Art In Conversation
CAROL SZYMANSKI with David Carrier
“I can use my life as material to make art and also have this job, I could create a structure around my life and call it art.”
I first met Carol Szymanski and reviewed one of her shows in 1992. At the time she was constructing musical instruments that were a cross between sculpture and readymades. When then I reviewed her exhibitions in 2002 and, again, in 2012, her art had gone through some dramatic changes. Her day in banking had become more demanding; now based in London, she used that situation to create a fascinating, almost daily bulletin, she calls the cockshut dummy. I fondly remember frequently puzzling with pleasure over these works, which combine words and images in a synthesis that usually was not easy to fully understand. The title of her work, cockshut dummy comes from British newspaper Evening Standard dialect: In Roget’s Thesaurus the word “evening” is also “cockshut” and the word “standard” is “dummy” “the close of the day; evening; twilight.”
New Yorksigns and symbols
October 17 – November 17, 2019
Now (as she explains in our interview conducted in late September 2019), with that series completed, she has left the banking world to again become a full time artist. Conceptual artist-banker-conceptual and performance artist: What an extraordinary life story!
Within the art world, there has for several decades been great interest in politically critical work. It’s good to be self-critical, but I’ve often wondered if artists are in a good position to understand the economic system in which, after all, they play such an odd, and surely marginal role. But since Szymanski had a significant position within a key financial institution, she was in a position to have a real practical sense of economic issues. Still as she explains, the record of real financial life within her art is marginal. This, I suppose, is only to be expected. I anticipated doing this interview for a long time. When it was complete, I was most satisfied, for I gained a much fuller understanding of the work of an artist I have long admired. I thank my wife Marianne Novy for raising questions and contributing to the discussion.
David Carrier (Rail): I thought we would start by briefly laying out the whole story of your career. How many years now?
Carol Szymanski: About 30 years.
Rail: I recall you, not quite at the beginning, doing the musical instruments.
Szymanski: The horns are all derived from an alphabet font that I designed. I thought of language as a shaped breath and I was very influenced early on in the late ’80s reading a lot of linguistics and semiotics, seeing myself as a translator who translated or “transmuted” from one medium into another. So I had these letter shapes that I had designed of the phonetic alphabet. I was mainly interested in sound, and the way words sounded, more than how they looked. But I was also very involved in the shapes of letters and working with language, taking it into a visual realm. At first I combined the letter’s shapes (which originally spelled words) and made abstract sculpture with them. But then realizing that the horn is the most basic, the instrument that’s closest to the breath, and closest to the way we speak, so I chose that medium as my preferred vehicle.
Rail: Were those horns playable?
Szymanski: Yes. I was not looking for a particular sound, so my process turned the horn on its head. Instruments play specific notes. I wasn’t doing that, I was creating the shape of the letter and I wanted the shape of the letter to determine what the notes and the timbre would be. The mouthpiece and the bell were readymades, which I didn’t have anything to do with, but in between, the shape was a shape of a letter symbol. I enjoyed the performative element which is why I wanted them to play and be “real” instruments. So there were a few rules in the making of the horns I had to follow so they would be taken seriously. For instance, the tubing from the mouthpiece to the bell had to go continuously from narrow to wide, never the other way around.
Early on I combined the letters and they came from drawings that I made. I would start first with the drawings and then I would take these drawings to the horn fabricator, Chuck McAlexander from the Brass Lab, an incredible artisan, and he would build the parts. He repaired all the greatest trumpet players’ instruments over the years. He made these in the exact shape as my drawings. Initially, I was creating words with the horns and it was transmuting the meaning of the word into a musical sound from language. This was an important concept for me albeit nonsensical. But that was part of the play!
Rail: The word has a sound, you can hear it.
Szymanski: It was a way of working with language to make something else into a musical sound. The last body of work I completed before the second phase that we’re going to talk about, was an alphabet horn band called The Phonemophonic Alphabet Brass Band. I made single letter horns. I have 26 horns in the shape of the letters of the alphabet all following the font I designed. Each one has a unique sound or as some say “sweet spot”.
Rail: You can play a word?
Szymanski: Exactly. The final body of work I completed with the horns before going to London was The Phonemophonic Alphabet Brass Band singular horns with the 26 letters. I’d be able to translate any text through these horns, or transmute as I said, into another medium. That was my plan.
Rail: You have the whole alphabet.
Szymanski: That’s correct. I worked with Wadada Leo Smith, who is an amazing composer and trumpet player; with Dewey Redman early on at Pat Hearn Gallery, he did a performance on the first horn I made; and then worked with Ben Neill most recently; we did a performance at the Winter Garden as part of a curated program by John Schaefer WNYC New Sounds Series. At the Armory in April 2020 I am working with an amazing composer and trumpet player named Jaimie Branch, who will play the alphabet horn band. This is part of a Jason Moran-curated program at the Armory-Veterans Hall. So even though I completed my alphabet and stopped making these horns, this project goes on.
Rail: When did you move to London?
Szymanski: Right before 9/11.
Rail: The move then generates a different sort of art.
Szymanski: We always wanted to live in Europe at some point in our lives. And my husband and I, Barry—my husband is Barry Schwabsky—we have two daughters. So I needed to make money to support them and I was showing regularly but I wasn’t making enough sales to support a family. Before I had got my MFA and went through the Whitney Independent Study program, I had worked as an investment banker. When it was time for me to say “Okay I’m not making enough money on my art, I’ve gotta go back and get a job,” that was actually the only thing that I knew how to do [Laughter].
I worked at some very prominent investment banks early in my career. And that’s what allowed me to pick it back up some 10 years later. I’d worked about five years in banking, was really well trained, but then I stopped. Having studied and been passionate about Marxist Economics and Socialist Feminism in college I guess I experienced what Sartre called “Bad Faith” in Being and Nothingness. I touch on this in my upcoming exhibition at signs and symbols. I left the bank and got an MFA in video/ performance art at the Art Institute in San Francisco. There was a period of probably eight years when I was out of the banking world and was solely making art and then in my mid 30s, after having Davida, our first child, I needed to go back and make money. Eventually the bank asked me to run a group in London.
Rail: I remember vividly these works would come through. How many days would they come? Five?
Szymanski: That was the plan, although it didn’t always work out that way. At the end of the work day, which was usually anywhere from eight to eight up to like 10 o’clock at night.
Rail: On a busy day I thought “too bad, I’m missing today but there’s gonna be one tomorrow.” But on the other days when I was sitting in my office, I’d get a text and an image. People in art history believe an image and associated text have to somehow be connected. But with yours the connection was always elliptical, incomplete, and somewhat indeterminate. How long was the series?
Szymanski: All in all 10 years. I finished the bank, in the seventh year, and I actually cheated a little bit because the structure of the cockshut dummy was based on my working at the bank and using the tools, at that time, the Blackberry and the computer. Soon the cell phone took over from the Blackberry. I could take a picture, an image with the Blackberry and I would write with my computer. I always wrote the text first. And the image came after in an improvisational way. And the text, each entry everyday was one category of the Roget’s Thesaurus so the whole project, the framework of it, or the foremost structure, or the framing of it is the thesaurus. There are 990 entries.
It becomes very much a historical document. For instance, you see 2008, when the market crashed. You see all the things that are going on in the economic history but also just what’s going on politically mostly in Europe and the Middle East. You see the Arab Spring.
In the very first 200 entries I’m appropriating phrases and writing little poetic, short phrases of my own but they eventually evolved into very long passages where I would write stories of my life during the time I was in London. I never considered myself a writer but that was a process of learning how to write and eventually it grew into something that I very much enjoyed and became part of my practice.
Marianne Novy: You have these thesaurus entries and along with each of those entries was your own work?
Szymanski: That’s right.
Novy: Would it be skewed by something that happened in the world?
Szymanski: Yes. I’ll give an example of something I’m using for my new show, entry number 745. I just printed this out from the cockshut dummy emails the other day. The classification was CLASS FIVE: Volition (div. 2), SECTION ONE: General social volition. And it was category 745, Subjection. So what I would do is think about the idea of subjection, that was my topic for that day. On that day, during that week by chance, I was reading Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser . And there was this passage I read that day that had to do with subjection. So I juxtaposed my own words with this appropriated text. It was quite remarkable how often these coincidental occurrences would happen in preparing the entry. I viewed them as gifts—chance operations.
Rail: It wasn’t as if there was a narrative, an ongoing narrative, but the themes went backwards and forwards. So you needed to look maybe this Monday and Wednesday after, you found, the themes emerge slowly out of the narrative but it wasn’t a story being told.
Szymanski: No, but if you knew what was going on around me, you would be able to say, “oh that’s what was happening to her at that time.” I also traveled to Asia, and Japan, China, all over Europe. So the images, the pictures that I took with my phone are very much tied to where I was because I would use the image that I took from my phone from that day. I might’ve taken 15 images and then I would have a choice. And often they were just reflections about things of that day and other times they were commentary about the bank or about the world or what I was thinking about.
Rail: This is all to be published next year?
Szymanski: By Space Sisters Press. It was like mail art, but for a different era, with email.
Rail: This project is very much tied to the time. People don’t have Blackberries anymore.
Szymanski: You see all the different versions of the image, the quality changed as I upgraded my phone and as I went from the Blackberry to iPhone. And that happened over the 10 year period as well. I’ve always been interested in electronic media, which came from studying video art. And now we have Instagram and all these different social media outlets, where people reflect their lives. That didn’t exist when I started this.
Rail: If I had to interpret this whole project I would say in a way it’s a sort of structural interpretation of the very banking system itself. There’s a lot of chaos day by day and a lot of noise in the system. Why this photo? Why this text? We don’t know. Why Bernhard Tuesday and not the next day? On the other hand, if you look at the larger structure, you say the larger structure looks like it’s very involved in the technology of the day and it has an ordering principle, it’s not going to go on forever.
Szymanski: Occasionally I would skip a photo. Barry helped me immensely because I would write the thing when I was pretty exhausted at the end of the day, although when I wrote it and created and picked the image I’d feel really like a load had gone off.
It gave me a great sense of satisfaction and relief from the day of work. Then I would send it to him and he sent it out for me. And I always said if there’s something that’s terrible just say don’t send this one out. But the fact that I had someone to physically send it out, there a big relief there. He only said “don’t send that” maybe not more than five or six times out of all the entries.
Rail:In the art world there are endless discussions of the politics of the gallery, the commodification of the artwork, mostly leftwing views. But we the people doing this had as little knowledge of that system as you could possibly have. You were immersed in that system and yet the kind of record that you provide of it is elliptical, distanced, somewhat indeterminate.
Szymanski: It’s an indeterminate system and there’s quite a bit of what I’d call nonsense out there. And nonsense in the sense that people say things in the banking world and they don’t really mean what they say but they’re saying it just to achieve something for some other goal and they’re not transparent about what’s really going on. And so that’s the underlying thread of where the nonsense comes from. In fact, a lot of it is a reflection of the culture of the banking environment, the way people behave in that kind of environment. And given what you said in terms of the art world I think we all know that there’s been a degree of corporate-professionalism in the art world and the art market and the gallery system and so, yes, I think it’s probably beginning to mimic more of that corporate behavior because it’s really corporate behavior, it’s not just banking. When I first started out as an artist, I’d left banking and I thought that art was going to be the ultimate way of rejection of the system and that it allowed complete freedom, there was no structure. Now I think more and more artists think they have to put out a certain amount of product, they’ve taken on a business mentality they didn’t have thirty years ago.
Rail: I think of you as a woman with a system.
Szymanski: I studied philosophy and economics as an undergraduate. As you know very well, in philosophy you create a logical framework for something. I always felt my work is conceptual in a sense because I’m not an artist that has a particular medium that defines me. I always work with language, my work is always based on language and that’s what I’m concerned with. And alongside the language, I’ve always had this fascination with categorization, which is why I chose the thesaurus. I used to read the the thesaurus on the beach. That’s how wrapped up I was with it. Ideally I would like to make up my own thesaurus, my own categories for how to structure the world. I guess the cockshut dummy is the second best option to this.
I always felt that what was great, what allowed me to do the cockshut dummy, was that I can use my life as material to make art and also have this job, I could create a structure around my life and call it art. And that’s what I did by using the thesaurus as the structure and it allowed me to move in and out of the job with the art and back and forth and allowed me to continue my practice while I was working.
Rail: A kind of secret practice. But it’s not as if you were writing symbolist poetry on a pad and hiding it or painting landscapes. You were doing something that was using the same technology that you were using in the work.
Rail: We should talk about what comes after that. Can you tell us a little more about the show at signs and symbols?
Szymanski: In the course of making the cockshut dummy, I saw it also had raw material for future work. And so, during the time that I was in London, I created a secondary or adjacent body of work called cockshut offshoots. I reconfigured the texts and had four of them I made with Book Works in London, I just finished the fourth one because it takes a very long time to make a book even though I completed them many years ago. So this new work that I’m showing at signs and symbols, is one of the four books, Acquiescence (2013). It’s taking everything that I had prepared in the cockshut dummy that had any connection to the term acquiescence or the meaning of/behind acquiescence.
That was a work that was very close to me because as a woman I feel frankly that I’ve been acquiescing for many, many, many years in my life. And it was always something that has bothered me a lot and I was trying to get to understand why it was the case. The phrases and feelings and notions around acquiescence have a lot to do with hidden secrets and having fear and feeling bad for somebody or being trapped in a situation and acquiescing would allow me to not have that feeling. And so when I wrote this—as I said, I didn’t finish the cockshut dummy until 2015 so there were five more years of writing after I prepared this book—so what I did in the 9 months, I went back through the whole of the cockshut dummy and pulled out seven monologues, seven stories around the idea of acquiescence.
There’ll be a performance alongside the exhibition called “He Said I Thought” with 10 performers who will be performing the script that I’ve prepared that’s all from the cockshut dummy. There is an eight-channel video work that is a reflection on Jean-Paul Sartre’s very famous example of “bad faith.” That’s an example that’s perfectly tied to what acquiescence is all about, and it has to do with a man who is attracted to this woman and he takes her hand. She has three choices: to move your hand away, that is, to refuse; to reciprocate with her hand when the man takes it; or just hold it still and do nothing neither refusing nor accepting. Her hand becomes like an inanimate object. So the videos show seven women wearing seven of my business suits from my actual time at the bank as a man takes their hands, where they (as I instructed) hold their hands very still, not move them. There is a rolling text which is the voice of the man speaking. There are also sculptures I made from the patterns of the suits in a printed text fabric, a text also from cockshut dummy, so also another form of cockshut offshoot.
There’ll be a sound installation (incorporating the script) and wall paper with the index of the cockshut dummy and then over it are these suits that I wore to work, which were by famous designers–Valentino, Galliano, McQueen, Marni, and so on. I had a tailor, and I made patterns from these suits but child size—about three-quarters size of a young teenager. And I had texts from the cockshut dummy printed on the fabric.
Novy: Those lists of the index, those designs are on the suit?
Szymanski: No. The text on the suits are taken from the cockshut dummy that dealt with the lack of transparency in the corporate banking environment. There are two different transparent fabrics with the words, and there’s transparent silk and transparent cotton, and it’s really a reflection on the idea that there really is no transparency. I guess it gets back to there’s a structure, and things are constantly going outside the structure. And that reality in truth is really floating around or very hard to pin down. Because it moves in and out of the structure. There’ll be seven women wearing my suits—wearing the actual suits in the performance. And standing on a speaker’s stand that I had made, like Hyde Park Corner. They’ll be speaking, and then there’ll be a boss speaking in the background, disembodied—he’ll be there but you won’t see who he is, you’ll just hear his voice.
This exhibition is a specific body of work that focuses on a particular subject matter pertinent today, that is, ambivalence in gender relations after post-feminism and before #MeToo that happens to be quite different from my practice since my return from London.
When I came back from London, having left the bank, I wanted to go back to the alphabet shapes, to the font that I had created initially, not to make horns but to work with it in other ways. I wanted to work with words and their meaning visually and knew I had to keep the language simple. So I said, “okay, I’m only going to start with two letter words,” it was a structure I wanted to put around myself which doesn’t get much simpler then that. So I just Googled two letter words. And the do-re-mi, the musical notes, the solfège, the solfeggio came up, it was the first thing that came up. And I said “wow, two letter words that connects to music, musical notations!” And so I decided to go back to the way I used to draw with my letters. I drew do, di, re, mi, fa, well all the 12 notes using my alphabet and I made inflatable balloon sculptures out of these, to reverse the original idea behind the horns and their connection to shaped breath. I mean instead of the air blowing through the horn as in our vocal canal, the shape was containing the air. The shape of the letters were containing the air. Ultimately this all resulted in my creating a system of transmutation called “12 tone interjection series.” I was returning to the notion of transmutation and I discovered that the solfège had already been transmuted by many historical figures in many different ways. I found that John Curwen created a hand gesture system for the solfège and that’s when people read music with their hands, so there was a hand structure already given and he gave meaning to the hands but only for the major scale.
Novy: Who is John Curwen?
Szymanski: He was a minister in London in the nineteenth century who wanted to be able to teach congregations to sing. And then there were other strange connections: Isaac Newton in 1704 identified the colors with the solfège so I appropriated Newton’s colors, so that’s why you get these 12 colors here in this chart. Then Arnold Schönberg used numbers to associate with the solfège, and so then after processing all this I said “okay well that’s great but I’m just appropriating everyone else’s structure so I’m going to make up my own notational system for the solfege.” I chose to assign 12 interjections with the musical notes. For Do I assigned “Aye”, Re “yeah”, Me , “AAh” and so on. And I also took a poem from the cockshut dummy, it was one of my appropriated texts, a poem from Pierre Reverdy called “Coin Obscura,” I broke the poem down into 12 parts and each section of the poem associates with one note in the solfège. There are other notational assignments I made around the notes that became abstract photography. And now I have an Instagram project a series of minute-long videos which also stems out of this interjection series. But basically I always come back around to creating new systems of associations to apply to language in order to change the way we see language.
Rail: There’s an order to it. There’s an order in what looks like chaos but it’s not an overwhelming order of the whole, it’s an order of element by element.
Szymanski: The world is really quite structured and ordered; the banking world, the corporate world has structures and yet within it is all this stuff that doesn’t make any sense and that is nonsense. It also has to do with language and association like what makes this sound “do” the first musical note, why associate with d-o to that musical note? Why did Isaac Newton associate red to that note? Just like Newton’s associations of color to notes, my associations of interjections and so on might seem arbitrary, but subjectively, they seemed to fit. So it’s systematic but also nonsensical.
Rail: There’s a kind of ultimate order to the world, but order isn’t exactly what you would see, what you would recognize, it’s an order that’s — it’s not hidden exactly, it’s all on the surface, it’s the order of a musical piece.
Szymanski: It’ll be a musical piece, but instead of the music, it will be visual.
Rail: Visual, and there is the synesthesia. [Laughter] That’s a lot to absorb. Now I do see the unity of it much more clearly. It’s a body of work.
Szymanski: There’s definitely a definite thread and it really stems from language, transmutation, the alphabet, the musical instruments, my interest in music and language, and then the writing of the cockshut dummy, and connecting all those things together. The Alphabet and the cockshut dummy are two big bodies of work that connect the thread.
Rail: It’s a unity that is not easy to perceive . The unity of your body of work is conceptual—it evolves from these concepts that are playing through the whole. You can’t make sense of what’s going on, what’s going to go on in the show next month, without going all the way back to the musical instruments and the Alphabet and the thinking about the sounds and all of that. In that sense, it’s this total system that’s a kind of structure.
Novy: But it all has to do with language and it all has to do with your experience in the banking world.
Szymanski: Right, but initially, the Alphabet had nothing to do with that. I was trained in art school in performance art, and how performance art involves making my life a performance. I was going back to those origins with the cockshut dummy using those tools, from the bank, and using the bank, I felt myself as a performer and it was a performative—even though it wasn’t a performance art event, it’s using something that was live, that was part of the real world, it was not a fiction.
Novy: Would it be accurate to say that you were parodying what you did at the bank?
Szymanski: Yes. In a poetic way, revealing something by making—in kind of a mysterious fashion. You know that wasn’t overt, but covert. I used the structure of the working day—Monday through Friday, nine to five or usually longer. But then you have to think of the Thesaurus as one big, important structure. What’s puzzling to me is how did Roget create the categories that he used, how did he choose what goes with what, and what were the key ones. For instance, “religion and morality” is the last class, but why is that the last and not the first? The structure by which he related all these concepts could really be as subjective as saying a certain note goes with the color red. And yet the structure of the thesaurus has really never been questioned.
Rail: You’re the Claude Lévi-Strauss of banking. [Laughs]
Szymanski: I want to be more reflective about what that was and now enough time has gone by that I can be reflective. You know, it’s also—there’s also something that allows for an improvisational base level to it.
Rail: Schönberg didn’t claim that his structure determined the whole piece, but it just determined, whatever piece you wrote, what structure it would have. And that’s the principle here.
Szymanski: Many composers after Schönberg, they used his structure, but then they went outside of it. We are taught to think the way we think, and the way our minds are constructed, through language, really, and through accepted categories, and that’s how we understand what we’re looking at. And what I’m trying to get at with the nonsense is that we’re taught things, and we accept them, we acquiesce, even though we know that, in fact, things could be seen another way, so that there’s this dialectic, maybe, between structure and nonsense, going back and forth all the time.
Rail: If you wanted to look at very different parallels, there are some visual artists whose work looks very different, like Jasper Johns, who was very involved in structures.
Szymanski: I build off of a structure and add on to it, that leads to the next exhibition. And many times they’re experiments, because I wasn’t completely satisfied with what I did before, or I felt it could be clarified more or elaborated more—“Let me show this now same thing in a quite different way, in a completely different medium, in a completely different construct rather than working very slowly with one subject matter.” The show at signs and symbols is really around the certain subject matter, it’s really the first exhibition I’ve ever done that’s been so clearly about a subject, and after this I will go back to my more theoretical examination.