Meghan Trainor, 2010
Voicewriter is a site-specific work created during my recent residency at the James W. Washington, Jr. and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation in Seattle’s Central District.
Mr. Washington was a celebrated local artist best known for his stone sculpture celebrating natural forms. He was friends with Mark Tobey and a member of the “Northwest School” of painters during the mid-twentieth century. Over his long life he gave many talks on his philosophies of art, beginning with a presentation to African-American Navy men in 1945. During my residency I dove deep into the archives, listening to many of Mr. Washington’s recorded speeches, and in his vast library finding a unique annotation system that mapped very directly to his talks. Using a star system, along with various underlines and notations, Mr. Washington revealed the trajectory of his research rough these texts. Early in his life he worked as an electrician for the military, amongst many other jobs, and his fascination with gadgets is evident in his sizable collection of Edison Voicewriter devices. Having long worked with my recorded voice in my installation work I set about recording from Mr. Washington’s annotated texts onto wax cylinders.
The digitized recordings were then composed within Supercollider, a digital sound synthesis environment. Taking oak lampshades, another of Mr. Washington’s many collections of objects lingering throughout his vast work spaces, I constructed a form to house the wax cylinders, inset laser cut panels were generated using Grasshopper, a parametric plug-in for Rhino, a 3D modeling environment. Mr. & Mrs. Washington’s greenhouse became a listening chamber, housing both the audio composition created using his materials and tools, and the physical response to the greenhouse itself.
Open Studio Party: August 26th
Thursday · 6:00pm - 10:00pm
1816 26th Ave. Seattle - James & Janie Washington Foundation
The James Washington Foundation invites you to an Open Studio Party Thursday, August 26th from 6 to 10 pm. I’ll be showing some of the archive related projects I’ve undertaken since starting my residency just a few short weeks ago, which includes works that combine site-specific materials and archival data with digital tools and fabrication processes. Live vinyl will be spinning in the side yard, culled from James Washington’s record collection.
For one of the projects I’m working on, Voicewriter, I’ve taken a collection of a texts from Mr. Washington’s library and recorded them using the most functional of his collection of Edison voicewriters. Passages from books about Tesla and Carver, Einstein and systems of mass communication, the power of the mind and the use of sign language in ancient ritual.
The texts are not selected randomly, but respond to the very specific annotations that Mr. Washington used; underlines and stars and for the most critical texts, the phrase “important” appears again and again. His books are full of notes on cards and scraps of papers, and often articles clipped from newspapers that relate to the author or some event in the books.
Washington House Residency: week 2
I’m just finishing up my second week here at the James Washington House and I’m in the midst of prototyping some of my project ideas out in the studio. There are rooms upon rooms filled with tools, many for stone work, as well as wood working, printing and general making related tasks. One of the side products of one of the stone drills are these core shapes. Apparently there were buckets of these cores that Mr. Washington had drilled out of stone, but no one is exactly sure where the stones they came from are. Certainly a few pieces had cores drilled out for mounting, but given the quantity of cores, they expected more. So it’s a little bit of a mystery here at the Foundation.
That said, some of the cores also come from previous resident Romson Regarde Bustillo, who drilled holes in stones from the garden and placed them in water in the greenhouse for a haunting examination of negative space. These stones were then re-purposed by last month’s resident Nikolus Meisel in his piece And then the bush said...
Because stone is such a primary material to Mr. Washington’s work and legacy I wanted to include it as a mechanism for interactive digital experience; to be touched and moved by the audience.
Another project involves using one of the many Edison voicewriters that Mr. Washington had collected over the years. These machines are a marvel of engineering and yet at the same time a wildly inefficient way to gather just a little bit of very low quality of sound. The physicality of these machines, and the wax cylinders they used, stands in stark contrast to the almost ephemeral nature of digital audio we take for granted today. For this piece I’ll be recording onto the cylinders from Mr. Washington’s archive, with special attention to his own “three star” annotation method and then digitally processing the audio in SuperCollider.
Dionysus consoling Ariadne, from Mr. Washington’s copy of Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, 1959 [The November 12, 1976 issue of The Medium can be seen in the scan jutting out from the book itself, it is amongst the various documents found in this and many volumes in the archive.]
"…the earliest known archives contained objects neatly strung up on suspended threads, ‘one thing after another.’ These archive strings functioned as navigational tools-a kind of cybernetic feedback-that allowed their users to keep their bearings in time and space, much like the thread that once helped Theseus navigate his way through Daedalus’s labyrinth. And, as a way of submitting chance to successful symbolization, Ariadne’s thread had often been viewed as a metaphor for the production of art. For example, Walter Benjamin observed:
'To begin to solve the riddle of the ecstasy of trance, one ought to meditate on the Ariadne's thread. What joy in the mere act of unrolling a ball of thread! And this joy is very deeply related to the joy of intoxication, just as it is to the joy of creation. We go forward; but in so doing, we not only discover the twists and turns of the cave, but also enjoy this pleasure of discovery against the background of the other, the rhythmic bliss of unwinding the thread. The certainty of unrolling an artfully would skein-isn't that the joy of all productivity, at least in prose?'
If on the one hand the artist submits willingly to chance, on the other hand, she or he relies on the feedback provided by the thread to mitigate its effects, using it to suture a gap or hole at the very center of the symbolic. Fingering the thread, stitching it into a text, the artist in Benjamin’s account occupies a place simultaneously inside and outside of contingency, finding a rhythm in or through the waywardness of chance.”
-The Big Archive: Art From Bureaucracy
Washington House Residency: week 1
I’m just finishing my first week here at the James Washington House and I’m finding that I’m blissfully lost in the archives and studio space. I’m splitting my time between the studio, where I’ve begun to experiment with Mr. Washington’s collection of Edison voicewriters alongside my own arsenal of digital tools, and the archives in the basement of their home, where room after room is brimming with books, objects, images and everything else imaginable. While I’m ostensibly doing “research” towards the creation of new work, I am finding myself completely caught up in the rich narrative of the Washington’s lives, their amazing collection of artwork, artifacts and books and, well…perhaps I should explain a bit more explicitly…
The Washington’s, Janie and James, bought their home in Seattle’s Central District in 1945. Mr. Washington went on to become a very well know and much celebrated and collected artist, as well as civil rights activist. Their house and garden includes a three story studio near the back of the property that was built to Mr. Washington’s specifications in 1965. During their lifetimes they conceived of a Foundation that would include an artist residency in their home as well as a museum and archive dedicated to their life and work.
A glimpse at Mr. Washington’s extensive library including books centuries old. He frequently underlined and starred passages that captured his interest, with three stars being the highest.
A few glimpses at the levity found in the archives; a stone fragment removed from Mr. Washington’s cheek and a dry quip about Morris Graves and Governor Evans in a letter from the seventies.
An Archive Is A Living Thing
Dr. Washington’s Archive (by meghatron) In anticipation of my residency at the James Washington House, which begins in August, Director Tim Detweiler was kind enough to take me on a tour, pointing out rooms full of archival materials from Washington’s life as an artist. I have long been enchanted and fascinated by the organic nature of the Washington House project, in which artists-in-residence coexist with the ongoing efforts to catalog, preserve and display Mr. Washington’s work and life.