An Interview with Paul Pfeiffer
By Philip Auslander
Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (9), 2004. Courtesy: The Project.
New York-based artist Paul Pfeiffer has been described by Roberta Smith of The New York Times as "a consummate digital/video craftsman." This is an excerpt from a longer interview to be published in a catalog by the University of Georgia in the spring.
Since we’re focusing on your most recent work, how would you say it relates to your earlier work? Are there identifiable trajectories you feel yourself to be following?
The earlier and the more recent work are closely related in many ways. I’m still working with time-based media; still sampling images from television; and still thinking of ways to use those images to form a language of my own.
How about in relation to your use of sound, specifically? It seems to me that sound has become a more obviously compositional element in some of your recent work.
Moving into sound seems natural after working with moving images. The process of layering, juxtaposing, and sequencing video images has always seemed formally related to musical composition.
Paul Pfeiffer, Live From Neverland, Video Installation, 2007. Courtesy: The Project.
From my earliest experiments with video and photography I’ve been playing with the human figure and this continues in my experiments with sound, which are all so far to do with the human voice. My first forays into the use of video soundtracks were collaborations with sound artist Chris Kubick a.k.a. Language Removal Services a few years back. Two video installations in particular – “The Long Count (Thrilla In Manila)” and “Sex Machine” [both 2001] – incorporate sound compositions made by Kubick. In both cases audio recordings of celebrities being interviewed were re-edited, erasing all the spoken words while leaving intact the uncanny breathing sounds and guttural artifacts in between the words.
In more recent installations like “Live From Neverland”  I’m playing with another evocation of the human voice: the booming sounds of crowds. In “Live From Neverland” 80 men and women recite in perfect unison a statement by Michael Jackson that was originally broadcast on TV in 1982. The sound they produce is halfway between an individual speaking voice and the roar of a crowd.
You seem to have been very influenced by Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and the ideological implications of the visual in a media-saturated culture. In a conversation with John Baldesari published in the catalog for your 2003 retrospective, you say, “In today’s branded landscape, images and identities are pretty much synonymous. For me, the strategy of erasure is a response to that situation.” How does this analysis apply to sound? Are sounds as “branded” as visual images? Do you think of some of your manipulations of sound as analogous to the erasure of images? Can the manipulation of sound in multimedia work serve a similar critical purpose?
When it comes to making art, I think of image and sound as part of the same raw source material. There are of course technical differences between them but in my way of thinking and working they’re not simply analogous, they’re largely the same. In a way, I think the real material to be shaped is the perspective of the viewer. Images and sounds only have meaning because they resonate with what’s already in people’s heads.
As for my take on media culture, when I’m in the studio I’m not really thinking in terms of critical strategies or critical purposes per se. I believe art making happens best when theory takes a back seat and a more intuitive approach is adopted. What I’m thinking about mainly when I’m at work is how slippery the process of signification can be. I spend a lot of time thinking about the play of forms and meaning that’s activated in the process of reframing found images and other materials. The creative process for me is all about finding just the right way to structure these materials so that they speak for themselves in some new way.
As someone who is interested in performance, I’m fascinated by what I see in your work as gestures of symbolically severing the relationship between a performer and his audience and reconstituting it in other terms. I’m thinking about both the "Study for Jerusalem"  and "Live from Neverland." In the former, Freddie Mercury’s “call” has been detached from his original audience’s “response” and, as I understand it, another audience was assembled to respond to the recorded call. This is mirrored in the way the three parts of the piece call out and respond to one another. One of the main things this brings to my mind is the relationship of recorded sound to the audience. We consume music mostly in the form of recordings, which means that we’re primarily responding to music that was made at other times and other places than when and where we actually experience them. In a sense, our “response” is always divorced temporally and spatially from the musical “call” that initiates it. Even when we go to concerts, arguably we are modeling our expectations and behavior primarily on what we’ve seen and heard on recordings.
Your description of the distance between a recorded performance and its reception by a living listener is very suggestive. Expanding this further, wouldn’t you say that every communicative act entails a distance or gap between a source and receiver? I don’t mean just a literal distance in time and space or the literal mediation of digital recording technologies. I’m referring to a more fundamental gap inherent to language. There’s no way to guarantee a universal interpretation or understanding of the meaning of things, nor would life be very interesting if you could. The most profound aspects of human experience are by nature complex, multi-dimensional, full of contradiction and paradox. For me the motivation to make art comes from a desire to connect with others on this deeper level. As I see it art making has less to do with self-expression and more to do the mediation of shared meaning. You could even say it’s a kind of “call and response” with the viewer. The most I can hope for as an artist is to come up with a picture that’s convincing enough to compel viewers to complete the meaning for themselves.
The performer/audience relationship in "Live from Neverland" is different. When on television, Jackson was addressing what was for him a virtual audience. You have made that audience concrete, in the form of something that looks like a gospel choir, yet you have also made that audience speak Jackson’s words both back to him and for him. Again, there’s play with temporal and spatial separations and gaps. And I wonder what you might be saying about the relationship between performer and audience through this depiction. Does this relate back to the ideas of branding and spectacle, images and identities? Are the temporal and spatial discontinuities and re-continuities you introduce into these scenarios meant to disrupt, or at least drive a wedge, into the way image, identity, and brand become synonymous in a celebrity driven commodity culture?
While I’m drawn to the use of images that are universally familiar, like the image of Michael Jackson or of sports heroes, my interest is not so much the famous personalities themselves but the aura that surrounds them. I’m looking for ways to intensify that aura, to bring it into the foreground and make it the focal point of the image. All the methods I use to alter figures in my work – erasing, refracting, mirroring, looping, etc. – are intended to work toward this end. In the case of Live From Neverland, the elimination of Jackson’s voice, the recreation of his words by a chorus, the re-syncing of Jackson’s mouth to match the chorus’ inflection: none of this is intended to make a specific statement about Jackson himself, nor about performers and audiences, or commodity culture in general. To me it’s just another variation of the play between figure and background, subject and context, that’s always been a central theme in my work. It’s my hope that when the right balance is struck in this regard the picture becomes a kind of matrix – a space in which a whole range of different suggestions of meaning can coexist.
Philip Auslander teaches Performance Studies in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech.