Integrating Art and Sound – Interview with Artist Robert Ortega

Integrating Art and Sound – Interview with Artist Robert Ortega

Sonic Architectonic is an exhibit on display in the Visual Arts building at UT Dallas through February 18th. Curated by Lorraine Tady, the show explores “the architecture of sound in art” through various mediums ranging from experimental and interactive noises to visual representations of the impacts sound can have. One of the artists, Robert Ortega, was kind enough to share his time for an email interview and relate his thoughts, inspirations, and some of the artistic processes involved. As with most pieces, this work is better seen in person, so make it out to the Art Barn before the show closes!

Tell me a little bit about your past experiences and schooling, and how they got you where you are now.

Robert Ortega: I’ve always been drawing. I had the same teacher from when I was 5 until 17. Her name was Jacqui Von Honts. She was a student of the muralist David Alfaro Siquieros. I learned ink drawing, intaglio, lithography, acrylic painting and welding. As her students, when we drew a figure, from a photograph, we’d have to superimpose the muscles and skeleton on top. I’d have to paint with my brushes tied to 3 foot dowels to learn control. She was serious and crazy. She just died. For various reasons, I went to SMU, and met Lorraine Tady. I never trusted SMU because it lacked a metric for criticism—you could get a way with whatever you could get away with—but I did learn that an art making practice spills over into the rest of my life and that everything I do should be regarded as an art making practice; every act should be considered. That was the most important thing I got from SMU, and it mostly came from my professor Philip Van Keuren. As soon as I could after SMU, I moved to New York. This was in ’97 and the internet was exploding and NY was exciting and expensive, so I learned the Adobe CS programs and did print design for 13 years. After a while I wanted to go from 2D to 3D and went to Columbia’s Graduate Architecture program, but at this point I had a kid and a mortgage and had to go back to work after only a year. I’ve always had a studio and continue to make work. Lorraine Tady remained a friend and she invited me to be in this show.

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The Sonic Architectonic exhibit is “exploring the architecture of sound in art.” How do you contribute to this exploration?

RO: Immediately, the premise of the exhibition spawned ideas. Since I hadn’t made art in a while, I went to what was most convenient; drawing. After learning new ways of line making in 3d programs at Columbia, it seemed a super natural fit. The initial idea was how would one make construction drawings of the spoken alphabet. We have typography for the symbols and phonetics, but what about the sound in terms of waves moving through space? No matter how brief, they must have some form. But an alphabet is not that interesting. Earwigs, catchy sound strings, have a way of getting into your head and never leaving, that was more interesting. The drawings became an attempt to create visual constructions of sound forms that stay with you.

What are some of your processes or techniques for creating these images?

RO: This set of drawings was done specifically for the show, but my visual concern is always related to music or sound. As you know, when you go to see live music or put on headphones there is a visceral and emotional experience that can never be matched by a painting or drawing; a painting will never make you dance. These are of course two separate mediums and each medium has its set of limits/opportunities. My interest is how close can you get these two.

I once had a drawing teacher, Barnaby Fitzgerald (at SMU) who challenged me to draw a line as taut as a guitar string. In this kind of exercise, you get to the essence of the possibilities of a medium. With this showSonic Architectonic my priority was to demonstrate how one medium moves through another; sound waves through the ether. While this seems to be an illustration exercise, I was more trying to relay a metaphor, pulling ink through the paper and perpetuating form based on what came before. The initial ink drawing were digitized (scanned or photographed) and another more considered form was drawn on top in a 3d program (Rhino). The combinations were printed on an Epson 3880 ink jet. I don’t see a difference between sumi ink and an inkjet: they’re both ink on paper; one is synthesized and one is live, but both are drawing.

Initially I recorded myself speaking the alphabet and used those frequency charts, but ended up using the charts from parts of songs from Tom Waits, Grinderman, and Marc Ribot. I used these charts as maps to generate ink and pencil drawings. The smaller drawings I would just build on. I would consider washes to be tracks laid over each other. Some of the larger drawings I digitized and drew on top of in Rhino. The thinking was that if the drawing was the form, what would the construction (or initial parameters) have looked like to have spawned these biomorphic drawings. So there was a lot of back and forth between organic form and structure.

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Do you have a preference between the synthesized or live materials and processes in your work? How much does a control or lack thereof affect how you approach the inks? Do they compete against each other?

RO: I don’t have a preference between the analog and digital methods, I don’t see them as that different; both are just tools and have conveniences and excitements. With the physical process, I’m always trying to control the outcome, but when it’s digital, I’m trying to randomize the outcome. The goal is to have a controlled but opportunistic approach. I recently a heard the musician Eve Beglarian describe her trip down the Mississippi River where she says that she knows she starting at the beginning of the river and and ending at the end, but in this path, there is an unknowable possibility.

You mentioned trying to bring the mediums of music and drawing as close together as possible. Could you expand your thoughts on that a little?

RO: Drawing doesn’t have the benefit of time, but since we read left to right, I have a few seconds on a page to play with. I wasn’t trying to replicate specific musical quotes, I was trying to create memorable instances.Richard Serra’s drawings have a presence that approaches sculpture, his sculpture approaches architecture. I always imagined making a drawing that could make you throw your arms up and shake your ass.

Would you consider some of your creative process as similar to a musical creative process? Specifically with how much technology now affects music beyond the raw instrumentation with sampling, cutting, and pitch shifting often taking the spotlight in lieu of the analog instruments or the human voice.

RO: The musical creative process you’re talking about has certainly evolved with the technology, it’s absorbed the new process as new tools to labor with. I’d like to think that my thinking has fully incorporated digital technology: Photoshop/Illustrator/Rhino are tools that I can use as freely as I can with a pencil or brush. But, from both sides of the aisle there is still a stigma between the handmade and the digital. There’s an artist I know of who makes great motion graphics, but labels his drawings and paintings traditional art. That’s unproductive.

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You mentioned creating memorable instances like a hook in music. Do you connect your work at all with specific sounds or experiences you try to replicate or do you compose originally?

RO: I do try to transpose, but that’s more science than art. Even if I found a way to accurately visualize a hook, I don’t think it would translate in an engaging way. If I find a hook that I respond to, I try to replicate the response visually and use that as a seed. But I also used the sound of the trucks rumbling by studio as a starting point.

I imagine watching the ink living and spreading on the paper to be fascinating and exhilarating. Have you ever considered using video compositions or documentations of your working process to relate your ideas?

RO: The process isn’t pretty, it’s messy and slow and layered. I wish I could say it was visceral and controlled, but there’s a lot of mulligans. In that sense the process is similar to making musical, redo and redo and redo.

How do you digest and experience music? How involved with music are you and what are some of your favorite musical moments?

RO: When I have time, I prefer to put on some headphones and listen to an album from beginning to end, as if I’m watching a play or movie. Teams of talented and careful people have labored to construct these things and it’s respectful to give it you’re full attention. Second to that is driving and listening, but driving in Brooklyn does not make a relaxing listening environment. The first thing that comes to mind is Ella Fitgerald when she fobs Mack the Knife in a performance in Berlin. She forgets the lyrics, but doesn’t miss a beat. Brilliant.

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