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"Exploding text": An Interview with We Are Here composer Jeremy Touissant-Baptiste

By High Line | June 27, 2019

Commissioned for the historic opening of the Spur, the last section of the High Line, We Are Here is a series of text-based sound installations that span several locations of the High Line. Claudia Rankine wrote the text with Helga Davis and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, with sound by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste.

The work engages with themes of time, place, and movement, and Jeremy’s sound contribution is both an understated and dramatic addition to the din around the High Line.

The following is an interview with Jeremy, conducted over Skype.

HIGH LINEHi Jeremy! Thank you for taking the time to talk today!

JEREMY TOUSSAINT-BAPTISTE: Of course, yeah.

HL: Are you in New York?

JEREMY: Yeah, I’m back in New York for three days before I go off to St. Louis.

HL: Are you based here?

JEREMY: Yeah.

HL: Well, I really enjoy the work you did for We Are Here and it’s exciting to have sound art on the High Line. Playing off Claudia Rankine’s artist statement for the piece, which about the etymology of the word “here” (Old English for “in the place where one puts oneself”), what does the word “here” mean to you?

JEREMY: I guess I have an interesting relationship with that word and notions of that word. I spend a lot of my time traveling around for work. And so “here” feels like it’s always shifting. For me. And there’s something about the way that Claudia works with the question [of what “here” means], the location of the High Line, and its history really cemented a “here” for me in a way that was really nice.

HL: What do you mean by that?

JEREMY: I guess through this line of questions and weaving about and throughout the word “here” Claudia managed to capture the way I navigate the world, especially the High Line, which is a space of transience and walking. It’s a permanent space with passing identities.

HL: So “here” isn’t fixed?

JEREMY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And that was really lovely for me in terms of how I was able to work with the text and approach placing sound along the High Line.

HL: That kind of leads into my next question of how you approached turning Claudia’s words into sound, how you composed this piece.

JEREMY: This is the second time we’ve worked together. I sound designed and performed in a piece that she co-wrote and co-directed with the choreographer Will Rawls called What Remains and through that work it became a really apparent that she’s incredibly generous with the way that she encourages collaborators to take risks with her text, beyond a direct use of language. Or in the way she and Will approached texts like Citizen or Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, there’s this real interest in exploding, or just complicating the way that the text can function across other forms of media.

So the texts continued to shift over the course of six or seven months or something like that. There was never really a decision to settle on a final text. We had a conversation around how I could make use of it across the High Line, and that’s what determined what the text became in terms of structure and final form. And from there, I knew that she was going to give me a great degree of freedom to mess with the text and work with how it’s delivered. It’s difficult to hear on the High Line, which is really kind of cool. There’s a lot of nuance in the work that is further abstracted just by virtue of working in an open space.

HL: Did you compose it before bringing it to the High Line? And then were just curious to see what would happen? Were you more interested in seeing what would happen when you brought a finished work here?

JEREMY: Yeah, I mean I did so many site visits to the High Line and started working on it fairly early in the whole process. So I was taking trips to the High Line back and forth while composing. But because of the nature of the installation it wasn’t really possible to test and see what it would sound like with the elements of the High Line. I just sort of assumed that it was always going to be loud, and some things were going to be lost and some things would pop out. That sort of collision of what I’ve created with the reality of the world is, I think, way more interesting than carefully planning and meticulously sculpting something for the elements. I like to see what happens when my subjectivity crashes with the reality of the world.

HL: I love that.

JEREMY: Helga Davis is the voice we hear in the recording throughout the installation, and I think that what she did with her voice was also quite a lovely bridge between the poetic and, I guess, more musical, in the sense that she’s reading it in an almost melismatic (a single sung syllable) way. It’s very musical to me, in the way that she delivers it, but it’s not necessarily musical in essence, or even intentionally complementary to what I composed.

So that was really lovely to be able to work with as well. And there’s wildly manipulated takes of her voice buried quite deep throughout. So when you go later in the afternoon, or in the early evening, the way that you experience the installation changes, because the city dies down, the construction workers go home. Some of the more nuanced elements can pop out at different times of the day.

HL: Is that subtlety and nuance inherent to your practice? Or was that something that is site-specific to what you wanted to do here because of all the competing noises?

JEREMY: It’s pretty inherent in my practice, I guess. I’m always interested in finding the cracks between the sounds and the cracks between those cracks. In this work, I actually had a moment where I was a little worried that I was spending too much time focusing on the subtlety or on these moments of subtlety. But in spending long periods of time at the High Line over the course of the install process I realized that during midday some things are lost and some things pop in the early morning. It’s a really different experience. There’s something special about that, that I didn’t, couldn’t, have planned for.

HL: It makes me think about Claudia’s statement about the piece and her interest in time as well, and how time relates to “here” and how interesting it would be to do a time-based tour of these sound pieces, rather than a place-based tour of them; for visitors to keep returning to the same one at different points in the day to see how it changes over time.

JEREMY: Yeah, I mean, I would love if anyone had that sort of time to really spend with the work. Yeah, that’s a really exciting prompt, honestly.

HL: Do you think about time a lot when you’re composing?

JEREMY: I have a tricky relationship to time, in the sense that when I guess when I feel most “in it,” I lose sense of time. Both in terms of composing as well as experiencing sound. So that’s kind of my hope, that there’s a not timelessness but like a slipperiness to the way that time is experienced over the course of what I compose, because that’s my experience of time.

The High Line is interesting because it’s such a space of movement. And the way that people spend time at each site is different. And the amount of time that people are spending at sites ebbs and flows.

And so specifically with this piece, I was wondering how can simplicity and repetition be used to make a very direct, but still complex comprehensive thesis without necessarily assuming that the people experiencing this don’t want to sit with it and do the work? So how can I create something that is direct as it continues to unfold? That it has room to be experienced by a vast body of listeners or people walking through the High Line.

HL: Have you made work for outside before?

JEREMY: Not really. I’ve done live music performances where I’m outside. And I’ve done performance art stuff outside, but not creating an installation for outside. And I had a lot of anxiety about it because historically outside performances or art can be pretty difficult, from my experience. But it was really great! The team at the High Line had tons more experience at this sort of thing than I did, and were able to offer some pretty incredible guidance.

HL: Are you happy with the piece?

JEREMY: Yes, yeah, it’s such a trip.

HL: Do you think that you’ll do something similar in the future?

JEREMY: If the opportunity presents itself. Beyond this work, for a while now I’ve been interested in questions of public space, or just space in general, and location.

Some of my other works are traveling and I have one that’s situated in a beer shop in St. Louis, Missouri right now. It’s not totally public, it’s a business. It’s a business where you can only shop where you’re 21 and over. And you know, there are lots of qualifiers to be able get into the building to experience this work. But yeah, I am interested in taking my approach to working with sound and putting it in spaces, both within the fine art context and in extra experiential contexts. So public spaces, like little secretive spaces.

HL: What is it about public space that interests you?

JEREMY: I guess, historically, the town square is the center where people go to enact social relations. And then, of course, commerce happens there. There’s all sorts of political relations that also exist, but there’s a really exciting type of social relation that happens in the square. We’re leading really private lives increasingly so there’s something [important] about creating a work for a space intended to be social. And you know, we experience visual art often on an individual level—even when in groups, and there’s a ton of validity to that. But I’m also wondering “how is it possible to create works for public spaces that have had the capacity to speak to large groups of people without necessarily being dumbed down or trite or simplistic?” Because that’s not what the center or the square is. It’s as complex as the bodies are in it.

HL: Tell me more about the piece at the bar.

JEREMY: It’s a beer shop.

HL: A beer shop?

JEREMY: Yeah, yeah. It’s a sound installation for The Luminary’s Counterpublic, and is situated in a Black-owned beer shop in St. Louis, so that felt very important as well. It’s situated in a space that is close to my own experience in some way. Initially, it was going to be a barber shop, which I was thrilled about, but they literally just closed overnight before we were about to install the piece. Anyways, I’ll be down there for two weeks composing. I’ve got a large performance premiering in about a year that I’m just going to be working consistently towards.

HL: In St. Louis or in New York?

JEREMY: It’ll premiere here in New York at Abrons Art Center in 2020. And I’m getting a bit of support from a few institutions over the course of the next year to develop it. So I’ll be traveling about just very quietly working toward this chorus and solo dance. It’s dealing, again, with questions of the square. And looking at Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square as a site of relational inquiry, political inquiry, racial inquiry, as well as architectural.

HL: That sounds incredible. Who’s the choreographer?

JEREMY: I’m developing as much of it as possible on my own. Since I work closely with an amazing group of dancers and choreographers from the downtown world, I’m hoping to consult with Will Rawls and Jonathan Gonzales on what my movement is doing. I’m hoping that I can really get into my own movement vocabulary and, and develop it.

HL: Amazing. Well, thank you so much for talking with me.

JEREMY: Of course. Thanks for making time.

HL: Thanks so much. Take care.

Experience We Are Here in four locations: two balconies in the Coach Passage along 30th Street, the 23rd Street Seating Steps, and in the Sunken Overlook at 17th Street. The soundscape can be heard during park hours.

Hurry to the park to hear We Are Here for yourself—it’s only up through July 8.

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