A hearing-impaired artist uses the story of L.A. tuba thieves to ask: What happens when sound goes missing?
T here are no tubas in artist Alison O’Daniel’s in-progress film The Tuba Thieves — at least none you see in full. You occasionally get glimpses of mostly shrouded instruments, as in the first scene, when two culprits leave a high school in dead of night, carrying unwieldy objects in black bags. "It was fascinating that the thieves wouldn’t take the cases,” O’Daniel says of the real-life burglars who were the basis for the film. They began their tuba-taking rash in 2011, hitting schools from Manhattan Beach to South Gate. "I think it was just easier for them not to.”
After L.A. Times reporter Sam Quinones wrote a story exposing tuba thefts in Southern California, O’Daniel sought him out and spoke to him, then found some aff ected band instructors, too. No tubas have been replaced or retrieved. Schools don’t have budgets for this, and LAPD doesn’t prioritize the problems of band rooms .
"I just kept picturing these sad tuba players sitting there during band practice,” O’Daniel says. "It became a metaphor or springboard. This is the most powerful sound, and it’s disappearing.”
In her film, the tubas appear at intervals like a refrain, popping up every so often in a story that’s mainly about the interactions of Nyke Price, a deaf drummer who practices in an office above the ice rink her Zambonidriving father smooths. Her hearing boyfriend, Nature Boy, and father, Arcey, often sign with her, and she occasionally encounters former tuba player Juan, who has spent band practice on homework since the thieves robbed his school.
O’Daniel, who sculpts and works cinematically, graduated from UC Irvine’s MFA program in 2010 and completed her first film two years later. She spent most of 2012 and 2013 exploring one idea: What happens when access to some sort of sensory experience is taken away, when a sound disappears?
The result is a collaborative, multidimensional, multimedia project that includes commissioned musical scores, delicate sculptures and, of course, the screenplay and film, which she will shoot one scene or a few scenes at a time, as she secures funding.
The Tuba Thieves’ Scene 29 — The Plants Are Protected is the only scene that exists thus far. It plays alongside some of the sculptures O’Daniel made while honing the screenplay in the group show "Rogue Wave,” Venice gallery L.A. Louver’s semiannual emerging-artist survey.
Another suite of lighter, more ethereal sculptures by O’Daniel is featured at Samuel Freeman Gallery, in a solo show titled "Quasi Closed Captions.” They look as if they are meant to be used, maybe for fishing, music making or some kind of electronic transmission. Some hold plants; others mimic the shape and size of speakers; others are vinelike things made of triangles and hanging chimes.
These sculptures don’t reference the tuba thieves in an explicit way, but the two exhibitions are connected. "When making objects,” O’Daniel says, "I think cinematically — about color, tone, feeling, shape,” and, in this case, about sound. She crafted these objects for the most part in Provincetown, Mass., while in residence at the Fine Arts Work Center there, making them while listening to the scores that will accompany Tuba Thieves. The show is called "Quasi Closed Captions” because they work as captions are supposed to, translating the experience of sound into another medium.
She also used a grant to commission three composers — painter-musician Steve Roden and composers Ethan Frederick Greene and Christine Sun Kim — to make music in response to lists she sent them, containing items such as the pattern a Zamboni makes on the ice, and the dramatic eyelashes of sculptor Louise Nevelson . The music, which can be heard in part in the scene screening at L.A. Louver, worked as a road map: O’Daniel listened to it almost exclusively while working on her sculptures and screenplay, which means the resulting productions are translations and responses to sound. It’s the score of Kim, who unlike Roden and Greene is a deaf composer, that features most prominently in Scene 29.
O’Daniel, who is herself hearing-impaired and wears a hearing aid, met Kim while making her previous film, Night Sky. In the gallery, the film would screen over two nights, each with live accompaniment. One night, musicians would perform a score composed by Greene. Other nights, it would be a "sign score” developed and performed by Lisa Reynolds. Kim knew Reynolds and helped her hone the score.
"It’s like a hypersensitivity to a lack of information,” O’Daniel says of the impulse behind her work. "I’m compelled to be very sensitive to the little spots of life.”
Artists’ obsession with perception and its nuances manifests in diff erent ways. In the 1960s, when light-and-space artists and minimalists hit their stride, there was an interest in compelling audiences to "perceive themselves perceiving,” to borrow words from artist Robert Irwin. Carefully crafted disks, scrims, light spaces or ambient sounds dispersed through white rooms aimed to compel people to notice themselves in relation to their environment in ways they hadn’t before.
But now, the perception-interested work that feels most relevant explores the limits or gaping divides separating one person’s experience from another’s. Eddo Stern, for instance, created an immersive video game that sight-impaired people can play alongside seeing people. Megan May Daalder’s Mirror Box is worn by two people who try to line their eyes up with one another’s entirely in order to see their faces merge, so they become physically one with someone they’re not. (Daalder actually appears in Night Sky.)
O’Daniel belongs to this strain, too, one that, consciously or not, novelist Zadie Smith articulated beautifully five years ago in an KCRW interview. "Great art to me,” she said, happens when "what I’m being confronted with is exactly what is radically not me and a consciousness of the world that is so far from my own, it’s a shock.
"Do other people exist in the same way I do?” the art makes her wonder. "It’s so hard to believe that’s true.”
It’s not true in O’Daniel’s work. Other people exist in decidedly diff erent ways.
In Scene 29, Nature Boy, who works as a mover, is transporting a wealthy women’s entire greenhouse from L.A. to Cape Cod as Hurricane Sandy arrives. O’Daniel uses the score Kim composed, in part verbatim and in part as a looser guide. Kim’s score starts out with familiar, natural sounds, and then transitions to more abstracted sounds. The scene begins with rain falling on the window of a truck and a radio playing, first in English and then in French. Then it transitions to views of the plants in the greenhouse, close-ups of them as they move. They begin to hum, and captions, which show up throughout the scene, here inform us that the sound comes from the plants, and it’s Kim’s voice you hear: "mmm-MMM,” like a sleepy buzzing.
O’Daniel showed the finished scene to Kim before captioning it, thinking Kim would recognize the visual reimagining of her own composition. But Kim couldn’t connect all of what she saw with her score. The captions were an attempt to bridge this gap between composer’s and artist’s perception. They do occasionally describe what’s happening in a way specifically helpful to a nonhearing audience ("sounds of nature,” one caption reads, while rain falls and wind gushes) but also grapple with the potentials of the images and sounds together (at one point, the captions stop describing what’s happening and quote filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky on what film can mean).
"At the very end of the process, after it seemed all was said and done, again we were working our heads around the politics of sound — what it is for me to be able to hear it and her to not,” O’Daniel says. "We don’t shy away from this.” The work grows out of such contrasts and intersections of experience, she adds.
ROGUE WAVE | L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice | through Aug. 23 | lalouver.com
QUASI CLOSED CAPTIONS | Samuel Freeman Gallery, 2639 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City | through Aug. 17 | samuelfreeman.com