Jamillah James: While you were in residence at ICA LA, you worked on a few different projects, including Accumulation Stack (2021) and Distance Transcription (2014–21), which I’m especially interested in. Could you talk about your process, and how long you’ve been working on it?
Sid M. Duenas: The first Distance Transcription was made in 2014. After recording and compiling a set of transcriptions for that iteration, a 14-minute excerpt was read to an audience that same year. For this new version, the location of ICA LA, coupled with my commute, is an ideal set up for a daily regimen of recording and transcribing. Distance Transcription is initiated by my commute and begins when the audio recorder starts. As I have performed this piece in the past, there is no predetermined subject. In previous iterations, the experiment was to record speech primarily in response to things happening in the present moment. For the residency, I’ve widened the parameters slightly, allowing my words to free-associate on a predetermined subject—memories of island life—to be shaped by the forces of a live field recording on the roads of L.A. Because the words that are spoken are not edited during recordings, the pauses where I’m silent, and full of the ambient noise, indicates rumination sometimes lasting seconds to, in some cases, as long as 20 min or more.
JJ: You mentioned performing this work. Are you using the original sound, or are reading and performing all the utterances and the sounds that were in the original recording yourself?
SD: The original sound recording is primarily a means to produce a printed transcription. The original sound recordings are inaccessible to listeners. I think it is important that they function as a kind of shadowy source from which forms emerge.
JJ: How do you ultimately imagine visualizing of all that information? How would that be presented beyond a performance? Would you ever present these scores as objects or in a book?
SD: The layout of the printed text on paper takes on the appearance of a short poem. Words are listed with corresponding time stamps along with the duration of pauses between each set of utterances. In a previous iteration, I displayed the printed sheets as a single stack where viewers could take from the stack. For the residency, about 80 printed transcriptions are displayed on one of those mobile walls in the ICA’s Field Workshop space.
JJ: I could also see this in book form—someone could be traveling with you, reading the written words, and the sounds of the movements, so forth.
SD: Yes, a book! That form is very conducive to Distance Transcription. I’ve been compiling notes, stacking sheets by year, since 2016 and progressively refining some of those notes into poems that form off-shoot stacks. All that is to say, I’ve compiled stacks of loose-leaf papers which I consider to be books. And so, the printed sheets of Distance Transcription whether bound or loose leaf can definitely function as a book.
JJ: When did you realize that sound is a useful format for producing work, or at least helpful to you in sketching out other works?
SD: Sometime around 2004 I sat by the telephone and just waited for it to ring. I did it for just an hour. Luckily, the phone rang, and I documented the telephone number, and the time it rang. I’ve made pieces where I’m not necessarily recording sound, but I’m using sound as a means to consider time. Around 2008, I set up a framework for a piece where for a measure of 10 seconds, a word will be uttered. Then you go to the line below and there are two words to be uttered in 10 seconds. Then, three words, four words, and so on until you get to the point where it’s impossible to utter all the words that I’ve prescribed in a 10 second interval. Some of my work is an attempt to synthesize my love of music, my interest in organizing sound, as well as the way I see poetry, but I’m not quite trying to make a song.
JJ: There is some inherent musicality to the work based on the way language operates, with ambient sound and things that you’re collecting along the way creating syncopation or rhythm.
SD: Yes. And the long pauses between word sets in the live recordings create a drawn-out anticipation that I feel has musicality and depending on the length of a duration of course my internal sense of musicality can change, which, along with the ambient sounds, affect the spoken words in the performance. The words then connect to the immediate environment through its relationship to ambient sound.
JJ: Let’s talk about your work that involves collaboration with your father and traveling to Saipan, where you moved from to Los Angeles as a child. How have you continued that collaboration, especially in the context of the pandemic?
SD: We talk more now than ever before. It has created more closeness. I’m usually writing things down during our conversations, or sometimes after the call I try to remember some of the things he said. These notes are sometimes graduated, to varying degrees, and become what I would consider a poetry. The distance between us, and directionality in general, is something that I consider a lot. In the case of these telephone calls, something is transmitted from a source that I am in turn, mentally projecting towards.
JJ: Yes, you’re bridging the absence and distance though these interactions and what results from them. You know, speaking of absence, I’ve come into contact with a few artists that have little or no online presence, which is an interesting position to take, especially right now when everyone is extremely online. What I was able to find about you online was limited, primarily a few entries about you through LACA [Los Angeles Contemporary Archives], and mentions of collaborations with other artists, such as Naotaka Hiro. Thinking about the afterlife of the work and its transmission, much of your work is ephemeral or temporary, including performances, screenings, one-time events. It defies documentation and persistent visibility.
SD: You know, that has come up, you’ve caught on to it. It’s a result of perhaps my personality, or a result of maybe having worked for a while without too much support. So, I’ve learned to work with it, to synthesize and embed it into my activities and the work. For example, in recent years stacking has been used to express the connections of invisibility and forgetting, but also the relation of secrecy and the empowerment of hiding along with tendencies to undermine. Still, I’ve begun to more seriously archive my work. What I produced for the residency at the ICA is part of a long process to get to that point, where the work is a synthesis of my life circumstances.
JJ: I’m always curious about the acts of refusal that artists do, especially artists that are working in a conceptual framework, where there is an ability to slip in and out of visibility or mediate how much information you give the viewer.
SD: I tend to favor the inscrutable. There might be some kind of self-silencing going on. Though recently I’ve begun to really enjoy giving a little bit, explaining a bit more. Honestly, despite how the work is expressed, I have a strong urge to communicate. Still, hiding is part of how I see the world and the work is representative of an idea, or an outlook in life where we don’t know everything, and we really don’t know much about each other.
JJ: I’m also thinking about postcolonial subjectivity, and how much of that experience influences your work as an artist, and how that information may not be accessible to every viewer.
SD: The project is pointed in the direction of a homeland and there’s so much of what you mentioned baked in there, you know, like how much do we disclose? How much do I want to disclose? I want to extend a gentle generosity in the communication given to whoever wants to ask about it. We do this all the time with interpersonal communications, right? As more is disclosed, we create an even playing field as we get to know each other.
JJ: The Curving Earth program that you did during your residency on Micronesian maritime traditions, why did you focus on that subject matter? What is your relationship to the speakers involved in the program?
SD: Curving Earth is composed of several projects, the title considers the horizon as a site and condition for insight, a space to consider something that is just beyond apprehension. The navigator in traditional seafaring signifies this knowledge of the horizon. The subject of Micronesian maritime traditions directs attention to the Pacific, and the consecutive structure of the screenings in the program considers waveform as a methodology. I met Mariquita Davis years ago at the Pacific Island Ethnic Arts Museum in Long Beach. I heard Chamoru being spoken in a video that she made, and that was just non-existent, in galleries, at least in my world at that time—so I was just like, who is this person? We became fast friends. I was introduced to Dr. Vicente M. Diaz through Mariquita. I’m very thankful for their time and generosity.
JJ: Mariquita works with languages that are not easily transmissible or well documented. Do you have interest in doing this in your own work, especially considering your relationship to text, sound, and forms of archiving?
SD: I would love to have what I’ve produced so far to be translated into Chamoru. I also have an interest in the mixing of Chamoru and English, especially instances where English is broken or has to submit to the rules of Chamorro grammar.
JJ: In conclusion, how has Los Angeles informed your practice, and what are some things that continue to surprise you about being an artist living and working here?
SD: I believe my work would not look or function the way it does had it not been shaped by the forces of this city—from experiencing it when my parents lived here, to running around in the streets, painting on walls when I was younger, and especially when contrasted to an island setting. The juxtaposition is contentious and generative—a massive Alpha city collaged, at least in my mind, with another place far away that not many people locally know about.