Alex Olive, or Olive, is a visual and sound artist based in Oakland, California. I am particularly interested in her experimental sound practice and how she uses and manipulates field recordings. I think that there is something really special in getting to listen to artists talk about their work and their processes, especially artists I admire.
Olive and I spoke about her practice and process, her upcoming album, and what excites her about making music. I’m really interested in starting to make experimental sound art a part of my practice, including the use of field recordings, and I’m really excited about the possibilities that could come out of using sound as material. I’ve been thinking a lot about temporal intimate spaces, both physical and emotional, and I wanted to talk to Olive about how her practice and process explores those concepts.
Alex Olive: So what were we talking about?
Luz Blumenfeld: I started recording because our conversation felt related to something I learned in class this week when I did my presentation on my practice, which is: the way I was previously thinking about documentation in social practice art was really limited. I thought you could take a picture or a video, or show an object that was a part of the work, and that was pretty much it. But everyone in my program was like, No, there’s actually a lot of different ways to document a project. So then I was thinking about how I’ve used voice memos on my phone as a tool for recording for a long time and how I usually don’t have an intention behind that beyond the feeling of, Ooh I need to record this right now. But I have this collection of moments in time, and I was thinking about what you were saying about the beginning of recorded music aiming to just capture that moment.
Olive: The history of pop music or popular music as a specific form is really interesting to me. The way that it’s developed has been sort of like, inseparable from economic relations and from social relations, like interpersonal relations. The beginning of pop music, I mean, in a certain way is like Tin Pan Alley type shit where it’s like, people were just banging out sheet music for songs every single day. Just like creating endless amounts of songs for people to take home and perform for one another.
Luz: That’s really cute.
Olive: Yeah, and like, for the longest time, reproduced and manufactured music was like, you know, sheet music that people would play in their parlor to entertain their guests or their family, and so people were cranking out tunes every single day for people to go home and play. But then after a certain point that stopped being the relation of like, one of us is going to perform something for a group of people, to someone in another part of the world has performed something outside in a field or in a room specifically designed for this. And then we can listen to the fact that somebody has played music.
Luz: That’s honestly really cool as a concept. Just the fact that we can listen to someone play music in a field far away.
Olive: Yeah. It’s far away in space and also in time, moreso all the time.
After a certain point, technology and technique sort of made it even further divorced from the original moment of performance or the original moment that is being documented, where you have overdub technology where you record one part and then play another part over it. And so what ends up being recorded is not one performance of a song, but like a curated selection of various people performing it at completely different times. And then you get mixing, which makes it even more complex, and then sampling and using Mellotrons and other instruments.
Luz: What’s a Mellotron?
Olive: Oh, it’s like a keyboard instrument. It looks like a piano, but it’s loaded with tape loops inside of it of different instruments playing a single note so that you can switch it to something like a violin or a flute. And then when you hit the keys, it plays basically a tape of a flute playing those corresponding notes.
Luz: That’s like my childhood memory of what a keyboard would do. Not a piano, but like a keyboard.
Olive: Yeah, totally. That is extremely similar to how the MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface] works now, where you can just put in… I mean, maybe it’s a bit more similar to a player piano where you can just put the notes that are supposed to be played and then you just plug it into whatever instrument or thing is supposed to interpret that.
Luz: Player pianos are fascinating to me because they’re really similar to early looms.
Olive: Yeah, because they’re similarly, like, computerized sort of.
Luz: Yeah, well they relied on this punch card system with holes in different places and the same is true with the player piano. I used to have a sheet of player piano music that I got for free at somewhere like the Depot(1) at some point and I just hung it on my wall because I thought the pattern was pretty. It was just a really thin sheet of paper that had a pattern of holes in different places.
Olive: That’s really, really fucking cool. But yeah, I think the way that I use the MIDI is very similar to a Mellotron. I typically sample either like found sound shit or a lot of times, well, not even just me, but a lot of people use sound fonts. They’re most commonly associated with, like, video game soundtracks. With sound fonts, you can download all of the instruments that were used to make a specific game soundtrack, and then you can use them as your own, basically. And I’ve only really recently started using sound fonts but they definitely help with what I’m trying to do in terms of like, melodic sensibility and maybe even just like, emotional presence. Video game music has been hugely influential in how I approach music, in part because it’s supposed to create an environment. You’re supposed to go into a level, area, or environment and then the specific loop of music is supposed to be playing indefinitely.
Luz: And it has to feel different from whatever space you were in before, but also still on the same theme so that you’re still in the same world.
Olive: Yeah, it’s like score music, but also looped, which I think is interesting because if it’s looped indefinitely and specifically connected to a place, that implies that the passage of time in the piece of music doesn’t matter because it just goes on forever, which means that it ceases being a composition unfolding across time and becomes in itself a sort of place-state or like, an aspect of place that also isn’t real at all.
I grew up playing video games a lot and my immersion in them was to the extent that I remember having to write a “What I Did for Summer Vacation” paper in the third grade and just writing about playing Pokemon but as though it was real, essentially because all I had done that summer was beat Pokemon Gold.
And, I don’t know, for some reason synthetic and artificial spaces were way more close and emotionally accessible, and real to me as a kid [more] than anything that was happening in my physical life. And I think that I’ve only really been able to appreciate the real world through my relationship to synthetic worlds. And I think that’s kind of part of why I use a lot of like, sound font type shit.
Luz: That’s really cool, that makes sense.
Olive: Yeah, and a lot of my music, even though it changes composition and the arrangement sounds really different at one point in the song than it would in another point in the song, I attempt to use the same chord progressions with the same few pieces to sort of like, imply a similar place-likeness where it’s just one thing looping for a really long time. But what you’re getting is these different layers and different interpretations of what that is or could have been.
That being said, there is a certain school of thought against world-building in art that I do more and more sort of agree with.
Luz: What is that?
Olive: Basically I think the sentiment is that when our attempts to be a world-building thing beyond the scope of its medium, like, I don’t know. You see this all the time where people put out albums and they’re like, “It’s not just an album, it’s a whole world,” you know? Or like, you have an ARG [Alternate Reality Game] experience to promote the thing or there’s the implication that engaging with this piece of art is somehow going to, like, transcend the boundaries of real life.
Luz: Yeah, it reminds me of— and I didn’t actually watch this, I just saw it get memed a bunch– but like Mark Zuckerberg announcing the metaverse thing, like it feels like that.
Olive: Yeah, it feels very similar. And there’s also, like, the theme park-ification of museums and shit.
Luz: Oh yeah, that’s a whole other thing I could talk about for so long.
Olive: Yeah and I think that also what frustrates me about world-building or like, obviously world-building is part of the narrative arts if you’re doing fiction or even non-fiction, but like, in terms of making a piece of art and saying, “This is a total experience, a total work of art,” I think is dishonest and undesirable, because nothing is total, art is necessarily inseparable from the context in which it was made. And to say that it’s its own thing that transcends the boundary of experience is, I think, really silly and also just disengages from what is important about the arts.
Luz: Yeah, it feels like a marketing technique and like a promise to be better than something else, and that feels weird to me in an art context because it feels really far away from the thing that made you excited to make that work. I think it’s cool when that’s still somewhat visible.
It doesn’t have to be the entire thing, but you can still have traces of why you made this and what was interesting about it. To attempt to make something entirely divorced from the context of its creation feels silly to me.
Olive: Yeah cause also it’s like, if you feel the music or painting or whatever has the capacity to communicate something in excess of what it is—which is true, that is how art works, that is how perception works, then isn’t that the value of the medium and the value of the work you’re making? And isn’t it sort of insisting that that be like, totalized into a whole other like, separate world sort of insisting that art is primarily a form of escapism? Which is a notion that I try to rail against really hard, even though I’m making pop music.
When I do stuff that is really similar to video game soundtracks and more specifically, JRPG [Japanese Role-Playing Games] soundtracks in my work, I try to do it through a lens of it being distorted or feeling half remembered or buried under processing of some kind, so that it feels untrue and inaccessible, but also like, a nice memory, a nice thought.
Luz: I’m interested in the untrue and inaccessible part.
Olive: Yeah, I don’t want my art to be interpreted as just like, Wow, this reminds me of when I was a kid playing video games, it’s so awesome to be a child! I want it to be like, your emotions are still real, your memories are still as happy as you can imagine, but also your memories of childhood have been scrubbed of all context, they’re completely divorced from the reality of that— especially idealized ones about how awesome it was.
Luz: Yeah, or like the stuff that makes you weirdly nostalgic, and you’re like, I hated being that age, but when I hear this particular soundtrack for this thing, I feel like I’m just blissed out about it. Weird.
Olive: Yeah, and I think there’s a sort of cultural precedent to be like, Oh, well this made me feel safe as a kid, which is, I think, very valuable to be like, This is something that meant alot to me during a difficult time. But even still, at some point, there’s life outside of your best memory, there’s endless potential for the world to be happy.
This goes along with the theme of anti-escapism pop art shit, but my favorite, I think, work of art ever is fucking ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, and one of the big takeaways from that as stated in the movie ‘The End of Evangelion’ is–I think the line is like, “Anywhere can be heaven as long as you choose to live.” And I think that is very true. Basically I think the broader implication of that is that the world we live in and are materially a part of— that we have to make choices to be a part of— is the only place that we can access happiness and intimacy and all of the things that make life beautiful, but it is also necessarily a place where all of the pain you will ever feel exists as well. And so, if you really truly believe in accessing the beauty that you felt as a kid, or the things that made you feel safe, then you have to accept that you are a part of a world that is also not very simple and you have to do right by the positive emotions and continue living in the world.
Luz: Yeah, I think the part that I appreciate about what you were saying, what you’re trying to do with your music– I feel like I’m getting better at describing this because for a long time I wasn’t super into music, like, you know, I had songs and artists that I liked for some reason, but I didn’t—having no understanding of how music is produced or anything, I think, changes the way you hear things a lot.
Olive: Oh, absolutely.
Luz: And having any sort of artistic, medium-specific connection to it really changes the way you experience it. But yeah, I think something I really like is when I can pick out different sounds within a track. There will be something that reminds me of something else, but it’s not the whole thing. I guess that’s what intrigues me about using field recordings and stuff is that you can kind of pop it in for a little bit, but then it goes away and other things keep happening, and I like the way that makes you experience time.
Olive: Yeah, totally, because that means that the recording of the initial thing is edited and is inserted in a way where it makes you aware that it’s edited and it makes you aware that it’s like a memory, as opposed to a total experience.
Luz: Maybe it’s because I’ve recorded so many voice memos over the years, but whenever I can pick out a field recording in something that I’m listening to, it does feel like a memory, but not my memory. I think that it’s the person who recorded or, I mean, I guess people use other recordings that they didn’t make themselves, but in my head I kind of imagine that it’s the artist who has this, you know—I’m thinking of that Grouper track with the owls field recording.
Olive: Oh yeah, I’m certain that was probably done by her.
Luz: Yeah, so then I think it’s cool to get to feel the complexity of someone else’s memory of that experience and then the memory of recording that and then all those layers and just hearing the one sound is really exciting to me.
Olive: Yeah, totally. It reminds me a bit of Caveh Zahedi’s whole theory of film being like capturing God essentially; where you’re capturing the sort of unfolding of an embodied moment in a certain way, and that, in so doing, you’re capturing the essence of the divine because the divine permeates all things and unfolds across time, so if you are recording time, you are sort of making a recording of like, the face of God essentially. And that’s a very broad paraphrasing of Caveh Zahedi, but that’s kind of generally what I seem to be getting from his work. But yeah, I think using field recordings and found sound is increasingly something that I want to do. Something else that I am thinking a lot more about is improvisation in music and irreplicability and wanting to make things that, even if they are recorded, they may not be replicable in the sense that they are completely improvised. And I think noise music and other types of experimental music are pretty ready to be used to that end, and that’s definitely something that I want to push harder in future projects.
Luz: Yeah, that interests me a lot too, and I think a lot about––especially in regards to social practice art–– what it means for something to only exist in this one time and place. I mean, if you record it, you have that documentation of it, but it’s removed and it’s different and it’s not the same as having that experience of being in that space at that particular time. And I like that, I like the idea of doing that and not recording it and it only living on as documented in people’s memories.
Olive: Yeah, I mean, I think in some ways that may even be preferable to something like a video recording just in the sense of something like a video recording does give you the illusion that you’re experiencing it as closely as you could be, but aspects of actual presence and embodiment and the affect and the sequence of the unfolding of the thing and how that makes you feel as an immediate observer in the place, in that specific time, are intangible and unreportable.
Luz: Yeah, and unrepeatable.
Olive: Yeah, exactly.
Luz: Two things I’ve been thinking about in connection to that is: one is that rave we went to last week and all the intention behind it. I would honestly love to talk to the people who organized that about what they had in mind for what they wanted it to feel like for everyone there, and maybe talk to other people who were there about what it felt like for them.
And the other thing is, I was talking to Alex [a mutual friend] yesterday about a memory of a very specific part of Telegraph Avenue [in Berkeley, CA] and I remembered I had a picture of myself in that exact spot when I was like, 15, so I tried to find it. I went through my external hard drive and instead of finding that, I found an entire folder of photos and videos from a Nikon Coolpix camera of Live105’s BFD(2). The videos— it’s like me shaking in the crowd and you can hear me singing along and it’s very weird to hear your teenage voice, but I was thinking about what my intention was when I was recording that as a teenager. I think I wanted to remember it, but I probably never looked at the footage until I found it just now.
Olive: That’s crazy.
Luz: Yeah, but I feel like there’s something interesting there about recording performances and I guess feeling this compulsion to record and you don’t really think about why. I’m thinking about that in connection with intentionally not recording something and having it exist as a one-time event, but also it lives on in people’s memories and the conversations they have and the way it informs their practices and whatever they end up doing too, which is also really cool.
Olive: Yeah, totally. I also have been told about things— pieces of art and stuff that are so amazing when people are telling me about it, and then when I experienced it for myself, I mean, it’s probably still pretty good but it doesn’t have the charm of my friend’s interpretation of it.
Luz: Yeah, I also feel like there’s so many works that I’ve heard people talk about that I’m like, “Oh shit, I love what you got from that,” and I don’t end up ever looking at the actual thing they referenced because maybe it doesn’t exist anymore or whatever.
Luz: There are certain parts of your album you have shared with me that incorporate field recordings. You’ve told me where some of those field recordings originated and I wonder about the intention to use those specific sounds even though someone may not be able to pick them out and be like, Oh that’s what that is. Why use those sounds? And what does it mean to not be able to recognize them?
Olive: I think there are a few moments on the album where I use field recordings that are very legible and people can pick up what they are, but I think for the most part that’s not the case and I think that my thought there is that it’s all memory. The way that I feel about consciousness or the soul is that it is essentially an experience of memory, but not as a linear, sequential thing of like, This is everything I’ve experienced in my life, but as specific moments, one at a time, that themselves contain an entire network of everything you’ve ever experienced. So my thought is that by using processed, prerecorded, materials, it’s a similarly endless jumble of half-remembered, distorted, or idealized memory sort of fighting for a place in one’s experience of any given moment.
And there are points at which that becomes more part of a theoretical arc of the album—it does start out as a more idealized and cogent conception of identity that should be defended by self-actualization, and then, after a certain point, flips to being about that distortion of memory and the distortion of even the notion of a static identity of sense of self. And that, that is actually in and of itself possibly more empowering than saying, “I am this one way forever and you all have to fuck off,” because I think that intimacy and connection with people, connection with the world around you, is inherently sort of mutative. It’s only through connection and presence that you can really access what it is to be alive, which in turn requires relinquishing control of the possibilities of who you are and what your life can be. This is the connection we have to offer each other and that can be beautiful. Without one another we don’t have the context that makes our sense of self meaningful—to accept distortion and accept mutation is to accept one’s place in the world.
Luz: I love that. Do you want to tell me more about your album?
Olive: My album is called Here Are My Tears of Joy, and it is basically half an experimental pop record and half a more broadly experimental record. I feel a little bit as though this is the last thing that I wanted to make, in the way I’ve approached it for the specific reasons where it has a sort of emotional arc to it and it has things that it’s trying to do formally and communicate lyrically that I think were born out of an experience of art and music that was about listening to things in headphones alone and trying to really divine meaning and communication from other people’s work and wanting to do that the same way that I no longer really have a lot of faith or stock in. But I think that, it’s in the form of a pop album and so that’s like, the idiom that I’m working in: communicative songwriting and attempts at communicated abstraction.
The album is a lot about the stuff I was talking about a second ago in regards to self and identity, but I really think I should preface any discussion of my art being about the self or about identity by saying that, even though I’m transgender, my work is not about being transgender. (laughs)
Luz: (laughs) Isn’t everything about being transgender?
Olive: Yeah, everything is about being transgender. Everything that is about being transgender should only be about how fucking awesome identity is and how important and supreme it is over all other types of experience or discourse (laughs).
But, no, I do think that being trans and being neurodivergent and being raised in a really insular religious community certainly has given me a specific analysis of the relation between culture, power, and an individuals’ identity. My work isn’t about being trans, but it is about the formation of one’s sense of self and the idea of the true self that one holds as a future possibility that they’re always working towards; this higher being that they will become, you know, if they work really hard and are really good. This sort of seems to me like a suicidal pathology that you see in a lot of ways. I know from being raised in that community, that everyone in it holds the future as the thing, and that when Armageddon rolls around, they’re going to be granted new, true, perfect bodies, and live forever living the life that they’re supposed to have been living this entire time. And I see how that fucks up people’s lives in that context, and now –outside of it, as an adult– I see that in the culture surrounding various political projects, and I see that in myself in a lot of ways. What that essentially amounts to is a hatred for oneself and a hatred for the world, and the idea that the goal of living is to sort of perform an absolute negation of oneself and an absolute negation of the world and basically attempt to escape. Before all else, one has to want to escape, and that seems really fucked up to me.
But at the same time, I think there is a less static experience of identity out there; the particular experience that you are special, that everybody is special but only for reasons that are largely out of their control. And that lack of control, is, like I said earlier, the collective process of creating the world, of being a part of the world that is being created from all directions, from the entirety of history up until now. There’s a lot of horrible, awful, evil shit that can and must be overturned, but everything that is good and everything that is you is given to you. That strikes people as being horrifying, especially in a world where individuality is considered to be of the highest value. But it is, in fact, both beautiful and not optional to have inherited the world, in a certain way. You have a built-in connection to the world. You’re never really alone in the way that people imagine they are alone, and I think that’s a positive thing.
(1) The Depot, or The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse, is a donation based craft supply resale store that I’ve found a ton of cool materials at. Although, I feel I should mention that every Oakland artist I know is still boycotting them because they fired their entire staff during the pandemic, so maybe don’t go there.
(2) LIVE105’s BFD (Big Fucking Deal) was a music festival in the Bay Area that ran from 1994-2018. The alternative rock radio station featured acts like Green Day, The White Stripes, etc; as well as hundreds of local bands.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a mixed non-binary gay artist from Oakland, CA. Their work is often intimate and concerned with self-documentation and memory. Luz is a first year in the Art and Social Practice Program. They are currently interested in creating temporal intimate experiences using karaoke and playing with experimental sound art. You can see some of their work here, and you can follow them on instagram at @dogsighs__.
Alex Olive (she/her) found God while standing directly in front of a big speaker at a Merzbow show. She makes elegiac computer music from a mixture of field recordings, no-input feedback mixing, and MIDI. Work on her album, Here Are My Tears Of Joy, is currently being finalized for release in 2022. You can listen to her music here.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
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