John Cage


Obtain photographic records which no longer look like photographs of something

I picked up John Cage’s “X: Writings ’79–’82” today at Spoonbill. A gorgeous book for a lot of reasons, and a few specific surprises. First of all, the book is

“illustrated fortuitously by twelve photographs made at my request by Paul Barton of twelve weathered images on the Siegel Cooper Building, first balcony level (eight images on the Avenue of the Americas, two on 18th Street, two on 19th Street, New York City). I call them Weather-ed I-XII. I did nothing to make them the way they are. I merely noticed them. They are changing, as are the sounds of the traffic I also enjoy as each day I look out the window.”

The images appear to be degraded photocopies, or to have gone through some kind of process to take away any representational quality. They’re beautiful, and I wonder what kind of life, if any, they had outside of this book.

But most astonishing was my discovery of a passage on page 92, within the work “James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet,” describing a book project — a kind of dictionary based on photography. Cage has lifted Duchamp’s writing here, I think, from Á l’infinitif (The White Box), 1967:

“Dictionary — With films, taken close up, of parts of very large objects, obtain photographic records which no longer look like photographs of something. With these semi-microscopics constitute a dictionary of which each film would be the representation of a group of words in a sentence or separated so that this film would assume a new significance or rather after the concentration on this film of the sentences or words chosen would give a form of meaning to this film and that, once learned, this relation between film and meaning translated into words would be “striking” and would serve as a basis for a kind of writing which no longer has an alphabet or words but signs (films) already freed from the “baby talk” of all ordinary languages. — Find a means of filing all these films in such order that one could refer to them as in a dictionary.”

As though Duchamp is speaking to me, through Cage, and proposing a project for me to do — as I’m doing it.


A likeness is an aid to memory

A few spreads from JC273, and a draft of the introduction. Or, this text may appear at the very end of the book.

On August 22, 2011, I drove to The John Cage Trust at Bard College.
I had a morning appointment with Laura Kuhn, founding trustee and ongoing executive director.
To prepare for the meeting, I asked Laura to think of a single item from the archive.
Something that John Cage knew of in his life.
I asked her not to reveal her selection to me until I arrived.
When I arrived, she retrieved the thing; she had chosen John Cage’s mushroom collecting basket.
I took a single photograph.

JC273 begins with the moment that I captured the 12-megapixel image of the basket.
Each picture element (pixel) in the digital photograph references its source (in this case, significant archival material).
If one ascribes meaning to the photograph, then each of its 12 million pixels carries with it some fraction of that significance.
Every pixel inherits the memory of its origin.
Every pixel, a relic.
At the scale of the close zoom, the relics reveal pure color.
These immersive color fields link to lost memory, but also point (paint) to future landscapes.
They open and vibrate with possibility.
Latent, unconscious, phantom imagery, embedded in the relics.
Every pixel, a photograph.
Using chance operations, I generated 160 random pixel extractions from the photograph of the mushroom basket.

Word extractions also carry traces of something lost.
I selected four texts to accompany the photographic relics, and combined them using chance operations.
The texts: Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection (350 BC); John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (1950); M.E. Hard’s The Mushroom, Edible and Otherwise (1908); and fragments of my conversation with Laura Kuhn and her assistant, recorded on August 22, 2011 at The John Cage Trust.
52 poems were generated.

There are 273 pages — one page for each second in John Cage’s 4’33” (1952).
This is the structure I inherited.
Each page is a reliquary.
273 operations.
273 openings.
273 opportunities.
Using chance operations, I generated a score to design JC273.
The score determined chapter breaks, contents for each page (text, image or blank relic), and layout.

Every reading of JC273 is a performance.
Using chance operations, the performer selects start and end pages for the set.
A fixed duration for the reading of each page is determined, not less than one minute and no more than 4 minutes, 33 seconds.
Whether text, image or blank, each page in the set is performed, in any order.
The performer may speak the text, speak nothing or display images, or any combination of these actions, depending on the contents on the particular page.
The performance may be private or public.


Chance design

The appearance of the book. I feel kind of high watching (making) the process form itself. My tables of random numbers are determining much of what’s happening, and with every decision I give over to chance operations I stop to think about my own intentions, present or not. The work begins to take form and it feels like I’m receiving a gift — a strange sensation that I’m half-blind, one eye open towards the thing and another closed and wishing for the best.

The hurricane gave me a few solid days to focus on creating the texts and the layout of the book. I’m plodding along, numbers 1 through 273, letting chance operations tell me what’s on each page and where to put it. The texts are smash-ups of language and voice spanning 2,350 years — 52 poems in all. Like the image relics — pixels lifted from a single photograph — the texts are also extractions. Four voices (Aristotle, Cage, the 1908 mushroom expert, and my conversation fragments from the driveway at the John Cage Trust) are woven together into scenes of possibility. The poems are clues, hinting at meaning. More like open doorways. Here are two: numbers 30 and 43.

Random numbers from 1 to 24 tell me where to start the text on the page, using a 24 x 24 grid, and how far to indent each line. As lines spill over I let them and then continue to indent.

I’m starting to realize that the work I did in Rome (the Memory Palace book) was like a draft of this thing. Ideas that first appeared in that project are manifesting here in JC273.


John Cage’s Circle of Influence: October 7–9

Details have been posted for ReViewing Black Mountain College 3 — John Cage’s Circle of Influence, “a 3-day gathering of scholars, performers, and artists presenting ideas and performing works related to John Cage. The weekend program includes music, performances, installations, exhibitions, films and scholarly presentations. Keynote address by Laura Kuhn, Director of the John Cage Trust. Co-sponsored by the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, University of North Carolina at Asheville and the John Cage Trust.”

I’ll be presenting JC273 at John Cage’s Circle of Influence as an installation at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, October 7–9, 2011.

Press releaseschedule and registration.


Book operations

This is my ‘score’ for JC273. I wrote instructions for the content and layout of the book yesterday, using chance operations to determine the content and layout of each page. This isn’t the full score yet, but it tells me a lot about the 273 pages: if a page is blank (b), contains text (t) or graphics, if the graphics are a single-pixel color (c), a pixel extraction on a color background (cp), or just a pixel extraction (p). I also used chance operations to tell me where the chapters dividers are; I was surprised (and happy) to find out that there will be a one-page chapter (page 234).

It also begins to tell me about the layout of the 160 graphics pages; if the pixels are centered on the page or not (if not, the graphics will be maxed to the horizontal or vertical dimension of the page and will align top/left, center, or bottom/right; TBD).

And it tells me that there will be 52 text pages. I’ve selected four texts and I’m using chance operations to choose the number of lines, words and sentence fragments for each page. Not sure how the layout of the text pages will work yet, typography, etc. The four texts are:


Image relics.

The thing was selected by Laura Kuhn, at my request. Something near and dear to John Cage. I photographed it outside, on the porch. Laura was generous with her time, putting careful thought into the collaboration. I took a single photograph, because I didn’t want to have to edit. The image is singular.

Today, I feel like I’m writing code. After dividing the image into 4,096 groups of 4,096 pixels, I wrote manual instructions to select a single pixel from the 16.7 million, via coin-toss and I Ching hexagrams. That single pixel becomes one of the corners of the relic, like an anchor. Then I ask what dimensions the relic should be, sort of like an extraction (anywhere from 1 x 1 to 64 x 64).

Clumps of pixels, like mushrooms in a forest. It’s exacting work. Here are two: the red one is relic # 7; the blue-ish one is # 1 (they’re shown at different scales). I extracted 8 today. 265 more to go (one for each second of Cage’s 4’33”).


Chance collaboration.

At some point I decided that the source material for JC273 should be the 12 million pixels contained within a single photograph. Pixels to fill a book. And I knew that these relics would be selected by chance operations, each color block like an open door to a new experience.

But how to take this photograph. Where would I point the camera. Would it matter.

Tomorrow morning I’m driving 2 hours north to the John Cage Trust at Bard College. I’ve asked the director, Laura Kuhn, to select a single item from the archives. Something Cage knew of in his lifetime: a photograph, an object, a score, a piece of artwork, etc. I asked her not to reveal her selection to me until I’m there in person with her, where I will take a single photograph of this thing.

A question.
An agreement.
A selection.
A photograph.

The individual pixel as relic, a potent carrier of meaning and lost memory. A transfer of control, from artist to gatekeeper, and back again. Guardian of the remains of a life’s work. To begin JC273, I will enter a highly charged, significant situation and accept the encounter.

And yet, not exactly random. Orchestrated serendipity. Enigmatic territory, somewhere between chance and intention.

Two colors selected by chance operations on August 19, 2011.

  • 161/169/11
  • 244/229/214


A way of life where not-performing is equal to performing.

John Cage on performance:

“There is something about performance that tends to make it seem ‘special’ rather than ‘everyday-like’ so that people get what they call ‘butterflies’ before a performance — nervousness and so forth. I think one should move away from those ‘butterflies’ and to a way of life where not-performing is equal to performing, or is emotionally the same; or where the special moments are the same as non-special moments.”

We give equal attention and dedication to each, then?
“In other words, not reserving our attention for what we think are important things, but maintaining our interest and attention to life. It is hard to talk about because the subject is so limitless.” (1991)

Today I moved operations to Long Island City, a few blocks from PS1. A place to work, to experiment, to perform. Kind of feels like Rome again.

Two colors selected by chance operations on August 18, 2011.

  • 117/181/76
  • 187/255/198


John Cage on discipline, responsibility and expression:

“I would say that the highest discipline is the discipline of chance operations, because chance operations have absolutely nothing to do with one’s likes or dislikes. The person is being disciplined, not the work.” (1975)

Since your ego and your likes and dislikes have been taken out of your compositions, do you still view them as your compositions, in the sense that you created them?
“Instead of representing my control, they represent questions I’ve asked and the answers that have been given by means of chance operations. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.” (1982)

You intend to express something with your work, don’t you?
“It’s not that I intend to express one particular thing, but to make something that can be used by the person who finds it expressive. But that expression grows up, so to speak, in the observer.” (1985)

Two colors selected by chance operations on August 17, 2011.

  • 91/7/227
  • 99/52/253


A method for selecting a 24-bit RGB color using chance operations.

A method for selecting one of 16,777,216 RGB colors using chance operations.

1. Toss three coins.
2. Cast line:

  • 2 heads + 1 tail, or 3 tails = solid line [–––]
  • 2 tails + 1 head, or 3 heads = broken line [–  –]

3. Repeat coin toss six times, building a hexagram from the bottom up.
4. Use light grey chart to look up hexagram and corresponding number.
5. Find this number on the dark grey RGB chart and note the corresponding four number sequence (for example, if the “32” hexagram is generated, the four number sequence would be 124, 125, 126, 127).
6. Repeat steps 1 through 4 to generate another hexagram number.
7. Find hexagram number on the RGB chart and note the corresponding selection number 1–4 at the bottom of the column (for example, if the “45” hexagram is generated, the corresponding selection number is 3).
8. The selection number identifies which number in the four number sequence to select.
(In the example above, 3 is used to select the third number: 126.) This is the red (R) value.
9. Repeat steps 1 through 8 two more times for the green (G) and blue (B) values.


Two RGB values selected by chance operations on August 16, 2011:

  • 23/101/87
  • 65/73/157