Marissa Perel in conversation with Fritz Welch
I managed to nab artist, drummer, and performer, Fritz Welch, during his current visit to New York from his home in Glasgow. Alongside maintaining a flourishing 20 year art career, Welch is also a cult figure of improvised music, as a member of Peeesseye and numerous groups in New York and Europe. In July, Welch had a series of performances in Brooklyn with fellow drummer, Kevin Shea as part of their duo, Tripping Landlocked Infidels. On August 1st he will perform with his international “crypto-conceptual science fiction cover band,” Asparagus Piss Raindrop in the storage unit of Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Gallery as part of a program that will remix an archive of past work from the gallery.
Marissa Perel: How did you start performing?
Fritz Welch: A good way to frame my performance practice is to go back to some original influences, and the ones that have stuck. When I was 14 or 15 I hung out with nerd-rock pioneers, Three Day Stubble, in Houston, Texas. They did this activity that they called “AVI,” an art form they invented with body movement and vocal sound. So what those guys would do is, in a very unselfconscious and independent way, arrive at this thing that is a lot like certain types of movement improvisation and a lot like concrete poetry and weird abstract vocalization. They were teenagers in Houston and they were doing this stuff to entertain each other, and they started incorporating it into their concerts around 1980.
They would go to public spaces and do this stuff in upscale, kind of cheesy Houston shopping malls with big-haired ladies with high heels, and with a group of people surrounding them they would systematically be aware of their peripheral vision and they would notice someone staring and give the coordinates on a clock like “3 o’clock!” and they would turn and nail them with a look in the eye and a weird pose… So, at that point I would hang out with these guys, and we would hang out in front of the Museum of Fine Arts and look for cars that were driving by.
They also would have “House of AVI” parties where the point was for people to get up and do these 5-minute freak out things.
Later, when I was performing with Pee In My Face With Surgery in 2005, I started consciously connecting specific physical movements with generating a certain type of sound with my voice that would be directly connected to it, and that’s what I’ve been doing since. I’ve recently performed with choreographers Moya Michael and Louise Ahl, and FvRTvR.
MP: When you were going to Three Day Stubble parties you were also making drawings, right?
FW: Really, my artistic practice began with drawing, and I still do that. That’s the continuous thread, and I’ve always considered drawing as the main structure. I ran into Kim Jones and we started talking about surveillance.
Kim was saying, “it’s impossible to talk about self-surveillance without facebook, people offering up all this information about themselves are so easily trackable and traceable, and they don’t realize that this information could be used for things you don’t necessarily want.” Kim’s response was “well, they can’t kill you for drawing, so I’ll just continue to do that.”
FW: I have a daily drawing practice, still.
MP: I remember being around your studio a lot years ago, but it was never when you were actually working. What is it like in the environment of your studio when you’re working? Do you have music playing, are you moving around, or is it totally quiet?
FW: Well it depends on what the work is. Some of it has an immediacy and it’s really fluid, it happens quickly and it’s simple, almost takes no skill, and some is very precise and takes a lot of time. Some work that I did in New York in the 1990’s, the first work that I ever showed in any galleries were these drawings where lines followed a shape and progressively would get smaller, kind of like the grooves of a record. I talked about it as encoding, so the music I was listening to in the studio became directly encoded into the drawings I was making. It was something that I intentionally did, so the work had these musical aspects embedded. So that’s one example of how my studio practice works, and I usually have a drum set in the studio. I take a break, I play drums, and I finish work or look at work while playing drums.
MP: When did you get into sculpture?
FW: I’ve made plenty of sculptures that are discrete object things and plenty of things that are bigger. There are sculptural elements that are attached or connected to architecture directly, interventions that are made to change the interior of a space.
MP: Your 2005 piece, “Under Guests to Drift Living” in the “Make it Now: Sculpture in New York” show at the Sculpture Center stands out in my memory as an example of how you change the interior of a space.
FW: It was two wall drawings that were connected with the sculpture through the center, and I was lucky to have been given an awesome, weird space to work with, which made it conducive to making a piece that was pretty immersive. I don’t throw “immersive” around, but a few other pieces I’ve made fit into that description, usually because of having a lucky situation.
For instance, in 2007, I was invited by Cueto Projects to make a site-specific work in a gallery in Chelsea that just happened to have a disused sex club connected to it. It was almost like a time capsule. The club was connected by a tiny hall that had a mirrored ceiling and a lovely concrete frieze with this Adam and Eve kind of motif, and there’s a pool and a hot tub and a sauna room, and a bar… I’ve talked to loads of people who were hanging in Chelsea when it would have been open, but no one had heard of it.
In the piece, entitled, “Suffering is the Fastest Horse,” I built a floor over the pool and hot tub, so viewers had to climb into them to see the sculpture inside. I was later commissioned to perform in a work with artist Michael Fliri, which we called “sensations of a sculpture before taking shape.”
We were in this massive old factory with 30-foot ceilings; it was all open but with windows that had ledges. Michael sat really high up on these ledges holding a boom microphone and I was inside this sculpture we made with a drum set built into this little cave and microphones embedded below face level. It was a simple performance with microphones and speakers placed in this massive space and the acoustics were already crazy as hell, so we tried to push the acoustics, tried to make it so that the voice would travel entirely into another room.
MP: How you work with sound seems like it is reflective of how you work with sculpture, using the architecture of the space to change how a person inhabits or experiences it.
FW: Yes, at least I’ve tried to do that. It’s not a paradigm, but I’m interested in finding a way for it when the right situation presents itself.
MP: It sounds like how you described your earlier drawings, like a thing within a thing. It is also how you describe making a space within a space in an installation.
FW: It’s important to have a multi-faceted viewing experience. Being relatively open-ended makes it possible to have multiple readings. With the drawings no one would have known that I had this idea of encoding music into them if I hadn’t mentioned it, but I think having potential for multiple readings of something in an installation and performance capacity is maybe easier. In drawings, you can have an endless amount of things within things, possible readings of suggestions and references and allusions, or literally optical illusions.
Around the time I moved to New York I worked in a way where I tried to make drawings that made the viewer’s eye flutter or go out of focus –– a result of drawing under the influence of hallucinogens.
I also think about chain-reactions in the way that the works are arranged, and how the relationships between pieces are composed. I’ve always been interested in Rube Goldberg. There was a time when I was interested in making kinetic sculptures and sound sculptures, but then I realized there’s a way to do it that implies movement without having actual movement, and implies sound without actual sound. I like creating events that interconnect with the work, where something within it is subtly happening, maybe even static-seeming, but where activity is actually happening.
MP: Does your conceptual approach to sound in your visual work relate to improvising in performance?
FW: When I can I inhabit an installation, it gets activated. The performances I’ve done that are durational, like 5 hours of playing gongs, are a way to bring tangible experience into the sculptural environment. The sound becomes as tangible as wood and paint, it’s another material. I like working in these situations that do take a ridiculous amount of time, but I’m not a hardcore practitioner of durational work.
The way that I think about performing on stages, at concert halls, clubs or galleries, is definitely influenced by this approach. Sometimes it gets exploited in that way and sometimes not. Sometimes I play it straight and sometimes it becomes something else entirely. There’s this group that I started a couple years ago called Asparagus Piss Raindrop.
We did a piece called “Abduction Song,” which was 10 singers doing a really simple score using voice only in a circle, sometimes holding hands, all dressed in yellow, sort of a nod to the Heaven’s Gate people. We have also been a quintet of people playing electronics, with the intention of playing African-Electro music, but ending up sounding like improvisation, and we’ve also been a free jazz trio. Our recent piece “Trans Poncho in Posse,” was commissioned by the Tectonics Festival in Reykjavík, Iceland.
It was a 3 hour durational performance of a score based on the reproductive function of slugs. 5 performers moved through the interior of Harpa Concert Hall, which was designed by Olafur Eliasson. We moved with our instruments under black out cloth to alter our senses.
I think of Asparagus Piss Raindrop as a crypto-conceptual science fiction cover band. Our main members are based in Glasgow, but wherever we perform, we find artists that join the group. On August 1st, long-time New York dancer, Paige Martin, will perform in the group along with other local artists and musicians I have assembled.
MP: What is it like to be making your work in Glasgow after living in New York for some 20 odd years?
FW: Glasgow is a great place to work and do research. It makes it much easier to connect with European artists and performers, so I have the opportunity to travel more frequently. I have a different working situation, and it has changed my practice. It’s now connected to my home life – my twin daughters like to come into the studio and wail away on the drums. Glasgow has a wonderful pool of young artists who are really going for it, and I think because of the economics of living in New York, that doesn’t get to happen in the same way. When I do come back to New York, I am reminded of aspects of being here that are still totally unique. For instance, I can walk down the street and run into Kim Jones, or be at a bar and see a bunch of musicians I hadn’t seen in years. New York is a hub in that way.
For more information on Fritz Welch, visit his website.
Marissa Perel is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in Brooklyn, NY.