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Alison O'Daniel: A New Sensibility of Blended Senses

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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

Artist Alison O'Daniel has a manifesto. "Sound is primary; but other materials and sculptures play out cinematically in a three-act structure of emotional landscapes -- a jarringly non-linear experience of simultaneous time that rises through the body." Using a collaborative, cross-platform process, she makes her strange, fascinating, and lyrical work in interdependent video, sculpture, and sound. She's at the end of a huge summer that saw, among other developments, various video, sound, and sculptural components of her ongoing project "The Tuba Thieves" being exhibited simultaneously at two of the finest galleries in town (L.A. Louver and Samuel Freeman). The new film depicts "several days in the life of Nyke (a Deaf drummer), her Zamboni-driving father, and her boyfriend, Nature Boy. Their quiet routines are mysteriously shaped and transformed by events both past and present: a string of tuba thefts in L.A.'s middle and high schools, Hurricane Sandy on the East coast, and the 1952 performance of John Cage's silent musical composition, "4 min, 33 seconds."

"The Tuba Thieves" is not O'Daniel's first long-form film project, nor is it the first time she's worked with a conceptual audio score; nor is it her first collaboration; and it's not the first time she's produced a large body of mixed media sculptures for the wall, floor, and ceiling, either. It's not even the first time she has mined private experiences and performed elements in the narratives herself. But with "The Tuba Thieves," we see the ultimate convergence and evolution of all these aspects, channeled into the service of a single, fairly epic, masterpiece -- albeit one being mastered in pieces. O'Daniel is enthusiastic. "The film will be experienced wildly out of order," she says, "I love the way this non-linear experience of a linear narrative explodes normal viewing patterns."

A previous work with a similar dream-like aesthetic character was the film "Night Sky" (2011), which premiered in New York City at the Anthology Film Archives as part of Performa 11. That evocative, symbolist, road-trip film took cosmic vibrations seriously, both as a spiritual matter and as a method of communication -- especially salient as O'Daniel herself has lived her whole life with the challenge of a hearing impairment. "I'm hard of hearing," she says. "I grew up in a hearing world. Sometimes I feel like my hearing is so fine-tuned that I hear details that others don't notice, like my imagination is opening up to fill in gaps where I'm at a loss. My experience ricochets between enjoying the solitude of muffled hearing-aid-less mornings to deep frustration at people's unwillingness to be sensitive to missing an entire film or conversation or nuances of daily experiences and feeling ignorant and therefore isolated to a perpetual and profound state of observation and wonder. All of these experiences have made me sensitive to sound, to the loss of it, the abundance of it, how it impacts social situations, and the amazing possibilities in the aural world."

O'Daniel's sculptures transfer her auditory experience into still and moving images; and more unconventionally but no less profoundly, into sculptural objects which seem to pursue individual storylines with an emotional intensity matching the human actors in the films. Examining non-verbal communication is a throughline of her work, as O'Daniel uses sound as a way to design her visual language of boxes, hoops, chains, living plants, willowy stalks, cast-off talismans. The fragile shadows thrown from the sculptures act both as extended imagery and as metaphors for a mediated kind of comprehension. The work is kinetic, de-racinated, handmade, ethereal, massive, cheeky, poetical, occasionally quite pretty, vaguely unsettling -- and always there is the palpable sense that something has been removed. "I'm into the idea of people learning from the experience of not having complete access to all the information, to sound, to image, etc." As much as her own hearing situation, this is why the John Cage and the theft of sound-making objects are so resonant with her -- as well as the impulse to transfer sound to the realm of the other senses.

As with "Night Sky," O'Daniel is working with a range of collaborators on "The Tuba Thieves." For example, the score. She commissioned three composers (Ethan Frederick Greene, Christine Sun Kim, and Steve Roden) to respond to poems and other nuanced narrational references that she provided. "I'm committed to mediums borrowing other mediums' languages. I was really moved after hearing Steve Roden speak about his process of creating self-invented maps to follow for his paintings." She introduced herself, and asked if he would consider doing a score for the film. He agreed. "I asked Steve to think about the patterns the Zamboni makes on the ice. So he considered the cyclical, and there are many loops and cycles in his score. The music felt wintery, so a character [the father] became a Zamboni driver. I gave Christine a picture of Louisa Calder's dressing table with jewelry by Alexander Calder. She made field recordings picking up her jewelry and setting it down on the bathroom sink. In response, I started working with the jewelry chain as a sculptural material to draw in space with, to create the catenary curves" -- the elegant, shadow-casting, shimmering loops that adorn and drape from the solid parts of her sculptures, mimicking or tracing the lilt of a melody.

Every material and formal choice has its counterpart in another layer of the whole. Though words may first beget sounds, sounds soon find their way onto her sketchpad and into three dimensions. "Physically working with my hands allows me to understand an interaction between fictional characters better. Hunting for objects that become molds and then pouring plaster casts might tell me some detail about a character and how they relate to their boyfriend or mother. The alchemical process of the material becoming something different is similar to how a person or their ideas or values transform. One piece of colored paper on the floor next to an object of another color might feel cold and shut off, and if I'm looking at that in my studio while one of the scores is playing a warm section of music -- that's a complicated experience -- then I have to reconcile with what my ears and my eyes are each experiencing and maybe this influences me to write a scene that re-examines the nature of conflict and the subtlety of tension between things, people, time, places. If I'm trying to balance a mobile, certain placements of objects will tell me a lot about the narrative arc of a character."

As to the title, just what is all this Tuba Thieves business all about? Is it a metaphor for the lost sense of hearing? A personal allegory of a marginalized instrument of latent, low-frequency power making a play for the spotlight? Perhaps. But it turns out, it's also based on true events. According to this NPRinterview with a local tuba player and Sam Quinones, the LA Times reporter that has done the majority of reporting on the thefts, it's a serious problem. Especially in areas where Banda music is popular -- due to what they describe earlier in the interview as a fad for tuba players making insurrections into bassline hipster-town. In Banda, the tuba has been traditionally relegated to the back row, but it's getting a makeover; and Quinones feels these thefts are most likely being done to supply the Mexican Banda industry. It was right after O'Daniel got back from the New York City "Night Sky" premier that she started hearing these news stories about the rash of stolen tubas. "It fascinated me." She kept extensive track of the thefts with haul-size, dates, location, names of the band leaders. She spoke to many of them, and to Sam Quinones. Over the course of several months she decided to make a new film that "began with the process of listening; and also to focus more intently on making objects that begin with listening. That's when I decided to commission the musical scores and see where they took me."

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