If you enter the cordoned-off projection room at LA-based artist Alison O’Daniel‘s newly-opened exhibition, Room Tone at just the right moment (anytime between now and May 8, when the show is on view at Knockdown Center), you’ll bump right into the summer of 1980, when a packed house at one of San Francisco’s weirdest “social experiments” known as the Deaf Club, had gathered for the venue’s very last punk show. The legendary punk club, which had originally functioned as a social club for the deaf since it was founded in the 1930s, came about when the building’s owners decided to rent out some extra space. The deaf social remained while the place became a raucous DIY show space by night, drawing artists, musicians, and underground types like John Waters.
In O’Daniel’s film, we see some of the deaf people playing card games, unperturbed as the floors rattle and shake around them, and others wandering through the punk show as if in a dream, continuing to engage in their intimate sign conversations, while the wild noise around them proves to have little power in disrupting their connection. On the flip side, the punk show goes on, too– the presence of the Deaf Club members has no effect on the punk catharsis. I imagined a giant venn diagram– the small sliver in the center being the smidgen of experience that the deaf and hearing people shared in this scene, and the almost whole worlds that remained intact outside where the circles met. As a hearing impaired person, O’Daniel can jump back-and-forth between these two separate circles of experience, just one perspective that makes Room Tone so profoundly brain shifting.
As unbelievable as it might seem, these reenacted scenes from the Deaf Club are not simply the artist’s imaginative take on a brief moment in history. By all accounts, the Deaf Club was a place that actually existed on this planet. In Left of the Dial, an oral history of ’80s punk, Deaf Club regulars recalled the deaf members hanging around late-night for the punk shows and enjoying the performances. Even the bartender (who manned a fold-up table and refrigerator full of Budweiser) was apparently deaf. Klaus Flouride, bass player for Dead Kennedys, recalled the deaf people who frequented the place during shows: “They would lean forward toward the stage and sign each other– no problem with communication.” Another regular on the scene, Esmerelda Kent, said it was one of her favorite clubs “because of how strange it was.” She recalled going backstage to change at the end of the night, thinking everyone had left the club– “it was so quiet, I was sure I was alone”– only to return to the front to find “over a hundred people, all signing.”
During its less than two years of existence, the Deaf Club created a cross-section where hearing punk fans and deaf club members (and at least one deaf punk, Olin Fornety) met and not only got along, but shared a love for the spectacle of loud-as-hell punk bands like Flipper, the Dead Kennedys, and the Germs. In The Tuba Thieves, O’Daniel’s film on view at Room Tone, she splices archival footage with film from a reenactment she staged at PS1. Like much of the artist’s work, the film has seen many multimedia lives. From what we can see at this show, the film has spawned collaborations with composers, choreographed reenactment events, and even the installation at Room Tone. “There were about 60 deaf people who came and participated, even our caterers were deaf, and there were sign language interpreters, and then there were about 40 hearing people,” O’Daniel recalled of the Deaf Club taping.
But the punk club reenactment is just one short segment from Alison O’Daniel’s abstract documentary The Tuba Thieves– a sweeping (and ongoing) exploration of sound by way of meditative sequences and narrative bits– that gets at the essence of the LA-based artist’s sonic obsessions, informed by her experiences as a hearing-impaired person. For Room Tone, O’Daniel has chosen select scenes from the documentary to be screened as a two-channel installation. Viewers won’t pick up on the narrative thread tying everything together. (The film follows a deaf drummer named Nikey and her complex relationships with two hearing people– her father and boyfriend– and each of their individual relationships with music.) But the setup does allow the viewer to pop in whenever and soak up the more poetic, metaphysical aspects of The Tuba Thieves, what O’Daniel refers to as the “narrative drifts.” And if exhibition goers have a bit of patience, they’ll be treated to each of the three documentary thrusts of the film, including the Deaf Club.
O’Daniel doesn’t make films like anyone else I’ve ever encountered, and this becomes readily apparent when you sit for this movie. Somehow, the soundtrack and ambient noise are inseparable from the plot, rather than something dropped in later for affect. That’s probably because O’Daniel approaches filmmaking as if working “backwards,” she said. For the abstract portions of The Tuba Thieves, she started out with music or sounds, and constructed the visual narrative from there, and for the documentary portion, she listened to input from first-hand accounts before embarking on scriptwriting. “I like to think about it as this way of becoming an open, listening book and letting the elements and narratives drift together, in the way that musicians sit together and tune their ear to the person that they’re performing with,” she explained. “That’s completely how I’ve been working with this: listening and responding, listening and responding.”
At Room Tone, the installation welcomes viewers into the space, inviting them to move around and, like O’Daniel has made a point to do with filmmaking, simply listen before heading into the screening room. Occupying a full room, it consists of neon and taped arrows flowing along the floor in a Zamboni pattern, intersected by a large sound quilt that sort of dampens the room with a heavy muffled feeling. “I like to think about how sound can be physically in the space, and how the sound can almost become an object,” O’Daniel explained, pointing to the installation as a representation of “choreography and a visual musical score.”
Something clicked for me when O’Daniel pointed out that she thinks of the installation as a map for how she goes about storyboarding. The piece does have a sense of movement thanks to the arrows, but dangling triangles with a variety of numbers on them also hint toward progression. I only found out from O’Daniel directly that these represent the different scenes on-view in the screening room. Like the film, O’Daniel’s installation, in an oblique sort of way, references personal history (O’Daniel was a figure skater growing up, and at night the space glows like an abandoned ice-rink) and her abstract approach to sound. At first it seems simply like a nice-looking visual aid, but the installation serves the important function of encouraging the viewer to pause before rushing off to the screening and attune their ears to the sounds emanating from the adjacent room.
Since throughout her life O’Daniel has moved amongst the hearing, the hearing impaired, and the deaf– three distinct, yet overlapping and conversing worlds– she has the ability to illuminate certain angles of the sonic experience that for many of us hearing people, ironically, might be invisible. In this way, the show’s title, Room Tone– a reference to the special tone that every space has, a barely audible note that a room rings with when no one’s there– is more than fitting. “I’m interested in perceptual shifts,” she explained. “As somebody who has the experience [of hearing impairment], I feel like I have a real sensitivity to sound design and music and how music is used, especially in film. I don’t think I would have that unless I was a step behind all the time.”
I never would have guessed that O’Daniel was hearing impaired had I not been informed of this prior to our meeting. “I didn’t grow up in a deaf environment,” she recalled. “When I was in my 20s, for the first time I started to acknowledge that a lot of my personality has been determined through frustration– this frustration of not having a community, not seeing things mirrored, also just really practical frustrations just on a daily basis.” To this day, O’Daniel said, she still “misses things,” what she describes as “subtle” manifestations of information loss. “Even at 36, I’m still being constantly tripped up by it,” she explained. “But after that recognition of frustration, what came out of that was a different way of observing these things and thinking about how I wanted to respond to them.”
In this way, O’Daniel has found herself at somewhat of an advantage when it comes to art-making that is preoccupied with sound. With a foot in both worlds, she can step back from these huge ideas about music, sound, and hearing/not hearing, and listen with a more distant ear, so to speak. She can also speak with authority about deaf culture and the hearing world. One of O’Daniel’s three composer-collaborators for The Tuba Thieves, Christine Sun Kim, who is deaf, describes O’Daniel’s situation as “between two ponds.”
And yet, O’Daniel is careful to admit that, as someone between the world of sound and the realm of silence (and as any individual, really) she doesn’t have all the answers, and therefore cannot be a spokesperson for a huge group of people. The last thing she’s attempting to do is speak for profoundly deaf people, for example, or even all hearing-impaired people. “I’m learning stuff every day, I’ve had a lot of friendships with deaf people through making my work, and have slowly met hard-of-hearing people who have similar experiences to mine– that’s much more rare for me, and really exciting actually,” she said. “But I’m interested in not shying away from, yes, the amazing, inspiring aspects of [deafness and disability], but also there are so many things that I just don’t know. I do live more in the hearing world, but there’s a sensitivity to that, one that I’m interested in incorporating. I definitely challenge the idea that, ‘Oh everything must be difficult [for deaf people],’ but at the same time, it feels easy to twist to the other thing– that overcoming-adversity type of trope. I think both are really true and both are not.”
Still, at Room Tone O’Daniel offers a take on sound that is definitely surprising for hearing people, and probably so for deaf and hearing impaired people too, having made a real attempt to incorporate a variety of different perspectives on sound and varying experiences of hearing into The Tuba Thieves. But it’s not simply the sound and silence dichotomy that O’Daniel is interested in, she’s also attuned to the flip-side of hearing– listening. “My whole goal with this project is to explore what it means to really listen and be receptive and let a story build, sometimes through coincidences and chance information,” she explained.
In fact, there have been a number of coincidences surrounding this project that O’Daniel’s let run their course, choosing to embrace instead of thwart them. Another documentary portion of The Tuba Thieves involves a reenactment of the 1952 premiere of John Cage’s 4’33”— the composer’s famous piece where the pianist clicks a stopwatch and prepares to play, but ends up not hitting a single note throughout the three-movement, 4-minute and 33-second piece. “I never wanted to do anything with 4’33” because it felt really obvious to me,” O’Daniel admitted. After coming across a book of “hippie architecture in Woodstock,” she found that she was really drawn to one particular building. She sent the photo to her collaborator, the composer Steve Roden, who told her it was the same building where 4’33” was premiered. “I mean, I had no idea,” O’Daniel laughed. “After that happened I was like, ‘Ok, I’ll do it.'”
For a show like Room Tone, there might not be a better point of inspiration than 4’33”– Cage’s aim after all, was to inspire the audience to experience not only silence, but also to attune themselves to the ambient sounds happening around them, and to really listen. O’Daniel’s reenactment of the premiere was shot in the same Woodstock building, an open, airy wood structure that was designed to keep people as close to nature as possible. In The Tuba Thieves, O’Daniel’s camera moves slowly over the leafy green trees, lingering on rustling branches and the details of the wooden exterior, while the moments of silence between the pianists clicks are filled with ambient forest sounds. Watching the film is kind of a meta experience– as viewers, we’re gazing at another audience that is listening with intent, and automatically we start to listen with an unusual intensity as well. O’Daniel explained that, on set, this is how she normally operates. “I have a sound mixer and boom recorder but I always run into these things where I want every sound. I want the rustle of their clothing. There’s a level of subtlety I want to get.”
This same close listening can be found in the eponymous sequences of The Tuba Thieves, which was originally inspired by a rash of tuba thefts that plagued LA schools a few years back. O’Daniel’s film shows reenactments based on actual security camera footage captured at a high school where the band fell victim to tuba robbery, images that are backed by a heart-pumping soundtrack. The artist conducted countless interviews with teachers, principles, and even students to shape this portion of the film. “I really think of these people as collaborators in writing the story, I just listened to them,” she explained. “I guess my whole goal with this project is to explore what it means to really listen and be receptive and let a story build through coincidences and chance information.”
Where the film really took off for me was during the more abstract sequences with vibrating plants and a soundtrack composed by Christine Sun Kim. This portion of The Tuba Thieves offered yet another way for O’Daniel to let the sound take the film in its own direction. When O’Daniel asked Kim, a deaf composer, to write the piece, and then created images in response to Kim’s music, during final edits O’Daniel froze up, thinking that something with Kim’s vocal track wasn’t fitting quite right. “I though that we had to re-record the track, and I emailed her and she said, ‘I have no way of knowing what I did, it’s completely out of my hands and frame-of-reference at this point,'” O’Daniel recalled.
Getting Kim to record another similar vocal track would require that she hear it to make adjustments, something that was impossible. “At first, I tried to replicate and describe the sound she was making– putting the tongue on the roof of your mouth, your teeth are parted this much– I was getting into this minutiae, so that she could be able to reproduce the sound.” But right before O’Daniel sent the email, she stopped. “I was like, this is the most beautiful thing that’s happening,” she said. “This conversation is significantly more interesting than getting her to replicate the sound, so I kept the sound as it was and I kept these descriptions to use for captions.”
During this sequence, the camera seems to be trapped inside a greenhouse (it’s actually the bed of a truck, filled with plants). It’s storming outside, and the soundtrack subtly begins to awaken the plants, inspiring them at first to shake ever so slightly, before they begin to gyrate with a human-like intensity. Kim’s voice mumbles and moans and it seems as if the plants are singing some alien song. The captions, present throughout the film, are strikingly precise here: “windshield wipers continue in a steady motion,” “loud thunderclap,” and “the rain beats against the truck exterior.” With captions, which are written by hearing people, it’s assumed that something is lost in translation for the deaf viewer. The captioned film acquires a negative space of absent information.
“Usually captioning is very vague,” O’Daniel explained. “It’s like, ‘loud sound,’ but what does a loud sound mean to a deaf person? A deaf person knows what a ‘loud sound’ means based on watching people react. So hearing people become the speakers, or a tool for a deaf person to utilize.”
Alison O’Daniel’s “Room Tone” was made possible by Art in General and the New Commissions program, and is on view from now until May 8 at the Knockdown Center. On Thursday April 28, Future Punx and King Pussy Face will play a show with ASL performers as part of a Deaf Club reenactment, tickets are $10.