You may have read a bit about artist Nelson Loskamp’s Electric Chaircut performance in an earlier post on this blog (a report I filed after attending MEGAPOLIS 2010 Sound Art Festival). Since Loskamp agreed to allow me to publish the audio samples I recorded of him during his Baltimore performance as ringtones, I didn’t want to skip the tradition of interviewing him as a collaborator. I also found some interesting similarities between our work. We both do amplified-audio performances in public, and we both give things away as part of our performances, so I wanted to ask Loskamp questions about what he does, in order to better reflect upon what I do. And, well, having been a shampoo girl, I thought it’d be fun to talk about the Electric Chaircut performance from that perspective, too.
BTW, a big shout out to MEGAPOLIS 2010. I’m super proud to say that the first tones published outside of Pittsburgh on the Locally Toned distribution site are from that mega-wonderful sound art festival that played out in Baltimore May 14-16th of this fine year. Lookey here–the Locally Toned expanded map! Pittsburgh and Baltimore (and Valencia, Spain, soon, and Brazil, too!).
Teresa Foley (TF): Before we get to talking about your work, I wonder–have you thought about turning your sounds into ringtones before? Do you make or purchase interesting tones for your phone, for amusement or utilitarian purposes?
Nelson Loskamp (NL): No. I hadn’t thought about turning the Electric Chaircut into tone, but it’s a great idea. I don’t buy them, and I don’t mess around with that kind of stuff on my cell phone. The mainstream ringtones–they’re all kind of bad. You know–a pop song you’d rather not hear anyway…
TF: Tell me how you got the idea for the performance.
NL: It started as a series of requests from friends. I was cutting hair and was also involved in some sound-noise bands at the time, in post-punk kind of way. I had one friend who liked to be roughed around in a very physical way when he got his haircut. I had another friend who was an exhibitionist–everything he did had to be in front of an audience. So cutting hair in front of people became an idea, and the idea of using tape, from my other friend, came into play–the tape for holding someone down, combined with giving someone something that they needed. There is kind of an S&M relationship between a hair cutter and person getting haircut anyway. The person on top is in control; and the person on the bottom is giving himself up, but he also wants to direct the person on top.
And the sound came about cause I was involved in making musical “noise” and instruments. I wanted to be involved in sound production beyond sound-making as the only outcome–I wanted whatever sound I made to do something. In the Electric Chaircut, I’m making sound, but there’s also a finished product–someone has a haircut at the end of it. But the performance itself basically came out of my personal relationships, and through making music by other means.
TF: How heavy is the amplifier on your back? I was so busy taking pictures and recording audio that I couldn’t really look very closely at all you were doing. Tell me how your tools and amplifier all work together. Are you working with contact mics?
NL: Yes, that’s an amp–not heavy but not light. But after 4 or 5 hours, the Electric Chaircut becomes an endurance piece. Ironically, the more successful the work is–the more people who want to participate, the harder it is on me. Lots of artists do stuff with duration. And yes, it gets heavy, and I get worn out. But I give good haircuts–I’ve done it [haircutting] so long–it’s natural to me. Maybe I give even better haircuts when I’m slightly out of it.
Yes, I’m using contact mics, and everything’s ungrounded, so there’s a lot of feedback. When I go out look for a pedal in a store, they let me set all my equipment up, and I test things with their crappiest amplifier–a practice amp, cause that’s what I use in the performance. They always ask if I’m sure about that–if want to use something better, and they look at me like I’m strange, but I want the sound I want.
The sound of the piece changes slightly over time; my approach and what I can tolerate hearing while performing, has changed and evolved. The different pieces of equipment that generate the audio effects–the wiring, clippers, and scissors, have changed over time. Scissors break, or I switch something out to get a different sound. Only the major equipment is the same–the amplifier, the belt that holds all my tools.
TF: Do you have mirrors available for people as part of the performance?
NL: Yes I have a mirror that I show people and it has a crack in it. But I like to ask people different questions when they’re still taped up. “How does that feel? What do you think?” I do that while they’re still gagged. “How does that sound?” I try to hit on aspects other than “How does that look?”
One time I gave a girl with long hair a shag haircut, and at a certain point she told me that I’d cut off too much. She panicked when she felt her hair while her eyes were taped, but then she saw the cut and she was relieved–she liked it. I try to give people what they want–I don’t want to scar anybody emotionally.
I think of the participant as someone who gives over their trust; they have the experience of giving over their appearance over to me for a time.
A lot of people ask, “What’s the tape for?” I say it’s there to emphasize our willingness to participate in the fetishism of appearance. I’m using the tape in a fun kind of way; I’m not trying not to hurt anybody with the tape. But I know that there are also really negative connotations to people being taped up–for example if someone is abducted. But if trust is there in my performance, it’s fine. Not cut and dry, though. Things having different connotations. Fashion and terror might, at times, have a similar appearances.
TF: One of the things I appreciated about your piece personally, since I was a chop-shop shampoo girl for a a year or so, was the idea of the performance being a hairdressers’ revenge fantasy. Your Electric Chaircut flies in the face of folks’ sensitivity towards getting a haircut or the seeming paranoia they have that something really bad could happen when they get their hair cut.
NL: Great that you touched on that–a lot has been written about the Electric Chaircut, but no one’s mentioned the hairdressers’ revenge fantasy. Since you have that practical experience, I think that’s the kind of thing you, especially, in an underling position at a salon, could relate to. People have anxiety and don’t know how to release it. The fear or worry on the client’s part doesn’t come out too much to the hairdresser, it’s generally expressed to the underling, the shampoo girl. Clients don’t dare so much to let the hairdresser know they’re upset, because the hairdresser is in power. He or she could really do some damage.
TF: I noticed right away that your piece has interesting aspects in relation to public and private space. In Baltimore, and in the other photos I’ve seen of your performance, you work outside. Getting a haircut, especially for women, is often a very private experience. Salons (compared to barber shops) are built with a good deal of clientele privacy. You’re helping people address a very private need in a very public space. Can you talk about that? Or are there any other public and private issues that come to mind for you?
NL: Not so much the public/private thing–I just wanted to make a piece that could speak to everybody–not just gallery goers and people who understand critical theory. Whether you knew something about art or performance or not, I wanted to make something that someone just off the street could enjoy. It’s funny. I take elements that don’t really go together. It’s a little jarring, but it makes you think about these things. Whether you see the Electric Chaircut as a passerby or as someone who’s analyzing it, I hope the work is enjoyed. It can be sonically irritating, but I want to bridge the gap between art and people who are not art-related. There was a time in the early 90s and beyond where the general population hated art (and congressmen made careers bashing art). A lot of art is difficult to understand. Why is an abstract painting or a performance art? How can you understand it?
A lot of times when people see this piece, they talk about tipping–they wonder if I should I put out a jar for tips. But I don’t want to create a situation where people feel like I’m trying to get money out of them. I’m trying to interact with people and I leave it at that. Money is not the point.
TF: The performance is very generous, though. People actually get something out of it, as individuals, if they “sit” for you. Your work is literally a gift.
NL: Thank you.
TF: Yes, and it’s not until now, that I’m talking to you on the phone that I realize that may be another reason why I was drawn to your work–you know, the gift culture–in both of our projects we give stuff away. You give a service, I give a sound. Locally Toned was designed in part to replace a system of commerce with one of shared creativity.
NL: I think that gift culture as part of art is an interesting idea.
TF: I feel like there’s a lot of wonderful humor in the work–the hairdressers’ revenge, the sounds that you generate–they’re not gentle sounds–they sound scary, like sounds heard in scary movies. So haircuts are scary! Would you care to speak to the humor in your work, or is it not funny. Am I projecting?
NL: Humor–that’s another thing that gets lost in art. The Fluxus artists were quite funny–they looked at society in a funny way. That is something that I wanted to create–something that people would laugh at. They do say it’s funny, especially what I do when I get dramatic and act like a music conductor or a guitar-playing rock star–at a certain level the performance is entertainment.
And people ask me how long have I been doing stand up comedy. I have to be open to all kinds of interpretation. Everybody spins out their own meanings.
TF: Do you ever have someone come up and say, “Do whatever you like, Nelson”?
NL: That does happen sometimes–but there are parameters. For example, if I respond to them by saying, “How about patchy?” I usually get back, “No, I don’t like patchy.”
I have been involved in hairdressing for a long time, and so I know the correct and incorrect ways for cutting hair. In my day work I don’t get to do things counter to my professional training, but during the performances I can do things that are not in the rule book.
TF: Have you made any professional discoveries when performing?
NL: I have discovered a couple of techniques in the performance, so that I can find fast and efficient ways to cut lots of hair within a short amount of time. One of the things I do is use all four fingers as a comb. I’ll hold three sections instead of one, and what it does is it makes an unorthodox line in the hair–you’d normally try to avoid unorthodox lines in haircuts, but in certain circumstances, this helps to blend things really nicely if you know what you’re doing. It’s called the four-finger technique.
TF: What are you working on now?
NL: Mainly drawing. My wife and I have a baby (a year and a half old), so lately I’ve been doing drawings at home; I’ll go around the corner from Pratt and do some life drawings and take them home and mess around with them. They’re up on my website. Take a look and tell me what you like–I’ll send you the images. [Nelson sent these images below post-conversation.]
TF: Thanks for your time, Nelson, for talking to me about your work, for doing what you do, all gift culture like. And thanks for contributing to Locally Toned. I set the clipper tone on my phone today as my standard ring, and it went off in front of someone today. They said, “What is that?” Love it!
NL: Thank you, Teresa.