“Griðungur 2. Skref” Music Video Premiere + Ravi Jackson in conversation with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson

Zoom conversation between Ravi Jackson and Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson that took place on October 18, 2022, edited by Jonathan Pfeffer

RJ: I made the video kind of how I paint. There’s a lot of collage, there’s a lot of allusions and references to other things in the paintings. The painting itself is kind of its own little thing. It’s like a substrate that kind of glues everything together in a way. I guess working with your music, I kind of thought of that as the same thing. Like bringing the train in because something in the music suggested the lips of a train. It made sense sonically with the music. It’s also just kind of arbitrary. They make sense but not as narrative. It’s kind of like this little patchwork. Videos are fun that way because you can force these little things together.

GSG: I see that totally in your paintings, like these superimposed fragments from here and there. That kind of composition. To see them side by side, you’re trying to interpret like crazy. But for me, it was also just a very poetic, enjoyable experience to go through these images. I think I told you earlier that your use of the train was something that deeply struck a chord because I have a great interest in trains as there are no trains in Iceland. I really like steam engines. I find these kinds of old-fashioned trains very fascinating.

RJ: Locomotion. I didn’t realize there are no trains in Iceland…

The video starts out with the mouth. The way I was thinking about it, it starts to veer off into more abstract relationships between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing. Similarly to how I made the video, there’s not a lot of virtuosity in the way that I paint. The idea of illusion or finesse, everything’s kind of on the surface and how it’s made and the process through which is made. I don’t know if you would describe your own music this way at all, but listening to it felt pretty similar.

GSG: Yeah, absolutely. Ever since I started, if I tried to do something impressive, even if I could, it usually seems to fall flat. I can’t seem to control where it goes; my music likes to be unstable in a sense. I totally relate to that in your work, too. I really liked how there are these moments of kind of like Mickey Mousing where it kind of directly follows the actions of the music and then you get this instrument and it’s almost like it’s making fun of music in general. [Laughing]

RJ: [Laughing] Is that a good or a bad thing for you?

GSG: I thought it was funny actually because some of the images with instruments, it kind of felt like it was kind of comically treating music as a kind of a general category, which is nice because in my mind I’m always like stuck in something specific or my own world. So, it’s like, “This is what it is. It’s people playing instruments. It could be this instrument. Another. Pick whichever one you like.” [Laughing]
RJ: I tend to pick images and work with them in a painting, thinking that that image is going to have a certain set of meanings or limitations. I tend to arrange things with that idea in mind. For me, it seems to make sense that they might fit together. Just listening to music as well, because you hear these motifs repeating, working with each other, playing off each other in several ways.

GSG: I actually think that it’s really hard for instrumental music to convey a verbal idea. I don’t even try to make a conceptual thing. There might be something in the framework of how the music comes to be, but it’s not communicated in an A-to-B fashion. Whereas with images, if they’re representative of something, maybe in some ways it’s the opposite that you are always going to have people attach something verbal to it in a sense.

That’s why I think the music video is such a great format for instrumental music. Usually, it’s pop music with lyrics and “Should we play off the lyrics or not?” But this is kind of like outside the song. I had no idea what you were gonna do with it. It could be anything. So, there’s a feeling of narrative that moves in some direction, but whatever you put on top of it, that’s gonna be the story [Laughing]. 

You have all these images that come up, like people’s navels, instruments, trains, breathing. But at the same time, I didn’t feel that you were imposing or forcing it into one thing. I felt the images were sort of poetic in the sense that they also leave room for various interpretations in a sense. But where’d you get these images? Are they from here and there? Are some of them found? Did you draw or record any of them yourself?

RJ: I shot some of the images with my iPhone. It’s kind of a process of free association where you listen to the piece, you listen to certain parts then look for a video of whatever I might associate with it. Looking back at previous images that I’d associated with that sound and then thinking how I might augment that.

It’s funny because if you think of the music video genre, especially pop music, a lot of it is really literal. I think people have an idea about the music that’s already hyper-legible. It’s about a subject that has lyrics and the function of the music video is just to illustrate or embellish that with a lot of spectacle. It kind of made sense with your music that the video could complement or add a loose narrative.

GSG: I think the music video is a great medium because even popular music videos can be very, very strange even when the music isn’t.

RJ: Do you have any examples in mind?

GSG: [Long pause] I always go back to Britney Spears. Cardi B’s video for “WAP.” The reason why I even found out about it was something on the news about how animal rights activists were worried about the context the tigers in the music video were being used in. The news said that probably not a lot of people will remember the tigers because there’s so much else happening in the music video. [Laughing]

RJ: [Laughing] It’s true. There’s a lot going on. It’s…baroque.

GSG: Exactly. It’s very strange. Like all the different rooms. I think a lot of music videos tend to be a 3-5-minute slot and then you have lots of changes, lots of things happening over a very short period of time. In a sense, the genre is often about fragments or you have like different spaces and they’re always switching between different rooms or different spaces. In some ways, there’s a little bit of that in your video because some of the images or themes reoccur. The musical instrument theme is one thread, then there was a mouth, then there are the candles. I feel like you kind of juggle these different threads in a sense.

RJ: For sure. That’s definitely a part of it. Maybe that’s been influenced by not just the music video but also television. I don’t know anything about video editing, but there are these rules people have about the camera position once you cut between two characters or switch perspectives so you don’t have a conversation between two people that’s jarring.

In that type of editing, they’re constructing a similar visual narrative. You repeat these themes about how things should be seen versus how this person looks at that thing. All of a sudden you draw an association between the two and what it means with music. Maybe that’s where a lot of that type of visual language comes from using the video. You’re just trying to Illustrate the sound. Like you’re saying, it’s like Micky Mouse or Steamboat Willie.

GSG: Sometimes the rhythm syncs up and sometimes it doesn’t. Morton Feldman talked about how it’s hard to write a piece of music where everything aligns constantly. It’s also hard to write a piece that’s entirely polyphonic and nothing happens at the same time. People tend to try to find contrast. I feel like it’s the same with the relationship between sound and image – there’s a balance. There’s a space in the video that makes it so it resembles music. You can watch it many times and you’ll see different things. It doesn’t dominate as this one kind of statement.

RJ: There’s no point being made. There’s no central point. It’s not communicating any discreet piece of information. But there are things to enjoy in it. There are things to see in it. I like the word “space,” too. 

People look at stuff all the time and they look at images that they know they’re meant to enjoy and they can take it in as such without feeling like there’s anything obscure that they have to decode when looking at it. I think maybe that’s the analogy for painting, but the two aren’t really thought of it in the same category. If you look at a poster or a billboard, you might enjoy these periods of looking at it. Or with the video, you might watch Cardi B’s music video and you just take it as pleasurable even though there’s a lot of stuff going on. There are a lot of ways to interpret it and think about it.

People look at the kind of painting that I do as something you need specific knowledge to understand or a certain type of vocabulary. Maybe there are a lot of ways to understand my paintings or there’s a lot of information in them or a lot of directions that they might go, but it’s important to me that it’s something that can be legible. It can be enjoyed, although it seems impossible that it would be enjoyed in the same way that someone might look at a billboard or how someone might watch the Cardi B video. I kind of think about it like one should be able to see it in the same way. With your music, it seems really accessible in a similar kind of way.

GSG: I’m happy to hear that because I often get asked by people, “What’s the idea behind the piece?” I’m like, “There’s no idea. It’s just the piece,” you know? It’s not communicating any idea external to it. There are ideas that are made in order for that to exist. Especially in continental Europe, you get certain kinds of questions if people don’t know what to do with this music.

People assume that it’s something very intellectual, that you have to have heard A, B, and C in order to be able to decipher it. Or that’s kind of a statement that’s either honest or mockery and nothing in between. I think of my music as very direct and straightforward in a sense and hopefully accessible. I’m not trying to be opaque or obscure. For me, it’s just lyrical.

RJ: I feel like maybe we’re in a similar position. I mean, it’s often the context that the stuff exists in that obscures the work; it adds layers that one feels like they have to like wade through in order to see or hear the stuff. I think all the tools that you need to look at my work are already there.

“Straightforward” is a good way of putting it. I think this is less so the case now than it was maybe 5-10 years ago for me, but people talk about painting as either completely genuine or ironic in its relationship to the larger genre, as if there’s nothing in between. I think there’s a lot of anxiety among painters about the seriousness or lack thereof of painting. Is that a big issue for you? It’s not a question I ask myself, but does the question of whether or not this is serious or not ever come up for you?

GSG: This is not common, but I remember an instance where there was a lot of laughter and it surprised me. It was kind of like in that movie, “Untitled.” But I didn’t take it as a bad thing. I understood why they were laughing; maybe there was some mildly potentially comical aspect that was seen as ridiculous. I was just surprised that they would find it that funny.

I remember John Cleese talking about how with Faulty Towers, the trick was to make people as uncomfortable as possible because then it’s easy to make them laugh and because the anxiety makes it so people want relief.
I feel like sometimes especially in Europe, the frame is, “Oh, this is contemporary classical music and it’s so serious.” People are waiting for something so solemn that when something doesn’t really fill those expectations, it kind of triggers laughter.

RJ: Do you think of your work as being funny?

GSG: By the time the work is finished and it’s performed in a concert I would’ve forgotten what’s funny about it. If there’s something that I think is funny, it’s maybe an element, but not necessarily central. I think of it more as a result of a kind of playfulness or exploration as opposed to any intent of it being comical.

RJ: We have a lot in common. I used to think of humor as an antidote to the gravity with which people would talk about art. I still think of there being jokes, whether it’s like a formal joke in my painting or in the video. But it’s not stand-up comedy. I kind of want to do away with some of the gravity because maybe it makes it harder to do the work.

GSG: Some people go to a gallery or art museum and they have to know everything about art. Like, they have to have some background in art history as something very specific is being said. It’s very literal what we were talking about with humor that it must be a joke or not, either it’s serious or it’s a joke. Italo Calvino has this article in favor of lightness. He takes all kinds of examples from literature, sort of indicating how he thought that lightness was underrated in the arts.

RJ: To use another literary example, Donald Barthelme wrote a short essay called “Not Knowing” about the benefits of not knowing, uh, anything, I guess. It’s a similar thing and part of the anxiety around showing work in some kind of institution, whether it’s the concert hall or the museum, or performance space. There’s a lot of anxiety about the idea that there’s a piece of information that you have to know, which I think is pretty often not the case. Obviously, there’s a lot of work for which that is the case, and wants it to be that way I don’t know if there’s a better way to present a painting…

GSG: I don’t think of myself as a visual artist, but I spend a lot of time making scores. l work with software to make scores with animated notation. Notation is such a strange thing because it’s not like writing and not like drawing either. It seems to have a logic but the logic is so fleeting. Even the most traditional notation has much less written in stone than people might think.

RJ: Do you think of the notation as part of the music itself?

GSG: Maybe more than I like to admit. My musical style has evolved in symbiosis with that method, like knowing what works and what doesn’t in terms of communicating something. I wasn’t like a computer guy really. I had to force myself into it a bit and I wouldn’t have done it if I would have had people that were better at programming than I am. I would also always build on top of some kind of machine that a friend of mine had made or helped me make. I guess I work subconsciously within the limits of what I think I can notate. On the other hand, I might write something and try to figure out how I might notate it.

RJ: That’s really interesting. So, the notation is kind of another practical limitation on the work. I do think about the limitations of the software informing how the video has to look. If we’re gonna talk about Cardi B again, I feel like part of the aim of her videos is to kind of try and push the boundaries of what can be expressed.

There’s always new technology and new techniques that they can use. CGI has gotten much easier and more accessible. The process of altering the way something looks has gotten much easier to do. I do try and work very consciously within the bounds of a singular piece of software. To some degree, I feel like it takes some kind of pressure off of me or makes the final product feel kind of inevitable.

GSG: There’s no way around it. Even though people try to tell themselves that they know what a piece of software is good at and what it isn’t, they find ways to work against the limitations. I’m using three pieces of software on two desktop computers at the same time to make the score and I go to the fourth to finish. Between 2005-2015, it was just my laptop and headphones. Something happened a few years ago and it just started escalating. Now I’m like, bound.

RJ: I’m similar. I started working with 3D editing programs a few years ago, so now I have a full desktop setup and two monitors. I used to make Photoshop collages more frequently. Photoshop is definitely part of the process even if it’s indirect or minor, like taking a screenshot of my monitor or my phone to use in a painting. Color correction or printing then becomes part of the process. I’ve made some rudimentary models in 3D modeling programs just to help make an image in a collage.

When people talk about software, there are a lot of ideas that people have of what that should mean. I don’t necessarily know what it should mean. I’ve made a lot of paintings where it is just a screenshot of what I’m looking at, at the moment. There’s text or images within that, but it will include the advertisements on the side – the Google ads, maybe the URL, parts of my desktop. I think of that as a pretty prosaic experience. Everybody for the most part sees stuff that way with ads here. I don’t think of it as being specifically digital insofar as so much of what we see is presented digitally.

GSG: Right, so it becomes just like any other object in your surroundings or any other billboard you see driving by your house – I presume you’re driving cause you’re in LA.

RJ: Yeah, it’s too much…we need more trains here as well. Speaking of billboards, I’ve seen advertisements now where it’s an image that then presents a phone where you see the information…

GSG: [Laughing] Yeah, because it’s such a familiar experience because “technological” used to mean something specific. But now that everything is “technological.” Like if you’re into old manuscripts you’re doing XML.

RJ: People younger than us sense that more intuitively than we do.

GSG: I remember growing up in the ‘90s, technology was a very exciting, fast-evolving thing. It was a thing, but not everything. I don’t have a smartphone, so I kind of feel that there are moments that I’m not a part of. It’s getting more and more that there are just barriers. Like I was at this festival and there were no programs. It was just like, “Hey, here’s a QR code,” and I have no device where I can use a QR code [laughing]. I’m just out of the loop completely.

RJ: I have a friend who doesn’t have a smartphone either. She got me thinking about how there are so few paper menus at restaurants in Los Angeles where you can’t even order food at a restaurant without a smartphone. It’s part of how people experience music or painting, too. Most people who have seen my paintings have seen them on a phone screen. I don’t think of them making that much sense as an image as a JPEG.

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