Multi-media artist Tony Martin talks about his synesthesia-driven take on creating space that draws on human-to-human connection.
In the early 1960s, Tony Martin moved into a loft overlooking the Embarcadero in San Francisco. It was there, with the sound of the ferryboats and street floating in through the windows that he may have begun the process of discovering that “the best stuff comes out of the destruction of our intentions.” After studying painting for years, Martin had become frustrated with his output. One day, he took more than the usual amount of paint to canvas, moving it all at once with three paint brushes and some cardboard to reach a point where it was all wet and glistening. It would take months to dry. “There you are,” he declared. This is one of the pivotal moments in Martin’s personal life to which he would hold all of his best work up to; the rest he would leave out for the sanitation department.
It was during that same period that he met artists and composers Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, and William Maginnis—all devoted to working in the tape music medium. With Tony at the helm visually, they worked on various compositions, establishing a network of friendships and collaboration that continues to this day. Combining overhead and slide projectors, objects, liquid, paint, and light, Martin began performing his live light compositions alongside the compositions of sound pioneers such as Terry Riley (In C) and Pauline Oliveros (Bye Bye Butterfly). When the San Francisco Tape Music Center moved to 321 Divisadero Street in the spring of 1963, co-directors Sender and Subotnick asked Martin to join up as their Visual Director. With alchemical precision, he culled together the enduring ideas or what he called the “ingredients” for a lifelong project, with close attention paid to the palette of light and a painterly approach. Martin’s following grew as the culture of psychedelia spread though the later half of the decade and he began producing light compositions for bands such as the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead at Fillmore Auditorium shows. Because he was a classically trained musician, he was built for the job. Greatly adept at rhythm, he was “painting in time.”
It was also early on that he discovered what would be a lifelong enthusiasm for building multi-sensory environments. In 1962 he was commissioned by Anna Halprin for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to build Theater for Walkers, Talkers, Touchers. Thus he began constructing all kinds of environments using special mirrors and sensors, challenging the viewer into becoming a participant. Martin’s attitude and commitment towards human-to-human art was the product of his own unpossessed and observational nature. Using a keen technological sense, he built installations that would bring the viewer closer to himself or another—sometimes minimally by creating a vacuum or using a unit such as distance, at other times by implementing a wide range of components to affect the senses. The idea of You, Me, We would become a great signifier in his work. Years later in 1968, some of these elements—including the use of light and projections—would coalesce into The Game Room at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City. Much of his work today continues to be informed by the developments of these early years.
By 1968 he had moved back to New York City. Utilizing the communal sensibilities gained during his time in San Francisco, he moved more deeply into his work, maintaining his core focus while branching out into different medium. Martin unveiled his Vector Image Wall at PS1 in 1980 and has since experimented with video as well as with computer drawing programs made especially for him. As an accomplished oil painter, his paintings continued to express his new ideas, enriching the greater body of work in symbiosis. Much of this work has yet to be seen by the public until now.
In early 2012, Tony Martin allowed Camilla Padgitt-Coles and me to begin sifting through his vast archive of work, which included photographs, drawings, scores, paintings, installations, and video. In the first attempt by anyone to connect 50 years of his work, Padgitt-Coles and I edited a book entitled Tony Martin: The Variable Place in the Summer/Fall of 2012. Published by Ab-sens Press and released as a special limited edition of 350, the book includes an introduction by Pauline Oliveros, long-time friend and New Music collaborator. It also includes an in-depth interview with Martin and selections from his archive.
In preparation for the book’s release and for our friends at BOMBlog, we sat down with Martin on an early winter’s night in December 2012 to discuss, among other things, the connection of his most recent installation work to his past work. We had just received the completed books from the printer in Long Island City that day and the room was buzzing. We began with a discussion of the recorded piece Proximity Switched Installation, a video demonstration of Martin’s latest work, filmed for Ab-sens Press this past Spring 2012. The performance took place at Martin’s Brooklyn studio of 30 years.
Tony Martin, Proximity Switched Installation, 2012. Courtesy of Ab-sens Press.
Tony Martin I’m working on a new piece and in the process of putting the piece together I’m allowing a lot of latitude. I incorporated some ideas from earlier work and from last year’s work where I worked with my analogue projection setups, which are really directly related to painting. I use liquids and dry things on overhead projectors. I hand-paint glass slides and those blend in a way that for me is an extension of painting in time. Painting as a moving image. Alongside that is also performing with optical things. Light Pendulum was a piece that began very early on when I was seeing Nam June Paik sometimes and we would talk. He came into my studio at LaGuardia Place and he saw the Light Pendulum in ’71 or ’72 and I was talking about how that was a piece I hoped in 30 years I could work with again. He understood what I meant and sure enough I built a new base for it and used new sensors, but not changing the content of the piece. So for Proximity Switched Installation, 2012 I had these things lying around, the light pendulum, three DVDs from 1970 and three DVDs from last year, and I was just casually trying some things out to find a thread of meaning that would be current for me because I think I’ve become more interested in the way the world is as I’m observing it in the past five years.
Nicky Mao This book was quite the undertaking, since it’s the first of its kind for you. We neglected to explain this one in the book interview. (Pointing to the image of Phase Shift Brush, 1977)
TM When you phase shift in sound, you can actually make silence out of sound or vice versa by changing your alternate current through a diode so that sound can generate silence very easily. You can shift that depending on how you dial your impedance electronically. You could actually have a phase shift brush if you had two wires that had different electronic information and one that was the cathode and the other that was the anode. So you could go like this (motioning a brush through his hair) and make music. Almost like a Theremin, but not the same completely. It would be shifting the phase of the vibration because sound is always AC, alternating current. This (pointing to above image) was kind of a joke in a way, but it would work! You could comb your hair and make music and have those two wires in your hair. The mirror I use now is a phase shift in a way that’s different, that’s a video phase shift.
This was a graphing out of nodes; points in space which you could retrieve using a microphone or a proximity detector in space. There’s nothing here in the room but there might be a node configuration in space between two speakers or two transducers that you didn’t see that are in the wall. You’d have a receptor or an antenna that would allow that node to come through, which would be projected from somewhere else. So it’s like picking things up in space, and that was playing with that idea of projected pickups.
NM Pretty far out at the time.
TM Yes. Nowadays it isn’t. That was ’77 when I was thinking about those things. We were hardly into computers at that point—they were just starting to get going in terms of sound and light.
NM What was your introduction to computers like?
TM Common sense. When I was a kid I used to make motors and things. I’d make a coil and wind copper on a thread spool and make a little magnet that I’d put on a spindle and turn it real fast, and then another magnet and it makes a current. I’d play with things like that when I was 12 or 13 years old. I just enjoyed that along with everything else. When I got to San Francisco and started working with electronic music and new music people, configurations of tape music, microphones, speakers and wire that you could splice into, wherever you wanted to were automatically available. In the AC current you could turn it off/on for a switch that operated from a proximity detector. Or with the DC current you might want to use for control voltages or the AC Sound. You had three different kinds of electricity that you could deal with in different ways. We thought, How can we clock this or regulate this? That became the computer. This guy Carl Countryman was a whiz. He was only 22 years old. I asked, “Can I use a sound frequency from the tape to regulate one of one of my projectors?” He says, “Yeah sure!” He gets out his wires and starts soldering together wires and put together a little computer. There’s a timer that you can regulate from the sound and the timer will go from one pulse a second to 10,000 pulses a second, and you can regulate it by the intensity of the sound or the frequency of the sound. High or low, loud or not. You can tell the thing what you want to be present in as it scans the outputs. He made it in ’66 and later became the genius in Silicon Valley that they hired out. He’s been through the whole evolution but he loved our group of composers.
NM So he was your introduction to the early technology of computers.
TM Until you could buy something—yes. I went to Japan for Expo ’70 and I was explaining how I wanted the light to work. What I just explained to you was built into this console and that was 1970. They used SCRs, Silicon-Controlled Rectifiers to regulate the amount of light from the amount of sound. You could also say, what kind of sound? You use filters, specific sound and loudness making specific lights go on/off at certain intensities and that’s what that console did. The whole place at Expo ’70 was pulsing and glowing with the sound. It didn’t have to be one to one, depending on what I patched together I could do different things. That wasn’t a computer but it was a lot of same thinking, especially when it was timed. Time controlled patching and time controlled configuration that would change depending on what you’d tell it to do. So there were a lot of dials to regulate frequencies, it was analog/digital. I would dial low pass and high pass filters to get one sound to make one light go and over here I’d dial when it should and when it shouldn’t. It’s not the computer as we know it but it’s using the same kind of principles of low voltage to high voltage. Any kind of low voltage signal could be used like paint, like a pencil, telling higher voltages what to do. You want the color yellow to go on over there only if you hear a B flat.
NM You’re creating a sort of synesthesia with these environments.
TM Exactly. It’s subjective and in a way everyone has it synesthesia to some degree. One thing I’m really feeling that is important right now is this piece that I’m calling Intersections because people can come together in a site specific way. Using content that I can find out there. (Martin points toward the window) I went around and recorded a lot of stuff happening out on street corners in video. People crossing the street, different kinds of people, different kind of gait, sometimes just the legs, sometimes just the shadows, dogs, children, babies in carriages; so many of these things. This become fodder to project and layer using viewers proximity information. It’s extending some of these same ideas to what I’m thinking about now. Using the techniques, which you saw upstairs (Proximity Switched Installation, 2012)—you can walk into a room, a mirror on the wall might trigger two videos depending on proximity, one or the other or both. Then someone may pick up a hand mirror and look at it, they may see their face projected or they might not, depending on someone else’s activity. It’d be an intersection of more than one person and that for me is potential. It’s using those principles in a painterly way—like the group figure paintings where people are moving around in a space, activating their own environment. You could do it with three projectors, better if there were five. Some of it could be dark, while some of it could be throwing pure light. Illuminating big dark shapes. Separating it out in order to make it more painterly.
Camilla Padgit-Coles Do you find that your current paintings echo these ideas?
TM I’m doing a lot of figure painting—one with three faces in a mirror. I call it Covert. There is a lot of different kind of interaction that people are involved with now—it goes back to the Butai group in Japan where in performance people would interact and form new things. The kind that I’m interested in, starting when I did that piece in ’61 Theater for Walkers, Talkers, Touchers—was in people. The human condition being a world where there are individuals who are very individually what they are. The components from which they came from, what their parents were like, what they do, what they value, what they don’t value, prejudices, all their makeup and then what’s the common thread between all these other people out there. There’s always this combination. Now, video games deal with the generic things, everyone’s the same and everyone wants to make two super people go to war against each other, and you want to be at the helm to say who wins and who loses. That’s a competitive game based on generic thinking that everyone’s basically same and that we’re all into violence and into the things that you are given to do on that game. I knew that I didn’t want to do that.
NM You weren’t going to make any iPod-oriented interactions?
TM Not at all, quite the opposite.
NM Although, you might do something really interesting given the opportunity. (laughter)
TM It was a little altruistic kind of sense that I had when I was 30 years old. I wanted to see if I could put something out that brought people together in a more friendly and sharing way where they’d be beneficial to each other—for healthy stuff. I really wanted to do that. It was a visceral feeling that if I could make a piece where people could be happy together and forget all this war shit, and get onto something more productive and generative. I was not a flower child. I didn’t relate to that hippy thing so much as I was from New York. But I thought the environment was really good as a time where you could make a piece like a living theater where you brought people together into a space where there was the beneficial result of people seeing each other and themselves. I had my hopes that things would come more and more but then the Vietnam War just got worse.
CPC: It also seems that in order to truly care about somebody that isn’t like you, that you have to see yourself in them or empathize somehow. In your work this idea resurfaces of the You, Me, We, so that you come together with another person to create this third thing, to become this “we”. You can come to care about them from a viewpoint that is more connected to them, not as separate.
NM How important is the space for you—I get sense that it isn’t so much?
TM Yeah, I feel like I can go into an auditorium or be on a street corner. I like places that are ordinary—a 12’ by 12’ room always feels good to me. The meanings might take a slightly different form spatially but it’d work out ok.
CPC: It also seems that any verbal interactions between people in the space would be affected by the stimuli going on that you had put in there.
TM That would change depending on the space, but you could have local areas within bigger space. So you could have local spaces as big as a room in an auditorium. People could be relating across 50 feet and other people could be relating across 10 feet. Multiple-space. That’s what happened in the Expo ’70 Pavilion to some degree. It happens at the Metropolitan Museum, some people will be talking very intimately near a work and relating to the work and some other people will be drifting in this big space as if they were out in walking in a park, relating very casually to the whole 35’ high ceiling and big windows. It’s hard to work outside but it can be great. It can be very good joining up closely with nature. It’s a different feel because you’ve got to relate to the sky.
NM It always feels strange to play music outside, that’s how I’d relate to it. Instantly, it’s really different. The sound goes out with no walls to bounce off of. It feels as if it’s not for you. You can’t possess it.
CPC: You really have to be there to experience it. An image or a recording wouldn’t capture it. People who are there have a very intimate experience, and it’s contained in that way.
TM Unbounded but very internal at the same time.
CPC: I think it’s interesting this idea of small groups of people having these transformational experiences and then going back out to society. It could create these little catalysts.
NM I was thinking just now that it seems that in all of your work that you really believe in human potential and I think you present opportunities for people to see the potential in themselves and each other. It’s a challenging sentiment to keep up with consistently.
TM I got exasperated very early. When I was eight years old I saw photographs of bodies piled up from the concentration camps in LIFE Magazine. I saw how horrible people could be. There was a kind of optimism that I partly derived from the environment too; there were a lot of people around that were very progressive and caring people. I picked up a lot from that and from music. I used to hear folk music from the ’30s and ’40s and that influenced me towards being more altruistic and trusting. When I went to San Francisco I was mostly alone, and that was a trigger point for me to ask, “What am I doing?” Out there was an environment where you could really trust people and then we started working together a lot—the beginnings of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. It was before the Vietnam War took over the environment. I think that thread got re-enforced and then I knew I had to come back here. Here in New York you could see the need for it.
CPC: Your work seems to convey this sense of observation that is outside of the interaction sometimes. Even if you aren’t in the picture that you are drawing, you are observing these relationships and synthesizing them, mapping out these things that you witness.
TM Observing, seeing, noticing, paying attention . . .
Camilla Padgitt-Coles is the publisher and editor of Perfect Wave Magazine and is a multi-media artist that works in light composition, video, and drawing. She also writes, records, and performs in the band Future Shuttle.
Nicky Mao started making fanzines at the early age of 13 and is now the publisher of Ab-sens Press, specializing in Limited Edition books. She is a multi-instrumentalist that writes, produces and records her own music. After some bands and touring, she released her first solo record, self-titled Hiro Kone (Bitterroots Records) in January 2012. She is currently collaborating on a new project with Drew McDowall (Compound Eye, formerly of Coil).