Reverberations: Grouper on Subtle Blooms in the Periphery

Portland-based artist and UC Berkeley alum Grouper (Liz Harris) explores quietude and interiority in her music and art, and enjoyed a breakthrough success with her album Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill in 2008. Her textured, siren-song work SLEEP, part installation and part performance, was a feature of David Wilson’s L@TE series Gatherings in the summer of 2010 (see Wilson’s reflections on the series here). The gallery Nationale in Portland is hosting a solo exhibition of her drawings and prints through October 2nd, and “Water People,” a recording made during her residency in Marfa, Texas, was released at the end of August.

I was invited by David Wilson and the museum to perform during his ongoing residency there last summer as part of the BAM/PFA L@TE performance series. The piece, titled SLEEP, was a collaboration: sound and video from myself, sculpture and environment by David. A main inspiration for the tones of the piece, as well as the manner of my performance, was the walkway that winds in a spiral around the perimeter of the museum’s interior, illuminated by the light coming in through the windows above, trickling down in a soft haze. When I visited the museum before the performance to begin planning, I knew right away that I wanted to make a sound that would mirror this trajectory, subtly cascading both physically and tonally downward from the top level—a sound that would gently and incrementally light up the space, level by level.


At several points along the walkway I set up stations with speakers and tape players. I began the piece at the top of the walkway and worked my way down slowly, collaging prerecorded tape at each station. As the piece progressed, video was being projected onto a mylar sculpture that David made that hung above the center of the main gallery floor. We also projected video into a corner of the gallery on the lower floor. The museum’s interior was lit as minimally as possible, and as it grew dark (we began the piece in the evening) the flickering of the video footage off of the mylar reflected onto the audience, the walls, the windows. The footage was meant to resonate with this flickering—black and white fields of dimly flashing light and watery movement. Near the end of the piece I again mirrored the spiral movement and, beginning at the top, slowly moved to each station, turning off the tape players as I went.


One of my favorite elements of how the piece played out was a reversal of traditional audience/performer relationships. Because a “stage” was clearly set in the main area of the museum floor, many of the audience members, despite pamphlets describing the nature of the piece, were clearly waiting for me to play guitar and sing in that area. As I descended the spiral walkway for the first half hour of SLEEP and started the tape players one at a time, I became the one observing, from above, as the audience members sat waiting for the performance they were expecting to happen right in front of them, unaware that the piece had already begun. I love exploring what exists in corners, on the periphery of our awareness, so to have this element enter the piece independently was a welcome surprise. I feel that it benefited the piece by making it much more about the actual music than the person performing it, watching the subtle bloom as this music seeped into the awareness of the audience on an initially subconscious level. It really pleased me to feel as though I was not being watched. I’m still much more comfortable with creating work in private than presenting it to an audience.


SLEEP was an exploration of the potential to experience the quiet, solitude, and emotional beauty of an interior world in a collective and exterior environment. Finding ways for sound and light to collaborate as vessel for this paradoxical process is an ongoing exploration. I wanted the piece to feel like falling asleep underwater, to create a sonic and visual mirror to that falling spiral in the BAM space—the falling movement of sinking or drowning underwater—that would act as a broader metaphor for falling into another consciousness, into another state. It was the second piece in a series of tape collages I began in 2009 with a piece performed at the Issue Project Room in New York called ASCENT/DESCENT. The next installment of the series, a performance entitled PART that is a collaboration with a local choir, will be performed at this year’s TBA Festival in Portland.

Photos: Myleen Hollero