Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Julian Day '20

Audrey Deng
February 28, 2020

Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.

Julian Day '20 has been performing for many years, has composed scores for countless groups, and made radio programs for ABC Classic FM and BBC Radio 3 in Australia. Needless to say, Day has had a highly successful career thus far.

Big-city living is not new to Day either. Melbourne-raised, he is familiar with the ruckus of metropolitan living. What seems to be new, however, is the experience of being an international student in a metropolis. For a sound artist, this new ecosystem of sound is both familiar and not—the language is familiar but not, the social codes are familiar but not, the buildings are familiar and not, and for Day, these contrasts present themselves as a challenging source of creative inspiration.

In this conversation, we discuss social contracts in art, the similarities between law and performance and art, and the devastating fires in Australia.


Tell me about what you’re curious about. What do you like? What don’t you like?

Julian Day (JD): 
As an artist, I’m really interested in the dynamic between being an individual in the world and having a certain mobility in the world, where you may be free to travel, to meet people, to move about and create your own destiny, but compared to one’s sense of duty or responsibility to other people. It’s really kind of a classic division between a positive and a negative liberty, you could say. Which is kind of what separates a classic left-wing and right-wing political position. To what extent are you free to do whatever you want? And to what extent do you need to consider other people in what you’re doing? Which is also the basis of the social contract, from hundreds of years ago. How do you balance the self and the self with others?

I rarely think about being a citizen, or being a person surrounded by other people. I mean I’ll get out of the way when the subway doors open, but I don’t think that’s because I’m balancing my “self” with my “self” with others.

 I suppose the personal background to that is that I grew up as an only child with a teenage mom who kind of dropped out of school and had to find her way forward in the world. And so basically we moved around a lot, to a lot of rented houses, and that meant going to a lot of different schools, and a lot of different suburbs and towns. I was never quite sure how to build social circles because I was always dislocated. I had to learn the methods and tricks and strategies to meeting people. I guess that stayed with me: that constant question as to how to find connections with other people from a position where I feel like I’m an individual agent in the world. I guess that’s the big drive in my work.

Where did you grow up? Where were you moving around?

JD: I grew up in Australia. I was born in a small gold mining town called Bendigo.

Gold mining! What was that like?

JD: The gold rush is I think the same era as the California gold rush. So we’re talking late 19th century, 1870s, thereabouts? And this small town in the middle of the state of Victoria, quite south in Australia, was suddenly overrun by people all over the world wanting to make their fortune. It became very wealthy very fast, so downtown has these beautiful, ornate, French-style buildings. It looks very classic. But the rush was over pretty fast, and it just left a trail of fairly broken, welfare-dependent families for many generations. And that’s the kind of family I come from, which is fairly low class, messy, Irish Catholic kind of family. But I then moved to Melbourne, a big city, and mostly grew up there.

Did you like Melbourne?

I did. There was a huge tram at work. Street cars. It meant as a teenager for instance, you could travel very widely throughout the city. Maybe that’s part of the mobility I fell in love with. It’s by the bay, and the bay is quite uneventful, but it’s nice to be close to this seaside area. There’s a lot going on there in the arts. I got to go to a lot of concerts and exhibitions and listen to a lot of different types of music.

How does sound art figures in? You mentioned a coast. You mentioned a bay. So I’m thinking the sea sounds. Waves. Your art installation here reminds me of waves, or steam rising, for instance.

Interestingly, because Melbourne is a bay, it’s very uneventful. The water doesn’t really do anything: it’s flat. But I moved  to the tropics for a period, and with the tropical climate, water there is very dangerous. You have saltwater crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, deadly snakes. It’s a very alive part of the world, but it’s also very deadly. And then I moved down to Sydney where I lived most of my adult life, that is literally on rugged Pacific coast. So you do always get a sense of water and the roughness of nature all around. But the sound thing probably comes more from my father, who was a musician.

What kind of music?

Sadly, he died quite a long time ago, but he kind of played this post-punk rock music. I have his guitar, it’s tucked away in a storage unit, but it’s this beautiful blood-red guitar with devil’s horns. When I was a kid, there were a lot of musical objects lying around, like his guitar, drums, microphones, keyboards, amplifiers, all the things you would associate with the music world. I came to realize it as normal to have musical objects lying around. Funnily enough, I don’t have many musical objects in the studio. We have some speakers, headphones, but I’ve moved away from wanting to play with the objects in a representational way. Rather, the works here are more stripped back, and yet more obvious in a way: speakers creating vibrational fields in suspended fabric or skins, metal membranes, rather than say, a guitar, a speaker, and a microphone.

I do have an early memory of the viscerality of sound with my father. He would play heavily amplified rock music in pubs, in hotels, rock venues. I just remember as a very young child (three, four years old, maybe a little older), going to hear his band play at the local hotel. Feeling the whole room alive with the energy of sound and performance and gesture, and almost being captured by this energy.

That’s a sweet memory.

JD: I have a lot of sweet memories of my father. He was a rock hero for me, but also a complicated figure that has left a lot of things to work through, as an adult. He had a very unsuccessful life, you could say. He never really made it as a musician, he never really had a job, and he died quite young, through various addiction issues. I’ve really had to work through that and learn how to find a path forward knowing that my role model is a difficult role model.

Did you play any instruments growing up?

First of all, I played a bucket with sticks, like a basic drum kit. And also I was a singer with my own pop tunes. When I got to high school, I learned the flute and piano, so I got into a very classical bent once high school came around.

How did you add classical music to your pop repertoire?

 It was my own idea, and I fell in love with it really badly. That’s basically what led me to study music at university, as an undergrad. When you combine a flute and a piano together, you get an organ, because basically an organ is a keyboard that operates a lot of pipes, like a flute. So I do work a lot with pipe organs as a result. And I think that interest in wind and air and breath and how wind, air, and breath can shift the feeling in a space, is what plays out in a lot of my recent artwork. This is what you see in the studio, where low, large speakers are pumping out air and you see the vibrations in these materials. It all goes back to childhood.

I think digging into my background and understanding more about my motivations as an individual has been one of the big lessons of Columbia. And partly it’s because of the hugely expensive healthcare you have to purchase as an international student—it gets you cheap psychology sessions. So once or twice a week I can go in and delve into my background and my past and childhood and learn why I do the things that I do as an adult. And it’s been a pretty useful process, because it starts to make a global sense of who you are and what you’re trying to do. This past year or two, I’ve been stumbling around, and now I’m getting closer to a sense of my drive as an artist.

At the beginning of this conversation you mentioned a social contract. This kind of reminds me of what you said then, about the duty to self and the duty to others.

 What I’ve been trying to do in my performance work for the past decade, actually, is try to build cohorts, build groups, build ensembles from the ground up. If I were in a room full of people that I don’t know, what do I have to do and what do we have to do in order to build some sense of community for that period of time? This question drives a lot of the sound performance work in public spaces I’ve been doing.

Like say, on a subway car? I’m not sure about subway cars as very friendly or collaborative spaces to create art.

Yeah, I’ve been writing about this actually, because that’s one of your biggest experiences in New York City, dealing with the subway. It’s broken down, crumbling, but also the social space of the car and how you’re in concert with fifty other people, and everyone seems to have their own sense of what being public is, and that’s a really chaotic, complicated social space. And I don’t quite know how to navigate it, but I’m really interested in social situations, and how you have to essentially locate a vocabulary.

For the past decade you’ve been working on this kind of collaborative art. What kinds of work have you made?

I’ve been working on large-scale performances in public. To give you an example, last year I created a large piece with about a hundred people, flooding a complicated architectural space designed by Frank Gehry, the star architect, who crumples giant bags and makes them into giant buildings. There’s a Frank Gehry building in Sydney, and I worked with a hundred architecture students to create an immersive sound composition through that building. We used very simple materials, just like metal cups, a couple of chopsticks from a nearby supply store. The building basically became our instrument. Hitting the metal cups in different ways creates different sonar effects. You have this complicated social body moving through the building for forty, sixty minutes. And also film work—capturing this fragmented, multi-dimensional, setting in the building.

That’s a lot of people. How did you convince them to do this? How did you sell this idea to the architecture students?

The ideal way I do these projects is very opt-in, and anyone who hears about it can be a part of it. In this specific case, it was a set of architecture students who I was asked to work with, so we messed over a few weeks and had a few workshops. We had a lot of materials: I brought in coins, chains, wooden sticks, a lot of cheap, simple things you can buy en masse. And it turned out we just needed the chopsticks and the metal cups. I wanted to suggest that simple, common objects have virtuosity, and you can learn, for the rest of your life how to play these two simple objects. It shows you really need no musical background or skill in order to start listening, or playing.

That makes me pretty happy. I guess hopeful is the right word. No barrier to entry, in terms of playing music. What classes did you take this past semester?

 I took some very hefty art history classes, which was really great. I learned a lot, but it was a lot of work. It was actually a class on performance, since performance is a big part of what I do, so it was great to learn about the history of performances through all these different lenses, like musical scores, video, extreme body performance. In the end, I came up with this idea to think about performance through the idea of a contract. So you can sort of see behind you, a bunch of law books, basically, I’m doing a little DIY law degree in my studio, trying to learn the similarities between law and performance and art.

What are the similarities between law and performance and art then?

Well the way I see it, the law is a set of systems that guide one’s behavior in relation to what you can do in the world and what you can do with other people, in relation to other people. Similarly if I write a score, like an instructional score to follow, a musical score, or some artwork that has parameters for your behavior, it’s a similar kind of thing. Both systems govern how you interact with the world and other people. I’m interested in what the contract does in that situation.

If you and I go through the classic steps of making a deal with each other, one of us would make an offer. “I want to make this work with chopsticks and this cup. Are you in?” Then you would come back to me and say, “Yeah. That’s good. But what if we used a different kind of cup? And went to the river? Made this performance outdoors?” Then I would say, “Ok, let’s negotiate.” And then there would be this third option where we do this in a subway car with three or four friends. We have now arrived at an agreement and we have made a promise to each other. That’s basically a collaborative art contract through the lenses of promises to one another. It seems to me to be the exact same situation.

I’m interested in artists who work with contracts on three or four levels. One is artists who literally use contracts, and here I’m thinking of an artist like Shevaun Wright, in Los Angeles, who does these very powerful allusions to contracts. She has a law background, so she actually uses her law knowledge and skills to create these complicated sets of promises with people.

I’m also interested in artists who create unfair contracts, so if you think of Vito Acconci following you in public, in the seventies, and he only stops following you when you go inside to a non-public space. It’s creepy, it’s stalkery, and basically he’s making a contract with you that you’re unaware of and that you can’t even agree to. I’m interested in the coercive nature of contracts, but also I’m interested in contracts which you can build in real time with another person. There I’m thinking of artists creating one-to-one projects often using things like beds.

There are two Australian artists who use beds as a starting point for their art. One is Charlie Sofo, who invited people to their house to spend the night with him, and over the course of the night you had to invent a kind of contractual negotiation on how you spend the night with him. The other artist, S.J. Norman, has this work where you step into the back of a truck and they’ve got a bed and they are lying there, and you’ve got fifteen minutes to invent a transaction with them. When I did it last year I basically got into the bed, and we snuggled for fifteen minutes and I left again. I’m interested in that situation where it’s a contract, but when the negotiation part of it is prevalent. Anyway. Very long way of saying I looked at contracts this semester.

The last thing you said reminds me of the artist Sophie Calle, who photographed people in her bed. She asked people to stay in her bed for a number of hours, and then took photos of them.

Yeah, I need to get into her work. She also did following pieces as well. She’s probably a good case study for what I’m trying to do next.

What other classes have you enjoyed?

 I took two sculpture classes, and as you can see around you, I’m really interested in how we make stuff in space. I took a class with Jon Kessler, who’s a complex kinetic sculptor who encouraged me to think crazy, deep, elliptical, non-linearly. I took another sculpture class with Gabo Camnitzer, who taught us to really think deeply about what our position is in a social system, and how we take responsibility for that. I took a third sculpture class with Seth Cluett in sound and composition where we actually made things with actual materials, like power circuits. I took two music classes last year. One was about orchestration, very classic, how you write for clarinet, violin, we had an orchestra play our pieces. And another one, which was much more theory-based, was an experimental music class, and there we thought through all the implications of what it means to be an artist working with people in the 21st century.

Sounds very related to your contracts.

Exactly. And I actually wrote a contract paper for that class as well. And that’s where my interest in scoring contracts came in, because I was looking at composers who wrote very open text scores in the fifties and sixties, and then what that means to then give to someone else to do: that act of delegation. It creates these kind of complex power relations between people, I find.

How is it being here with the news of the building wildfires back home?

The bushfires back in Australia have been heartbreaking. At first I simply watched, helpless, from afar. Then I discovered that my own house was under threat. Some years back I built a small country house that I might one day be able to use as a studio. A few nights into the new year it burnt to the ground. Right at midnight, all within half an hour. Years of work, years of memories, just a pile of twisted metal. I'm nowhere near the worst affected - people have died, animals have died - whereas my place was just a small personal project. But it's been a surreal, stressful and sad start to the year.