Walker Art Center

64° FCloudyVia Yahoo! Weather

The Unseen
Mystery, Music, and the Art of Lucky Dragons

By Sean Donovan

We’re surrounded by invisible forces, from neutrinos and radio waves passing through our bodies to gravitational and emotional forces pulling on us. Although our interactions in daily life can be visible, they often permeate much deeper into complex and unseen realms. Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara of the experimental music/art duo Lucky Dragons inventively explore these sensory dimensions in their art-making.

At the core of their approach, the Los Angeles–based pair helps create revitalized environments for face-to-face interactions with others. To do this, they often alchemize invisible forces, including touch and social gestures, into dynamic waves of sound and light. Instead of shying away from technology, they bring new vibrancy to computers, connecting people, energies, and spaces. Laptops, sensors, and their custom instruments are vital tools for these ventures into intangible fields and help join previously separate forces—hand-holding and musical melodies, for instance—into dialogue with each other.

In two visits to the Walker, Fischbeck and Rara explored these ideas. During the 2009 exhibition The Quick and the Dead, they facilitated a soundwaves workshop as a part of the Magical Mysteries series, and during Open Field 2012 they presented a communal art experience called Reading Group and a collaborative drawing project called Sumi Ink Club.

In advance of their participation in the closing celebration for Fritz Haeg’s yearlong Walker residency, I corresponded with them to learn more about their approach to the ethereal and to find out how they interpret science and mystery in their daily lives.

Sean Donovan

Not only does your artwork expose invisible forces, it often materializes rich and synesthetic networks: the touching of hands may produce a musical flourish, or the movement of moiré stripes may disseminate overtone glissandos. What drives these investigations?

Sarah Rara

In those specific examples, there is a simple translation strategy at play—sonifying a social or visual relationship. Sound can be used to clarify and understand complex relationships. Sound makes patterns and proportions more apparent somehow. Perhaps you’ve noticed intuitively when something is in or out of tune or when a machine needs to be fixed. The overtones immediately suggest whether things are working smoothly or not. We need to constantly check in on the state of things—so sound is a territory we drift into for analyzing different situations. There’s a focus on close listening, paying attention—more than on making a predetermined statement. It’s not magic at all; our methods are empirical. The results of each inquiry have to be experienced through the senses in order to understand. With a lot of works we start with an open-ended question and look for various solution. By sonifying touch, we wanted to translate social encounters into sound to experience the mix of harmony and dissonance that might characterize being both an individual and being part of a group. It’s something we’re still working through and puzzling over. In the moiré sections of A Ray Array (2011), we wanted to learn what the sonic equivalent to visual interference, specifically moiré patterns, might sound like, so the relationship between sound and image is direct: the image generates the sound.

Luke Fischbeck

While I do agree with Sarah that the process is empirical rather than magical, I feel there is a close relationship between these apparent opposites: data can be sublime, radically disconnected, infinitely malleable; magic, when performed, is a strict technical routine, a series of actions that have no effect if separated. The danger with visualization or sonification is that in pursuing materiality so completely the original felt experience loses its lively complexity and becomes generic, a “wow” like any other. Ideally, we focus on incorporating the tools or terms of translation into the piece, making them available to the spectator or participant—maintaining the “wholeness” of the experience, even when what is being sensed is somehow re-organized or redistributed. When the process of translation can be paused or reversed by anyone at any time, there is a spectacular feeling of common investigation and curiosity, a unique and productive “wow” that speaks to the conditions of our being assembled as an audience in a specific place and time.

Donovan

Continuing our theme of the “unseen,” do you believe energies or a “life-force” can be found within objects or spaces?

Fischbeck

I like thinking about gravity, a natural and fundamental interaction, evident at all scales, that connects us—literally and figuratively—to the world, within and without, a consequence of the shape of space and time. It’s difficult for me to imagine another phenomenon more pervasive and perspective-shattering. On a much more human level, I consider attention and responsibility to be powerful, complex, effective, yet immaterial forces at work in most things.

Rara

I’m not at all mystical or inclined toward that approach. I’m quite literal when I speak of resonance, harmony, etc. I’m talking about the waveforms of sound and light as basic components to work with. When I opened the instruction manual for my new synthesizer, page one read: “What is sound?” This is the approach I like, getting down to physical basics, speaking clearly about things we can perceive, even joking about it. Rocks are not alive. I don’t think there is a life force there, but the way the atoms are arranged is endlessly fascinating. Questions of community, ethics, and how to live together are important to me, but I take a more analytical approach in these matters. Philosophy is important to me: Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Serres, even Charles Fourier. Sorry to disappoint, but I am deeply un-mystical in so many ways—though I am dazzled by my environment and the basic inner workings of matter, electricity, magnetism, sound, light, and gravity. I do have a very structured way of living in the world, an ethos. I am deeply committed to nonviolence, and this affects my politics and colors all my interactions.

Donovan

Certainly not disappointing. It’s fascinating! When discussing the theory of resonance with Doug Aitken, you seemed to suggest that, during your performances, you’re working to fine-tune the sounds and energies of a space. When everything is aligned a transformative sweet spot is reached. How do you approach this balancing act?

Fischbeck

I believe this was in the context of a discussion about repetition and difference—ways of entering into a productive or creative mode and building the conditions for collaboration. In our lived, subjective experience on the one hand, and in recorded, transferable, objective experience on the other, there is a common mechanism at work that we talk about in terms of “resonance.” In both instances our responsibility is to maintain an affective connection with others, to pay attention together, to be included. Often this is a literal process of tuning (or filtering) a signal to make it more legible, gaining strength by resonating within a space (vibrating at a common frequency). It is also a figurative process, a mode of listening or being together that creativity and collaboration can provide.

Donovan

In that same chat with Doug Aitken, you mentioned music fitting within its landscape. Can you elaborate?

Fischbeck

If music is a type of communication, a language in itself, our practical understanding of it has been limited to its grammar. My interests lie in the linguistic back-channels: phatic expressions and body language, ways of communicating attention and closing a loop that imagine speaker and listener to be equal partners. Language, written or spoken, flows in many directions at once—an intrinsically musical experience! After thinking these things, it’s compelling to imagine what forms of music might exist in any social situation or exchange, whether we call it a performance or not. On the other hand, it’s equally compelling to imagine what forms of social exchange exist in any musical sensation.

Donovan

When I think of spiritual or mystically inclined artists, I think of Yves Klein: the void, levitation, the color blue. But, if you’re approaching your work more empirically, why might some audiences be experiencing it with magical amazement? I see some ritualistic or mystical styles: am I’m reading too much into it?

Rara

Amazement need not be linked to magic. Actual reality is incredible. The way sound and light work, the way human beings communicate and organize, all these things are actually amazing! But we are capable of understanding these phenomena, and for me that takes it out of the realm of magic. I prefer when the way things work is clearly presented but the effect is still incredible—maybe even more so. Sometimes I can’t believe my eyes, but it is only because the world around me is so complicated, full of patterns, full of intricate relationships. When we present a performance, I never want to conceal the way things work, but to amplify and heighten our awareness of the inner workings of things, the bonds between people, the relationships between sounds…

Fischbeck

Yes, you are reading into it. “Reading” is the most important ritual! As for amazement, or wonder, I feel this is a valuable state of mind to hold onto. The varied experience that humans have when confronted with something they don’t immediately “get” is a rich territory, in that it can quickly change into so many powerful states: anger, love, critical questioning, inspiration, generosity, playfulness, fear, violence, etc. For me, it’s most rewarding to look at that initial state of wonder and the potential that it creates.

Donovan

I’m interested in those moments in your day-to-day lives when you tend to experience magical moments. Sarah, you mentioned your love for gardening. Do you ever like to play music for your plants?

Rara

I do sing in the garden, but that’s more for me than the plants. Basically, I sing all the time. I’m not fully aware that I am singing sometimes; only when I notice people’s reactions do I become aware of the inappropriateness of singing while working in the garden. I was particularly embarrassed when I was watering the plants and the Crass song “Shaved Women” popped into my head. I started singing it, and my neighbor walked by. It was an uncomfortable moment, for sure. Gardening is a joy to me. That’s my favorite portion of the day. Checking out the plants, seeing what they need, observing the bugs, birds, and reptiles that have made homes there. We have a small garden, but I dream of expanding it someday.

Fischbeck

Music takes me out of time. I’m still fascinated by this. Dreaming, also, a thread carrying me from day to day outside of reality, imagining what is possible, in and out of waking.

Donovan

What about superstitions? Do you believe in anything that science has yet to prove or imagine?

Fischbeck

We’ve been lucky to work with engineers on a few projects in the past year, and their attitude has affected my outlook greatly: nothing is impossible, and there are only elegant and inelegant ways of making things happen. An infinitely elegant solution would be self-evident as fact. An infinitely inelegant solution would remain hidden forever. It feels as if we are somewhere between these poles on all things, those we can measure or put into action and those that lie outside of what we can measure.

Rara

I don’t believe in ghosts, though I avoid spaces with a reputation for being haunted. There is life on other planets, in all probability, but that’s no big deal. I’m excited and curious to find out more about other life forms. I’m an avid fan of science fiction; literature about time travel says so much. The book Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, a writer and political figure from the 1880s, is fascinating.

Donovan

Ok, so, no superstitions. How about religion? Did you grow up guided by a specific spiritual philosophy from your parents or grandparents? What about your spirituality today?

Rara

I think less about spirituality and more about philosophy, social codes, and ways of organizing and protesting, ethics, and politics. I’m quite unlike anyone from my family or, actually, anyone from where I grew up in New Jersey. It’s as if I landed from another place and time. I feel disconnected from my upbringing. Perhaps this is the influence that punk had on me. As a young person I had a feeling of being “anti” everything in my environment. Many of my heroes were poets: Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Patti Smith—all from New Jersey. This “anti” spirit led me to imagine a world that I would like to live in and try to bring that world into existence. But that is a social and political sentiment, more than a spiritual one.

Fischbeck

I grew up in a rigorously Catholic household in the social-justice tradition of movements such as Catholic Worker. Starting as a teenager, I became more interested in Quakerism, the Society of Friends, a simple, open, and self-determining thing, less a source of guidance than a way of allowing thoughts and attitudes to become organized. “Religious experience,” for me, is an extra-social experience, not related to work or even life, outside of everything.

Donovan

Much of your work blurs the lines between art and science. Sarah, tell me about Lucky Dragons’ involvement with science museums and perhaps a bit about your recent video project, The Pollinators.

Rara

We’ve been working on a series of interventions and experiments at the Exploratorium in San Francisco as artists in residence for the past year. Working with the scientists and engineers there has been truly inspiring. The exhibits at the Exploratorium are constantly altered and modified over the course of their life in public to respond to how visitors interact with them. I like this model of fine-tuning and open-endedness built into the exhibits.

I’m currently working on The Pollinators, which is my take on the nature-film genre. I’m working outdoors and filming close-up the goings-on of pollinators in California. I’m constructing my own backdrops to the plant life with the aim of extending human vision into something akin to the wider, ultraviolet rich color range perceived by many pollinators. The native bee species in California are incredible: iridescent turquoise-green bees, bees with patterned eyes, fuzzy striped bodies—truly wild and unique bees, making the European imported honey bee that dominates most gardens seem so utilitarian, so uniform.

Donovan

Luke, what about your history with science?

Fischbeck

There is something very appealing to me about the scientific approach to making sense of the world, both in terms of acknowledging a world outside of its reaches—that which cannot be measured—and in the sense of striving for repeatable, transferable methods and results. For a while my day job was working as part of a research group in a biology lab. I loved the group structure and the rigorous attention to process. Each action was precisely designed to further a path of investigation, to solve commonly recognized problems, to progress. In artistic research, the relationship of new work to a larger body of knowledge can be ambiguous and problematic, but this is a valuable and unique quality of art-making. Attributes of beauty and criticality are presented as irreducible complexities that contribute to the value and meaning of a work. When the work situates itself inside of, or borrows structure from, other disciplines such as science, politics, or philosophy, for example, new responsibilities arise. Maybe this is a crucial function of art, to simply point out the problems, complexities, and responsibilities, to translate, to create hybrids that can’t be easily separated.

Donovan

Luke, I can’t help but imagine a connection between your early experiences with Quakerism, the silent worships, and your work with Lucky Dragons that fosters active listening and community. Do you see any connections?

Fischbeck

More and more I’m thinking of listening as a very active thing, projecting into the world, drawing a connection between inside and outside of ourselves. Speech is valued in Quakerism for the same reasons; it is a connection between the possible and the actual. Consensus, like finding harmonic relationships in music, is the foundation of decision making. It’s assumed that such relationships exist already, in possible form, within the community. This is not the same as imposing a form from outside onto the group; all of the material is already there. I think this is a good starting point.

“Amazement need not be linked to magic. Actual reality is incredible. The way sound and light work, the way human beings communicate and organize, all these things are actually amazing!” —Sarah Rara

“We’ve been lucky to work with engineers on a few projects in the past year, and their attitude has affected my outlook greatly: nothing is impossible, and there are only elegant and inelegant ways of making things happen.” —Luke Fischbeck

Sarah Rara (left) and Luke Fischbeck (right) of Lucky Dragons

Photo: Cali Dewitt

A Wave that Interferes by Lucky Dragons

Photo courtesy the artists

Sarah Rara (right)

Photo courtesy the artists

Sarah Rara (left) and Luke Fischbeck (right)

Photo: Muzio.fm

Lucky Dragons on Fritz Haeg’s rug (now on view at the Walker) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2012

Photo courtesy Fritz Haeg

Sarah Rara

Photo: Andrew Youssef

A Wave that Interferes by Lucky Dragons

Photo courtesy the artists

The Pollinators by Sarah Rara

Photo courtesy the artist

A Wave that Interferes by Lucky Dragons

Photo: Colin Boylan