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Saara Untracht-Oakner On The Launch Of "Subjectively Speaking"

Last weekend Milk headed over to the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center where Artist of The Week alum, Saara Untracht-Oakner, showed “Subjectively Speaking.” A multifaceted project that experimented with the interpretation of art, this exhibition included performances from Untracht-Oakner, Alex Knost, Verge Bliss, Entrance, and Abby Banks. After the opening night, we chatted with the artist for the full breakdownread below for her in-depth ideas behind “Subjectively Speaking” and her post-show thoughts. West coast, this exhibition is up until March 2—check it out while you still can.

Firstly, thanks for having us! Let’s first start with the spacewhy Costa Mesa? How did you end up in this space?

I’ve skipped a few NY winters by coming to LA and wanted to do the same this year.  I finally have some time to peruse other projects after touring pretty non-stop with my band BOYTOY, and this show was an idea I’ve had for awhile.  I know Alex Knost through the music scene and reached out when looking for a space that would be good for the project. He and his gallery partner and girlfriend Daniella Murphy liked my proposal and invited me to come do the show in their space and be the artist in residence.  They set me up a little room in the back to live in while I was doing the work for the show.

What have you noticed is the difference between showing work on the east coast versus the west coast?

Well this show was completely different than anything I had done before so it was an experiment in and of itself.  I want to expand and do more Subjectively Speaking’s in different cities with different installments and performers.  I think it will be super interesting to see the differences in performances and interpretations and crowd vibes. Something like NY vs Zurich vs Costa Mesa vs Paris…

In NY it’s nice that you can hop from event to event in the same night.  People just passing by on the street might stop in. In Southern CA it’s a more of a destination event.  You have to plan on coming and it probably is your plan for the whole night, which is also cool to know people made a specific effect to come see art.

Before a show, do you have any rituals? How do you get in the right headspace before creating performance work like “Subjectively Speaking”?

It’s always pretty hectic.  Haha. Most times the shows are something I plan a couple months in advance.  Doing tests, figuring out all the materials I need and spaces, getting together artist statements, figuring out logistics…

Then I usually have a couple of days where I’m actually making the installations or pieces and I’m not sure how it’s even going to look until a couple hours before opening.  

I did an installation in Istanbul in November at Galerist and had drawn out my plans so when I got there a team had built everything and I got off the plane and drew for 3 days straight working for 12-15 hours a day.  

I’m usually still finalizing bits and pieces during the first hour or so of the actual opening.  I just try to stay focused and organized so I don’t miss any details.

So you physically began this process last Monday, when you listened to one of Mozart’s symphonies and notated what you heard onto a butcher paper map around the room—can you tell us more about this project “Subjectively Speaking”?

It was Mozart’s Symphony no.34, which was a last minute choice.  I wanted to do a piece I was unfamiliar with but still fit the pace and vibe I was looking for.  I wanted to do a piece from Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony but when I mapped out my pace with the amount of paper I had, I needed something around 8 minutes long.  The piece I ended up going with was about the right tempo and time I figured I would need. I had never heard more than a few seconds of it so that I could make my movements as reactionary as possible.  My friend and videographer Pat Fenelon filmed the performance.

After I transcribed the piece onto butcher paper, I photographed the work and turned it into “sheet music,” organizing it in photoshop so that it read from left to right, rather than in a circular spiral like on the gallery walls.  I sent the sheet music to composer Jake Falby to record his own original score based on his interpretation of the visual score I transcribed.

We set up a monitor in the gallery with the video from my performance and two listening stations, one with the original Mozart piece and one with Jake Falby’s new piece so you could kind of track the movements and sound together.

The sheet music and some risographs prints of the score are also on display.  

For the performances I wanted the performers to know as little as possible about the original piece of music.  The only instructions I gave them was where my transcription started and the direction it traveled around the room.  I wanted it to be reactionary for them as well. It ended up being a really fun mix of performers. Verge Bliss used a suitcase set up with different size springs and bass pick-ups, which ended up being very percussive.  Abby Banks did a vocal looping interpretation with a few bells and performed as a green witch pointing with a stick at the parts of the score she was reading. The were a couple of young kids at the show who were getting super into it and I loved that.  Alex Knost did a guitar interpretation, messing with the tuning of his guitar to mimic the shapes and movements of the score and ended up kind of thrashing his guitar at the end.

Producer and engineer Kyle Mullarky did an audio recording of the performances to tape which will sync of with live video and will also be on view for the remaining of the show at the gallery.

You had a few different artists reinterpret what you had notated—after having everything come together last night, what were your takeaways?

I really loved watching the performers and being able to trace where they were on the score by their eye-line.  I liked how they developed their individual methods as they went along. It was a lot like a real conversation as opposed to someone performing a rehearsed speech.

Can you tell us a bit about the people you collaborated with?

Verge Bliss was the first performer.  She’s a noise musician that was recommended to me by Jake Falby.  I didn’t know much about her or her work so I was super excited to see what she came up with.  She specifically chose the suitcase of springs after seeing and example of what my visual transcription would look like.

Abby Banks is an old friend I’ve known through the music scene and met through Kyle Thomas of King Tuff.  I don’t remember if I met her in Brattleboro Vermont or at a show somewhere or something. She’s always so fun and I knew she could bring something humorous and engaging to the performance.  I laughed so hard I cried.

I met Alex Knost through the music scene as well.  My band BOYTOY has played a few shows with his band Tomorrows Tulips.  He’s done a few experimental projects and I love how conceptual his brain works.  

What were you surprised by?

I loved the evolution of the performer’s interpretations.  Sometimes they would follow the score pretty literally and sometimes they would go off and do their own thing.  The score would inspire the beginning of their conversation and then would branch off and take on its own life, saying something totally of its own.  What I said inspired what they said but didn’t dictate it.

Now that you have a video element, the actual notations on the wall, and a few recorded songs—this project has the ability to live on, do you have any plans for it to go further?

I have so many more ideas to expand this piece! Different shaped rooms, different ways of moving around the spaces, using different types of music and musicians and traveling to different cities.  I think it will inspire a conversation and patterns of how people from different cultures and environments interpret things differently. Everyone’s experience is solely their own, even if the experience is a shared one.

Stay tuned to Milk for more from west coast fam.

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