John Cage


Any answer is as good as any other answer

experimental book studio at the john cage trust

experimental book studio at the john cage trust

experimental book studio at the john cage trust

experimental book studio at the john cage trust

experimental book studio at the john cage trust

John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn generously gave my Purchase College Experimental Book Studio an afternoon of her time, introducing the students to Cage and taking us through a chance operations workshop. She demonstrated the basics of Cage’s chance methods using his very own I-Ching, given to him by Christian Wolff in 1951. One of his Ryōanji drawings was there on the table and then she guided us through our own drawings, using 15 stones (we were told to gather them before coming), dice, pencils and sheets of Cage’s own stash of Japanese paper, ordered just a few days before his death in 1992.

Some chance operations basics: instead of looking for answers, ask questions / any answer is as good as any other answer / when choice is a burden, look to chance. All of these ideas are beautifully enacted in the deceptively simple making of a Ryōanji drawing. The result is a drawing of traced stones that the artist receives by enacting chance operations for all of the decision-making (how many stones, which stones, which pencil, where to place the stone, etc.).

Then Laura gave us a tour of an extraordinary thing, The First Meeting of the Satie Society, one of Cage’s last works; in fact, it wasn’t completed until after his death. It’s a gorgeous cracked and stamped steel and glass valise containing eight large books with artwork by Robert Ryman, Sol Lewitt, Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham and Marshall McLuhan, and texts by Cage.

Cage called the books “presents” for Erik Satie and boxes were made for each of the artists, nine total. They’re rarely exhibited or seen. The thingness of the object, its physicality as an object, is unfolding and giving. It’s an ethereal work that resists capture and consumption. It’s almost too beautiful.

Many thanks to Laura Kuhn and Emy Martin for sharing their time with us.


Four minutes, thirty-three seconds

4’33” by John Cage (1952) from Paul Soulellis on Vimeo.

A filmed performance of John Cage’s 4’33” (1952), in three movements.

I. 0’30”
II. 2’23”
III. 1’40”

Produced/directed by Paul Soulellis.
Cooper Troxell (melodica)
Katherine Pan (recorder)
Cassandra Marketos (guitar)
Zak Greene (banjo)
Recorded on January 26, 2013 in Union Square station, 4/5/6 uptown platform, NYC.

Created for New World Symphony’s three-day festival honoring John Cage, “Making the Right Choices,” February 8–10, Miami.




Thursday and Friday 9–10 August / Days 11 and 12
240 books distributed in twelve days.
Project completed.

I had the pleasure of hosting Frances Scott for a night at the Dead House. A talented artist and lovely company.

Joe Stevens interviewed me for his blog about working with archives, performance, maintaining a creative practice and cultural production in the US and UK.

And then, on my penultimate day in Weymouth, Jane took me for a West Dorset drive-around that she’d been planning for a week. She’d wanted to do this back in March when I stayed with her, but there wasn’t time, so we squeezed in a few hours for a tour, post-bakery.

On the way to her car she confessed that she had an agenda for me.

Two performances of 4’33”

At my talk, someone asked me which artists were influential in my work. I mentioned John Cage and 4’33” specifically, and briefly described the premise of Cage’s 1952 work: silence, listening, chance, suspension of judgement, awareness. Jane heard this at the talk, and as a sort of going-away gift, she decided that she was going to take me to two powerful places in West Dorset, sit me down in very specific places and give me two “performances” of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in the landscape. She wore her watch for the occasion.

The first location was Eggardon Hill, a mysterious Iron Age earthwork built by ancient Celts and conquered by Romans in 43 AD. A spectacular landscape protected by the National Trust.

Below: my view out from the first performance of 4’33”looking straight ahead to the sea. Jane sat behind me, about 30 feet back, and I closed my eyes for the duration of the piece. I heard wind, songbirds, sheep, distant highway sounds and crows, all in front of me but coming from various directions, an enormous open-air theater. A soaring, connected feeling that could have continued for much longer, but near-perfect as experienced here with Jane. To conclude the performance, Jane said ok then.

Approaching the second location, I asked Jane if she thought I was performing 4’33” for her, or if she was performing it for me. She replied, it’s being performed.

The second location for a performance of 4’33” was an 11th century motte and bailey castle earthwork. Below, the view straight ahead of me. More intimate this time—less wind, my own breath, and the addition of buzzing insects, cows and a distant tractor. A heavy feeling of sinking into the earth, a brief absorption (collapse?) of time and space.

These are significant gifts, these things I’ve received these last two weeks in Weymouth. Moving, meaningful gestures that I’ll remember forever.

On the last day of Weymouths, I returned the bicycle to Bev, who prepared tea. We noticed that her walls match the color of the Sophie Calle book perfectly.

Books 238, 239 and 240

The last few copies of 1,485 Colors (#12) went to a couple from Bermuda, a seven-year-old boy from Brockenhurst, and a Finnish woman, who said that her book (the very last copy of the project) would go home with her to Finland. Finish.



Is design humility possible?

I’m looking back at this rich thread and thankful so many people took the time to participate. The conversation touched upon exposure, tension, awareness and surface, among many other ideas, and we conjured up Bruno Latour, Kahn, Eisenman and Kengo Kuma. The two-week duration was luxurious — enough time for ideas to simmer, develop and branch, and ample space to focus. Much of my own engagement online is confined to short bursts of 140 characters or less, so the longer format has been especially refreshing.

Several commenters mentioned something about “removing the ego,” or a lack of ego or dissociation of the self from the creative process. I went back to the opening statement to see if I had suggested this in my choice of words, and unfortunately there is a hint of that in “Cage’s removal of judgement from his decision-making…” Just to clarify: the ego cannot be removed from any process, creative or otherwise. It’s central to the self and mediates between all aspects of the psyche and the external world. In fact, my own interest lies in what’s possible when the ego is very much present — strong, resilient and healthy — and flexible enough to allow decision-making to flow in from the external world (nature, chance operations, etc.). Instead of imposing judgement or personal taste from within, creativity might open up to something new — wider, larger views of beauty.

Thanks to the Philip Johnson Glass House folks for celebrating John Cage’s 100th with this provocative discussion, and for allowing me to host. I remain fascinated by Cage’s way of working. We’re still learning. I tried to explore this and my own definition of “design humility” in a forthcoming article, to be published this spring in the third issue of The Manual. Please look for it and let’s continue the discussion here!


No end to the number of somethings

John Cage:

When nothing is securely possessed one is free to accept any of the somethings. How many are there? They roll up at your feet … There is no end to the number of somethings and all of them (without exception) are acceptable. If one gets suddenly proud and says for one reason or another: I cannot accept this; then the whole freedom to accept any of the others vanishes. But if one maintains secure possession of nothing (what has been called poverty of spirit), then there is no limit to what one may freely enjoy.


Installing the book.

So how does one install a book?

This installation is only one instance of 273 Relics for John Cage. The book is present and the book is an object — to be touched and handled. To spend time with the book: so the special tables elevate it (39 inches from the floor), making it easy to view, giving it an honorary position.

30 images were extracted from the process as a slow 30-minute projection, and two audio recordings of the 52 texts (ordered randomly) are on the headphones. And Relic 241 is there, leaning back — kind of like a spectator to the whole thing.

These events form a particular instance of the project, as it was installed in North Carolina on October 7. But the project is alive, and I imagine other permutations are possible — I like to think that a future installation might produce different works, different configurations. What if all 160 photographs could be installed. Scattered on the floor, leaning against different walls. A giant, immersive video projection, in a darkened room. And the beautiful Untitled Pixels, which didn’t even make it into this installation (there wasn’t room).

Within a few hours, one of the books (#1) had been taken. It’s a small edition of 10, so this came as a surprise, but then I loved that its new owner, unknown by me, had chance determined something entirely new for the work. In an almost Cage-ian move, the disappearance is now part of the work. I gave book #2 to Beverly Plummer. Book #3 will be sent to the John Cage Trust, and #4 will be donated to the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.

273 Relics for John Cage, the book, represents each part of the project, but it also is the project. The book is an index — it’s both a catalogue of the work, and the work itself. I hope to produce a second, larger edition soon.


Ink and paper

I don’t want to handle the books or open them wide, for fear I’ll break the spines, etc. But I did open one long enough to take some photos, which I’ve added to the project page. The only thing missing now is the photographic print, and the tables. Both will be ready just before I leave for North Carolina on Wednesday.

I spent some time at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1@MoMA last night and I’ll go back for a closer look. An unbelievable amount of awe-inspiring work, a crazy-beautiful output of ink and paper on display. And my own mixed reaction — reassured to know there’s a potential audience for what I’m doing, but more than a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of finding it.


Untitled pixel

Individual pixels of solid color from 273 Relics for John Cage. Each one was selected via chance operations out of 12 million, from the photograph of John Cage’s mushroom-collecting basket. Hand-mixed inks match the RGB values (as close as the printer could get), then printed on Mohawk 100 lb. cover (20″ x 26″). Six different editions of 10 each. This one is Untitled pixel (relic 243). Thinking about identifying each with an x-y coordinate.


Moving pictures

273 Relics for John Cage (A Likeness Is an Aid to Memory) from Paul Soulellis on Vimeo.

It only took about 12 solid hours, but I somehow figured out how to produce a 30-minute HD digital video. In some ways Apple has made this process super easy with iMovie ’11, but the device/color/quality output options are completely bewildering and require a crash course in the history of digital audio-visual compression (plus lots of Apple hardware technical specs and a few visits to the Apple store).

Anyway, I couldn’t be happier. This is a slow-scale, full-screen, meditative work. It’s something to enter on your own terms. It’s a 30-minute presentation of the relics (30 of them), each one dissolving into the next. I’m absolutely in love with the dissolves — they add an entirely new dimension to the work, as the relics are juxtaposed (a bit like a slow page-turn in the book, but different). And within each dissolve is a secondary kind of animation — the pixels shimmer and quiver as they move from frame to frame.

There’s no audio, but this will be projected at a large scale in the gallery space while I’m performing the 52 texts. Audio from my visit to the John Cage Trust will also be playing, sometimes distracting from my spoken words, other times barely audible.


A canvas is never empty

The book is out of my hands now and I’m beginning the process of producing some pieces for the installation. This is a photographic archival pigment print of Relic #241. I knew I wanted a large print of one of the pixel extractions, so I used chance operations to select 20 and then tell me what the long dimension should be for each, from 7″ (avoiding prints that would be smaller than the book) to 60″ (the width of the paper roll). Relic 241 was the largest, so this is what I’m printing for the installation.

It measures 21.5″ x 25.5″. It’s a half-size proof; the final print will be 43″ x 51″. It appears in the book as a 5″ x 7″ image in a spread paired with Relic 240 (see below), so the change in scale is dramatic.

When the printer called yesterday to tell me the proof was ready I could hear some doubt in her voice, so I ran over to West 52nd. We talked for awhile about what we were seeing (and not seeing), my intentions, the technology, things she could do to bring out more detail, etc. And I’ve been staring at and thinking about this print now for almost 24 hours. We’ll start the gigantic print on Monday.

While I love the book, it’s important for me to circle back to the photograph now. The essence of this project is photographic. I began with the photograph, and I find myself now, again at the photograph.

And while everything about this process has been digital, I’m interested now in the non-virtual artifacts that are being generated. Actual books, real prints, live readings.

What we’re looking at here is an extremely close crop of the single 12-megapixel photograph of the mushroom basket I took at the John Cage Trust at exactly 10:15 am on August 22, 2011. The crop is an extraction of 1,548 pixels (a grid of 36 x 43), generated by chance operations on September 1, 2011. But beyond these facts, the technical reality, the print asks more perplexing questions.

is it a photograph?
is it photographic?
does it depict?
does it refer?
does it demand?
is it empty?
what is the space of this image?
what is its narrative?
what does it carry?

I fear these questions and the gigantic print that’s coming my way (in a good way). They’re forcing me to confront some basic questions about how I’ve designed in the past, how I create art today, and the relevance of creating this story.