Excerpt from interview by Marie Shurkus, January 21, 2010
Marie Shurkus Your work really seems to stand out in the context of the late sixties. Who were some of your influences?
William Leavitt Ed Kienholz was a really strong influence because his tableaux were narrative and narrative was something I was very sympathetic to. Also Ed Ruscha. He did a show at Ferus Gallery in 1965 that was important for me, but I haven’t seen any of those paintings since. They depicted birds, pencils, and fish; and if I remember correctly, the bird was a Baltimore oriole. He used those three elements in different arrangements as figures on a black background. And these paintings were in line with my interest in the absurd. Ruscha didn’t really make much of those paintings later, but they did have an influence on me in terms of their presentation of the image as icon without its usual connection to meaning.
MS A similar sensibility seems to be operating in your piece Random Selections from 1969.
WL Yes, I used three-by-five-inch cards that had pictorial elements on them. I think there were maybe twenty different items such as smoke, wire, photo, cage, fish, and sand. They were just banal things from the world. I shuffled the cards and dealt three, then made a little drawing of the set, and then took a photograph of the actual objects in the combinations given by the cards. I think I only made three or four different photos of the various combinations, though I used that technique later on to generate material for scripts.
MS In 1969, you also collaborated with Bas Jan Ader, right?
WL I met Bas at Claremont Graduate School in 1965, where we were both students. Later we worked together on a publication and some outdoor installation performances; one we did at Immaculate Heart College was called A Hillside Work (1969) It was a waterfall of highway flares, laid out with one at the top, two, three…until it spread out at the bottom of the hill. All these flares were lit sequentially from the top to the bottom, creating a sense of movement unfolding. We amplified the sound of the flares with a microphone, so that you heard the hissing of the flares as they slowly burned out and the sound faded.
MS Audio is also a significant part of the work you showed in your first solo exhibition at Eugenia Butler Gallery in 1970.
WL Yes, I installed three pieces at Eugenia Butler. Forest Sound was composed of seven artificial plastic trees set on a sand hillock. A yellow spotlight lit the trees from below so you could see the concrete bases of the trees. There was also a tape recorder playing a looped recording of mockingbirds, which came from a speaker in the trees. The second installation, Garden Sound, was a clump of plastic vegetation, a wooden box with microphone and amplifier, and a speaker buried in the plants. A pump circulated water in the box, so you heard the sound of running water coming from the plastic plants. Each piece had its own room. Wind Sound was in the office area of the gallery. On one wall of the room was a tape player with a looped recording of the wind going through a radio transmitter—built from a little Radio Shack kit. On the other wall was a radio that received and broadcast the sound of the wind. Actually, the wind sounded a lot like static, but you also heard a whishing sound. I was mostly interested in the absurdist idea of broadcasting the sound of wind over a radio ten feet away—a wind environment in the office. I was interested in creating something that was illusionistic in terms of mood, or story, or place, or situation.
MS That sense of creating the illusion of a mood or a place also seems to describe your approach to narrative. The last time we spoke about narrative, you mentioned an influence coming from soap operas as well as from the author Alain Robbe-Grillet.
WL The banality of soap operas fits in with my interest in suburbia. I thought the style of soap operas was marvelous in this absurd way. It wasn’t that I wanted to disparage it; I just wanted to hold it there and think, What is this? I wanted to look at it not through a plot sequence, but through how it was presented. It does seem kind of opposite to what Robbe-Grillet was creating—this very reduced description of a place, a situation, pared down to a point where there was just this repetition of the language and a kind of blankness that he created, sometimes with a layer of dread underneath, but not giving you too much. He kind of left you to fill in the spaces yourself. So I was interested in how he did that. I was also interested in the philosophy of phenomenology, which asks that we look at things before judgment, and try not to assign any value to our investigations of the world, but just look at it and bracket it to see if something else will come up.