Jeremy Touissant-Baptiste interviewed by David García Casado
David García Casado: I understand that you are originally from New Orleans, a city I absolutely love. Is there a big art scene there?
Jeremy Toussaint Baptiste: Yeah! It’s getting bigger outside of New Orleans in the sense that in the past there was the art community and the music community inside of the city and now it’s getting I guess a bit more National attention. There are a few larger art spaces showing more contemporary work and getting away from New Orleans formalism which is really valuable but the younger generation of artists seem to be working with that stuff and complicating it instead of just replicating it.
DGC: What would be considered that formalism or traditional art of New Orleans?
JTB: It’s like Southern American art with heavy French and Spanish influence but via the Caribbean Diaspora. It feels like rooted in a special time and aesthetic that hasn’t really landed or lived outside of New Orleans or the South particularly. George Rodrigue would be a good example of Louisiana Art. His paintings of like “The Blue Dog” that I’ve seen everywhere since I grew up, and I love them but it’s a very specific thing.
DGC: Like an inner art code?
JTB: Yeah, it’s very specific and I feel that more of the art that is now made in New Orleans is more open to broader connections instead of just looking inward and celebrating that.
DGC: What are you currently working on?
JTB: I’m playing more music which is weird because I took a long time off from playing music as a thing and playing shows and I’ve been working as sound designer and composer. But last night a played a show at Union Pool and it was a blast, a really surprising, amazing thing. Next week I’m doing a show at Silent Barn as part of ENDE TIMES FEST and it’s going to be one of the last things to happen at Silent Barn before it closes which is going to be another big blow to the sound and performance scene in NY.
DGC: Probably being born in Louisiana and working with sound and music is not an accident right?
JTB: No, right… My mom raised me in a very musical household and I studied music in undergrad and played in bars and all that stuff. It’s just something I will always have with me. Then I got here and it became exciting to work with sound in the context of fine arts, installation and performance. Creation of sound as performance and not just playing a show, if that makes sense.
DGC: Yeah, and how do you work on that relationship, how do you connect the music with the visual aspect of the so called fine arts?
JTB: Specially when creating an installation work it’s very much framed trough some piece of literature or theory or something, so there’s a concept I am trying to work at or actualize in my own way. And a lot of my research is around how low bass frequencies affect structures and bodies and how bass has been used as a militaristic tool like in the Vietnam era or contemporary use when we find joy in club music, or like it’s common in theaters and homes etcetera.
So my thing is understanding the many ways in which bass can shift structure, because the structure is mostly an object until bodies engage with it. How does the shifting of that structure affects our perception of it and our relations. And I found that low bass specifically is really exciting and presents more possibilities than very high pitch frequencies. I think it’s easier to allow for something that may feel both pleasurable and antagonistic; while high pitch is solely antagonistic. That may be a matter of just preference for me but there is something about really low tones that you can barely hear but you can feel the room vibrating, you can hear the things of the room vibrating at some level.
I recently did a piece at Pratt where I installed a big subwoofer on a upper structure and I found interesting not only to create a structure that resonates with bass but to be under that structure so you’d get a sub- subterranean feel and concept when you’d walk beneath it. I tried to document it but somehow that did not work out.
DGC: Yes, that must be very experiential, hard to replicate how it feels with just images.
JTB: I will be putting it back again at Performance Space New York soon. (1)
DGC: So would you say you are influenced by the work of La Monte Young who has a similar approach to sound?
JTB: Yeah, big time. Also Terry Riley and Julius Eastman…, I don’t know, my influences are very wide but there is definitely something that happened in New York, in the North East Cost, in the 60’s through the 80’s that has been very influential to my approach in general. From La Monte Young, to Brian Eno to Arto Lindsay, Sonic Youth…
DGC: So when you play live music you are also into that kind of experimental.
JTB: Yeah, for example what I did last night, I didn’t even have an instrument. I stopped playing songs like a while ago because there’s nothing fun for me in playing the same thing over and over everytime. I want to be challenged when I make sounds. Like when I play live shows I work with this concept of no input mixing so I take a mixing board and take the output from the mixer and feed it back to the mixer so it creates this continuous loop of feedback that I can then sculpt in many ways. That’s what I did last night.
The other approach I like to take is just playing an actual bass but playing a very slow meditative bass. Not really focusing on virtuosity.
DGC: How do you connect with the audience when you are doing that, is there any kind of relationship?
JTB: I think it’s felt via the sound in the space. It’s really scary for me to think in the people out there so I kind of focus on what’s in front of me and everything else goes dark. But at the same time I am not creating these sounds solely for myself although no necessarily creating these sounds for immediate enjoyment so there’s a deeper relationship that happens even though I don’t really see who is really out there.
DGC: That also happened when you played actual songs in the past?
JTB: Yes I think when I played songs I felt that I had to show an affect when all I ever wanted to do is just do the thing and not having to, you know, crack a joke or announce the names of the songs…
DGC: I guess there you can find the distinction between a classical trained musician who just needs to play the notes in the book or score and a pop artist who also needs to act as an entertainer of sorts.
JTB: Sure. When I work with this theater maker, Jaamil Kosoko, there are anchors in the work that we do. He performs differently every night so the sound I am responding to him is different every night but there are these anchors that we land on and allow us to acknowledge that it’s time then to move to the next shift.
Jeremy Touissant-Baptiste, photo by Leila Jacue.
DGC: Looking through your website I saw some investigation on race there. How do you connect that investigation with the sound work you do?
JTB: Yeah, I think you are referring to “Evil Nigger: A Dedication/Invocation” That was a composition & performance that was an explicit attempt to work with Julius’s legacy (2) and being understood as a bad or crazy or gay or evil nigger, like any of those things and what that may mean. The difference of understanding the meaning of a gesture to different eyes, like who can see what this gesture between these two people can really mean. And I think that I historically work with black artists and I don’t think any of us are attempting to work with race ideas, it just comes out that way. And even when I have created work that has black as a material, as color as concept.. So even then I don’t think I’m trying to work with that it just comes up for like obvious connections.
In terms of sound though it’s interesting because so much of our understanding of music and western culture is influenced by black cultural practice, so no matter what I do sound wise it feels related to a history of radical black cultural practice even if it’s wild, noisy experimentalism it feels like a type of radical thing that it’s not neutral, sterile or minimalist so while even there may not be sonic signifiers of blackness, whatever those might be, like I don’t employ a lot of rhythm right now, no overtly. On a conceptual level of vibration is more like micro rhythm so that’s more what I am interested in, those little tics and tocs that occur through sound.
DGC: But do you avoid the rhythm intentionally?
JTB: No, I just want to go deeper into it. Every rhythm has a rhythm inside and every one of those has a rhythm inside of it so it’s like pinpointing even more and more and more. Not for the sake of specificity but just to understand the multiplicities within of what we consider to be a single thing.
DGC: Yeah, so there’s a kind of expectancy in rhythm where you long to connect with the next beat but then if that’s not coming there’s a kind of anxiety produced by the many micro-rhythms happening everywhere, your heart, the cracking of the floor, the sirens, the drops of rain, it’s a realm of uncertainty that looks, or I should say, sounds interesting to explore.
DGC: So you wanted us to listen to one of your pieces?
JTB: Yes I made this piece for Bard Graduate Center For curatorial studies as part of an ongoing journal.
It was the first time I got to integrate sound with design and there going for very smooth transitional layout so I created a 28-30 minute composition that develops and undevelops and sort of allows itself to be cycled through without a break. Working with this concept of it’s not going to sound the same through different kind of speaker set ups (cell phones, laptops, hi fi systems…)
What I’m going to show in a moment is very bass heavy so that wouldn’t come totally through on regular headphones or smart phone speakers but still possesses a certain sonic quality even through the headphones or speakers.
)) JEREMY PLAYS PIECE ((
Leila Jacue (the photographer): You can feel it in your whole body!
JTB: Cool! That’s kind of the goal. I was working with specific set up tones.
The really really low tone is associated with fear and anxiety and the other tones are associated with the retention of knowledge and information. So at a conceptual level I was thinking that we are living in a very information heavy society but also there’s obviously a fear of knowledge for a very large segment of the global population at this point. But then also, it is possible to take that fear and anxiety, that kind of longing for the “next beat” we were talking about in the rhythm and turn it into something pleasurable or enjoyable. I don’t feel anxious with it, I feel more like nurtured.
DGC: Have you worked with any dangerously low frequencies?
JTB: Yes, that’s kind of a scary thing to me, like I don’t want to hurt anyone and already the frequency of 18.98 hurts when I am working with it. It’s at the threshold where it can cause harm I think when it’s produced at a high enough volume and for a long enough time I think it’s when it becomes nauseating or cause dizziness.
DGC: Wasn’t William Burroughs investigating this notion of sound as weapon?
JTB: Yes, a lot of people. I am reading this book right now called: Sonic Warfare and goes back to the Italian futurists, the art of noise,… They were pretty militant and it wasn’t a cheeky thing to make these sound weapons, they wanted to bring them to an actual war scenario.
DGC: Yeah, like to make buildings collapse…
JTB: Or to just instill a sense of fear… That’s what that 18.98 frequency produces… Apparently during the Vietnam War the US government would place large bassy speakers on helicopters and fly though the jungle and use these low frequencies to instill a sense of dread that you couldn’t necessarily hear but like it’s a sensed thing so using that in a dark militaristic way would be an example of sound as a weapon.
Jeremy Touissant-Baptiste, photo by Leila Jacue.
DGC: How do you feel about the technologies that help you produce the sound?
JTB: I go back and forth with technology. Obviously I am using digital things but I also have a lot of analog material, a closet full of analog synthesizers that I still use.
I think digital technology helps me be more flexible in terms on travel and not depend on having a lot of instruments and equipment to carry around. But coming from a background of practice music and learning how to play instruments I just value my hands to create sound so it’s important for me to work with this and play with synthesizers and real physical things but for instance I could not travel to Europe with all that, at least not cheaply.
DGC: We can finish perhaps right where we started and I wanted to ask you how do you feel about the music scene of New Orleans being so jazz, blues & soul oriented and coming with this experimental music back home.
There is a big experimental community in NEW ORLEANS although it’s still very niche. But I find a lot of people experimenting in Louisiana in other ways , like food or what it takes to “live a life”. Louisiana is a very poor state so there’s a lot of experimentalism and improvisation which happens by virtue of living there and I think that that’s when I feel the connection to where I am from in terms of experimentalism and the growth that comes from that.
DGC: But you still dig the more traditional stuff?
JTB: Yeah, of course! Always. It feels like a meal that you have had as a kid that no one else can make and you have to go home to get it. There may be a ton of food that you love that can come from that one thing but there’s a big value for me in going back. Experimenting from a place instead of jumping around and about from no location.
I love that music is tied to so many other aspects of life there: celebration, death, eating, waking up in the morning… and that feels special. And of course in New York we have a similar connection to sound, it’s never really silent here. But I feel that it’s just a different thing. It’s very conscious there whereas here is just by circumstance around us which can be really beautiful but there’s something back there about it being conscious which is special.
DGC: More human perhaps?
1- Formerly known as Performance Space 122 or P.S. 122.
2- Julius Eastman has a musical piece called “Evil nigger”. (1979).