Artist and gallery owner Sto Len on how the world sounds, fitting in, his appreciation of outsider artists and building an art community.
Sto Len captivates his audience by making the world sing. Equipped with contact microphones, he teases sounds out of every conceivable object and surface – A rubber ducky, water hitting the bottom of a metal bowl, a hair band, his body, a tree branch picked up on a stroll from the Old Quarter to Hanoi Rock City.
The result is a soundscape that in itself is so captivating it wouldn’t even need the added curiosity of watching a man play a chair.
& Of Other Things met with the New York based artist and co-founder/owner of Cinders Gallery while he travelled through Vietnam to discover the country his mother left in 1970. If you happen upon one of his performances, one of which recently delighted an audience in Hanoi Rock City’s Red Room, prepare to start hearing the world with new ears.
Interview by Fabiola Büchele ● Edited by Rose Arnold ● Images by Lizo Glennard
There is a concept, but I like to lose the control, I like those happy accidents. I like allowing chance operations to take place.
&: Your sound performances are improvised, how much rehearsal was needed to get to a point where that was possible?
Sto Len: The performances that I do are in the moment. I am in the moment, the audience is in the moment, whatever happens, happens, there is never a script really. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I like that. […] It’s unpredictable, but I have built a skeleton for the performance that works well. I like to have a predetermined vehicle and I like to have limitations. I interact with the space, with whatever is in front of me, whatever object, and then I let the sound influence my movement. Depending on what sound I hear, that dictates where I go, where my body goes, where the performance goes. There is a concept, but I like to lose the control, I like those happy accidents. I like allowing chance operations to take place.
I have a practice. It’s not a rehearsal, but it’s a practice. Even on this trip, I brought a little amplifier just built out of a cigar box, so I can practice every day. And all that practicing just adds up to some sort of vocabulary and my language is built up over time. I have been doing this for years – touching the world and feeling it. ‘True Play’ is what I like to call it. Where you approach any object or situation with purest intention of just exploration. At this point I look at the world differently. I look at that chair and go ‘I bet that chair is gonna sound good’. There is a potential.
&: What did it all start with?
Sto Len: A performance art piece. There were two of us and it was my first sound orientated performance. This was in 2009. And for that project I had a shopping cart, it was my main instrument. And I had always wanted to play a shopping cart for some reason. I love shopping carts. I would walk around Brooklyn looking at all the homeless people’s shopping carts and admiring how they use them, because they are utilitarian.
And so I mic’ed a cart up. And I realised it sounded amazing. I just focused on how to play a shopping cart. I wasn’t mic’ed, but the cart was and you could play all the little intricate parts of it and they all sounded different. I started to become more minimal, I wanted the sounds to channel through me and that’s when I developed mic’ing my body. There are contact-microphones on me that are wireless and whatever I come into contact with is going to make a sound. It’s vibrations essentially, and every object has a different kind of vibration. Metal, wood, plastic, glass, something hollow…everything has a different resonance.
It was years and years of hitting your head against the wall until you hit a wall that sounds good.
&: How well do you have to know something before you can deconstruct or play with it like that?
Sto Len: I think you gotta know it pretty well. Like with painting I didn’t just start making abstract painting. I was drawing my whole life to get to a place where I just totally obliterated the image.
The same thing with the performance stuff, I don’t think I would have just had that light bulb go off, ‘this is what I’m gonna do, this is my thing’. It was years and years of hitting your head against the wall until you hit a wall that sounds good. Maybe some artists can just hop from one method to another, one medium to another, but there is something that happens when you intimately get to know the ins and outs of a process. You got to put the time in.
&: How does your personal life, your identity, factor into your art practice? Why come here? Are you here as an artist or for personal reasons or are they not in fact separable?
Sto Len: For me I don’t think it’s separable if I were to really look back, whatever was happening in my life totally did affect what I was doing or making too. I don’t consciously think about it though. I know, being here, even though it has only been a month, is having some sort of effect on me.
It affects me as a person first. Then, especially with performance it is so immediate that I think whatever I am putting into it or channeling is coming from my immediate feelings. It is even more direct than making a painting. […] It becomes more apparent being here I think, because I feel like this warm fuzzy feeling, but I also feel like a total fucking alien.
&: Was that the same growing up half-Vietnamese in America?
Sto Len: I grew up with that identity crisis in a way. Not wanting to be different. I am, but I am not. I think sort of wanting to bury it a little bit. As a really young person I totally wanted to fit in.
Getting older, I have been able to appreciate my own family a little bit more […] I just grew up without nationality being a huge part of my identity. I am just Sto. And I think as a kid getting into punk rock I was like ‘oh yeah these are all the weirdos, I am in this group, I am a punk rocker, I am not Asian American, I am this weird’. And I think in a lot of ways that helped for my identity as a young person. To sort of just say fuck everybody, I am just me.
I have had similar conversations with other Asian Americans, where you just know there is certain things that we have all experienced. From getting picked on or… my whole life everybody thinks I am good at math, I am terrible at math, I hate math.
&: You have been co-running Cinders Gallery (editor’s note: the space was founded with fellow artist Kelie Bowman. After no longer being able to afford rent, they are now spaceless, but organise pop-up exhibitions and various other events) for over 10 years in New York as a very inclusive, community based project. How important is a physical space for an art community and to be able to reach out to an audience?
Sto Len: Integral. It’s 100% important. It’s a must. We had that one space for seven years. And within seven years, a community was built because there was a place to congregate and put your ideas up on the wall and present them to the world, to the audience. People would come and they would experience the art and talk about it, but they would also experience each other. Friends were made, marriages were made, babies were made, because of that space and all that life, all those people made the gallery.
We ran the space long enough to really start something and that’s totally needed. At this point in my life though, I don’t just want to run a space, it takes over your life. I am happy with the situation in New York now, because we built up this foundation for the gallery and it affords us the opportunity to do lots of other projects. It’s not just space orientated, I want to share my community with other people. So when I come here, just as a curious art enthusiast, I want to know what’s happening. But I also want these people to know what is happening in my neighbourhood. It’s exchange.
If people like it great, but if no one ever liked what I did I’d still do it.
&: What is art to you?
Sto Len: I get excited, stimulated by art. I always have. It was a big mind blur for me when I was a kid. I lived in the DC area. All the museums are free in DC, so I’d go to the museum alone a lot of the times as a child and as a teenager. One of my favourite pieces was by this guy called James Hampton. He made this beautiful installation basically out of tinfoil. It was my favourite thing and it was made out of cardboard and tinfoil. My whole childhood I would go and I just wanted to go see this one thing. Then I got older and I learned more about the guy. He was a janitor. No one knew he made this stuff. He made it in his garage and he died in Washington DC. They open up his garage and there is an insane installation, a shrine. He is an outsider artist and it put it all in perspective, this guy died and no one knew who he was. And I think I learned that really early, it doesn’t matter if they are famous, or if someone says they are good, it just matters what you get out of it.
I can get into plenty of conceptual work and I do. But at the end of the day my favourite artists are those people that cannot help it. They just gotta do that thing and you see the work and they’re working hard. I like artists that work a lot. I want to see some sweat, blood, I want to see they’ve been doing that their whole life. I love outsider art. If people like it great, but if no one ever liked what I did I’d still do it.
Sto Len is a is a painter, sculptor, sound and performance artist living and working in New York. He has exhibited in numerous countries around the world.
The interview is has been edited and condensed