Catherine Christer Hennix

View of “Catherine Christer Hennix: Traversée du Fantasme,” 2018. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Polymath artist Catherine Christer Hennix is known for her groundbreaking compositions, including The Electric Harpsichord, 1976, and Central Palace Music, 1976. Cornell University is presently organizing her collected writings into a new two-volume book and assembling her tape archive. A retrospective of Hennix’s visual work at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, curated by the museum’s curator Karen Archey and Blank Forms artistic director Lawrence Kumpf, is also currently on view through May 27, 2018. Here, Hennix discusses the exhibition and a recent performance (on February 16 and 17, 2018) that melded her mathematical interests with traditional practices of sustained pitches in just intonation.

FOR THE PERFORMANCE of Blue(s) in Green to the 31 Limit, I had Benjamin Duboc and Rozemarie Heggen on double bass; Hilary Jeffery on live sound; and my student Marcus Pal, in large part, did the computer parts. The latter was done actually back in September and October, when we began to work on a commission for the recent Lucio Fontana show “Ambienti/Environments,” at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan. I was commissioned by curator Pedro Rocha to conceive of long-form compositions, or sonic counterparts, to Fontana’s monochrome light environments. I titled them “Three Monochromatisms (Composition for the Computer).” The one we performed in Amsterdam drew on distinct computer-generated broken chords derived from Monochromatism (Green), which was played in the big green and blue room of the Fontana show. The title is also a reference to Bill Evans’s ballad Blue in Green, for which Miles Davis took credit.

Jazz has always been important to me. A key early experience for me was attending John Coltrane’s performances in Stockholm—first with Miles and later with his quintet and quartet. At that time I was learning from Idrees Sulieman, who played with Coltrane back in the 1950s and who introduced me to the many great jazz musicians who passed through Stockholm. In 1970 La Monte Young introduced me to Pandit Pran Nath of the Kirana Gharana tradition, who became my Nada Guru. Studying under him altered my understanding of music altogether. It may not be uninteresting to mention that both the blues and Northern Indian raga are influenced by Islamic musical traditions... So, there is actually a line from Coltrane to the exponents of Kirana (and Dhrupad) via their roots in African/Eastern devotional music. I have lately tried to make more explicit my appreciation of this connection.

Getting back to the work, Blue(s) in Green to the 31 Limit is the first instance in which I used a formation involving two amplified double basses. The musicians joining me were all experienced jazz players, who knew how to accompany my subtle drone. It’s still a work in progress.

Catherine Christer Hennix, Three Monochromatisms (Composition for Computer), 2017

I work in a system called “just intonation,” which means that I have integer ratios between all the recurring frequencies. In this piece there was a correspondence between the frequencies of light and the frequencies of sound that we were putting out in the Fontana light environment, which were dependent on the acoustics. Of course, light and sound are two different media—one is electromagnetic, and the other one is acoustic. To me, it’s as if I’m adding sound to the light and the body of the light changes. I always liked Fontana’s work. But I never knew him, personally. Pedro was aware of my work from a residency I did at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal, where I was also working with monochrome spaces and the just intonation of the standing, composite sound wave.

The performance was a success, but it was hard to pull off because I never show my work and I hardly ever perform, so I unfortunately don’t have much contact with my audience. My shows are always sold out, but, still, I only have about one gig per year. You just can’t do much with that type of schedule. And we’re also underfunded, so the preparations are not well done; the whole thing has to be done on a much more solid basis, and I cannot find that foundation. The material support for this work is, simply, totally absent. And it cannot be done without that support, so that’s why you never see it, that’s why you never hear it.

The exhibition opened the same day as the first performance, and so we also had a slightly stressful situation here in getting everything to work. But it’s great to see the paintings that I made for “Parler Femme,” a 1991 group show at the Museum Fodor, exhibited again. One of these works is a re-creation of Jacques Lacan’s formalization of sexual difference. For this show, I was actually planning to make a big part of it be about Lacan’s term “urinary segregation,” which seemed quite timely given the North Carolina bathroom bills that were defining access to public restrooms. But then these bills were repealed by the legislator and rephrased, while the Supreme Court declined to hear the original deposition, and it became a non-topic, so to speak, for the time being. Maybe this year or next year it’ll come back.

My intention was to draw attention to urinary segregation in order to demonstrate a work I had done a long time ago, while still retaining some timeliness. I also added works that illustrate some of the ramifications of segregation. Most of this two-room installation is dominated by an additional set of signifiers, some more iconic than others, which illustrate distinct stages of the phantasm and its singular logic. This logic ranges from the sense it extracts from the unreadable to the sense it extracts from the unthinkable and unimaginable. It strains our abilities to think that commonplace bathroom protocol is part of the origin of what is, in the end, unspeakable. To think that through to its logical end yields an important connection between aesthetics and ethics.