making camouflaged wild flower gardens and art: painting and sculpture.
I remember that mixing paint on cookie sheets and cupcake tins was one of my favorite parts of painting. I tried to grow wild flowers that were impossible to transplant and find them the perfect habitat. None of this feels so different from what I do now when making interactive art.

I remember some powerful early experiences with sound, listening to water. There was an event of particular interest, as a child when my father brought home wooden organ pipes that he found on the street and put a bunch of them into out very large fireplace. When the fire burned through them they made amazing voices. Another amazing experience was with a mist over the Hudson river, fishing in the early morning and hearing the clarity of the sound that traveled between the mist and the surface of the water from across the river.

At 19, I chose sound as a material for an installation because it could surround you and be so descriptive and tactile and interactive. It worked well in space and with time. I think of myself as a sculptor. I am not a performer. I sculpt and compose with sound and light, creating open structures. The appearance of integrated circuits and synthesis and voltage control opened the way for me to make my sound installations.

Heather: Who were your early mentors or inspirations?

Liz: My earliest mentors were many. I loved the museums in NY.

I was inspired by nature. I fell in love with "Heart Beat Dust" a multimedia work at the MOMA's Machine Age show by Jean Dupuy. I also saw Nam June Paik's magnet on a TV pulling the image at about the same time at Howard Wise Gallery. Then I figured that I could make the work that I imagined and it would be called art. Until that time I thought my observations were perhaps scientific investigations. I was torn between making art and studying nature.

Another great inspiration for making installations was when I caused an explosion while making candles 24 hours a day. I saw the air ignite and fill with luminous orange colors for a single moment.

I had some wonderful teachers, producers, curators and artists accessible to me.
My early mentors included : Grace Leiber, a an elementary school teacher who encouraged me in the study of wild local plants and habitats. Thomas Standish, a macroeconomist who taught me about open systems and the dynamics of technological change. Lindsey Decker, a sculptor and installation artist, was my first art teacher who introduced me to art and technology and environmental installations. Rick Salutin gave small classes where we discussed and read about world religions, anthropology and radical politics.

I was also inspired and encouraged to realize my work because of the openness of the technological art world when I was in college. My early access to artists and musicians such as Nam June Paik, John Cage and Merce Cunningham created a wonderful environment. Their collaborations and the opportunity to create an event with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when I was just 25 was very important to my development as an artist. David Tudor, Max Neuhaus, Maryanne Amacher, Paula Rabinowitz, Cora Cohen, Annea Lockwood, Ruth Anderson, Mary Lucier, Beryl Korot, Serge Tcherepnin, Kenny Greenberg, Paul Earls, Richard Teitlebaum, George Lewis, Simone Forti, Alison Knowles, Yoshi Wada, Earl Howard, Bill Brand, Gunnar Shoenbeck, Isaac Witkin, Philip Wofford, Pat Adams and Joel Chadabe were people I knew and could converse with about our work. I met many of these people while in my early twenties. Ideas and technology were exchanged in collaborations and festivals.

Heather: What interested you in sound and how does sound feature in your work?

Liz: Sound is a wonderful material to describe events in space and time with and it can be layered to achieve multiple perspectives. Sound can surround you and has aura and power and depth. Sound can be manipulated, stored and controlled using electrical energy. Sound and waves of water are deeply visceral and connected in their flow. Sound moves in air and can radiate from objects, describing events through intermingling, morphing and destroying their images.

Heather: How has your work evolved over time?

Liz: I have more control over details and events now. There is more memory and accuracy in my sound tools. My ideas have changed and grown and my techniques for realizing them have evolved. I am a better listener. I am able to do and document more with new technology. Some of my visual ideas can be realized because of new projectors and high definition technology. I can use many different materials as loudspeakers and am no longer confined to traditional boxes. Sampling, transposing, micro-circuitry and vast electronic digital memory makes so much more possible.

Heather: What keeps you interested in sound?

Liz: I am just moving from one piece to another that I am dying to realize. This material seems more and more virtual and malleable in my hands.
Sometimes I wish I had been happy to just paint, because paintings are easier to preserve and they keep the images that you put on them. Unfortunately, the ability to accumulate and weigh and balance events in time and space is just too essential to me.

Heather: Your recent piece Echo Location involves an elegant sphere of video
showing images of local New York ethnic chefs and their craft. Can you talk
about this piece - what the materials are, what the process of working on it
involved, what attracted you to food as a subject matter?

Liz: This piece came about when I realized that could finally make 3-D images of human-scale and shift them as I do with binaural sound recordings. I had tried using lasers for human scale light shifts in the late 1960’s but they were just too dangerous and could not modulate images yet. I used neon tubes that shifted color and filled with light in a few works. Now, with two projectors and a weather balloon as a permeable screen, my visuals could be dimensional and shift with the movement of spectators (along with the more descriptive sound samples). I was looking for a good subject and talking to the Queens Museum about a show for their biennial. Time was short and I like to eat authentic neighborhood ethnic food in Queens where I live. I like to immerse myself in the variations in eating rituals and the sound of a different language while I eat. Also, being new at video, I was never interested in the rectangular frame and a straight horizon line. Round images can be put in the weather balloon. Plates, pizzas, rotis, faces, rotisseries, pots and pans were all very interesting. I had worked with eating as a ritual to create a natural setting and activity for exploring interactive space in my TV Dinner and electronic banquet pieces as early as 1970’s (see Radical Software) (Electric Spaghetti at Avant Garde Festival, NY Times).

I was also interested in the sound of cooks in the kitchen, their percussive events with erratic timing and rhythms. Pots, vases and containers from different cultures are often simple resonant containers for playing sound back through (using transducers). I had a multichannel sound system and the sounds from the restaurants and kitchens would achieve perspective when moving from one speaker/object to another.

Some amazing things happened while I sat with friends and family and the other artists at different meals with the two cameras placed at the distance of eyes and the two microphones on a rig the distance of ears.

One was the singer in the Italian restaurant who walked right up to me singing. His voice was beautiful sampled and play/singing out of a large glass vase. Another exciting moment was when I shot in Penang, the Malaysian restaurant in Elmhurst and the chef threw a roti (thin bread/dough) and it became translucent like the skin of the balloon. I lucked into live music in Pio Pio, Sapori D'Ischia and in the Indian Temple. In the temple they would not let me make pictures but they let us record the bells and chanting sound. We used images from a nearby Dosa Hut but I did miss the chrysanthemum stringing and saffron carpet of the wooden temple. On the other hand on Steinway Street I was lucky to be there when they were hanging the multi-colored lanterns for Ramadan.

We had a good time eating and listening and mixing. Jerzy Klebieko did a dynamite job editing and syncing the two video cameras. That was critical to the chapters and 3-D. I think of the piece as a poetic narrative exploration of contained and elastic space and place that I could make and playback in limited time in my own neighborhood. For me the sound is the most descriptive and complexly manipulated material in the piece, but most people react to the six foot balloon image first. Twelve different object/speakers and the sounds of places panning between the objects that worked best. I also found the overlapping of cultures and their music and voices in different languages pretty wild when simultaneously activated by multiple participants.

Heather: You have been working with interactivity for a long time - at least 30
years. What drew you to interactivity in art and how do you think the
meaning of its use has changed over the years?

Liz: When I began using sensors and making interactive art there was not such a category. It was a practical decision. I decided to make my work interactive because sounds in sculpture needed to change over time. In 1981 Vito Acconci said "You can close your eyes but you can not close your ears." This makes sound, which is such a tactile media when used and tuned to an installation space something that you do not want to leave in the same place all the time.

For me sound is something that I, as a considerate person, must make responsive to the presence or absence and perspective and placement of the audience. When I started, it was the beginning of synthesizers and voltage control and integrated circuits. This technology made the manipulation of sound events possible in installations. I felt that the people listening should be able to hear sound events in their own time and manipulate the material just as you would walk around a sculpture. This way they could deconstruct and reconstruct events and get familiar with the medium and no longer just think of these sounds as blips and dings (of outer space imaginings) but hear textures, timing and variations as we electronic artists do. Immersing my audience and locating them was also a way to have the sounds travel to them with perfect perspective.

I embraced the idea of creating an art form that was democratic and responsive and dynamically transformed itself, becoming truly resonant and vital in its dialog with the viewer.

Heather: How do you see sound art operating within culture of where you operate
- the music and art scene?

Liz: I feel that we are part of a larger shifting world culture where people can communicate in moments over large distances and become collectively empowered. This is very exciting.

I do not feel alienated from that culture but these days cell phone rings, awful alarms, backing up trucks, leaf blowers and terrible air conditioning systems seem to pollute the sound space.

There are so many people who could learn to tune in and be more sensitive to the environment, and we sound artists can enable that sensitivity as our work is experienced by a larger audience.

Heather: What challenges have you faced in the field?

Liz: The field is always changing and the field can be very equipment-trendy which is inherently not aesthetic and boring. Instead of creating our own tools and remaking tools from the technology and instruments and objects around us, artists too, can become slaves to fashion, media and technology. I am continuously challenged by the lack of people wanting to take time and discover.

Another great challenge is that so few people are able to acknowledge women as pioneers, particularly other women, particularly with technology. It is still primarily an old boys network. The most challenging group to teach can be the technically disenfranchised and disabled women. They can be least trusting of women as experts.

Yet there are more and more of us that realize how close and wonderful, fragile and delicate it is to manipulate potential energy, electrical energy, digital and radio transmissions and the body electric. Electrical signals can bring us as close to living things and ecosystems, creating and documenting events that incorporate the figure and the landscape into a resonant time-space based art. Signals, sensors, found sound and live sound can become music when filtered and resonated and processed by an artist and with their own palette. Technology makes great tools and palettes in the artist's hands.

The biggest practical challenge has been to get the space I need to create work. My work takes a long time to set up. Many of the parameters must be tuned in the installation space. I never have the space to first create the whole work before the final installation.
Also, because the work is hard to buy and sell there are issues of storage of parts and materials and technology becoming hard to replace.

Another challenge is documentation of an interactive installation. We all also face the challenge in sound art because there are few critics and writers to inform the audience about our work.

Heather: What are you working on right now?

Liz: Right now one piece that I am working on is a performance and installation, "Biyuu" with a wonderful young Butoh dancer, Mariko Endo Reynolds. Together we are evolving a work about sanctuary, body energy, space and place using sound, movement, video and water. Portions of the piece can be seen on the USA Artists website where we are fundraising. We are hoping the first installation and performance will be at Roulette within the year. There are already some opportunities to have it traveling to Pennsylvania and Maine next Fall.

Heather: What words of advice would you give other aspiring women in sound?

Liz: Listen to your own voice. You can make anything you want to.

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