St Celfer Interview w/ Jess Henderson
* Hi John, after hearing your music and a little about your experience with burnout, it sounds like you have been on quite a journey through, with and by making music. You mentioned your burnout was related to your Olympic past. Can you tell us about your athletic life and how you came to making music?
Hi, Jess. I really enjoyed discovering your writing and analysis. No Fun is the opposite of its name and a captivating collection of ideas.
Your project considering 'burnout' as an 'idea' that could expand beyond the overuse of the word, struck me. I am enjoying contemplating something that's an everyday concern in sports and it's more profound implications.
I was both an athlete and a coach at the Olympics. In sports I believe 'burnout' has a slightly different meaning than elsewhere and is more easily understood in the context of physical effort.
As an athlete, I was not the most talented, slightly smaller and weaker, all fury and emotional energy. I was also a student of the sport (which I later applied to coaching). It was never sustainable, and 'burnout' was an accepted outcome, also called 'retirement'. I had believed it was "better to burn out than fade away". Fortunately, in sports you are not expected to do it your entire life.
In coaching, you are in denial of the possibility of burnout since it's a reflection of your inability to do your job, your lack of 'care' for an athlete, especially at the Olympic level. The idea that burnout is a reflection of an athlete's lack of toughness, or that they are 'just not into it', might have existed in the past, but we now know that there is a real physical reaction to too much effort without enough recovery. This is supported by data. In fact I monitor athletes' recovery and initiate conversations if they are feeling burned out.
My earliest memories are of sports and music. Composing and performing began late and by accident after many years as an avid fan attending shows, reading zines, buying vinyl, cassettes, and then CDs. I had lived through the Seattle 90s - my first job was there - and was fortunate to notice a similar scene budding in Brooklyn during the early 00s when I left my job and moved to New York to be a full time artist. I bought a laptop and CD scratcher and started messing around. A highpoint happened at (the now moved-to-Las-Vegas) CBGBs when I asked the sound guy to plug my computer into ‘his’ PA system. He did not answer and simply spat at my feet. Sacrilege! I had out-punked the punk rock guy at the place where it all began.
Long story short, I ended up leaving New York, disenchanted with the art market. Fortunately this only affected my desire “to make a living” in the arts and not “making” things. I was really burned out with the business of it.
* How do you describe your sound? I know you are also making your own instruments. Can you tell us about those?
In all the best ways, the description of my sound is a tagging nightmare, a crashing of neat and tidy labels crushed into digital soup.
I have a folk sensibility manifested in electronic sound making devices. In terms of composing, it is rooted in ideas of free jazz improvisation and experimentation. In terms of performance, I unabashedly hope to have a little emo flair, nothing flamboyant, just the cathartic release I imagine a blues musician had in their heyday, causing trouble at a small club a hundred years ago.
The instrument is homemade, or more accurately, “gambiarra,” in Brasilian Portuguese, meant to be played and heard live. This is an example of an interesting and rare literal connection between my art and sport. A decade ago the national organization for whom I was working put me in charge of “catching up” technologically to other countries. I was given a large budget and got the latest gear. It is important to note that this gear was not necessary to play the sport. It was only to gain an advantage.
The result was substantial; yet, I ended up using almost none of it because I would have needed a full time assistant just to interpret the data. Technology takes back what it gives. The limiting factor was the interface between man and machine.
Backing up another decade when I was a full time artist in Brooklyn as I was learning how to compose and perform music coincided with the popularization of a burgeoning digital music industry. I was keeping up, downloading ‘kracked’ programs in Mac OS 9, beta testing for a forward looking digital music company, buying, trying, then reselling outmoded analog gear, and arguing online whether digital or analog was better.
Back to the present, in the midst of a pandemic, during lockdown, I put together everything I learned in both art and sport and created an interface for making music. I playfully named it “Step.4D”, a nod to the popular book of the 70s and movie of the 00s. It also references my interest in the 4th Dimension. Furthermore, I am developing a concept: “Choose Your Delusion” (a riff on the GnR album). The Step.4D™ is truly live. I feel alive - a good thing during a pandemic. I wanted to transition from a studio heavy process to something more spontaneous. I focus on how to react rather than planning and executing. This is straightforward Abstract Expressionist painting theory.
I made the Step.4D™ out of inexpensive things I could buy on the internet, mostly repurposed gear. Even more valuable were the discussions while acquiring the gear that I had with others, also in lockdown, about how to address the dilemmas I experienced patching the instrument together. This unfolded over a few months. It was a community event via the internet as a telephone unlike the nightmare later, the internet as a promotional tool.
So to answer your initial question about the best way to describe the music I use the tag, 'noise'. It works about as well as John Cage’s “4 33” being called ‘silence’. True silence is akin to death and absolutely terrifying. There is a lot of noise today, and I wonder if we just need to hear the music.
* You were able to get some traction on bandcamp for your releases by actively reaching out to bandcamp itself. How did that go and do you see music as your main vocation and venture now?
I had discussed with a colleague about making music for no audience. We feared we would descend into some sort of unabomber insanity. I am introverted by nature so just making music or art and avoiding social interaction is attractive. I realized it is decadent and self-indulgent, too.
Just before the pandemic, I was surprised to have some tracks from an earlier project appear as avant garde classical on Radio Eclectus, a Seattle program curated by Michael Schell. Wanting to stay sane and having no expectations, I pitched my new tracks to various outlets, longshots, cold calls. It was an exercise to maintain integrity in the creative process. I don’t make things with the intention to be liked or popular. I was surprised when bandcamp wanted to highlight the tracks.
I sent them a science fiction plot. That I was returning from the future to the second Dark Ages (our current historical period) and had made a post-capitalist instrument that cost nothing to make. In the future things can be made almost for free (and currency does not exist).
So, lockdown afforded me 280 live recordings of which 3 were highlighted by bandcamp putting my music next to people with label support and much more famous than I. That said, as lockdown is over, the StC Lives project is over. I have no intention to make music my only activity since having multiple activities has cultivated my creativity in a balanced way.
* With prior experience with burnout, does it still feel like an imminent risk in your creative work too, or did you feel recovered in a way that wisdom might prevent its recurrence?
I looked up 'burnout', thinking that it originated in sports. The definition from the National Institute of Health says it did not, but rather, first referenced the medical field. Of course, this makes sense. Interestingly it places this 'state' as a lesser stage of depression. A driving force in my work in art is to take on labels like these, this desire to codify and categorize, to box things up. Everything is commodified these days - put a square around it - anything looks good inside a frame. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the frames in a museum are more interesting than the paintings? This illusion is part of a delusion necessary for our economies which also necessitates the fantasy of an underclass, in this case, 'a ship of fools', of people who 'can't keep up'. The same goes for burnouts. As a way to fight back, I embrace these labels.
During the pandemic, I maniacally made the live tracks described above alongside a few side projects. Now I am fortunate to have time to reflect, do this interview, to read (including No Fun), and go on my first trip in a while. The world, the way it is economically set up, does not want to reward this lifestyle, not conforming to time and work pressures or compulsions to produce and consume. Acceptable behavior has been made narrow by the impositions of power. You are meant to work efficiently so every pound of flesh can be wrung from each and every one of us.
Jess, why did you decide to call this a "band" and not just focus on your own self?
* It's a great question and one I need to answer in multi-fold. 'Band of Burnouts' is a research lab with the School of Commons, and when applying I realised it was a central motivation to collectivise the research on burnout that I had been doing in solitude during the pandemic (which was a depressing situation and topic to be dealing with on a daily basis, alone). After months of reading research papers, scientific studies, etc. whilst also speaking with and interview people who had also had a burnout, I noticed a massive gap between that former type of research and what I was more interested in – the personal stories and the details within those that biomedicine/psychology etc has not and is not accounting for.
* It was a somewhat visceral act that came to me (undoubtedly through my own desires) to band together through this experience and form a fluid collective and sharing of experiences – as the experience of burnout can be very lonesome, disorienting, confusing, and make one feel like the 'odd one out' or like something is wrong with them. There is a lot of self-blame, guilt and shame associated with burnout and its social stigma, so to frame this work as a band of burnouts felt like a welcome take on all the other approaches I have seen. And admittedly, I love music and particularly 60's and 70's rock/psychedelia so that aesthetic has always spoken to me. I wanted to replicate the experience of being in a band, bonding over a commonality, and taking this into the less-typical space of research, artistic interventions, storytelling and sharing experiences – from the overall happening to those minute details.
To bring a little humor in for a second, in my childhood, "burnout", (as now described by the urban dictionary), meant, accurately to my memory: "2. a person who has smoked so much marijuana that they appear slow, sluggish, and stupid." (How much cultural reference of its times is brought into that definition!) And then that makes me think of Timothy Leary's call to "turn on, tune in, drop out" (which he took from Marshall McLuhan) during the 60s and ‘the summer of love’. Along the same theme, I have been intrigued by Baudrillard's reference to the "Art of Disappearing" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0D-f6nsH58). Of course, I must mention discovering your site and the concept of 'no fun'. I dived in once I saw your Iggy quote.
One of my heroes is Abbie Hoffman who did not consider himself an artist. A notorious action of his was to smuggle bags of cash on the observation deck at Wall Street where he proceeded to slash them open and watch the traders scramble to gather as many dollar bills as they could in their arms. Another action involved getting enough people linking hands around the Pentagon to levitate it. There is a famous photo of a flower in the barrel of a soldier's gun which comes from this event.
This decision to not take part in the treadmill that manufactures 'burnout' could be the ultimate form of rebellion, don't you think?
Nevertheless, making a negative sounding concept of 'burnout' into something, dare I say, "fun", recognizing this as a description of an outcome which might not necessarily be in our control (caused by certain external and insipid power structures) is brilliant on your part. Initially, I did not think a sense of community was important, but you have changed my view as a way to not play the victim, to turn this imposition around like saying, "ok, you can call me names, but we are banding together". I realized what I had thought was 'community' was shaped in a warped fashion by social media.
I do want a 'tribe'. I am still thinking about how to do this. I am conflicted as I very much want to stand alone. I feel this is an ethical obligation of an artist and is also part of my character as I mentioned before. However, an artist really stands at the side of everyone else, right? A kind of court jester. There is much to dissect here and leads to my interest in society's perception of what is mental health?
* 'What is mental health?' is such a big, deep, and important question. I don't know the answer - especially as the word 'health' suggests a wholeness or normative/ableist distinction that I really don't connect with. I have depression but I don't feel like this makes me unhealthy or like there is something fundamentally wrong with me. It is also because I don't really believe in the meaning of life as the pursuit of happiness. That seems doomed to fail. As the Buddah taught, the first noble truth is 'Life is suffering.' For me, I find this a more generative and useful orientation towards life. it suggests acceptance and compassion, rather than some kind of toxic (generally unattainable) positivity.
* What is your perception of what mental health is - both personally and on a societal level?
I used the word, 'health', reluctantly now that you make me think of it; because, I would not use the word, 'illness'. In researching schizophrenia and whether there are environmental causes - for instance, talking to yourself while walking down the street has now become completely accepted behavior if you are holding a small square next to your head - I came across theoretical texts on the core tenets of psychiatry. One discussed a paradox that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia are not able to be measured or proven through a scientific method, and that despite this, we should take a leap of faith and deal with the ‘illness’ as a medical problem. I am not against any interventions that help, but I found this strange, that I made an assumption that there was a firm bed of science behind the diagnosis.
'Clanging' is a label to describe a symptom of schizophrenia. I think some great poets did some clanging. They definitely pushed the boundaries of 'word salad', another symptom. I mention these with compassion to widen the definition of normal.
* What is 'Clanging'?
Words based on sound rather than concept. I love doing this myself: like purposefully nonsensical puns, also, reversing words. 'Word Salad' is exactly as it sounds. Recently I have been reading Marshall McLuhan (...and wondering why I had not done more before!). "Medium is the Massage" is an example of some of the above. Nonetheless, I am reading his more straightforward lectures.
My interest stemmed from his quote, "schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy". By this he means that speaking with a phonetic alphabet is an exercise in abstraction since the words are not directly related to their meaning - we must learn and memorize them. When using language as now, we are making sense of abstractions throughout our conversation. We assemble meaning carefully by moving around these puzzle pieces of words making sure none of what we intend to convey is lost. It does not take much to give each piece a different context and end up with a completely different meaning to the communication from what was intended.
A main underlying theme of my interest in art is exposing unacknowledged limitations of human perception. Visually this can mean fighting the tyranny of the square, questioning the reliance on the box or noticing the perversion of the corner... The convenience of the frame! The fascism of labels! Naturally, I think about the structure of language. Relatedly in music this means composing outside bars and measures with meandering, sometimes extreme tempos and ranges, avoiding the structure of a square score that fits on a square page. A recent project of mine, Space Between Points, could be described as an attempt, sonically, to overload one's senses, like schizophrenia. Unacknowledged limitations of human perception are both unknowingly and knowingly exploited; so, we need to understand as best as we can why this happens, but even more importantly when and how this happens. Who gains an advantage?
I don't want to be dismissive or flippant of mental struggles. I know what happens in psychosis, and it's a very real and insurmountable crisis. I believe this comes BOTH from one's environment and from one’s genetic make-up. Our current definition of normal perversely excludes an increasing number of people outside the frame of what's accepted. Without a larger spectrum we risk pushing more and more away. My work tries to expand the embrace. If you hear the music in what some call noise, then I think I have been successful.
I love your reference to the Buddha. Acceptance of suffering is such an enduring idea that we can’t seem to make go away as much as we want to. In painting theory one talks of struggling as a way to get meaning in the work. I often argue that great work must have evidence of struggle. Therefore, it must have this type of suffering.
This runs counter to the prevailing ethos especially now in the competition of who has the best life on social media. You could have the most miserable existence and make it look cool on the small pulsating square that you carry everywhere to remind you at any time of how great things are when they are terrible. It’s a little mirror to show you, the you, you made. It's manufacturing delusion. And then where are you in the world outside this fake picture? Sounds like schizophrenia doesn’t it? At least a recipe for burnout as you try to will a personal fantasy.
* This conversation has developed over many days - weeks even. I've loved how we dip in and out, conversing through a different temporality. Not hurried. Not goal-oriented. Just seeing where it takes us, when two people who have never met in person resonate and have the desire to talk to one another. John, to round off, I'd like to check in with where you're at. Inside and out. You've mentioned to me you are in Brazil. Are you usually in the US? Why Brazil atm? How is your mindbody doing at present?
I am usually in Seattle. I went to Brasil after two years away to visit family, catch up on doctor appointments, look at my drawings on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sao Paulo, and meet an art collaborator: We planned an event for December 2021. It will include my new instrument plus live dance. I am very excited about it. Look for some announcements.
I think it is fascinating that we met via the internet (despite its limitations compared to in person interaction) and can connect through words on a page (despite my questioning of language). Certainly your concept of 'band' is in action. Thank you for providing the camaraderie.