James Richards recently presented a cinematic program in collaboration with Leslie Thornton on the occasion of the Walker premiere of Thornton’s Moving Image Commission They Were Just People (2016), as well as the opening of the exhibition Less Than One. Richards’s own Moving Image Commission, Radio at Night (2015), can be viewed online for a limited run as well as in its first in-gallery presentation until the end of this year, within Less Than One. Rosebud (2013), centered on a series of censored images Richards came across in a Tokyo library, is also featured in the exhibition. The library books—contemporary monographs on artists Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Man Ray—had been stopped at customs, where Japanese officials were instructed to use sandpaper to scratch away at any suggestive photographs before they could enter the country. Here, we talk about the seduction of touch, the sculpt-ability of sound, and the perverse pleasures of looking.
Victoria Sung: You gave a short interview about Radio at Night when it premiered at the Walker in 2015. Bentson Moving Image Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap has also written about the piece and its sense of flow in relation to how the human body serves as a site of sensory integration and reception. I’m curious to hear you speak more about Rosebud, which the Walker acquired this past year. It seems to be a very tactile and textured piece, especially when I think about how your working process involves editing digital files on a laptop. Can you speak about this emphasis on tactility in the context of video?
James Richards: The premise of the video developed out of something utterly analogue and tactile—the sandpapering of a book page. It felt natural to then take this notion of touch or caress as a starting point and make a work that explores types of sensuality. It’s about the seductive idea of someone sitting in a customs office sandpapering away genitals, and the caressing or devotional feeling you can somewhat imagine that inducing. I guess it also touches on the idea of people queuing to rub the heel of a saint; the idea of accumulated touch as a sort of devotional thing. There’s also something in the way that the violence of the removal during the censoring process only seems to draw you in more or make you look harder, so to speak. When starting to make the work I knew I wanted to do something about different types of looking, of peering and scrutinizing.
More broadly speaking, I became interested in video through ideas like sensation—and the moving image as a source of sensation, like sculpture—rather than through an interest in cinema or television. I view the frame of the image not as a window into something but more like a surface across which sensations pass. I guess I was also interested in finding another way of looking at something familiar. I don’t think my work strictly adheres to this, but Stan Brakhage, the American Structuralist filmmaker, spoke of looking in a way that was more akin to how a baby looks—before cognition develops to the point of its being able to differentiate and name what it is seeing; prior to this, everything is just colors and shapes. This idea of a precognitive relationship, of an uninterpreted, sensational kind of looking, is definitely one of the interests that run through my videos.
Sung: Brakhage made films without sound, for the most part, as he thought it would detract from the purity of the visual experience. Sound is a central, if not predominant, element in your work. Your videos are at once ethereal and physical, and I think much of this can be attributed to your ability to weight sound or give it a certain gravitas. Can you speak to the tangible, sculpt-able nature of sound in your work?
Richards: I like this idea of the unseen affective force you can have with sound. In the visual arts, of course, sound is read as secondary, in some ways, but it can be such a powerful tool. You can address someone directly with the human voice using words, language, or a song, but then you can also do things that are much more figurative—like the sound of something happening, which conjures something very visual in the mind’s eye, or how rhythms and punctuation can return viewers back to their own bodies. You can also do things that are more tonal and emotionally filter the space or filter the images that are in the space. I feel you can control a lot in very particular ways with sound, and in quite contrasting ways. Sound is something I’ve been working with for a long time now, longer than moving image, so perhaps on a very practical level it’s the medium I feel I can manipulate and control the most, the medium with which I can create the most.
In Rosebud there are points where the sound is literally the sound of the thing you’re seeing: you see a camera submerged in water and you can hear the sound of water on the microphone of the camera, so you are in and of that moment. At other times, that sound has been replaced by an extract of a song or a percussive element, and it completely alters how you read the image; the relationship between sound and image becomes much more imagined. It generates a third sort of space, or a third sensation, between the way you’re interpreting the sound and the image.
Sung: I know you began your artistic foray with sound—the sequencing, synthesizing, and sampling of sound—and I wonder if you find yourself returning more and more to working with solely sound.
Richards: Definitely. The last work I made, presented at Bergen Kunsthall in Norway (Crumb Mahogany, co-commissioned by Bergen Kunsthall, ICA London, and Kestnergesellschaft, Hannover; traveling through 2016) was all about trying to spread and smear the elements of a single video across a number of rooms. In some spaces we presented configurations of speakers playing audio compositions, and other rooms had video components; rather than synchronizing the two by showing a video with two speakers on either side, for example, things were allowed to just bleed between the rooms. I find myself making further moves from the cinematic or televisual idea of synching sound and image and letting them be in discrete spaces, to convene accidentally or through people walking between them.
Sung: In hearing you talk about sound and how it possesses the potential for a certain direct or immediate address, and the moments when the sound you’re hearing might not match up to the image in front of you, I’m struck by the immersive soundtrack in Radio at Night in relation to a sense of visual distanciation. There seem to be many distancing mechanisms—you frequently use a black frame to border an image, or when you show an eye it’s not just a naked eye but an eye as seen through a handheld lens as seen through a viewfinder. Can you talk about this possible tension you’re playing with?
Richards: Perhaps all of these quite graphic, distancing pictorial devices create space that the sound is then occupying, because sound always is in a way immersive; maybe there is something in that tension, a kind of moving around and in between those two, the pushes and pulls between sound and image. Then conversely it’s almost like the visual emphasis on shifts in aspect ratio or the resolution of an image—or in Rosebud the scratched image—actually encourages people to carry out a kind of intense viewing. It’s as if the distancing is producing almost a strange scrutiny of sorts, and then sound steps in to somehow modify that looking.
Sung: The self-referential nature of video as a durational, time-based medium is particularly captivating in Rosebud. I recently read an essay about how art invites a particular way of looking, a slow looking, which in turn may encourage patience at a time when we are accustomed to receiving visual information immediately. Can you tease out the durational aspect of your work here?
Richards: I think that’s definitely one of the pleasures of Rosebud. Even in the filming, before I knew I would make a piece with the footage, I came across these books in a Tokyo library on the last day or two of a residency and thought I’d just go and film as many of them as I could before I left. For some reason I chose to film them rather than to scan them, and I think it was totally about the perverse pleasure of introducing a time element to a still image. It speaks to a kind of gorging, or ways a camera takes something in. I like the idea of the wide open aperture and the image just flowing in. With the underwater scenes I wasn’t really looking through the viewfinder but was using the camera as a sort of vessel, as an extension of my hand that could be submerged into liquids.
Then there are shots of iconic but also shocking images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Wolfgang Tillmans in S&M scenes that have been sandpapered away at in a strange, impotent “desexualizing” gesture. But at the same time you can hear birds squawking outside, and the rustling of the hushed library where these images now reside, and all of this has a sense of “meanwhile” or “despite this.” I guess that’s something that happens with duration—I’m showing you this with an intensity, but at the same time something utterly unrelated is left in and seemingly happening. This concentrated, over-held attention on the one hand, and a shifting, wandering attention on the other—and moving between those two—is probably where a lot of the drama in the piece occurs. I guess it’s also one of the logics in the work that because the “center” or focus of the photograph has been removed, I end up working so much to accent or emphasize the peripheral, the edges, the off-screen.
Less Than One is on view at the Walker from April 7 to December 31, 2016.
 Known for his experimental, non-narrative films, Stan Brakhage viewed cinema as a way to liberate the act of looking. In “Metaphors On Vision” (first published in the journal Film Culture in 1963), he wrote: “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye?”