Vermont Arts Council

Composing the Rural Imaginary with Otto Muller

Step outside—into the yard or street, or the parking lot—and take note of as many boundaries as you can: where the grass meets the road, where private becomes public, where the radio station turns to static. This is what composer and educator Otto Muller has been doing to prepare for his next project, a site-specific, hybrid performance that earned him one of the Council’s competitive Creation Grants this year. To Otto, the rural landscape is a network of borders and lines drawn by people, generation after generation, and these layers of boundaries tell a long and complex story that is still being written—the story of our relationship with the land.

“One way that I find it documented everywhere in Vermont is in the piles of rusty metal and car pieces and stuff that you find in creek beds,” Otto says. “Every pile of broken glass and rusty metal is a place where somebody decided, ‘Up to this point is my yard or my farm or my ‘working landscape,’ and on the other side of this arbitrary line is where I throw my garbage,’ an empty or exploitable space. I feel like that history of property, and also of colonialism, and extraction, and the exploitation of land, is etched in the landscape in all sorts of ways that still exist and are still being created.”

Kents Corner in Calais, Vermont.
Kents Corner in Calais, seen from the Kent Museum’s sculpture garden.

I met up with Otto in mid-September at Kents Corner in Calais, the intended site of his new project. The sky was gray and cloudy with ash from West Coast wildfires.

A historic and picturesque slice of Vermont, Kents Corner sits at an important crossroads that in the mid-19th century bustled with a brick tavern, a shoe factory, a blacksmith, a general store, and a sawmill. The sawmill still stands as a historic landmark, and the tavern has become a museum and gallery with an outdoor sculpture garden.

Otto intends to sonify Kents Corner, to make its histories and boundaries heard. Picture yourself arriving here next spring, parking on the grass outside the museum. Scattered across the grounds are clusters of musicians and speakers creating an atmosphere of sound in woodwinds, percussion, rising and falling strings, and Otto’s field recordings—clanging junk in a trickling stream, industrial machinery, the music of livestock, the voice of a local storyteller. As you walk among these sounds, you find a series of wooden signs offering fragments of the history of Kents Corner, collages of maps and images, ephemera and scholarship revealing the many layers to this hamlet’s story. You have forty minutes to walk through the experience, plus a conversation with the composer and artists afterward—but you can also take it home as a recording, and as a booklet containing the score and texts used in the performance.

Creating ceremonial relationships

Composed of layers of cultural and sensory information and experience, the performance is designed as a sort of ceremony. Central to this project are the ideas of Anishinaabe scholar and geographer Leora Gansworth, a colleague of Otto’s at Goddard College in Plainfield, and political scientist James C. Scott’s idea of a landscape’s “legibility.” Scott introduced the idea of legibility in his 1998 book, Seeing Like A State, describing how powerful entities like states, large organizations, and even individual people work and have worked over the centuries to render the land more legible to their systems, more extractable to their power. Forestry, monoculture, urban planning, river damming—all are methods for rendering the land more legible to a particular system’s needs, and often, according to Scott, in detriment to the land’s actual complexity and richness. Gansworth describes ceremony as one way of facilitating knowledge and relationships to place that can resist these forms of legibility and exist outside of these patterns of extraction and exploitation.

“Ceremony has not really been a part of my own socialization,” says Otto, “but I understand it as a way of producing connections and knowledge that is intentionally limited in its legibility. In this work, I experiment with the idea that we can render boundaries illegible by oversaturating the archive, by knowing too much about them, and by making this act of knowing ceremonial. It is research-based art, but engages art as a form of anti-research as well, introducing ways of knowing that do not serve the systems of legibility.”

Otto Muller standing in front of the old sawmill at Kents Corner.
Otto standing in front of the old sawmill at Kents Corner.

Take the old sawmill at Kents Corner, for example. Preserved as it is now, the mill is legible as a lovely historic site, integral to the development of the region in the 19th century. In Otto’s performance, you may see the mill for the boundary it created, the dam that rendered an Abenaki waterway more legible to European settlers. That past might be layered with the fact that today, almost half of Vermont’s electricity comes from Hydro-Quebec, a company with a long history of conflict with First Nations around hydropower.

“I want people to have conversations about the 1805 sawmill, green energy, and how colonization is enacted upon the land,” says Otto. “I want people to come away thinking about the rural landscape as something contemporary that is being inscribed upon right now. Something that we, as inhabitants in it, are implicated in.”

Infiltrating with socially engaged art

Intellectually rigorous, culture-critical art is Otto’s bread and butter. In 2019, he created another hybrid performance-text reflecting on the killing of Trayvon Martin and the ethics of white artists engaging with the spectacle of Black death. Almost ten years ago, when I was a student at Goddard College, he advised me as I studied the politics of drag. A fixture at Goddard, he is among the founding faculty of the college’s new BFA in Socially Engaged Art, a program based in “participatory art, social practice, arts activism, and community-based art.”

“One of the things that I find really exciting about the program,” says Otto, “is being able to openly use some subversive language, and thinking in terms of infiltration. We ask, ‘How do artists get inside of the institutions that exist in order to take on work that is not about producing objects with monetary value, or that is not about providing a service that can be understood in terms of numbers and widgets?’ And that can take shape in a lot of different ways. It is not all protest art. There are certainly people in the program who are doing that work, but there have been projects exploring grief and grieving, or the idea of haunting, and what it means to be engaged in relationships of haunting. To me, that touches upon the way the arts can be a door into aspects of the human and social experience that can’t be commodified.”

Otto also co-directs the Rural Noise Ensemble with fellow Vermont musician Sean Clute. The Ensemble uses noise “as a critical framework for interrogating reality.” Among the Ensemble’s recent projects are “The Slow Death of Metal,” in which the instruments are all made of scrap metal from a creek, and “Notweed,” an interactive sound installation exploring colonization and invasiveness, in which audiences moved through a room of Japanese knotweed, an invasive species in Vermont.

The Kents Corner project is a natural extension of Otto’s dedication to composition and sound, to art as a social practice, and to the rural. As Otto writes in “Rural Space and the Rural Imaginary,” a paper for The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture, “the rural refers to both a spatial category…and also a social imaginary incorporating idealized understandings of history, nature, and authenticity.”

Otto in front of the historic barn at Kents corner.
Otto in front of the historic barn at Kents Corner.

In many ways, the project is Otto’s challenge to the “rural imaginary” we inhabit here in Vermont. As we crossed the grounds at Kents Corner, returning to our cars, our conversation turned to those very themes of history, nature, and authenticity.

“Since before 1900,” said Otto, “Vermont has had more revenue from agritourism, from its ‘working landscape,’ in the language of the Vermont Tourism Bureau, than it has had from actual agriculture. There is a tension between this idea of the rural as natural and historic, and the truth, which is that the rural is just as much a part of contemporary economies as the urban.”

Research for Otto’s Kents Corner performance is underway, and performers from Waterbury’s TURNmusic chamber ensemble will start learning and recording the work in the spring. The public performance will debut in the summer of 2021.

Check out our First Person experience of the Kent’s 20/20 Hindsight outdoor sculptures exhibit.