The Sound is On for Marijke Keyser
Growing up, she had three siblings. They all lived in a tiny town in Washington called Wenatchee. And every spring her dad awarded a dollar to the first of them to spot a buttercup in the hills. "Caterpillars in your socks and deer in your garden and coyotes eating the housecats in August," she reminisces.
Her favourite scents remain pine growing in dusty foothills made hot by the sun, recently-rained-upon asphalt, linseed oil, and onions frying in butter.
Marijke (pronounced maːˈrɛɪ̯.kə) Keyser is a twenty four years old now.
After earning a BFA in Painting & Drawing from the University of Washington, she moved to London with no friends, no place to live, and no job waiting for her. "I was so nervous I couldn't eat!" she tells me. "But, you know, within a week, I had a place to live, a job interview, and I won trivia night with a team of strangers.” The prize? Four shots of tequila. “So it's worth it to take the big chances,” she asserts.
She now holds an MFA from the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL. "These days, I live in London 'til they kick me out," she laughs.
But the environment in which she grew up affected her deeply. She describes her agnostic family of bookworms as living in the midst of a "widely racist, conservative-Christian, guns-under-the-mattress community." She learned the value of being able to decide for herself what she believed in. Beliefs, for Marijke, are synonymous with choices. "We all decide what to give a shit about in this world," she reminds me.
"I don't think it will ever stop coming back to haunt me," she muses. "I grew up in a beautiful place - lots of rocks to climb and rivers to swim in and trees to hug. It was a valley, which is a very knowable type of place, you know? It has visible edges. It was so easy to be a part of the landscape there."
She is acutely aware of her connection to the landscape, wherever she is. When I ask her to list some of her favourite places, she includes a very specific bench by the water of Portage Bay in Seattle, “close to that one Mexican restaurant." I ask her how she feels about nature. "Nature is the whole shebang, baby,” she replies. “Skyscrapers and anthills. Nothing we do is outside of nature. It's very closely related to what I often make art about."
Marijke has always been fascinated by the relationship between place and inhabitants. While creating her art, she focuses on its material aspects - the pigment, the plastic, the weight, the smell, the noise. "I have experimented with lots of different media and materials," she says.
I am impressed by Marijke’s CV because it lists many “specific skills" such as oil colour mixing, canvas stretching, and plaster casting. From printmaking to to mold-making, the artist has a bevy of tricks up her sleeve. "If the little seedling idea for an art piece is worth fighting for, then you have to really search for the right way of making it," she says calmly. "If you try it in clay and it doesn't work, try it in paper. Try it in music. Try it in secret signs left on the sidewalk."
When not working as a Visitor Assistant at the Tate, Marijke can be found on the roof of any building. She revels in the feeling of letting the wind dry her hair. And above all, creating. She creates stop-motion animations, site-specific sound installations, and live storytelling performances.
She tells me she feels most comfortable in the middle of a project. "Either deep in a drawing, or in the middle of audio editing, or wedged in the forking of branches at the top of a tree as it sways in the wind and I tie a ceramic bell into place. There is this wonderful focus and purposefulness and un-questionable-ness that happens there, in the flow of making something." She pauses. "I love that feeling."
Marijke’s creations focus on sound because it is a unifying medium which can be felt as an intimate, physical resonance in the human body, but also travel immense distances through space. For Marijke, a challenge lies in making art about something. “My mistake, all too often, is asking this question too early in the process,” she informs me. “You start with a need, a word, an idea -- and then you just start trying stuff. The most fun part is figuring out how to make it. When you get sidetracked worrying about why you're making, that can kill the whole thing.”
Marijke doesn’t like when good opportunities escape her. "This usually happens because I'm not centered, pulled in too many interesting directions," she laments. She likens herself to a dog chasing squirrels. "I hate the aftermath, where I have to face up to this. I have a hard time being honest with myself when it's my fault. I usually try to have a literal conversation with myself. Out loud. So I have to hear myself say what I don't want to admit."
Keep reading to find out what else Marijke admitted to me. //
RS: What is it that you do?
MK: I make art, and instruct others in the making of it. Those are definitely my two biggest passions. Making, and teaching. I need them both. Making is where I get to be in a world that is only me, and the idea/story/emotion/need, and the material/paint/words/sound. I get to be lost in there. Teaching, on the other hand, is very extroverted. It is about speaking with another person, and asking them questions, and watching their brain open up to something new, and then stepping back and letting them get on with it. I love getting to make that connection with someone, especially through the medium of art (which is the most open-ended, choose-your-own-adventure realm to communicate in).
RS: What's a day in your life like?
MK: This changes all the time. I live in phases. I try to make the most of the Current Situation, as much as I can. At this very moment, I'm working as the studio manager at the Slade School of Fine Art. It's a job I really enjoy. It's adjacent to teaching, which is what I really want to do. A typical day for me includes preparing materials for whatever courses are on -- Life Drawing, or a printmaking workshop, or analog photography, or whatever. Then I walk around the school and make sure nobody is about to fall off a ladder or impale themselves with a screwdriver or something. I make sure all the tutors are happy, getting what they need. I might have to order in new supplies if we're running out of charcoal or masking tape or nails. And on the really good days, I have time to go around and have informal tutorials with the students. That's the fun stuff. Then I get to learn what they care about, what they're trying to do, what they're struggling with. My goal is that after a chat, they feel emboldened. They feel some new jolt of forward motion, even if it's just a new artist to go look up in the library or the self-granted freedom to throw paint sassily at the wall.
RS: Who are your favourite artists?
MK: Right now I love the work of Joan Jonas, a performance pioneer from the States. She uses a lot of my favourite ingredients -- projection, reflection, storytelling, masks. Also, she acknowledges that her dog is a natural performer. I'm also super into the work of Pauline Oliveros, who was an accordionist and experimental composer. She developed a school of thought called "Deep Listening." Listening very attentively to the sounds of the world around you, and to the sound of your breath and blood in your body, and to the sound of possible sounds in your imagination, it really tunes you in. You get to be really present, but also subsumed.
Two other artists I really admire are Janet Cardiff and Meredith Monk. I think they both inspire me to keep an open mind in terms of what medium I use to express myself.
Meredith Monk uses theatre, voice, colour, site, and movement the way painters use blue, red, and yellow. It's all on her palette.
Janet Cardiff created several sound-based works that are in my personal anthology of Works That I Will Never Forget -- namely, "The Missing Voice: Case Study B" (1999) and "Forty Part Motet" (2001). Cardiff really USES sound. In "The Missing Voice," it's an audio walk where you have her voiceover and soundtrack and footsteps through Whitechapel in your headphones, while you follow the same route she walked; so her sound, and her ghost, get layered on top of your footsteps, and your experience. And "Forty Part Motet" takes this beautiful piece of Renaissance music (Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis), which has literally forty different sung parts, and then sends each voice through a different speaker mounted at ear-height, so you can either sit in the centre of the circle of speakers and let the sound wash over you, or you can walk around and listen to the sounds of forty individuals construct something magnificent and towering.
RS: Can you comment further on your relationship with nature?
MK: We humans tend to do this thing where we try to exclude other forms of life from our surroundings (except when under our control, as in the form of potted cacti, or Hampstead Heath). Pesticides. Electrified fencing. Something I miss about Seattle is that I could smell other life there -- pine needles, rotting leaves, skunk, sunburnt kelp. In London, all I can smell is the exhaust from the hybrid buses, and chicken shops. Don't get me wrong, I love a good hybrid bus. But in order to find anything outside of that, the closest I can get is the canals, where I can smell duck shit again. I'm very drawn to living in a canal boat. All my friends say "No Marijke, it's a pain, you have to move the boat every two weeks and it's cold as shit in the winter and you can't use very much hot water" but I am pretty sure it would be worth it to wake up and see the dark green water flowing past you in the morning. Yes, I'm a homebody, I like my cosy bed, but I want a little Other right outside the window. Call me a stupid romantic.
RS: What else do you find romantic?
MK: The Turner gallery at Tate Britain. It's like a chapel. You can pick a painting and cry in front of it if you want to. You won't be disturbed. You can just sit there and think to yourself, Turner's actual hands held an actual brush for that actual stroke of red right HERE, right here in front of me, but hundreds of years ago. Any time you look at a painting, it's as current as if the artist was standing right next to you. The intention, what the artist was paying attention to, what they weren't paying attention to, all of it is FRESH. That kind of transcendence is completely romantic.
RS: What do you think young artists need?
MK: I think they need the courage or brazenness to try crazy new things. The worst thing that can happen to a young brain is close-mindedness. There shouldn't be any limits, imagined or real.
RS: Anything you wish you were exposed to at a younger age?
MK: I'm pretty happy with the way it all played out for me… I think I was exposed to things just in time. Like when my best friend in high school asked me to paint "love," so I shit myself and had to go running to my art teacher like WTF am I supposed to do? and he said, “Ohhhhh, here are some Abstract Expressionists to go look at,” and my whole world cracked open. I do wish I'd been exposed to more mediums. I was 21 before I realized Sound Art was a thing. That's because of a weird institutional prejudice for the visual. I still have so much to learn.
RS: What do you find interesting about language?
MK: What I find interesting about verbal language is that it's so preCISE. It's like always taking a stance, stating a belief. It's very tacked-down. But if you like playing with language -- poetry, puns, Scrabble, doesn't matter how -- then you start to realize a different kind of precision. You can make something efficiently cloudy. You can mean 200 things with one word. I speak English, and once upon a time I felt at home in French. It's been a long time though.
RS: What was the most valuable thing about learning another language?
MK: Realizing that their structures are good for different things. Different languages enable different behaviours. French, for instance, is good for run-on sentences, and therefore good for long daisy chains of logic. Easy to write art history essays. Our languages are different, so our structures for interpreting the world are different. That's an important thing to bear in mind, for me.
RS: Are you a writer?
MK: I'm definitely a writer. Not often for other people to read. But my main way of working through some snarl in my head is by externalizing it in words. It can be a list, or a rant into the Voice Memo app on my phone, or a long letter that never gets sent. I've discovered that writing things out gives you a certain critical distance from whatever it is: "I am feeling depressed today" or "I am so mad at Tom" or "colour of sky next to sunlit lime tree leaves (!!!)" By writing it, I am immediately one step away from it and can look at it from outside, not within.
RS: What websites do you visit regularly besides social media?
MK: Honest answer: fanfiction.net. The writers there are incredible -- they are all just normal fools like me, but also with full-time jobs and families and shit, and somehow they find the time to pour all their creative energy into a 37-chapter monstrosity mining character relationships that are never explored in canon. Those writers' dedication and motivation blows me away. And gives me cheesy whump to read. So win-win.
RS: Favourite travel destination?
MK: I visited Polperro on the Summer Solstice of 2017. My friend's mom, who is a witch, said something about live music, and she had a car, so we went. We arrived to find a small fishing village, with clog-wearing people dancing traditional sun-worshipping patterns in streets too narrow for cars. Weird cast-iron faces were planted in the clay walls. The Lady Mayoress for the new year had just been elected, and everyone was down at the (only?) pub celebrating. I never caught her name, but she had a skirt embroidered with mermaids and a top hat with paintbrushes sticking out like peacock feathers, and was knocking back drinks like a pro. I also met a stonelayer named Cretia, who worked as a sailor when she was 17, back and forth between Denmark and the south coast of England, before learning how to lay stone walls without mortar. An old art in England, and not often taught. I also met Barney, who has been a fisherman like his dad before him for forty years. We all got drunk on the local cider and my friend Bella and I climbed the rocks guarding the cove and looked southward toward France.
This strange stumbled-upon place felt out of time. The people there lived very vibrant lives, and, chances are, I will never see them again.
RS: How does capitalism affect you?
MK: Come on. It's in the air I breathe. It's in the burger I eat when I'm hungover. It's in the Marvel movie I go to see because I think it will take my mind off things. These are the basic unavoidables.
But in my life, the most disappointing articulation of capitalism is in the art market. Think about that for a second: art.. .market. We take this holy, holy thing - art, which we've loaded with the souls of dead prophets and the purest of intentions and the struggle to put meaning back into the world - we take that holy thing, and then we try and SELL IT TO EACH OTHER. How is that supposed to be possible? Why? What is the way out of this dark corner? Because the trap is, artists still want their work to be bought. We've been indoctrinated to believe that the ultimate response from a viewer is their impulse to OWN what we've created. I don't believe that's true. But in the system of 'making a living from your art,' it is the only option.
RS: You're very wary of Instagram.
MK: I think I must need to come around to it. I think Instagram is deceiving because it sells itself as a platform for promoting your artwork; but I think it is a platform for flashing a quick, shallow sense of your artwork. I know it is a valuable tool for many, especially in the art world, but I once witnessed a scary interaction between two friends which cemented my instinctive distrust:
Friend 1: Have you seen this person? They work up in Glasgow.
Friend 2: No. Show me their Instagram. (scrolling) Ah, yeah, I get it. So they definitely do performance, vaguely feminist work…. Yeah, see, here's a picture of them in Sainsbury's in their pajamas…
Friend 1: That's exactly right.
Friend 2: I'm gonna make you follow them (hits follow button)
Friend 1: (flinching and yanking phone away) NOOOOO you DICK
Friend 2: hahahahahahahahaaaa
It scared me how judgement was passed so quickly, and with such dismissal.
RS: Hahaha. Another thing we find artificial is marriage, eh?
MK: I shouldn't, really; my parents are happily, successfully married. They love each other and they love their kids. But they have worked very fucking hard at it. It is a construct held together through lots of grit. There is a visa I could apply for to stay in the UK, if I were marrying a citizen who makes more than 25k. I got so excited about this plot to marry a fellow artist -- we have been making performance work together for years, so this would have been a great project - but he makes only a little money as a sausage vendor, so Her Majesty's government didn't deem him worthy. And I considered asking my flatmate, but he has been divorced before, and actually still believes that legal marriage means something about love and longevity. I don't want to ask him because I don't want to rub his face in the fact that to me, it doesn't.
RS: I feel you. You got an interview for a job in the UK recently but you were denied because the employer can't support a visa application. How did that make you feel?
MK: I felt frustration … by far my least favourite emotion. It is directionless anger. Who am I angry at? The UK government? Borders in general? Myself, for applying to a job I knew I couldn't get? Ugh. Ugggggggh.
RS: Ugh! What else psychs you out?
MK: Particle physics. Honestly, the only part of high school physics I even vaguely understood was the sonics bit (because I played the marimba at the time). But now I've got friends who try to explain the weird, enfolded depths of the universe to me and all I can think is it sounds like we're writing a new religion. Where unseeable bits with unmeasurable mass and unexplainable behaviours govern everything that happens on the seeable plane. Then again, me crying in the chapel of Turner because He Really Made This Very Painting is also basically religion, isn't it?
RS: Pretty much.
MK: Also, when I stop halfway across the 45th bridge over I-5 in Seattle and watch all the cars drive under me, up towards Canada or down towards the city, and realize I'll never know anyone in any of those cars and they all have reasons for going where they're going and I'll never know any of those reasons or destinations anymore than they'll know that I'm up here, trying to squint through the rain at their windshields. Yeah, that. //
As a recipient of the Boise Travel Scholarship, Marijke is presently visiting the Palace at Knossos, the Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki, the megalithic observatory at Kokino, in Macedonia, and the Bedolina Map petroglyph in northern Italy. I can't wait to see how this trip inspires her work. In the meantime, check out her website.