Rita McKeough on Rhythm, Knocking, and Playing the Drums – Anthea Black

In Deep Listening: A Composer’s Guide to Sound Practice, Pauline Oliveros includes this short passage: “The distinguished historian, William H. McNeil, has recently argued in his book Keeping Together in Time that ‘coordinated rhythmical activity is fundamental to life in society.’” She asks “Can you imagine tracking a rhythm pattern in your daily life and writing about it?”

Rita McKeough and I have a certain rhythm. In 2005, I invited her to develop a new exhibition for Stride Gallery, where I was the Director, and we have worked together in some manner every five years since then. Slipping By, an installation that focused on the elastic expanding stop-and-go acceleration of time, was one of my first experiences working intimately with a senior feminist artist on an exhibition. In 2010, she installed Wilderment, her field of mechanical sand-coloured cranes slowly growing and eating up the prairie grasslands at the Art Gallery of Alberta. In December 2015, we spent two days together during the installation of her exhibition Veins. As she was working, I wrote the exhibition text, drawing in questions from Pauline Oliveros that guide her philosophy of deep listening.

As Oliveros encourages, this conversation is a pattern of circling back, reconnecting to the installation, where every sound and surface has a complex texture. The auditory and visual elements create layer upon layer of subtlety, and McKeough’s vision of ecology across time is incredibly prescient. Veins was born from her concern about pipelines under construction, potential leaks, and their long-term effects. Since we first spoke about her exhibition, Indigenous efforts to halt Dakota Access and Kinder Morgan pipelines and restore land rights have catalyzed activist efforts around the world.

Anthea Black: You recorded and mixed a 16-minute audio piece and made several components for Veins at the Robert Rauschenberg residency in Florida.

Rita McKeough: I worked in Rauschenberg’s studio during the residency to make the animations and the audio piece. During the residency I learnt a lot about Rauschenberg and I became very inspired by his activism.

Can I tell you a little sidetrack on this? When I was at the residency, I saw manatees, five kinds of sharks, black nose, and tiger, and nurse sharks; everyday we saw dolphins, an alligator, and leaves. Every minute was some exotic unbelievable wildlife experience, turtles walking around the lawn, big box turtles, and lizards everywhere. And ten artists!

AB: That seems the perfect place to make your exhibition Veins – the installation is absolutely alive with creatures! When you were at Rauschenburg, did you conceive the sound piece or had you already written it and then recorded pieces of it?

RM: I had a sense of what I wanted and I had recorded the background vocals by Mercedes Webb before I left for the residency. At the residency I wrote the text, did the recordings of my voice and finished the editing. Audio is my background, and I loved getting back into it.

AB: Is this the first big score you have recorded recently?

RM: Yes, the last one that was complex like this was a while ago. In the soundtrack for Veins I started with a pounding drum sound, which was looped and acted as the foundation rhythm for the audio track. The pounding references two things: the oil pumps, and the proposal that knocking could be a language of nature. The knocking is the mechanical sounds of the oil pumps, also the tree trunks are knocking to get our attention, to speak to us.

Have I ever told you about the opera, In Bocca Al Lupo – In the Mouth of the Wolf?

AB: Yes, and I just read about it again in Caught in the Act: An anthology of performance art by Canadian Women, in Jayne Wark’s text on your practice…

RM: In the opera, there were 17 participants, but two characters in particular, Dangerous Animal, performed by Deirdre Logue, and Opponent, performed by Jude Major, performed an action of running to opposite ends of the performance space, and then running towards each other. They ran, hit their bodies against each other and fell back, ran and hit, over and over again. That knocking on their chests was to wake up the body.

The pounding of their chests was aggressive – it was intense. It’s interesting to see these things reoccurring in my work. That was the beginning of knocking for me!

Eli Campanero enacted a very specific version of this in my performance Dancing on a Plate, where he and another performer, Terry Riley, circled around a kitchen table that was mounted on springs and they flipped over the tabletop repeatedly keeping in time with the rhythms of the audio tracks that were playing in the performance space. [Rita makes sounds by hitting the table.] Pound, pound, down, flip over the table, their shoulder had to hit the table, and it was a dance, to me that was the most enacted version of the idea of knocking and rhythm as a bodily language.

In all my work I have always tried to be a feminist body that is un-gendered: the way it dressed, moved, articulated, fought, it was always un-stereotypically assigned and performed. I’ve never really had the context to talk about it, to address the queer body, the non-gendered feminist body in my work. I am usually busy talking about something else in the work.

AB: Being in conversation with other bodies, and topics, is essential to the ethics of the non-gendered body. The point isn’t visually representing the body either. It might be felt or encountered, creating something on the level of experience, but it’s often not primarily about putting the body in front of the viewer.

RM: What was really important to me was letting the performers be whatever – as women – to be undetermined. That’s what I mean by the un-gendered body. It opens up the potential of them, the richness and related qualities of 17 women together in all those multiplicities.

AB: Between the knocking as a bodily language, and the examination of gender, do you feel In Bocca Al LupoIn the Mouth of the Wolf was an influential piece in your practice? Can you speak a bit about the bond that was created through that collaboration?

RM: Yes, it was a remarkable space of feminist collaboration, it was about community, and friendship, and love. Everyone who collaborated gave so much of themselves to the work with such fierceness and fearlessness, it was so amazing to be a part of. The bodies were slippery and powerful and fluid and frightening, queer and not queer, but all feminists. It was a physical experience, intimate and generous, and everyone gave everything possible in the moment of collaboration. I believe that generosity was because of a shared feminist belief in the importance of an articulation of anger from a woman’s body voice.

AB: Now I am thinking back to your piece Slipping By at Stride Gallery, when the cars hit the end of the tracks they also made a knocking noise. You also performed for the closing night, hanging from the ceiling as still as possible for 60 minutes, while visitors were allowed into the gallery at a rate of one per minute, keeping time, until the gallery was full. Everything in the exhibition was rhythmic, and as the Gallery Director at the time, I really got to live with that knocking sound and the clocks spinning absolutely out of control…

RM: Luckily it was on a timer! That was one piece where I did a complex composition, where I composed all of the audio components to work together, with 20 separate parts that came together randomly, but the tonality, rhythm and dissonance is all considered as part of one piece.

AB: That’s right, and there are different rhythms in every installation that I have seen of yours. Certain elements move at one pace, while others move differently. How does it work in the composition for Veins?

RM: There are four tree trunk drummers triggered by sensors. They all have a different rhythm, all trying to relate to that steady beat of the pounding drum and rhythms of the layered text in the audio of the installation. The sound had to be programmed the same way as the clocks in Slipping By, to work with that randomness. It’s a steady soundtrack triggered by the viewers coming into the space. The drums will start randomly, they are not synched – so the drumbeat has to work, whether it is on beat or off beat. That fascinates me! Because that’s the kind of drummer I am. I have been a drummer for many years, but drumming is becoming even more important in my life. My band Sleepy Panther played a gig on the weekend, and I feel that after many years I am finally getting the hang of it, and I’m loving it.

AB: When I see the tree drummers in the show, I say “oh! Of course.”

RM: It’s a little bit embarrassing, because I am a drummer – I can’t even tell you how into it I am. It’s my place of release, drumming is where I found my voice. I just feel that the rhythm has to be there. To have the trees as drummers is exciting to me. The trees have servo motors that powers the drum sticks.

AB: Is it exciting, because they become another hybrid object in Veins – the drum acts like the body of the tree – the sound is the tree speaking. Do you think gallery visitors will try and sort out the pattern of each one, listening for a sense of what the tree drummers are saying? Was it a matter of making one drum slow or fast, does the sound become more intense and then hold, or does it ebb and flow?

RM: One is 4/4 time, and one drums on every second beat, another does double beats, and it will build up, pause, never stopping, and come back in a different kind of language. They each have a repeating phrase, with variation in each pattern. When one drum pauses, another is going on, and it’s not random, they interact, and there’s an arc in the sound. Steady and intermittent, it’s a dirge, ominous, an insistent language, it never stops and it’s insistent. They each have their own voice.

Sometimes you hear a tale of a crisis, perhaps of a person being trapped, in a well or in a basement, and I imagine, they start knocking with a certain rhythm to communicate and it has to be irregular so the listener knows it’s not a machine. It’s creating a language when you are trapped: what kind of rhythm would make it possible for someone to know that they should listen? Something is wrong. It is a crisis, someone is trapped, saying “pay attention, please pay attention, I’m trying to say something.”

AB: Sound and rhythm in your work creates sensations that are not possible to speak or only perceive visually… thus creating a kind of embedded, embodied, intimate feeling that connects us to objects. You are so personally moved by sound, and the drums are only one part of the installation. Can you describe how you think about this phenomenon in the audio score that you created for Veins

RM: Yes I agree with you. I believe that rhythm opens a door, allows access to a language and an opportunity to experience a voice that is often unheard. Perhaps a pulsating, chaotic, repetitious, fluctuating, subversive, and rhythmic voice. Being a drummer, rhythm is always a foundation in my audio work. It situates the viewer in a space of embodied listening. There is often sensuality to it and it seems to permeate the body.

As a young artist I was influenced by feminist theory and excited by the various feminist proposals about developing new relationships to language. I tried to enact a possible strategy by using multiple audio tracks to accompany my performances and installations. I was trying to educate myself about the politics and theory of feminism, especially in regards to violence against women by asking questions within my works Tremor (1989), Shudder (1998), Shiver (1995), Retaining Wall (1986), An Exchange Within (1987), Blind Spot (1987), Mimicry (1988), and Heave (1988). I was inspired by the writings of Hélène Cixous, Monique Wittig, and Luce Irigary and began to imagine the use of multi track audio as a way to create the idea of multiple voices as a subversive language that allowed the feminist body to speak in my installation/performances Take it to the Teeth (1993) and In Bocca Al Lupo – In the Mouth of the Wolf (1991).

As a drummer, rhythm has always been important to the work as a way to structure and layer these voices and create a cohesive yet chaotic language. I have always felt that chaos and simultaneous, multiple versions of histories and experiences were complex and empowering ways of understanding and communicating. I also began to believe that listening, silence, and conversation were possible strategies for social change.

AB: The snakes and pipelines in Veins are very prescient, and our conversation ignited me to become more aware of pipeline issues. In the later half of 2016, we’re in a tipping-point moment with protests against Dakota Access Pipeline and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline – do you want to comment? 

RM: When working on Veins I was engulfed in a sensation of holding the pipelines full of oil in my hands lifting them above the landscape to feel the risk and to feel the pressure and the flow of the oil in the pipelines and to imagine the damage to the water, earth, animals, trees and plant life if there was a leak and the oil began to fall into all of the thousands and thousands of holes in the ground. It is too great a risk. I am disturbed that we are willing to take these extreme risks. Disturbed that we put ourselves above the consequences of a leak. The snake/pipeline is speaking in Veins, aware, disturbed and persistent. Slithering its way across the landscape with an undulating rhythm. Slipping over the land, silent and fast.

You will hear all different voices in the piece. I tried to make combinations of sound. A snake hissing, sand falling, everything in the sound work is filtered and layered, to get a hybrid quality: It’s sand, it’s snake, it’s brittleness, it’s dry. So when the landscape is decimated by a leak, and the oil starts spurting out of the pipeline, everything is destroyed. And then all of the vegetation dies, and becomes dust.

I wanted the feeling of a visual landscape in the sound, so there’s a lot of mention of dust, and the rolling dust is the deep future. That idea of rolling dust, rhythm, and scratching in the dirt, scratching in the dirt, scratching in the dirt. The audio is the key to this piece, it links everything in Veins together. It is about the emotion, the concept, the image of the bear, digging, descending away from the remains. The idea of descending comes from reading the work of Hélène Cixous. She has influenced me immensely, and all of the writers she analyses use digging and descending under the earth as places that you have to go, to modify, to transform, to change, to find depth and transformation. Descending is often in my work, going down – where the bears are digging, digging in “the remains,” which are the consequence of what might happen and the anxiety of a possible oil pipeline leak.

In the audio, I just say those simple lines, “falling into the rivers, falling into the holes, falling into the rivers,” it just makes me want to cry when I sing that. That’s why everything is circular: the drums, the projections everything is falling into the holes. As Mercedes Webb sings repeatedly, “there are thousands and thousands of holes in the ground, there are thousands and thousands of holes in the ground.” There’s an emotion in the layering of the repeated fragments of text which doesn’t come through in the objects, but comes through in the sound, “digging into the dirt, scratching into the dirt.” It repeats and to me that repetition is the emotional consequence. I am completely immersed in the sound, it is very visceral and often it becomes saturated with emotion. I am working to construct a clarity with rhythm using multiple layers, dissonant harmonies, and rhythmic interruptions.

It all came from being worried about the pipelines, which carry so much oil that they can do so much damage to the land. There are six articulated snakes in the installation, and each one moves on top of the leaves. Everything moves across the leaves in parallel lines: snakes, the road, and the train. The railroad is snaking as well, with a matte black oil tanker and a coal car, wavy like the snakes in an unnerving back and forth motion, stuck on the track. It snakes just like the snakes. I want the audience to walk along the highway and feel the movement of the oil, and snakes and the train.

AB: Yes, in the feeling of movement, going through the land, my body is moving literally with the oil. Isn’t that the predicament of contemporary activism, an absolutely huge force moves along, but not without resistance. The resistance is also a huge force.

RM: And the road down the middle is where we are, that’s where I am, I implicate myself. I want the audience to be on the road, looking out at the landscape.

AB: We experience so little of the land from a car, stuck on the timescale of the road – especially in your installation where there’s minute detail to see on literally every component.

There are also fantastical changes of scale and space throughout the installation. The body is immersed amongst your huge photorealistic leaves and hybrid animal animations, tiny sandbags and shrunken oil pumps, and 8 foot long articulated toy snakes, toy train, and the cartoon-like road. For me, it creates hyperawareness of the experience.

RM: Scale goes in and out. I’m not representing a forest. That’s important: the forest isn’t a place, it’s a sensation, and a consequence, and a proposal. It’s a proposition.

To me the snake on the leaf is like this: If you think of these images like turning a leaf over and a worm is underneath – think of holding that in your hand, but it suddenly blows itself up and it’s a pipeline snaking across the landscape. Scale is important, it’s zooming in and out, huge and tiny. That’s why everything is a different scale, little oil pump, big leaf, the pipeline is snaking through the land.

AB: Do all the snakes have women’s names?

RM: Yes, every component has a name. All the leaves are named after birds, the motors are mammals, and the snakes are women. I name them because when I’m working it gets so complicated, so a particular motor has a particular arm, going a particular distance, to a specific leaf, and it all has to match. The snake’s length has to match as well, and just to say “the brown snake” doesn’t work, but it works if I say “get Yvonne on top of Chickadee and make sure Badger is working.” The process of making the show is all animals and birds, and interesting powerful women that I work with who help me.

The leaves that the snakes are sitting on are also important to me, and the leaves covering the whole floor have an intense colour and richness. The animations have animals’ ears, eyes, noses, and eyeballs of cutout paper, toned with pencil, hand drawn with animal features.

AB: I also see the hybridity we were speaking about earlier reflected in each one of the animated faces. They are whole, yet each part of the body or face acts differently from one another. I recognized your very Rita humour coming through in the animated faces, with their expressive faces and cutout snarling teeth.

RM: Yes, [laughs] the teeth are just cutout white paper, one has an elk mouth, bear eyes, wolf ears. Another has owl eyes. And that growling sound in the audio is me growling, trying to be this ferocious hybrid figure. My dog Wick taught me to growl. The animated leaf is growling, going wild, and at the end it shakes because it gets so mad at what it is seeing. The rolling of the eyes is “are you fucking kidding me, you’re doing what?” This one is “uggh,” it’s humorous but also like, “fuck off.” They are all reacting to this pipeline, it’s all about “ugh” and rolling eyes, disbelief, and anger. When you see all of that together you get a glimpse of the complexity. I wouldn’t pin it down to just one thing, but it is like another kind of language, not about them talking to us, but instead trying to communicate through gesture, knocking, sounds, and rhythm.

To watch a video documenting the installation, click here where you can read more about Rita McKeough’s work in Luma Quartlerly.

Image Credits: Rita McKeough, Veins, 2016. Installation Documentation at TRUCK Contemporary Art. Video by Alex Moon. Courtesy of the artist.

Anthea Black is a Canadian artist, writer, and cultural worker. Her current writing approaches contemporary art, craft, and performance by women artists through fictocriticism and interview. Her collaborative writing with Nicole Burisch is included in The Craft Reader and Extra/ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art and their forthcoming book is Craft on Demand: The New Politics of the Handmade. She is a faculty member at OCAD University in Printmaking, Publications, and Art and Social Change.

Rita McKeough is a Calgary-based audio, media installation and performance artist. She has exhibited throughout Canada since the late 1970s. Her work has been featured in Radio Rethink: Essays on Art, Sound and Transmission (Banff Centre for the Arts, 1993) and Caught in the Act: Canadian Women in Performance (YYZ Books, 2004). Born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, McKeough received her BFA at The University of Calgary and her MFA at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Her experience as a radio station disc jockey and drummer led to the introduction of sound elements into her elaborate installations and later to the development of electronic and mechanical objects in interactive environments. She is currently in the band Sleepy Panther with her wonderful friend Richard Brown and teaching at The Alberta College of Art and Design. Rita insists that she has been fortunate to have the support and assistance of her friends and community to produce her work.