Labor of Love: C. Spencer Yeh and Masha Tupitsyn Listen To Each Other

Cinema remains the last medium for speaking and performing love culturally. While much emphasis has been placed on the visual iconography of love, with the exception of music very little attention has been given to love as an aural phenomenon since the tradition and practice of amour courtois. Partly inspired by Christian Marclay’s ontology of time in cinema, The Clock, and René Magritte’s word paintings, which textualized the visual tropes of painting with “written” images, Love Sounds, a 24-hour sound poem and montage, dematerializes cinema’s visual legacy and reconstitutes it as an all-tonal history of critical listening.

Love Sounds, an audio history of love in cinema, concludes Tupitsyn’s immaterial trilogy, and will be presented as a 24-hour sound installation, accompanied by a catalogue published by Penny-Ante.

C. Spencer Yeh interviewed Masha Tupitsyn about Love Sounds for RECAPS in December 2014.

C. Spencer Yeh: The title Love Sounds to me evokes lasciviousness – as if I’m listening in on someone getting down through a wall.  Is there an element of voyeurism to the work?

Masha Tupitsyn: Love Sounds isn’t about voyeurism or even eavesdropping. It’s the opposite, in fact. A lot of Love Sounds is hard to hear. The visual is not merely being swapped for the aural. Sound functions as a thematic and ontological process of attention and intention. Sound contends with the intimate and requires active listening to the archive of love statements that the film gathers and attends to. I’m interested in a listening viewer, not a viewing listener. What I’ve really been looking at my whole life is sound. I look at sound in this project as what we are not hearing when we watch movies as well as the thinking and listening work we are not doing around love. The love sounds we’re hearing require us not to listen in or on something, but to actively listen for and to. So it’s not about a formal manipulation of language or a fetishizing of the sound-in-itself, as is the often the case with the lascivious, where the coop and the thrill is to hear what you are not supposed to hear—the secret, the hidden. Rather, it’s a process of understanding. Of making sense. As Jean-Luc Nancy notes in his book Listening, “Entendre, ‘to hear,’ also means comprendre, ‘to understand,’ as if hearing, above all, were ‘hearing say’ rather than ‘hearing sound.’” The act of listening is more important than the sound itself, the value is in the relation between.

CSY: Since you are drawing from a variety of sources, can you talk about the textural aspects of placing excerpts from lower budget works alongside Hollywood productions?  Do you think the perceived sound quality informs the read of the content?

MT: I think that different aspects of sound—tone, accent, timbre, volume, scratch, crackling—make content. How do we want things to sound? What are we ready to hear? I preserved the “imperfections” and the different textures in the clips because to me they are markers of time and context, whether that context is tonal, temporal or economic. So that happens in the juxtaposition of Hollywood movies with lower budget movies—high/low—and also within the tonal affect of the clip or film itself. Every decade has its own script, cadence, and tone and I want those nuances to come through because Love Sounds also has its ear pressed to that. It tracks the affective and linguistic shifts around emotional labor, which has always been my holy grail as a subject. In each section—there are 8—I built compositional structures that spoke to each other and finished each other sentences in dissonant ways. So difference through repetition. I want people to hear the same thing (a break-up or a fight, let’s say)—or think they’re hearing the same things–over and over and ask what is different in the repetition and return? Why does something repeat? Why do we use the same words for things and how do the words themselves construct or jeopardize love? Electronic music has a similar relationship with repetition. It knows the incremental force that builds and accumulates with reiteration. Language is a form of reality-making, so we need to understand its drives, failures, and nuances when it comes to love. Clichés are like glitches. They point to the places where we’ve stopped thinking—stopped listening—which means they also tell us what can be made different. We musn’t take the repetition of expression for granted, thinking that because we’ve heard and said the same things over and over, we are familiar with something—that we understand love, or anything for that matter.

CSY: I don’t have a list of movies you are drawing from, but are you finding the majority of movies fitting a particular sexual orientation or identity?  How do you think this affects the work?

MT: Totally. The history of popular cinema is heteronormative and white. This made my work two-fold. I had to note and track the omissions of cinema and also try to balance and reconstruct them in some way. I could not pretend that was is missing is not missing or that a certain kind of presence isn’t a deliberate absence. So I literally scowered the history of English-speaking movies (80+ years, from the 1930s to the present. The inventory consists of 1500+ films, and thousands of audio clips) for varied instances of sexuality, desire, race, and class. This resulted in a fascinating reconstruction because these representations—statements—are blatantly missing in many cases, particularly in American cinema. There is much more serious queer European and even Latin American cinema than there is American. But because Love Sounds is aural, I couldn’t use subtitles, so my choices were limited by that. Unless you’re looking at art-house, alternative cinema, most gay people in commercial American cinema are the butt of the joke, an insidious caricature, or glossed over. In the case of people of color, the selection of love narratives—of any kind of meaningful, progressive narrative—is either incredibly narrow or simply absent. There are a lot more expressions of desire, sex, and violence about people of color in cinema than there are of grief, longing, tenderness, and love. And this is no accident. It’s a very deliberate canon of representation. To see a loving black or gay couple on screen would undermine this canon. I had to really search for these missing stories while staying within the bounds of “recognizable” movies since I was referencing and building a lingua franca, which is cinema. If the examples were too obscure they wouldn’t have functioned as a shared history. Love Sounds is a work that tries to fill in gaps while also representing what the history of movies actually sounds (and doesn’t sound) like.

CSY: Why are you aiming for twenty-four hours with the project? I’m guessing you don’t have a staff, so I’m curious about the role of duration not only for the audience, but for yourself as the artist?

MT: No staff. And even if I could afford a staff, like Christian Marclay did on The Clock, I wouldn’t employ anyone else to do the work for me. It’s just not how I work. This might be a very old fashioned way of thinking about creative praxis, but for me, part of a work is the actual procedure of making a work. An idea is a promise and a process. A truth procedure, a trial. I wouldn’t be able to understand or realize an idea if I were simply its commissioner. The work’s duration—24 hours—is an extension of this ethos. It’s a construction and constructions happen in and over time. Love Sounds had to be my duration—my listening, my endurance—before it could become someone else’s. Or it’s theirs because it was also mine, which makes it ours. I don’t think a project about love, about relation, about the Two, about mourning, about listening as an act of generosity, could work in any other way. Duration is a process of endurance and the digital doesn’t work this way. It’s presentist. It doesn’t happen over time. But if love is a test of commitment and endurance, then the work of love, which is also listening, must consist of the time it takes to actually listen. It occurred to me that you took a similar approach with your music project, White Noise. You stress that it was done “by hand” “meaning a lot of listening and splicing.” I liked this emphasis on digital handiwork (of being hands on) in the digital era. Of going through with something. By releasing it at the “right time,” as you put it, the project takes on a timeliness; a destinal quality.

CSY: I absolutely agree about making the process more than just realizing an idea or concept – there is something about being involved firsthand.  For White Noise – much like Love Sounds, I can imagine – I spent countless hours inhabiting each of these pop songs, these mini-worlds.  Learning each song as an individual, how it seemed to work, in order to figure out how to edit them down without making them just gestures or samples or fragments, whatever.  I can’t say I enjoyed all of that experience, but I don’t want to pretend like I haven’t been affected by the process, nor do I feel I was ever working “above” the source material.  How have you been affected by spending time within these movies?  Were there any works or source material that you hadn’t paid much mind to prior, that you were turned around about?

MT: Right. You’re in it, not above it, as you note. You work yourself through the material and vice versa, and that’s how you generate the material. A lot of Love Sounds, which is the last installment in an immaterial trilogy of work, is a kind of mourning diary. I was working through my own grief and disappointment by creating a cultural archive of grief that everyone is familiar with to some extent and has shared via cinema. Some days that was elating, devastating, cathartic, healing. Some days I was crying at the computer or feeling incredibly frustrated by what I was hearing. I definitely have a fondness for and attachment to certain movies and clips and remember the first time I heard them, which is probably when the project actually began—as a child fixated on language, asking my parents why certain characters said what they said to each other onscreen. I’m still fixated on language and asking the same questions about affect. I have a mnemonic ear, that’s why I was able to do this project in the first place—because I remember words more than I remember plot or images. I don’t retain plot or even understand plot a lot of the time. I also have a pretty good knowledge of cinema, which I accumulated through watching films all my life, studying them at school, and then writing LACONIA, for which I’d set up a dictate for myself: to watch 1000+ movies in one year and write about them in a 140 characters, every day. I would not have been able to do the work of Love Sounds without first doing the work of LACONIALACONIA was the groundwork for Love Sounds, which brings us back to timing and the timeliness that you evoke in White Noise. Work leads to work. One work makes another work possible. Work, particularly work that uses digital media, is the medium, the form, the passage, the way, as Trinh T. Minha argues. I had an extensive list of the movies I would be working through and sampling, cutting. Films I was excited to use. Movies that I’d thought about my whole life. That had rung in my ears and now I had place to put them. While other films were discovered through various fortuitous and circuitous searches, which led to films I hadn’t seen or had forgotten. I was also of course watching a lot of current movies–all the way up to 2014. I worked through each decade. 8.5 decades and 8 sections. A lot of the work was about memory and remembering.

Now let me ask your about your sound project, White Noise. What was the genesis and why did you choose mostly covers of pop songs instead of original versions? This interests me on the level of a kind of anti-memory being applied to music, which has so much to do with both cultural and personal memory. It’s like your fast-forwarding with White Noise, instead of rewinding. I, for example, love Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” which is so evocative. But you sampled and compressed the cover version instead, kind of squeezing the memory out of it; speeding it up. Were you trying to bypass the experience of living through a cultural artifact subjectively and temporally? Of music locating us in time and time locating us in music.

CSY: Yeah “Boys of Summer” sure is something – the production in the opening, the echo delay, all that, is so key. White Noise 2 is bookended by two covers of that song, which pretty much strip away those touches but relies on the impression of that aural mise en scene in their evocation of the original.  Talk about squeezing the life out of it with buzzing guitars and crushing 4/4 beats!  The beginning of the White Noise projects started when I was in college, totally pre-filesharing, and when I lived in the dorms I’d raid various people’s CD collections, and make mixtapes by genre or feel.  There was one, Pure Power, which was a lot of hair and pop metal.  At the time I was mostly concerned with listening to experimental or noise music on my own time, but I had this access to a variety of stuff like Blues Traveler or whatever just next door or down the hall.  The picks, as you mentioned, were relying on both my memory, as well as asking people what was “hot” at the time.  That was tough though – it was the mid-90s and it wasn’t very cool to really think about Backstreet Boys and I dunno, Masonna, at the same time.  So years later when I finally learned audio editing on the computer, I started White Noise as an editing exercise, so that I could keep my skills up for my own music.  I mentioned “time travel” because I was totally trying to create this sensation of having listened to a five minute song in a minute and a half; the idea was totally try to evoke buried impressions people had of having to sit through that 5 minute song while shopping or sitting at a bar or whatever situation where you’re subjected to unsolicited material and information.  Or perhaps you had been sitting and listening to Backstreet over and over already – whatever happened to embed that 5-minute experience into you.  That first section of White Noise 2, there is a medley of cover songs by this pop punk “supergroup” that specializes in covering popular songs.  I’m pretty happy with how that one turned out.  There’s a number of mini-exercises within the larger exercise of White Noise 2 – for example, a ten minute condensed version of the entirety of My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, which took a lot of time and sanity.  I’d like to think that was a response to, I don’t know, time-crushing the entire Beatles’ discography with a plug-in and calling it a day.  I don’t think I can be totally accused of being irreverent or ironic with the exercise because I listened to that album fifty million times to get it done!

MT:That’s interesting because in movies we don’t see the time it takes to “travel.” It’s absent and sped through. Or it’s represented by a time-jump. So the travel of time-travel–the future–is always memory-loss.

But the process of making a durational work is the opposite. It’s work-as-time. This is what Avital Ronell means when she says “do the apprenticeship.” So you’re time-crushing, time-crunching, erasing. And I’m time-stretching, time-pressing. Yet we both seem to be interested in what it means to do the work of listening. That part can’t be sped up or bypassed.


MASHA TUPITSYN is a writer, critic, and multi-media artist. She is the author of the books Like Someone in Love: An Addendum to Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), a multi-media art book, LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (ZerO Books, 2011), Beauty Talk & Monsters, a collection of film-based stories (Semiotext(e) Press, 2007), and co-editor of the anthology Life As We Show It: Writing on Film (City Lights, 2009). The final installment of her immaterial trilogy is the sound film, Love Sounds, a 24-hour oral history of love in cinema (2015), which will be exhibited and screened both in the US and abroad. Her fiction and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in the numerous anthologies and journals. In 2011, she wrote a radio play, Time for Nothing, for Performa 11, the New Visual Art Performance Biennial. Her blog is:

 C. Spencer Yeh lives and works in Brooklyn NY.  He is currently an Artist-in-Residence at ISSUE Project Room.  His latest work Solo Voice I – X will be published by Primary Information in Spring 2015.