Interviews

Artists Pick Artists: Rhona Bitner

by Rob Colvin on March 12, 2014

POWER CORD

Bitner’s cord that powered lights in Washington DC’s Howard Theater, closed in 1980, now restored. (all images courtesy the artist)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven question about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.

Our lives can be encoded in music. Songs trigger memories. Memories trigger sensations. Sensations remind us that life is experienced through the body. I know where I was when I first heard Nirvana, for example. Maybe you do too, wherever you were.

Artist Rhona Bitner makes photographs – loud and large – that go through the eyes to fill the ears. The LISTEN series is an ongoing obsession to track down and document key historic spaces where American music has been, and is, created and performed: Sun Records in Memphis. The Viper Room in Los Angeles. The Grand Ballroom in Detroit. Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago.

It began at CBGB on Bowery and Bleecker, right before it closed. Over 230 locations later, and 75 to go, she’s still open to new venues; and I’ve suggested one. Each photograph is 40 inches square, a good size window – maybe for a sound booth. Save one occasion, when shooting the then-destroyed Howard Theater in DC (which had been closed for 25 years), she uses no extra lighting, only what’s there. Which is important because that light, that mood, that tone, is what has been felt by players and fans across the country, and across the decades. KLRU-TV, Austin City Limits throws they eye on a bass drum ready to thump, alit by crisscrossed rays. Blind Pig, on the other hand, is disheveled in electricity. It sounds like the crackling buzz of a guitar being plugged in.

CBGB, New York, NY October 4, 2006 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

CBGB, New York, NY, October 4, 2006, 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum 

KLRU-TV, Austin City Limits, Austin, TX June 3 2009 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

KLRU-TV, Austin City Limits, Austin, TX, June 3 2009, 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

Blind Pig, Ann Arbor, MI October 28 2008 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

Blind Pig, Ann Arbor, MI, October 28 2008, 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

Each image has a story behind it, or several, coming from her research, personal petitions, sudden challenges, and unusual discoveries. For example, when poring over her photograph of Tuxedo Junction, a club in Alabama central to African-American music in the 1920s, she noticed a familiar name emblazoned on the space heater mounted from the ceiling, Reznor. The family of Trent Reznor, founder of industrial rock band Nine In Nails, once made industrial heaters.

Tuxedo Junction, Birmingham, AL January 19, 2010 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

Tuxedo Junction, Birmingham, AL, January 19, 2010, 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

Yet these images are not necessary about these stories or what is to be found within them, at least not exclusively. They have their own individual autonomies. They exist in a space between recollection and imagination, were the viewer is anchored in a time and place, but invited to recall episodic memories of music once performed, or just invent their own experience right there.

New Roxy, Clarksdale, MS May 9, 2008 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

New Roxy, Clarksdale, MS, May 9, 2008, 40 x 40 inches, color coupler print mounted on aluminum

Bitner was chosen by painter Claire Sherman to be interviewed in this series, and when I gave her my questions she responded with hesitation; but she also found a clever way to proceed on her own terms – with pictures.

Her initial remarks:

The questions you are asking go directly into a core of any artists work. They are too essential and BIG to answer as bluntly as you ask them, or with a straight face – and in any case the answer today may not be the same as the answer next week next month or next year. As such I have decided to answer with a sort of game. Clearly these are not literal answers but a minor window to a blurred reflection on my thoughts right now.

*    *    *

Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?

Rhona Bitner:

2

RC: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?

RB:

3

RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?

RB:

4

RC: What challenges are unique to your process?

RB:

5

RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?

RB:

6

RC: So what is art anyway?

RB:

7

RC: Who should be interviewed next?

RB:

8 WEB

Editor’s note: Bitner is not so serious about Bugs, but has selected Carol Szymanski for the next interview, saying, “her skill at reinterpreting the essence of speech and language and making them visual and tactile is unique and always intriguing.”

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