April 22, 2014
Even when you’re certain of your path from a young age, it’s good to be open to opportunity and possibility—and to the idea that having a career doesn’t have to mean doing one thing for your whole life.
A lot of people in high school or college don’t know what they want to do; I always did. In fact, an old friend of my parents’ says that I’m exactly the same person as I was when I was 5, making little clay elephants. I always wanted to be an artist, even though I didn’t really know what that meant.
In the early 1980s, I came to New York to do art. I got a job at a gallery and witnessed what was really an art explosion. Suddenly a lot of people were buying pieces from these young artists, who were like rock stars. I soon realized that I didn’t like being in that world, where art was becoming a high-end consumer object being sold to wealthy people. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but when you’re making art, it can feel disheartening.
My friend Dan Graham introduced me to music. Dan was a music critic and an artist, and through him I learned about the No Wave movement, which was dissonant, expressionistic music. It was influenced by minimalism and was more nihilistic than punk rock. Dan encouraged me to write. I wrote this very short essay, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” for a magazine called Real Life. It was about the phenomenon of male musicians being into a drug called “locker room,” which was really just amyl nitrate. They’d take a hit and then double down on the guitar in this minimalist way—I noticed that it afforded them a certain kind of camaraderie. In general, playing music has often allowed men to show their female side; I think of Mick Jagger prancing around the stage like Tina Turner, for example, in such an emotional and expressive way.
I would go with Dan to see shows, but soon I started to think that I’d like to be more in the middle of it instead of being a voyeur. It seemed very free and I thought, I can do that. I started playing music with friends and around 1981. Dan invited me to play in a performance piece that he was doing: With a mirror onstage, Dan would describe the audience looking at him and describe himself looking at the audience. Because he was writing music criticism about all-girl groups, he wanted one to actually be in the piece and asked me if I’d join some female friends of his to do that. I said yes. He introduced me to Christine and Miranda, and after we were in his show at the ICA in Boston, we kept getting together to play music. Miranda introduced me to Thurston Moore and we soon formed Sonic Youth.
Initially, I was inspired by all the women in the punk and No Wave scenes in the late seventies. In the eighties, there weren’t a lot of women in music, but I was a tomboy and used to being around guys, so I didn’t really think about it much. When we started touring in England, people would ask what it was like for me to be the only woman in Sonic Youth, and I thought, It’s not like I’m in a band with a bunch of smelly jocks or frat guys.
My role in Sonic Youth was unique partly because I wasn’t a performer in the way that other punk musicians were. In England especially, they each had a punk persona expressed by one style or outfit—almost dressing as characters. Siouxsie Sioux, for example, was “witchy.” Even Patti Smith was somewhat stylized in this sort of spiritual way. I thought they were amazing, but I had come from a middle-class background, and being in Sonic Youth was really about the music and about having a presence onstage. I came to understand that I didn’t have to be some freakazoid to be a performer or a singer; I could just be a girl and that was enough. My “persona” was just me, and while I’m interested in the relationship between the performer and the audience, I’ve always been conscious about not wanting to exploit that. It was enough to be there in the middle of things, with the electricity swarming around me.
Looking back, I think that I went into music partly to escape the art world—so that I wouldn’t have to buy into the idea of what a “successful artist” must be. Music, and especially the music that I got involved with, actually seemed like a freer form of expression. I didn’t really have any knowledge about it; I’d internalized something from my record collection but my understanding of music just wasn’t “studied,” so I was able to work less conceptually than I did as an artist, and less self-consciously.
I have been able to have a certain art practice, and now that Sonic Youth is over, I’m able to devote myself to it more fully. A lot of painters have a certain thing they do that’s recognizable, and then they develop it and morph it. I’m not really interested in that. I could understand making a series of pieces that are similar, but I couldn’t see confining myself to my one recognizable “thing.” I’m interested in art that looks like a mistake—for example, paintings that are sort of baggy, or pieces that don’t even look like art—because then it’s more about the process and meaning of the work and less about “making an art object,” which almost seems to me like doing arts and crafts, at this point. It’s really hard to make a painting that just kind of breaks through and has some fresh energy—that has something conceptual going on, separate from just the visual niceness of it. Sonic Youth had some significance in a cultural way, and it’s hard to make art with the same kind of significance—but in a way, that’s my goal.
Still, it’s not easy to make people set aside that part of my career in a way that allows me to be taken seriously, so that my art isn’t just an accessory to my life in Sonic Youth. People are always trying to put me in shows with other musicians who do art or something—why? I don’t even like playing in festivals with other bands unless I really like them. I’m still trying to navigate that, to figure out a way to use it as a subject matter. I’m not a conventional person, and ultimately I didn’t want a conventional art career. Being in a big gallery is not the most important thing to me now. It has to be the right gallery. It has to be the right context. I want to treat my art the way we treated our music career.
Trying to maintain two careers, visual art and music, and to be a mother at the same time, always felt kind of impossible. When you’re feeling that you can and should do everything, then you never feel like you’re going to achieve anything. I think what kept me going was this deep understanding that it wasn’t going to be perfect, and that it didn’t have to be.
From Mistakes I Made at Work by Jessica Bacal. Published by arrangement with PLUME, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright (c) 2014, Jessica Bacal.