Artist To Artist – John Tejada And David Grey
The art of collaboration between sounds and visuals is as old as time itself. Surely even dinosaurs were able to close their eyes and identify what visual image lay before them if they were to open their ears a little louder. The Sleep / Walk / Listen project is all about bringing together the visual and aural aspects of this wonderful thing we call art and their latest release is a very special one indeed. Electronic music-maker John Tejada has provided a mix made up in full of unreleased tracks between 1994 and 1996 and his sounds have been paired with original artwork from US artist David Grey to form a match made of pure artistry. To celebrate this release, we got the pair of them to quiz each other about their art and what inspires them in the hope that you too can be inspired to create;
John Tejada to David Grey
“Graphic design as a contemplative art.” Could you elaborate on this a bit and what guided your process to this current happy place of creative energy?
In one of Alan Watts many spiritual teachings he spoke about “The Coincidence of Opposites” stating that we can not have a front without a back, top without bottom, black without white. He describes a mystic as one who is sensibly aware of his inseparability as an individual from the total existing universe; a person who has become aware, through his senses, of our unified field of behavior. Graphic Design can be used as a vehicle to explore the very essence of this experience. Over time, the direct perceptual recognition and experiential application of design elements and principles can help one see the interdependent nature of relative and absolute reality. Graphic Design as Contemplative Art is a way of seeing, a way of appreciating, and ultimately a way of being. It cultivates purer perception and has the ability to synchronize mind and body so that all beings can enjoy a more harmonious, peaceful, and joyful existence. This practice provides support for designers who genuinely want to see how the external phenomenal world is co-emergent with our thoughts and agendas, our hopes and fears. It provides every designer with a direct method of recognizing that the manifestation of one’s everyday experience and creative path is a direct reflection of the mind’s view. Because of this, we can use graphic design to “wake up”. Itten, Kandinksy, Albers, and Moholy Nagy all spoke about the spiritual qualities of light, color, form, and contrast. Sister Corita Kent, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Thomas Merton were profound spiritual beings who explored art, design, and poetry as both mindfulness practice and general communication. In a day and age where we have so many ways of communicating and distracting ourselves with messaging and entertainment, a returned focus to some of these basic truths seems like the sanest thing one can do.
How does buddhist meditation influence your creative energy? How has it changed your perspective on design?
I began practicing shamatha meditation 10 years ago. Coincidentally, it was right around the time we began working together. It calmed my mind and focused my attention. Sitting on the cushion and working with my breath brought about an uplifted energy and a sense of ease. This helped me settle into the creative process with less agenda and more curiosity. I began to notice that all the incessant mental chatter that occurred while I was being “creative” actually hindered the flow of creativity. Only when I was able to calm the winds of discursive thoughts did the spaciousness of wisdom arise. As I learned to connect with what felt like a completely new, yet totally familiar, way of being, I found myself less interested in concept and more interested in energy. I was less interested in mental fabrications and more interested in essence. My drive to create surreal narrative collages and abstract mental landscapes began to disappear and was replaced with an unstoppable need to explore the emotional and vibrational tones of color and the wakefulness of rhythm. As my meditation practice deepened, so did my contemplative inquiry. As I better understood “The Five Skandhas”, a Buddhist teaching on the arising of all phenomena, I began to see countless correlations with the creative process. It seemed to me that all Buddhist philosophy – the co-emergent nature of the two truths (relative and absolute reality), the essence of awakened heart, the path in which one must practice to develop purer perception – could directly relate to the way in which we construct, deconstruct, and then re-construct reality as a designer. So, yes, this has changed everything; my intention and motivation, my personal agenda, my use of analog and digital technology, my metaphors, my sense perceptions, my love of contrast, and most importantly, my ability to appreciate the vibrational essence of light, color, form, and rhythm.
In making this mix and reviewing my older work in the process, I found that the pieces I thought would hold up the most over time were actually the least interesting to me now and the pieces I made and just recorded because I felt “well this was a waste but I might as well record it,” were the most interesting. What are your feelings on your own work when you review pieces that are 20 or so years old now?
If I look back at the visual language and styles that I was attempting to mimic 15 years ago, it’s easy for me to label them as superficial and reactionary. I wanted to be something and say something but I was too young. It was my best attempt at reflecting beauty and coolness. However, if I look closely at the fundamental design choices I made in terms of color and contrast and rhythm, it’s a joy to see how the exploration of perception was what I was always really after.
In the various countries and cultures you’ve been teaching your design workshops across the globe in the past year, do you find that there is a universal theme in your student’s interests and in their creative output? Has their output or feedback changed your own perspective on design?
Although I’ve only taught in a handful of countries, I have found students in Mexico City, Milan, Sao Paolo, New Delhi and many in the U.S. to be incredibly similar. Technology allows young artists and designers to stay connected regardless of their culture or country so, these days, they tend to have similar visual references and daydreams about commercial success. The differences begin to appear when discussing a designer’s motivation. Some students are primarily motivated by the commercial visualization of an idea or product and others are motivated by the understanding that Graphic Design is “the art of the everyday”. Although I am much more intrigued with the second perspective, I do appreciate the need for both. The interesting quality of this dichotomy is that it disappears a bit when I begin to explain how anyone can use graphic design as a method to directly connect with deep wisdom energies and recognize the basic truths of the universe regardless of where or how design is applied. I don’t think my students’ output has dramatically changed my own perspective on design but it has continued to remove any doubt that so many of us are longing for a more holistic approach to the commercial creative arena.
How has the flood of interest in design altered your enthusiasm towards the practice? Has your work changed at all?
Design practice and design thinking has dramatically changed since I fell in love with albums and magazines and club flyers and all things an American kid would surround himself with to feel connected to a greater cultural movement. We have a lot of designers trying to “solve problems” which in one sense is quite lovely. But I truly believe many of these problems are not design based. We create these problems because we are a confused society. We make decisions based on false information. We create systems to enslave the many and support the few. We cultivate competition and excess and speed that make any crack dealer look tame. Instead of trying to sell more shiny stuff and solve social problems with design we should be culturally attempting to create a more civilized and uplifted society through love and compassion. Patience and generosity should be our guiding principles. As many spiritual philosophies teach, this can be accomplished through the calming and synchronizing of mind and body. If the practice of graphic design is used as a method to support this, then maybe what we produce will begin to change in ways that I can not even imagine. If graphic designers truly realized how much power they have over the flow of emotion and sensation in our everyday society, they’d definitely begin combining elements and applying principles in a far more sophisticated alchemical manner. And that is definitely a society I’m curious to see.
David Grey to John Tejada
Years ago you introduced me to Robert Irwin’s biography, “Seeing Things Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Sees”. His exploration of perception and everyday life had an incalculable influence on my creative practice and the confidence that arises from trusting one's direct experience. Do you have a musical equivalent to my appreciation for Robert Irwin?
Actually I would say my musical equivalent is the same book. Even though it is not a music book, I find the themes regarding creative process are universal. I find Irwin's stories of experience really inspiring. Also his words on perspective really stuck with me. As he describes his perspective on visual themes, I sort of instantly translate that outlook to audio themes and techniques. I also really like the fact he is an LA local and his experience dealing with difficult people is also inspiring. But mostly him speaking on how he approaches various projects is a real eye opener for me. There’s so much useful information in that book for anyone in any creative field. It’s also been interesting to see how much influence he’s had on modern design and how much has been borrowed from his early work.
Your sensitivity to tone is deeply inspiring to me. Everything you craft is so full and alive. How do you know when a sound finds its proper resonance? Do you have recognizable references and criteria or is it purely intuitive?
I would say it’s just intuitive. I don’t bother tuning my oscillators. It’s more by ear and feel. There’s just something that happens and I lock into a pocket when things are flowing smoothly. When things are flowing that all happens very naturally. Most times I have the intention of just trying something out without the goal of actually working on a song. Those are the best sort of meditative moments when things seem to unfold on their own.
What is the most important metaphor you use to either support or transform your creative process? Has this changed over time?
What comes to mind is more of an idiom rather than a metaphor. Instead of “practice makes perfect,” I would say “practice makes progress.” Having grown up with musical parents, it was engrained early in me that a routine of practicing your instrument every day is just something you do. Sometimes people ask what the secret is and that’s essentially it, practice every day and try to get better every day of your life.
If you were to teach people from a contemplative manner how to hear better ((that is, an approach supported by personal experience, open-ended questions, curiosity, and mindfulness) how would you guide or direct them? How does someone cultivate their sense of taste in regards to sound?
I’ve been trying to become a better listener when it comes to where sounds are placed. Some works in my memory end up sounding much different vs. actually listening to them. For example, let’s take a song that sounds massive and that is my strong memory of it. Not everything can be that massive to make it work. That will sound like a mess for sure. The space frequencies have to work with is almost as important as the composition. When listening to a piece like that I’ll notice that yes, one element is very pronounced, but a 2nd element is actually scaled way back, but the combination and balance of those 2 sounds are so effective that the perceived result is “wow this is all huge sounding,” or at least it sticks that way in my memory until I actually go and listen again to see where all the elements are placed. There is also the difference between “am I hearing this or am I feeling this?” This all pertains mostly to lower frequencies but those are taking the most energy and gain in the frequency spectrum and are tricky to get right. I also heard the theory more recently that our brains and ears can’t properly zero in on lows, midrange and highs at the same time and I believe it. So this adds a bit more complication to listening exercises and how we perceive sound. But listening in a familiar space and paying attention to where elements sit in the mix is a great practice.
You’ve been through every kind of performance space from house parties and experimental arenas to massive sound systems and refined concert halls. If you could present your music in any kind of environment for any amount of people in any place on this planet, what would it look like? What would it sound like? What would it feel like? And who would be there?
I mostly enjoy intimate spaces. Spaces that aren’t night clubs. A space where visitors are coming specifically for the piece being performed. I find that makes a much better experience for audience and performer. A space which closed in recent years, Recombinant Media Labs in SF was an example of a great space. 360 degree screens and a 14.2 channel sound system (if I remember correctly) that really shook the floor. It was almost like a blank canvas to do anything audio/visual you wanted to do. I never got to perform any work there but a space like that or similar would be an ideal place for me. A room where the listener can just be immersed in the sound and visuals. It’s always a plus to play close to home and to have a lot of friends there.
David's artwork for the SWL004 partnership is available in the form of high quality A2 Gicleé prints here.