Diabolus in Musica at TBA:10. Photo: Wayne Bund.

Diabolus in Musica is a single uninterrupted chord, a sound banned by the Catholic Church in the eighteenth century. On two Sundays—one at the beginning and one at the closing of TBA:10—Gilsdorf has enlisted Beati Chorum to perform this score for the entirety of the exhibition’s open hours. The resulting performance is an exercise in human stamina and tonal dissonance.

Kristan Kennedy: What does it mean to be human?

Dan Gilsdorf: Maybe the key to the question is in the fact that we can even conceptualize it as a question at all, and that we can explore its answer. I’d say that it has something to do with questioning, with differentiating between the known and unknown, and examining the assignment of meaning to our own condition.

KK: When we first spoke about your project, I was struck by its use of the collective voice as a material. Can you talk about why, as someone who primarily works in sculpture, you came to realize this idea through a performance/installation?

DG: You’re right, my background is in sculpture, but a lot of my recent work deals with video images and other media technology. One of the main differences between sculpture and performance is the difference between the viewer and the audience. In sculpture, the expectation is that a viewer is in control over the time that she spends with the work, and that the work continues to exist after she leaves the space. In film, video, or performance, an audience generally sees the beginning, middle, and end. Even though I use video, which is structured around the cinematic model of the audience, my work addresses the expectations of a visual arts viewership. Most of my work is either built around a live feed or a very short loop, and deals with time more like a sculpture than a performance. In this project I’m trying a slightly different experiment: using voice to see if I can build an installation that is undoubtedly performative, but operates in the temporal space of a sculpture. So here a viewer enters the space and the sound of the choir already exists. When the viewer leaves, the sound is still going. So, in terms of the experience of the work, what she hears is a sculpture, not a performance.

KK: Perhaps an extension of that last question… What spurred your interest in Diabolus in Musica? The original purpose was to mimic the Holy Trinity by combining three “perfect” tones, although the actual sound that emerged from this was soon deemed to be of the “devil”—most likely because of its harrowing noise. If the medieval clergy were trying to evoke the Trinity, what are you trying to evoke?

DG: Diabolus in Musica is, in part, about stamina and human limitations, both for the performers and the viewers. From a practical standpoint this chord—the tri-tone—is difficult to hold, and somewhat difficult to hear in that it does not treat the ear gently. It also has this particular history within the church, and its contemporary use in horror films, death metal, and the like brings up associations that we are aware of on a cultural level. I’m glad it’s going to take place in a dilapidated old school building—it’s like the setting for a slasher movie. For me, there’s a symmetry going on with the sound of the choir and the environment they are in. I want to use the tri-tone as a way to tease out what is already there in the space and trigger a sense of creepiness and foreboding.

This conversation was excerpted from a collection of interviews published on the occasion of Human Being, a series of exhibitions, installations, and happenings curated by Kristan Kennedy, for PICA’s 2010 Time-Based Art Festival. You can download a PDF of the full ON SIGHT catalogue here, or pick up a hard copy at the Washington High School galleries (through October 17), or at the PICA Resource Room.