Mapping the Unexplored
- Allora & Calzadilla are one of the art world’s most dynamic power couples.
- Doug Balliett has created a career as diverse as his own musical talents.
- Veruschka Stevens uses polymer clay to create joyful statement jewelry.
- Daniel Levitin’s lifelong love of music has served him in recordings and on the page.
- Art & Design
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate, conceptual artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are one of the art world’s most dynamic power couples.
Jennifer Allora: We both had this common interest in what I would call an idea that art can be a form of asking questions about what the world is.
Composer and bassist, Doug Balliet has created a career as diverse as his own great musical talents.
Doug Balliet: Thank God for the specialist, but if I’m allowed to do whatever I want, why not create a more mosaic career?
Verushka Stevens uses brightly-colored polymer clay to create joyful statement jewelry.
Verushka Stevens: If I’m in a bad place, I just need to see something beautiful and it literally will shift my mood, it’s very powerful for me.
And producer and writer Danny Levitin’s life-long love of music has served him both in recordings and on the page.
Danny Levitin: I think that complex mixture of emotions is why we turn to art in general and why we turn it to music in particular.
It’s all ahead, on Articulate.
For the past 20-odd years, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla have been partners in art, life, and love. Their well-researched work is dense with concepts and connections. Over the years, they’ve explored deep time, civil disobedience, and colonization. Guillermo Calzadilla says that all of their pursuits are united by two words.
Guillermo Calzadilla: Displacement and defamiliarization.
By this, he means their specialty is juxtaposing contexts, to make larger points about the world. A recent project saw them outfit a digger with a bell to demolish a pharmaceutical plant in Puerto Rico.
AJC: What on earth were you thinking?
Jennifer Allora: We have made many pieces, I think, that try to consider, “What is the role of a monument or a memorial? What function of commemoration do they serve?” And obviously, a bell is something that one could associate with having a commemorative function—marking the hour or marking a passing of some sort of an event that may happen—and use it to be the device through which this building is going to be demolished.
But before they were a well-established conceptual art power couple, Allora and Calzadilla were just two college kids abroad, falling in love with art and each other.
AJC: Take it back to Florence. Did you guys know you were going to make art together before or after you knew you were going to be a couple?
Calzadilla: That happened simultaneously. I was starting painting, and Jennifer was starting history—Renaissance history—and we started going out, and slowly started making art together. But it developed out of talking and sharing experiences together, and going and seeing art exhibitions, and slowly developing to making artwork together. But it didn’t happen as something that we planned, “Okay, we’re going to be collaborating now, starting at this point.” So it was more organic.
Allora: We both understood how this common interest in what I would call a kind of criticality, or a kind of idea that art can be a form of asking questions about what the world is, and that the really great works of art challenge one’s perceptions of reality in some way or another. So we had this common desire to want to do that, both, as artists.
Today, the pair exhibits all over the world but remains almost stubbornly based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The island, in turn, informs much of their work. A few years ago, they became fascinated by the observatory in Arecibo. Not only is the 305-meter dish one of the world’s largest radio telescopes, it’s also one of only two remaining habitats for the nearly extinct Puerto Rican Parrot.
Allora: So here you have a life-form that humans are bringing to the verge of extinction, and you have a project that’s trying to find life somewhere else. We found this sort of situation really rich and telling. And for the longest time we wanted to make a film about that.
The film used subtitles to winkingly refer to parrots’ abilities to mimic human speech.
AJC: There are people who would discourage you from getting into business with your wife or your friends or your close relations.
AJC: What’s the upside and what’s the downside?
Calzadilla: The upside is that it’s very productive.
AJC: You’re always at work.
Calzadilla: Exactly. The downside is that it’s too productive. And you don’t have spacing-out time. It’s hard.
AJC: What is the secret sauce of your partnership, do you think? Is it communication? Have you thought about what it is? Because you had a pretty fast, easy connection early on.
Allora: We fight a lot, I know that. We always argue with each other.
Calzadilla: I think what happened with time is that we have developed telepathic capacities with each other so we know what to say. Knowing that, you can anticipate a conversation, basically. So if I know for her to do something, I know how can I do it. Like I know I’m going to say something and she’s going to say “no” to, so I already take that into account.
AJC: But that sounds like every marriage on earth.
Calzadilla: The difference, I guess, is that, then, out of that, there’s an artwork that comes out.
AJC: I’m guessing then that life must be much simpler for you as a married couple when you’re working on this conceptual level in your professional lives, your artistic lives. The other decisions must be really easy.
Allora: I guess so. We try not to have to make many difficult ones outside of the work ones because the work ones always seem so intense. By the end of the day, if the question is “to eat,” it’s like, “Just go to the closest restaurant and get what’s there and order the same thing that we always get.” So that you don’t complicate things.
And for Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, complexity is best kept for their art.
Doug Balliett is one of classical music’s few composers whose go-to instrument is the double bass—a fact that he took some time to find peace with.
Doug Balliett: I had this time when I was like, “Ah, I wish I wasn’t a bass player. It’s like the turtle of instruments. It’s like what you’d give a D student.” Now, I totally disagree.
As well he should. This uber-prolific 35-year-old has already abandoned a job many musicians could only dream of. After tiring of life in the bass section of the San Antonio Symphony, this Juilliard graduate returned to New York City, where he would spend the next ten years playing in everything from a half-band, half-book club, a 17th century string band, and a so-called “trout quintet” (a piano quartet plus double bass), to name but a few.
Balliett: I can play a Bach cantata on original instruments one day, the next day play a Ferneyhough piece, or a Behatfur piece for bass flute and five-string bass. And the next day I can go and hear a rehearsal of a piece that I composed. That’s a really interesting life, to me. So, “Why not?” I say, if it’s a chance. Thank God for the specialist, but if I’m allowed to do whatever I want, why not create a more mosaic career?
And all of Balliett’s creations are unified by one special trait.
Balliett: The kind of music I write is always striving for beauty. And there’s certain circles where I think it would be rejected completely, like, the European avant-garde orchestras are not programming my music, because it’s probably too beautiful in a traditional sense. I don’t care. It’s fine. Maybe it’s the time we live in, that there’s too much turmoil for beauty to be relevant. I disagree. I think there’s more of a need for it than ever. And when I think about “What is my music contributing to the world,” I hope that it’s giving somebody a moment of comfort, or a moment of distraction, or just engagement. That’s sort of the high that I’m always chasing. That’s what I want. Not to create a revolution, or even to go into the history books or anything like that. Just to provide a service to people who want to hear music.
AJC: And to see joy on their face.
Balliett: And to see joy on their faces. That’s the best part.
AJC: There’s an emotional honesty to what you do, as well. Does that ever feel like you’re exposing yourself in some way?
Balliett: Yeah, it’s terrifying.
Especially terrifying was a song cycle for his muse and frequent collaborator, Majel Connery. The piece was modeled after Dichterliebe, Schumann’s most celebrated setting of Romantic poems.
Balliett: What’s so great about it is the narrator is, at times, so happy and excited to be in love, and, at other times, so miserable and wishing he wasn’t in love. And to me, it’s like a great Beatles album. It’s just a collection of amazing songs. Every one is a hit. I love it. It’s such an inspiration to me. So I wanted to make a cycle for Majel that was like that, each song responding to Dichterliebe—but based on my own most recent falling in love story, and it is almost embarrassingly autobiographical. But why not? I’m feeling those things so strong, and they’re screaming at me, and they’re coming out at the piano. And why should I ignore that and try to do something else? This is the most honest thing that I’m feeling at that time.
But for all the emotion he invests in his music, Balliett also puts a fair amount of academic muscle behind it, too. He recently took his own teacher’s place as head of the Double Bass Historical Performance Program at Juilliard. You could say he’s kind of got a thing for the past.
Balliett: It’s not that I think that it was better back then, but I sure do love imagining myself back then, or just imagining life back then. It’s a place I go when I’m drifting off to sleep.
And whereas most composers learn about music of the recent past in order not to repeat it…
AJC: You’ve gone back 500 years of educating yourself about what’s come before. Is that not incredibly frustrating when you sit at the keyboard and go, “Everything’s been written?”
Balliett: A little bit. You have to silence those thoughts and say, “Oh, G-major six, yeah it’s been written thousands of times. So I’m part of a tradition of musicians who write G-major six.” I think it’s foolish to try too hard to create something completely new. That’s a losing battle. And I talk to my composer friends a lot about this, who feel the burden of sitting down at the blank page and being expected to come up with something completely new. It’s impossible. There will always be revolutions, but I think very few composers set out to do a revolution. I think most of them are trying to write the music they hear in their head—and, if it’s revolutionary, so much the better.
And so Doug Balliett will continue to look to history to inspire him to create music whose beauty speaks to us in the here and now.
Veruschka Stevens is highly trained, but not as an artist. Up until 2013, this self-taught jeweler was a full-time systems engineer. But however disparate her two careers may seem, Stevens says certain skills have served her well in both fields.
Veruschka Stevens: There’s definitely a significant portion of learning to code, and you learn programming languages, and so forth. But the biggest part about systems engineering is learning how to think. So I’m able to deconstruct something that I find beautiful in tiny little elements. And then I know how to start. I start with the smallest of elements, and then I start putting them together.
And whether drawing on African fashion design, pottery, or even a favorite coastal view, color, texture, and nature are constant elements of Stevens’ work. One series celebrates the unique cultural heritage of her homeland, Bolivia. In the region where the Incas once lived, indigenous peoples still use particular kinds of fabric.
Stevens: …Which are called aguayos. And our native women and men still make these fabrics, and they use them mainly to carry stuff. So instead of bags, they wear them on their backs, and they put their babies in there, they put their foods. And it’s such a contrast, because everything they wear is dark, and brown, and black, but this is so colorful.
AJC: What does that say about the character of the people, or is there a practical reason for it?
Stevens: I think it’s the contrast of their lives. These are people that live in what we called the highlands, an altiplano. And if you’ve ever been in Peru, it’s the same people. Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, we’re the same people. Those lands are really…you have no plants, you have no greenery. And I think the human spirit just cannot quite handle that. If your environ doesn’t give you the colors, you create them. So I think this is their way of balancing the spirit, a little bit, of joy. They wear these fabrics more, even on their skirts, when they get married, when a baby is born, so this is definitely part of celebration. I do think it has to do with a natural association of color with joy—which is something I absolutely believe in, because the reason I do this is because it makes me feel happy. Some people hear music, and music can shift your moods. For me, color does that, and texture does that.
AJC: Do you think that that’s a cultural thing for you, or is it something that’s just a part of who you are personally?
Stevens: I think it’s part of who I am personally. I don’t know that many people that can be shifted so easily with color. I can. If I’m in a bad place, I just need to see something beautiful, and it literally will shift my mood. It’s very powerful for me.
Stevens began making her colorful jewelry as a reaction to her brother’s battle with cancer. She happened upon the material that would become her signature medium, polymer clay, while he was still alive. But she didn’t find her artistic voice until after he was gone.
Stevens: I started contemplating the ideas of reincarnation. I started contemplating the cycle of life, and what it really is. And so, my very first piece came to me in a dream, after he passed away. And he was in it, but he was not…the dream was like a close-up, following the cycle of the butterfly. And so I could see it started with the eggs, and the eggs that became the little worms. And then, at the end of it, it was a butterfly. And as the butterfly flew away, I saw his face. And then I didn’t know what it meant, but I just knew I had to do that. I had to capture that. And I hoped that, in the creating of the necklace, whatever I felt he was trying to communicate with me from the other side, would become clear to me. So I did, and that was my very big, first piece.
AJC: And did that bring you any kind of peace?
Stevens: Yes, it did.
AJC: It did?
Stevens: Yeah, it did.
Such peace, in fact, that Stevens decided to dedicate herself to making jewelry. The move, she says, was empowered as much by American cultural values as her own passion.
Stevens: There is no way, no way I would have ever been an artist in Bolivia. No way. It was not even a thought, as a possible thing for me to do as a kid. I loved playing, and building, and whatnot, but I went to engineering. One, because I was good at it. And two, because—
AJC: It was a job.
Stevens: That’s a job. Everything else is a joke. You know, you always have your uncle, Uncle Something, who is the artist, and he’s the crazy one. You don’t want to be the crazy one. So it was not even a thought. And so this country has given me the permission slip to do something that I know I would not have done. And that’s been the biggest thing for me, in terms of VeruDesigns, is I felt a backing—an emotional psychological support in the culture, that I don’t feel I ever had in my own home country.
AJC: If you can dream it, you can do it.
Stevens: Yes, yes, and that is so real. And I think that it’s such an intangible that is really hard to articulate to both Americans, because it’s how they grew up, but also to people that have never lived here, because it really is very special.
Another American value that’s come in handy: the willingness to fail.
Stevens: I think people don’t realize how failure is so feared elsewhere. Hugely feared! It scars people for life, and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in friends and family, both in South America and in Europe. It’s okay to do that here. It sucks, but we can come back.
In 1976, Daniel Levitin dropped out of MIT to pursue a life in music. It’s worked out pretty well. He transitioned from performing to producing, and, in the process, became insatiably curious about the psychology of music. So he went back to school, got his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD in psychology, and became a respected college professor and public intellectual, who would publish three consecutive New York Times bestsellers. All the while, Levitin has continued to be profoundly touched by music, and, sometimes, in mysterious ways.
Daniel Levitin: For so many of us, trying to explain feelings is difficult. I find we have an inadequate vocabulary to explain how we’re feeling. You’re rarely just happy and nothing else. It’s happy with a little sense of foreboding. Or it’s bittersweet—it’s happy and sad. I think that complex mixture of emotions is why we turn to art in general, and why we turn to music, in particular. I put on a Joni Mitchell song, and I go, “Oh yeah, that’s how I’m feeling! Thank you, Joni.”
But early on, music served important social functions, among them, acting as an honest signal: evolutionary biology’s term for a sign of physical fitness that cannot be faked.
Levitin: In the kinds of ways that music was practiced for tens of thousands of years, it involved a lot of improvisation—singing for hours on end, coupled with dancing. And you couldn’t have neurological impairment, or have cognitive defects, or physical defects, to be that musical, in the hunter-gatherer days.
Levitin says that, these days, it’s emotional honesty that sets great musicians apart. And it’s his job as a producer to bring it out.
Levitin: Knowing when to push and when to let go is really a big part of the producer’s job. The other thing is creating a situation where the artist feels safe. And I learned this very early on. I met with George Martin, when I was just getting started as a producer. It was this extraordinary lesson, just from being with him for an hour at AIR Studios in London. I felt that the two of us were in this bubble, and that nothing could possibly go wrong, as long as he and I were in the room together. I felt this tremendous sense of safety. And I’ve carried that with me all these years—this was 1981 when we met. But I thought, if I can do that in the studio, in just some small part—allow an artist to feel safe, that this is a safe space, where they can experiment—then something really great can happen.
For Daniel Levitin, all of human experience is wrapped up in music. Our emotions, our culture, even our evolution can be found in our songs.