Parking Lot is our lax interview series where we get to really know a creative. We get to learn about what they've been up to creatively, some random facts about them, some telling ones, and just about anything else that comes up. On this episode, we speak to the exquisite Gabi Dao. Preface: our chat happened a few bits ago so some of the talking points are from our initial point of exchange but nonetheless, it was rather a delight getting to be in conversation with the Vancouverite as she details a little about her life as an up-and-comer in the arts. Dao seems to have her hands in a lot aside from her opulent articulations of nuanced thinking processes through object making and sound work. She's currently embarking on a long media residency at Vancouver's Western Front artist-run house. There, she will be producing the very-good-idea podcast series, Here nor There. It will be a platform where a wide range of creatives, friends, family, are invited to speak about their work, interests, and how this is contextualized by their surroundings. Dao sees this project as "a community chat room to make spaces for audibility, for those who are ‘emerging’ in a type of space that isn’t mediated in the same way that physical real estate is in the context of affordable studio/project rent."
Talking to Dao, you start to wonder how much more of an expansive thinker you can become if you hanged out with her all the time. She highlighted how patriarchy like in a lot of other spaces has always reared its head in sound production and composition--something you don't think about because it is the norm and hard to see a non-male voice within that space. She also introduces us to something called prisoner cinema, pinpoints the ratchet appropriation at the center of some Hollywood movies like Tomb Raider, as well as introduce us to makers like Lord Narf, Elysia Crampton and more. Get to know a bit about Dao below.
I am a little tired of the histories that are told and retold of male minimalist composers, all the books, texts, anthologies, compilations that ignore and exclude the contributions of women in these histories as I struggle to learn more about them because there is such little information there! Oh, and also the narrative of composers who come back from Asia ‘inspired’. Cross-cultural influences, exchanges, and conversations are so crucial to nurturing creativity but here is an absence of dialogue particularly within the history of avant-garde music that I find so problematic...when I think about this
Any personal highlights from this past year?
Working on our studio and project space, Duplex. I feel so blessed to be part of such an amazing community in Vancouver, which really helps in light of all the other odds against artists in this expensive city. I felt like I met a lot of people last year too, and got to know a lot of very kind, talented people who had been just acquaintances for a long time.
I traveled a lot, went to Calgary for Intersite Visual Arts Festival and got to know the young and very welcoming, prolific Calgary art scene. There I reacquainted with friends I made while in residence at the Banff Centre. I also went to Milan, my partner Tom Richardson was included in the Milan Triennale, and we got a brief taste of the city and the art scene there too, which is funded by many fashion houses, a fascinating and appropriate alliance! Not so much of an emerging art scene though, baller museums like the Prada Foundation and Hangar Bicocca though.
What is it like making creative work in Vancouver for a twenty-something-year-old like yourself?
It’s quite a thing to be in proximity to many generations of artists who have had steady practices around the globe but choose to be based here. You bump into people around town, see them at parties, wait at the bus stop with them. I think it’s really something that this kind of generational proximity can exist here and conversations can happen in line ups for coffee, dive bars, on the street on a nice day.
At the same time, it is very difficult because this city is very expensive. The living wage in Vancouver is $20.84/hr while the minimum wage is $10.45/hrs! I’ve seen what it is like for those who are below this income bracket and it is depressing.
I turned 26 this January and for the first time in the last six months I worked on a contract that paid me more than a living wage, and I am lucky enough to live/rent in affordable spaces, but I still am paycheque to paycheque with no savings, have a very moldy bathroom, a front door that won’t lock sometimes, and a stairwell that I am paranoid will collapse one day. I say this not to pity monger, but this is the reality of this city.
The disparity here is real and that can be very tough when it comes to those who are underrepresented and those who are unable to work and artists and their spaces become implicated in this mix. It’s immensely difficult to navigate constructively and it something I’ve been learning to deal with slowly over the past few years. Affordable studio space is also very difficult to come by, let alone housing. I have also recently found out that the determination of creating more ‘affordable housing’ as defined by the city is a median sum of rented housing units in metro Vancouver, across all income brackets! How crazy is that?
Oh, wow....you always hear about the city's crazy cost of living but it makes it more real when you get someone who lives there sharing that with you. I know you touched on it briefly but can you talk more what's the emerging creatives scene there?
Again, the emerging creative scene is great, quite miraculous actually based on what I just described in the last response! Lot’s of amazing spaces that are run through the generous souls of so many creative and kind folks, all without civic support or grants. These spaces are put together often who need studio spaces, find a space in a cheap part of town, spend their time and money renovating, and saving a space for exhibitions, performances, parties, et al‚ this sort of classic tale of DIY cultural nurturing meets inevitable gentrification (unfortunately…). Somehow it all works out to create vibrant exhibitions, readings, happenings, music sets, then developers step in…. I’ve had some good runs with peers and friends though.
We had a space on the Downtown Eastside, ran by a real slumlord (still running), for nearly 4 years and we programmed a project space for 2 of them. It was in the city’s Chinatown, where they struggle with homelessness and addiction has been largely disregarded as a civic priority, also where there are quite a few studio spaces and ARCS It was called Avenue. We relied on our own pockets, booze sales, and threw after-hours parties to fix the building, our roof which often leaked and flooded our studios, reinforce doors, etc. We gave a lot of artists their first solo shows, their first shows ever. We hosted artists from out of town.
There were spaces that had a similar sort of spirit and programming, Model, Index, Sunset Terrace, but from what I’ve come to experience is that it is exhausting to maintain these operations and they seem to have short lifespans, 1-2 years, like Avenue. However, the 1 person operation Spare Room is still thriving, it’s been around since 2014! Big up to Sung-Pil Yoon!! There are also after-hours music venues right now like Sweet Pup and Deep Blue, and there used to be one called Skylight. There seems to be a natural overlapping of these two scenes which I think is healthy too.
Scott told me you guys are studio mates...what are some typical things you use your studio for that you couldn't do anywhere otherwise…
Making a mess, if we think about this in a linear fashion but also in a more abstracted one. Most importantly, aside from it being a pragmatic space, it’s a social space, not just for the renters, but for the community when we have events. A space on the cusp of public and private, where people can gather and have conversations. It’s a space that isn’t mediated by hours of operation, capacity, liquor licenses, etc. We can socialize quite freely in the studio space, and I think this is what sets it aside from institutions, the notion of facilitating is most important in my mind when I think of independently ran/produced ‘DIY’, ‘grassroots’ spaces. There’s a moment between finishing a BFA and becoming involved in ARCs or other institutions that have the ability to compensate and support artists and their labour, and that moment can be very disorienting...it’s crucial for us to use the precious space and resources that we have to facilitate a space in between this time but also to create a platform that can be its own autonomous body aside from bureaucratic criteria.
Talk a little about some of your recent sculpture work with the radio pairings.
Besides the [pieces] are two radio receivers which are receiving a pirate radio transmitted sound piece called 'Like a Native Speaker Speaking (1988)'. These are three separate works that I made in the same sort of 'thought'. They were a part of a 3 person exhibition (+ Steven Hubert and DB Boyko) at Artspeak, an artist-run center in Vancouver, which opened this February called 'Noise gives the listener duration as artifact', curated by Bopha Chhay.
They began to take shape for me when I found this collection of audio cassettes that my parents used to practice English in the '80s when they were getting settled into their new lives in Vancouver from Vietnam. This one tape in particular I found had my mom's voice on one side, she was reciting this monologue about a BC narrative about its idyllic Westcoast landscape. I was so struck by hearing her voice nearly 30 years ago, knowing this time in her life, I cried. I was really interested in these relationships between voice, language, memory, landscape, and this strange sort of family 'heirloom'. I wrote a sort of text in response to the narrative which I recited, recorded, then manipulated in an editing software. The piece contains this recording, a recording done by a text-to-speech reader, and finally, a sample from this cassette read by my mom. The transmission was via a Raspberry pi that I uploaded an open-source pirate radio disk program onto that I found on the internet. This program 'hacks' the Raspberry Pi to turn it into a radio transmitter.
The tapes used language in a very pragmatic way, and I wanted to confront that with a subjective voice that spoke through allegories represented by the two sculptures, a cochlea (your inner ear, shaped like a spiral, the blueish/yellow sculpture) and a conch shell (brown-reddish sculpture). I'm interested in the cochlea or the spiral as this form that is your inner ear. The etymological development around the terminologies around the human ear, like the word 'aural' for example, evolved out of discourses around deeper understandings of what it meant to 'listen rather than hear' if that makes any sense. For example, when thinking about the Futurists response to industrialization with their understandings of noise, and then further into the future with the development of recording and playback technologies, there were new social, political, philosophical implications of what it hear and listen, just as it did with images. There is something rich between the space of the aural and the visual where I think there is much potential to speak to the intangibility of subjective experience, personal memory and shared histories, space in and around the general and the particular. I was interested in this motif of the conch shell as a sort of abstraction of the ear, through connotation but also through this shared experience of holding the shell to your ear to 'hear the ocean', when what your really hearing is the echo of your own blood beating and pulsing in your body.
On Open Sesame:
I made this work as a response to the collision of two experiences. One was after traveling over southeast Asia for a summer, where I visited the temple complex, Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is the largest religious monument in the world. I had also around the same time I experienced one of James Turrell's Ganzfelds at the LACMA. I was thinking about the structures that facilitate and preserve our experiences of culture, and also thinking about understandings of culture, a) as an age-old conglomerate of art, film, music, fashion, etc., a means in which we come to express our experiences of the world and b) as also an age-old conglomerate of tradition, ceremony, language, religion, particular to demographics, nations, geographies, families, etc. Also, there were and are so many conflations between notions of religious spirituality and the sublime that are underlined by dark histories between the temple and the Ganzfeld that I was interested in posing as a critical awareness of the institutions that frame these kinds of experiences. In particular with Angkor Wat, I was very troubled by my role and my presence as a tourist who was at once and the same time financially supporting this incredible monument in a very minor way but also contributing to a particular gaze that the monument represents, hence working with its portrayal in the Hollywood Tomb Raider narrative. With this Ganzfelds it is their associations with prisoner hallucination (google prisoner cinema), and this sort of divinity associated with the celestial self-affirming discourses of 70's formalist movements such as the Light and Space artists.
The sound piece that plays 'from the nose' externally from two sculptures is from this same criticism and adopts the form of a David Attenborough style narration. The nature (pardon the pun) of these programs and their believability are hinged on post-production practices wherein footage and sound are edited together in such a way to create particular narratives arcs. Nature documentaries and other lens-based, storytelling practices (film) often use foley to recreate events, and foley is something I'm interested in too. I have an ongoing foley project that I did in Banff and something similar I did for Intersite. Anyhow, the narrator, which I describe as the 'cinematic voice', a voice that is scripted, recorded, compressed, EQ'ed, and mixed in a particular to give it that deep, warm, resonant, close-proximity spatial feeling, is a sort of 'character' that I've been very interested in the past few years. I've been interested in working and unpacking this sort of voice because of its affective, sensorial qualities, but also because of the power structures that these voices have held in storytelling, biography, documentary, etc. I think there is a lot of potential for the voice to express subjectivity and subvert the vertical relationships imbued in these kinds of narratives and the way they unfold stories and histories. I explored this in the work at Artspeak too. I was thinking about how an exhibition space could be
Before I had built the installation, I wrote a script that described what this installation looked like, and what might have happened there. I used leftover birds eye gravel from the previous exhibition to create foley noises. I asked a friend of mine to narrate the script.
So you were part of TRUCK's Intersite Festival a couple months ago how was that whole experience for you? Was the work you submitted a carryover from your Banff residency?
The folks who I worked with are amazing people, Truck was my host institution for the Intersite Festival, which is a collection of artist-run centres who organize it together from what I understand. Shout out to Brian Wennerstrom for all the car rides, AV help and thrift store frequenting with me and also to Ginger Carlson and Richelle Bearhat over at Truck!
I am all for offsite projects, contemporary art that responds to a space outside a gallery space...I also like work that exists in exhibition spaces too though. I was really amazed at how the city of Calgary seemed to be so receptive to the festival. The folks at the National Music Centre, where I did my jam session, were very supportive and accommodating to the messiness of it all. Looking back at it now, I would have definitely done some things differently, for example, I would have ideally been ‘live’ for a lot less time, but it was difficult to anticipate what sort of traffic would come through to the NMC, so I was recording for like, 6 hours. I didn’t like how the time frame of my presence at the location (could only be there for a day for many logistical and security reasons) would have such an impact on one of the most major components of the work (how long it would be there for), but this is the nature of this sort of context, and I am glad I experienced that challenge with so much support.
It was very intense for me because for a few hours there was no one then suddenly like 30 elementary school children that were very eager to make lots of noise. In a sense, this project, in this iteration, My Goods Be Said is an ongoing work that I started at the Banff Centre which uses the practice of Foley (recording sound effects with various materials) as a conceptual pivot point for the fictions behind our understandings of representation.
I had applied previously to do a project at Stride Gallery, in their main space, but Areum Kim who works as their assistant director thought that the project would make more sense within the contexts of the festival, so we went from there. Truck had more resources to support the scope of the work so I was paired up with them. I must say I have so many good things to say about the Calgary art scene which is full of young people and directed by many strong females.
How did you get into your interest in the world of Foley practices? And how did you get so interested in it that it became something you'd actively explore in your work?
I became interested in Foley practices because there are conversations that orbit this practice that I think about in terms of my practice...a convergence of tactile material and ephemeral, histories surrounding the development of acoustic recording and playback technologies and the social, political implications of their indexicality and ‘truth’, the ability of these sounds to become so abstracted into something else, the way you have to embody or ‘act’ through the materials. There is so much happening between this idea of what is so immediately physical and what has so much acoustic possibility, and when I was on this residency I suddenly had so much time to explore these ideas.
And I'm guessing you are having to perform your work sound-based what is that like to think about...do you consider it performance at all? or just you in the process of doing the work in front of people...do you find that the way you think of the work changes as you do it in front of people as oppose to doing work in your studio and presenting afterward like you've previously done with your sculptures and installations…
I don’t think of it really as performance as I never intended it to be a performance, and I wasn’t really considering what it means to make a performance when I first made this work. I am and was aware of the history of performance, and this discussion orbits around the project, but I would rather think of it as myself working, and it being ‘live’. This idea of ‘doing work in front of people’ and my way of thinking of the work as being ‘live’ is kind of like being employed in a customer service situation. For example, you are working at a till, and someone comes and orders coffee, but you can also sustain a conversation at the same time, and you build a micro relationship with them in that time and in that place. You are being put ‘on’ in a way where you can engage in your customer to a certain standard while executing a specific task. You make their coffee while talking, or sometimes not talking, they can watch you or they can text on their phone, go to the washroom or stare off into space. I guess you could go so far as to say that in this context, it is performance because if anyone has worked in customer service (I have for the majority of my working life) it is most definitely performative...and this is the consequence of potentially any activity within a public space, so I guess I am sabotaging my previous statement a bit! What I mean to say in short is I’m not thinking about it as performance with a capital per se.
Yes the work definitely changes as it happens in front of and with people in the way that I relinquish a lot of the control I have over what may happen, including things like sculptures breaking, but that interests me in terms of the sort of manipulation exerted of the material produced traditionally in Foley in order to render a new sort of reality.
As you are making sounds with disparate objects to make certain effects like Foley artist would, and doing this with a live audience instead of for say a film, how do those sounds that are made function?
The sounds are a consequence of the actions that happen in the set, they are like artifacts of a time spent, so their function for me is more indexical versus compositional, they become an archive at the end of it all. The recordings are noisy and disparate, and if you listened to one of the recordings without knowing the context it might be banal, strange, irritating or difficult to engage with, but there is something that I am attracted to there. We often think of sounds, or recordings in particular along similar lines as photography in the sense that these phenomena are inherently ‘documentary’ in nature, and I like the way that these recordings, in particular, do document, but they challenge the document or how we think of documenting as a practice that reveals distinguishable narratives.
How do you choose the objects you pick to derive sounds from?
I would describe the decision-making process as a selection of peripheral objects and materials that I find myself frequently in the company of.
So for your 2 Person Free Jazz Jam Session, you are contextualizing the sounds you've assembled together as music...how? why? and at what point do you consider these sounds to be music...is that the goal of using these objects...or is there no distinction between mere sounds and music
I meant to speak to the improvisational nature of jazz, and jazz and something being something that moved away from the confines of conventional musical structures and rhythms and less to a binary between sound and music, less jazz as a musical genre and more of a moment of reaction. I did this because one of the things I value and glean most from this project is the improvising I can have with people and materials. I’m not considering a moment when these sounds to become music. The sounds could become music if I organized the samples into some sort of structure, but I’m not really interested in doing that right now but have entertained the idea of it, maybe it would make better music if I had a lot of distance from the samples and I could forget the associations with them...and if I was anywhere near being a good composer. [laughs]
The objects are vehicles for an aesthetic potential, one that is immediately visual but in this case, I’m looking for a sonic potential if you choose to imbue it with action or with a gesture. I also don’t consider the movement of sound to eventually turn into music either, and I think it’s unfair to think of ‘mere’ sounds as opposed to music.
What do you think of John Cage?
I recognize the legacies of John Cage and I think the work he has done is great in serving the avant-garde, but I am little tired of the histories that are told and retold of male minimalist composers, all the books, texts, anthologies, compilations that ignore and exclude the contributions of women in these histories as I struggle to learn more about them because there is such little information there! Oh, and also the narrative of composers who come back from Asia ‘inspired’. Cross-cultural influences, exchanges, and conversations are so crucial to nurturing creativity but here is an absence of dialogue particularly within the history of avant-garde music that I find so problematic...when I think about this, I also think about the narrative of visual art history with the surrealists and their fascination with ‘ethnographic’...I wonder if there has been some sort of research that analyzes the time between these two moments and similar ones. Anyhow, for a different conversation perhaps, this aside, big up to the late Pauline Oliveros.
What do you think has a pretty annoying sound?
SNORING [chuckles]. Specifically, the inhaling, snorting part that vibrates a bit of the nose and resonates through the mouth. It can also be comforting in ways as well….
What are some pretty good sounds/music you've come across lately
Elysia Crampton is producing deeply affective and thoughtful, sample-based music that I have read described with an intention to speak to a Latinx diaspora, and I haven’t seen something in contemporary electronic music that has done something like this so eloquently. I highly recommend a listen.
Also, Lord Narf is making some really amazing raps. Micachu is an amazing, polymath of a producer. My friend Ramzi has been making music that made me reconsider psychedelic in an aesthetic sense in electronic music. I saw Bully Fae open for Matmos a few months ago and I think they stole the show! I can’t get their performance out of my head, serpentine drag-dancing on the spot with minimal, industrial beats foreground by R&B spoken word.
Cover Photo courtesy of Bryce Maruk