Improv Hootenanny Revival, Berkeley Arts

The Improv Hootenanny series from the Ivy Room may be gone, but we recently had a “Hootennany Revival” at Berkeley Arts. Lucio Menagon, who started the Ivy Room series, was back in the Bay Area and joined by Suki O’kane and other familiar faces along with new participants. The musical (and visual) artistry is of course the center of the Hootenanny experience, but drinks and lively conversation are also a key part, and there was plenty of these before the formal part of the program began.

The performance opened with a solo set by Henry Plotnik, perhaps the youngest participant I have seen in any of these Bay Area improv events. He made use of the venue’s acoustic grand piano in addition to his electronic keyboard, and effortlessly weaved a set that moved between tonal and inharmonic elements.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Plotnik was followed by a duo featuring veteran improvisers Philip Greenlief and Ross Hammond, on saxophone and guitar, respectively.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Their performance had a sparse but intricate texture, frequency bouncing odd melodic lines or noisy extended techniques between them.

The evening also featured a version of Lucio Menagon’s Strangelet project, with familiar members Suki O’kane on percussion and John Hanes on electronics as well as a relative newcomer to the Bay Area scene Stephanie Lak.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

Lak’s contribution contrasted physically and sonically with the other members of the group, who provided the steadily evolving cloud of improvised sounds I remember from previous Strangelet performances. She was completely mobile with a pair of toy megaphones and tiny amplifiers and moved around the stage area freely with bursts of vocal and electronic sounds that floated on top of existing soundscape.

All the sets were accompanied by visuals from the cinePimps (Alfonso Alvarez and Keith Arnold). Using film projectors, they layered abstract film clips along with old B movies on two walls of the space. There were also musical interludes featuring Raub Roy and the TreeJay OctoPlayer. Raub Roy had a collection of hand drums that he excited with balloons expelling air and electric toothbrushes. The effect was something that sounded drum-like but without the usual articulation. You can see part of his performance in this video:

The TreeJay OctoPlayer, a project of Thad Povey and Mark Taylor, featured eight independently controllable platters and styli for vinyl records. During their mini-sets, the performers switched among different records and changed speeds to create a rich and somewhat eerie musical collage. It was also fun to watch the process of working with this towering instrument.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

The final set featured Stanosaur with guitar and a wall of large amplifiers. Basically, he played long heavily distorted drones that drove all of the amps to create different beating and phasing effects at rather high volumes. And by “high volumes” I mean ear-splittingly loud! Fortunately, I had my ear protection, and earplugs were made available to the audience. But it was still an intense experience to hear and to feel the effect of this sound, and a fog machine and lasers added a visual element.


[Photo by Michael Zelner.]

In all, it was a fun night of friends and good music, which is something to be valued. I hope we can start another regular improvisation series in the Bay Area with the same degree of casual fellowship and quality musicianship.

STILL, Pia Maria Martin, McLoughlin Gallery

Today we look at STILL, a solo exhibition of video and animation works by Pia Maria Martin at The McLoughlin Gallery in San Francisco. It is the first US solo media exhibition for Martin, who hails from Stuttgart, Germany. Martin’s work involves elaborate stop-motion films assembled meticulously from countless photographs. Stop-motion animation assembled from photographs is currently a strong interest of mine and an art-form that I have been exploring in my own recent work with silent video and live music, so I was quite excited to see this show and meet the artist. Upon entering the gallery, one is greeted by a large triptych featuring a procession of plastic red chairs.

The piece, entitled Zum Appell!, can be a little jarring with its inanimate objects marching in lock stop, but it is also playful for the exact same reason. I also like the mid-century modern chairs against the weathered concrete interior. The surreal animation of the chairs and design elements are both enhanced by the nearly life-size presentation.



[Pia Maria Martin, Zum Appell! Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

The elements of both play and unexpected animation are apparent in many of the other pieces as well. Für Olga tends towards the more abstract with mechanical and industrial elements that defy gravity, as do her most recent pieces such as Scherzo with brightly colored ribbons curling and “dancing” in a stark white industrial space.


[Pia Maria Martin, Scherzo. Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

Kalekeitos takes the animation of fish in a more playful (albeit morbid) direction.


[Pia Maria Martin, Kalekeitos. Image courtesy of The McLoughlin Gallery.]

As someone who tends to anthropomorphize animals, I found the dancing fish in Kalekeitos quite endearing. But of course the fish (which are in fact already dead) are ultimately dancing towards their destruction as part of a soup or stew. Death and decay appear as subjects in several of Martin’s animations, with natural elements falling apart or becoming reanimated. It also plays into her piece XI which features a house demolition in progress. The simple geometry and gray quality made it more captivating than a simple chronicle of demolition and gave it the more abstract quality found in some of the other pieces such as Scherzo. This particular work was also great example of pairing music with the silent animation. Music plays an important role in Martin’s work, not only as an accompaniment to the visuals but as an organizing principal. XI featured Arnold Schoenberg’s Die Jakabsleiter performed by Pierre Boulez and the BBC Orchestra and Singers, which reflected the geometric nature of the visuals. In Scherzo, the second movement of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 is used as a “non-audible score”, although the actual music is performed by the artist friends (as described here). Once again, my own artistic interest in the silent-animation medium intercedes as I would love to do a live musical performance to one of her films someday.

Pia Maria Martin was able to be in San Francisco for the opening. In addition to introducing her work, she participated in a more general discussion of video and animation.

The lively and far-ranging discussion included the artist’s techniques and inspiration, as well as more general topics such as what it means to “collect video art” in this day and age. On a practical level, the pieces in this and other video shows are authoritative limited editions, much like photographic prints. Some of them are also objects that include the means of display (e.g., a flat panel screen and DVD player). But for a local art collecting community that tends to be a bit more conservative in its acquisitions, the idea of an art piece to be displayed on a TV screen or projected onto a wall and which requires media intervention to perceive is a new one. But we hope video art continues to make its way into collections.

The exhibition will remain on display at The McLoughlin Gallery through May 30.

Wordless Wednesday: Possible Sequence (Night Light preview)

A short video clip composed of Hipstamatic photos, a preview of what I am planning for the Night Light show at SOMArts this Friday.

Other Cinema: Re-Tracked Animation, Artists’ Television Access

A couple of weeks ago I attended an evening of silent films and live music at Artists’ Television Access called “Re-Tracked Animation.” The program was part of the regular Other Cinema series that occurs at ATA most Saturdays.

As we arrived, there were old film clips (from the 1940s or earlier) playing with various soundtracks. The initial film featured a keyboard player wearing a turban (to look stereotypically “exotic”) set against something that sounded like the Chipmunks. The next short featured a more abstract grainy cartoon with figures made from simple geometry against a more electronic noise-based soundtrack – this one was quite interesting in itself. The final video, a very old Porky Pig cartoon, was played straight.

It was then time for the main features to begin. Jeremy Rourke presented several of his animated video pieces with live accompaniment on guitar, voice and percussion – specifically, singing bowls. His visuals combined found material, often with a “turn-of-the-20th-century” feel to it, with more contemporary video backgrounds and illustrations. You can see one of the videos, eyes hearing stars, in this clip below:

This one in particular featured some moments I referred to as “Monty Python meets Central Park” in that it reminded me a bit of Terry Gilliam’s animations, but the highly processed background of modern-day urban park video and abstract graphical elements give it a unique feel. Musically, the texture was sparse and worked in concert with the video rather than vying for attention away from the imagery, so the overall experience was quite captivating.

For his final piece, Rourke came on stage wearing all white and carrying an all-white guitar. It was clear that he and his instrument were going to be part of the screen for the next video, and that is indeed what happened.

The final video featured more live footage than his earlier animations, and the music was purely guitar-based.

After an intermission, the program resumed with a screening of the Brothers’ Quay In Absentia with music by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Regular readers know that Stockhausen is one of my musical heroes, so I was quite interested to see and hear this piece. The film, although done in 2000, feels like it is much older. The grainy images paint dark and dystopian visuals of ruined machinery against the main scenes of a woman in an asylum and her repetitive existence, writing notes on paper, placing them in envelopes and into a grandfather clock. The music, which is from Stockhausen’s piece “Zwei Paare”, predates the creation of the film, but they nonetheless work together well to create the overall haunting and eerie landscape.

The final set featured members of the ensemble Thomas Carnacki with Greg Scharpen, Jim Kaiser, Jesse Burson, and Gregory Hagan performing live audio tracks to two films. The first was Jan Svankmajer’s The Fall of the House of Usher, based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. The Poe story was read live by Dean Santomieri along with the music. The visuals featured an empty and abandoned looking manner home, perhaps how the House of Usher would look after the fall. It was forlorn and sad, but rich with texture. And Santomieri’s voice is always captivating in live readings.

The final piece of the evening featured the ensemble performing live to Ladislas Starewicz’ strange but delightful stop-animation film The Mascot. The film, which was created in 1933, features a cast of puppet dogs, cats, dolls, skeletons and any number of other creatures.

It is amazing to think what Starewicz was able to do in the 1920s and 1930s with his creations, without the aid of 3D computer animation or even more modern model-making done at special-effects houses. Below is a still from the original film:

The film is available on the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org) in its entirety, so I will be tempted to try my own hand at an audio accompaniment for it one of these days…

Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart Lunch Break, SFMOMA

Today we look at two current exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that opened in October and continue through mid-January: Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break. I had the opportunity to attend the museum’s press preview for both of these exhibitions and posted live updates via my Twitter feed @catsynth (the hashtag was #serrapreview).

The main event of the day was the opening of Richard Serra Drawing. I have long been fond of Serra’s large-scall metal sculptures. The minimalist yet strong constructions of flat steel planes or gently curving metal are instantly recognizable as his. This exhibition was my first experience with his drawings and sketches. Many of the pieces had the same characteristics as his sculptures, the reliance on strong geometric forms in a minimal presentation, such as his 1973 piece Untitled. One could see this piece as the shadow of one of his sculptures.

[Richard Serra, Untitled, 1973; paintstick and charcoal on paper; 50 x 38 inches; collection of Mary and Harold Zlot; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Ben Blackwell]

Several of the pieces rivaled his sculptures in scale.

[Richard Serra, Blank, 1978; paintstick on Belgian linen; 2 parts, each 120 ¼ x 120 ¼ inches; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni]

However, to simply describe the work in this exhibition as Serra’s sculptures flattened to two dimensions would miss most of what makes it unique and surprising. Many of the large black pieces are done with painstick, and the large geometric shapes which smooth from a distance have a very rich and rough texture. However, to simply describe the work in this exhibition as Serra’s sculptures flattened to two dimensions would miss most of what makes it unique and surprising.  Many of the large black pieces are done with painstick, and the large geometric shapes which smooth from a distance have a very rich and rough texture.  It was something I referred to while visiting as “liquidy roughness.” The texture and medium also allowed Serra to move beyond basic geometry into forms that cannot easily be realized as sculpture. In out-of-round X, an exaggerated texture is present in the main circular shapes, and continues to diffuse out past its edges. It is not a simple graduation where the texture becomes more diffuse from the center, there is still some semblance of a geometric shape in the image. But it is nonetheless unlike any of his sculptures, and I would not have automatically marked this as Serra’s if I saw it from a distance outside of the exhibition.

[Richard Serra, out-of-round X, 1999; paintstick on handmade Hiromi paper; 79 ½ x 79 inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever]

Indeed, more organic circular shapes and ambiguous edges abound in Serra’s drawings. He also escapes from the solid or semisolid forms with line drawings that add more empty space. In these drawings, he reduces the drawings to one-dimensional forms in a way similar to his use of planes in three-dimensional space.

The gallery presentation provided a chance to see the diversity of the works side-by-side, but also left a large amount of empty space that abstract pieces truly need to be appreciated. I liked this location which featured Diamond (1974/2011) in the foreground and the circular Institutionalized Abstract Art (1976/2011) around the corner. Both were redrawn on the walls for this exhibition. They are perhaps the most minimal of all the pieces, and as such benefited the most from the context of gallery and the association with the other works. They provided a contrast to more roughly drawn or textured pieces. The spacious presentation also allowed room to explore the shapes in a personal manner. One wall of pieces entitled Drawings after circuit featured simple lines against aging paper, and seemed ripe for interpretation as a Hipstamatic photo.

[Click image to enlarge.]

The notebooks, while not as monumental, presented another dimension of Serra distinct from both his large drawings and his sculpture. We see the freedom to explore shapes and ideas that don’t yet need to stand up in large scale.

[Richard Serra, notebook: Double Torqued Ellipses; Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, 2005; paintstick on paper; sheet: 12 ¼ x 14 ½ inches; collection of the artist; © 2011 Richard Serra / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: Rob McKeever]

There are not only small sketches of ideas that could be used in larger works, but energetic and curving sribbles and even playful human shapes.  The notebooks serve more as inspiration for visitors (particular visitors who are themselves artists) than as works unto themselves.

Perhaps the most unusual piece was the list of verbs that appeared at the beginning of the exhibition.

[Click image to enlarge.]

It could serve as both an artist statement as well as an art piece.

At the end of the tour, Richard Serra was present to discuss the exhibition and take questions from the press. He had a very clear and accessible way of describing his work and process, as much engineer as artist.

It was interesting to hear him describe traditional architecture he saw in Spain and Turkey as sources of inspiration for his work. I associate stylized form and intricate detail with such architecture, and what attracts me to Serra’s work is its break with these traditions for a more simple focus on large-scale textures and geometries, and the exploration of asymmetry. I did not get a chance to ask any questions myself, squished among members of the established art press, but it still good to just be present and listen.


Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break is quite a contrast to the Serra drawings in media, style and subject matter. Through photographs and film, Lockhart presents a personal-scale view of industrial labor at the Bath Iron Works, a large naval shipyard in Maine. The artist spent a year in the town and at the shipyard, “interacting with workers and gaining their trust and collaboration.” The result is a portrait that is both intimate and detached. In the photographs we see everyday objects and elements of the “shadow” economy among the workers, such has makeshift cafes and lunch stands. The film meanwhile turns a short period of the workers on lunch break into a monumental portrait of industrial life.

The film is based on ten minutes of footage tracking along the a 1,200 foot hallway, without any panning, zooming or any other motion of the camera besides the steady forward progression. Along the hallway, workers go about the normal routines during lunch break, sitting, standing, eating, reading, talking However, what we ultimately see is anything but routine. The film is slowed down to 80 minutes (one eighth the speed of the original). The result is a stretched out abstract industrial exploration, which emphasizes the expanse and straight lines of the hallway as we pass by the workers.

[Sharon Lockhart, Lunch Break (Assembly Hall, Bath Iron Works, November 5, 2007, Bath, Maine) (still), 2008; 35mm film transferred to HD, 80 min.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; © Sharon Lockhart]

The music, a similarly slowed down mixture of sounds collected from the factory space by filmmaker James Benning and composer Becky Allen, gives a heightened sense of a fictionalized industrial landscape. Of course, I immediately started deconstructing the sound, which appeared to be a combination of pitch and time shifting and granular synthesis, but this did not detract from the overall presentation of the film, which was projected on the wall of a dark elongated room with surround sound for an immersive experience and other worldly experience. Although the film itself was interesting to watch, it was the music that kept my attention for an extended period of time. I tended less to see the details of workers in the visual and focused more on the big picture of the hallway, while in the music I kept looking for details, little bits of metallic or machinery sounds, or the occasional hint of human activity, amidst the overall drone of low-frequency noise.  It is hard to give a sense of the piece, with just an image. It should be experienced in person with the full sound.

The photographs that accompanied the film were not altered and presented images of the lives of the workers at the shipyard that would normally be hidden to outsiders. Several of the workers have set up small shops that sell coffee and food and operate as a shadow economy, where people leave money in boxes on an honor system.

[Sharon Lockhart, Dirty Don’s Delicious Dogs, 2008; chromogenic print; 41 1/16 x 51 1/16 in.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; © Sharon Lockhart]

The images are impersonal in the sense that they do not include any people, but the personalities of the workers who created the objects and spaces are indirectly present. In contrast to the film, with the industrial sounds of the music and scale of hallway dominate the viewer’s attention, the images and silence leave the viewer free to imagine the people who wrote the signs on the shops or attached the stickers to the lunch boxes. In particular, that was my impression from the sign “Please don’t forget to put money in the bank” with its accompanying smiley face. This sign forms the cover for exhibition catalog as well.

[Sharon Lockhart, Handley’s Snack Shop, 2008; chromogenic print; 41 1/16 x 51 1/16 in.; courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and neugerriemschneider, Berlin; © Sharon Lockhart]

Although Lunch Break presents it subject with a certain detachment and abstraction, it is hard to separate it completely from the economic and political reality of contemporary life in the U.S. As stated in the official release, “The project’s attention to the local and to the rarely portrayed experience of the working class take on a particular social and political relevance in the context of global capitalism, war, and economic recession.” The opening was occurring at the same time that the Bay Area incarnations of the Occupy movement were just picking up momentum (my first visit to OccupySF was just a few days earlier.) The combination leads to interesting questions about how protest, art, and the daily routines of working people intersect (and how they often don’t).


It was interesting to have seen both of these exhibitions together, and then reflect on them side-by-side several weeks later. My experience of Serra’s drawings is defined by shape and texture, and leads to more internal contemplation and fewer words that reflect the scale and space of the exhibition. By contrast, Lockhart’s Lunch Break speaks to me on a technical level with music, film and photography, and is on a personal scale. As such, it leads to more words and thoughts upon reflection. Both are valuable experiences and ways of seeing art.

Both exhibitions will be on view at SFMOMA through January 16, 2012. I strongly recommend checking them out if you are in the Bay Area.

[All captioned images are provided courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Images marked “catsynth.com” were taken by the author during the press preview.]

Fluxus in New York (MoMA and NYU, November 2011)

There have been numerous events this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Fluxus, including two exhibitions that I visited while I was in New York last month.

Fluxus was first named by George Maciunas in 1961, and involved a small network of artists in the United States, Europe and Japan who were already exploring some of the new movement’s ideas. Fluxus art generally involved event scores, or series of text or visual instructions that could be used by other artists to perform the works in the manner of a musical score, and the combination of instructional pieces into “Fluxkits” or “Fluxboxes”, collections of printed cards, games and ideas packed into boxes. Although much of this art was meant to be performed live at Fluxus events that ranged from formal concerts to spontaneous street performances and happenings – Fluxus events “could be performed by anyone, anywhere, at any time” – it also created durable works in the form of films, musical instruments, sculptures, and the Fluxkits themselves.

These ideas are not unique to the formal Fluxus moment of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly, many of the ideas were present in Dada several decades earlier, as well as John Cage’s experiments with nondeterminacy in the 1950s. And the elements of Fluxus and its precedents are deeply embedded in contemporary art – the DIY sensibilities are present in many of the exhibitions I attend around San Francisco, for example. As such, the exhibitions are at least as much a historical snapshot of a particular time as they are examples of a particular artistic style and practice.


Thing/Thought: Fluxus Editions, 1962–1978 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), presents works from the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection, which was acquired by the museum in 2008. It was one of the largest collections of its kind and contains over 8,000 artworks and artifacts, including Maciunas’ 1963 Fluxus Manifesto.

[Fluxus Manifesto. 1963. Offset. Edited, designed, and produced by George Maciunas. 8 3/16 x 5 11/16″ (20.8 x 14.5 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008.  Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. (Click image to enlarge.)]

The manifesto itself contains many of the elements associated with Fluxus, the “do-it-yourself” appearance with combinations of found material, personal notes (typed or handwritten), and declarations of spontaneous activity and a break with the traditional media and practices of art.

The duality of an object being at once instructions for a spontaneous artistic expression and itself a work of art appeared throughout the exhibition. This can be seen in the event scores as well as the flux kits.

[Fluxkit. 1965-66, Fluxus Edition announced 1964. Vinyl-covered attaché case containing objects in various mediums. Assembled by George Maciunas. 11 x 44 x 28″ (27.9 x 111.8 x 71.1 cm). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, 2008.  Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.]

FluxKit 1965-6 is at once a practical and portable collection of objects for generating performances. But the individual pieces, such as the cards with their lettering and geometric shapes, and even the arrangement of the elements into the kit box itself, are quite elegant pieces of design. In particular, the cards seem to embody both the do-it-yourself aesthetic and the prevalent tenets of industrial modernist design in the 1960s.

The score for Yoriaki Matsudaira’s Co-Action for Cello and Piano is at once a recognizable extension of traditional music notation and a visual piece with great deal of symmetry and geometry. I have not had a chance yet to try out the piano part myself, but will do so at some point.

[Yoriaki Matsudaira. Co-Action for Cello and Piano I. 1963, Fluxus Edition announced 1963. (Click image to enlarge.)]

The scores of John Cage fit naturally into this context as well, and were included in some of the displays in the exhibition (indeed, it seems like I always encounter at least one Cage piece during every MoMA visit). How closely Cage was involved in any of the Fluxus productions is unclear. He was however a major inspiration for the movement, and several of the prominent artists including George Brecht and Dick Higgins attended his classes

Perhaps the most intriguing of all the pieces were the instruments in Joe Jones’ Mechanical Flux Orchestra.

[Joe Jones. Mechanical Flux Orchestra. c. 1966, Fluxus Edition announced 1966.]

Each of these instruments, such as the Mechanical Violin and Mechanical Bells incorporate electrical motors and strikers that allow them to be self playing. Although these instruments were created in 1966, they still look contemporary with many of the electromechanical musical installations created today, although the electronic elements have improved. Similarly, Metal Zitar #4 has a striking minimalist appearance that could be part of a contemporary installation.

The contributions of Nam Jun Paik to the exhibition also explored the musicality of Fluxus, including it in his “essay” The Monthly Review of the University for Avant-Garde Hinduism! (Postmusic). In this piece, typewritten bits of the text are scattered at odd angles with the same DIY aesthetic as Maciunas’ manifesto and begins with the words “I am tired of renewing the form of music. – serial or aleatoric, graphic or five lines, instrumental or bellcanto, screaming or action, tape or live …”. Yet the art for which he is most known, his beautiful analog video compositions, are quite musical, and indeed he was quite directly influenced by Cage and Stockhausen to produce this body of work.

I primarily know Paik and his video art external to any experience with Fluxus. The same can be said for Yoko Ono, who was not formally a member of the group around Maciunas but was a friend and he admired and promoted her work. Her piece Eyeblink (Fluxfilm no. 9) was part of the Silverman collection and included in the exhibition.

It’s hard not to notice the way the term “Fluxus” and the prefix “Flux-” permeate so much of the work and any attempt to discuss it. Fluxus spawned, Fluxscores, Fluxkits, Fluxboxes, Fluxfilms (as in the previous piece by Yoko Ono), and even Fluxshops.

[Willem de Ridder. European Mail-order Warehouse/Fluxshop. Winter 1964-65. Photo: Wim van der Linden/MAI. The Museum of Modern Art. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.]

Willem de Ridder’s European Mail-order Warehouse/Fluxshop from the winter of 1964-1965 contains a jumbled array of Fluxus editions and kits. A reproduction of the Fluxshop by Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller was featured in the exhibition.

[Jon Hendricks and Larry Miller.  Construction of European Mail-Order Warehouse/Fluxshop, 1984.  (Click image to enlarge.)]

As much as any piece of the exhibition, it is a snapshot back into the time that this art was originally made.

The exhibition will remain on display through January 16, 2012.


A concurrent exhibition Fluxus and the Essential Questions of Life at the NYU Grey Art Gallery presented still more original works and artifacts, this time arranged as a series of “essential themes of human existence”, including “Happiness”, “Health”, “Who am I?” and “Freedom”.

The arrangement around the themes rather than chronology, medium or artist, gave the presentation a rich multi-media feel. For example, below we see a variety of works for “Happiness”, including a film by Yoko Ono, her conceptual object piece A Box of Smile in the cabinet, as well as others including Nye Ffarrabas’ rather prescient Rx: Stress Formula, a pill bottle with capsules with photocopied bits of paper.

[Yoko Ono, A Box of Smile, 1971/1984 ReFlux Edition,plastic box inscribed in gold: “a box of smile y.o. ’71.”Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College: AcquisitionsFund; GM.989.12.5.]

The wry sense of humor permeates much of the work in the exhibition, such as Ben Vautier’s glass bottle with a handwritten label “God” affixed to its side as answer to the question “God?” The arrangement by themes and the particular selections of pieces bring out this quality more than in the presentation at the MoMA, even though many of the same artists and types of work were featured.

Artists central to Fluxus, including Maciunas and Brecht, were well represented here. In contrast to the musical scores, some of Brecht’s event scores were quite minimalist, with the most extreme example being Exit which consists only of the single-word instruction “exit” and was featured (again with a bit of dry humor) under the theme of “Death?”

I did also get to see one of Nam Jun Paik’s pieces for modified television set, Zen for TV, which consists of a simple linear pattern crossing the middle of the screen with little or no change.

Paik’s process of modifying television sets to produce new analog video art is a direct forerunner of the circuit bending that many of us in the electronic-music community do today.

In addition to this exhibition, the gallery featured both historic and more contemporary works created at NYU and the Downtown art scene in the show Fluxus at NYU: Before and Beyond. On display were more scores from John Cage as well as a rather large score by Earl Browne. Numerous posters, books and photographs rounded out this presentation of work that, like the original Fluxus group, pushed the boundaries of their media. I regret that I wasn’t around a couple of weeks early when Larry Miller presented a special gallery tour in conjunction with Performa 11, but I am glad I got to see both exhibitions at the Grey Art Gallery before they closed on December 3.


Both exhibitions described above were quite inspiring, and it is interesting to note how much both the concepts of Fluxus and some of the artifacts intersect with my own music and performance work several decades later. I expect to have at least as strong an influence on the new work I am planning for next year. It also opens up an idea of whether or not this website can serve as a source for a piece inspired by Fluxus? Any and all ideas are welcome.

 

Art Practical Year 3 Launch, with Music and Super-8 film

Today we look back at the launch party for Year 3 of Art Practical, an online magazine that documents and discusses Bay Area visual arts through reviews and analysis. The event took place at Fivepoints Arthouse. Upon entry, we were offered the opportunity to purchase a logo shot glass (which I did). During the evening, it was filled a few “Shotgun Shots” (Shutgun! being the title of their first issue for the year).

However, the highlight of the evening was in basement of Fivepoints, where artists/musicians Joshua Churchill and John Davis presented live experimental music set against a hand-solarized Super 8 film. It’s pretty rare these days to see actual Super 8 films, but it definitely added something to the piece. They images were purposefully grainy, and even more distorted as a result of the solarization and other treatments of the film – it reminded me of some of the effects on the Hipstamatic (see examples here and here), but on a much larger scale and with a richer depth of intensity and contrast.

Joshua Churchill sat in front of the screen and performed the live with electric guitar and an array of electronic effects. There were echoes, distortions, some elements that sounded like looping, and synthetic sounds from the combination of effects. There was a noisiness and graininess to the music that seemed to reflect the quality of the film. The overall effect was quite beautiful and evocative, and mesmerizing.

Through small slots in the ceiling, light poured in from the main floor gallery, creating a series of light streaks that worked both in concert and contrast with the images from the film and heightened the overall presentation. Even though the space was quite crowded, I found myself completely immersed in the visuals and sounds of the piece.

The piece would have been a great event to see on its own even without the party, but I am happy it was there otherwise I might have missed it. All in all, a great evening. And now Art Practical is already on its third issue of Year 3.

Sylvano Bussotti and sfSoundGroup at SFMOMA

At the beginning of month, I attended a retrospective concert of music by the composer Sylvano Bussotti, performed by members of sfSoundGroup at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bussotti is an Italian avant-garde composer whose body of work transcends into visual media and film as well. His music itself is very visual, and his graphical scores are works of art that combine standard music notation with graphical symbols, spatial positioning on the page and text instructions that inform the musicians on how to interpret and perform the piece. They are also known for being difficult to play, but sfSoundGroup is up to the challenge.

The performance took place in the museum’s expansive atrium, which was bathed in red light, with the musicians in the center and the audience orbiting around them. The space was bounded by two pianos, mysteriously set apart.

In the few minutes before the concert began, I was able to check out a couple of the scores up close.


[Score for “Phrase a trois” by Sylvano Bussotti.]

This score is for the piece Phrase a trois for string trio (violin, viola and cello). I also was able to view the score for Geographie Francaise alongside the percussion setup:

[Score for “Geographie Francaise”, by Sylvano Bussotti, with percussion instruments. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Unlike many graphical scores, which often allow for wide interpretation of visual elements and improvisation, these seemed more designed to describe precise instructions to the performer.

Bussotti himself performed in two of the pieces. For Geographie Francaise, he played piano and incanted stark vocal lines in French, alongside featured soloist Laura Bohn and percussionist Kjell Nordeson. I quite liked this piece for its starkness, conceptual simplicity (i.e., centering around the title itself) and the disparate texture of the instrumentation: voice, piano and percussion. One does not really hear traditional rhythms or melodies, even of the early-twentieth century “atonal” sense, but rather directly on the various sound, musical and narrative concepts, more like an abstract theater piece.


[Laura Bohn and Kjell Nordeson performing “Geographie Francaise” by Sylvano Bussotti. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Bussotti also performed in In Memoriam Cathy Berberian. Here, his voice was more central to the piece, and he spoke in Italian in more expressive tones. This is not surprising, given the subject of the piece was Cathy Berberian, his longtime “friend and muse”.


[Sylvano Bussotti performance with members of sfSoundGroup. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

Different personel from sfSoundGroup were featured in different pieces, ranging from the full nine-member cohort in Autotono to a solo performance by Matt Ingalls on clarinet in one of Bussotti’s more recent pieces, Variazione Berio composed in honor of Luciano Berio who died in 2007. In the performance, Ingalls takes advantage of the portability of his instrument to move freely about the space. In doing so, he was able to employ spatial effects on the timbre of the clarinet within the music, which was filled with lots of empty space punctuated with occasional loud tones.


[Matt Ingalls performs “Variazione Berio” by Sylvano Bussotti. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click image to see original.)]

The sparseness of the music and performer’s motion did in fact remind me a bit of Berio’s Sequenzas, and also made me think of the parallels between the theatricality of Berio’s music as compared to Bussotti’s. They were contemporaries in Italian avant-garde music – and as another link, Cathy Berberian was Berio’s wife in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The concert concluded with a performance of Tableaux vivants avant La Passion selon Sade (1964) for two prepared pianos. This was probably my favorite of the evening (along with Geographie Francaise). The pianos that were separated up to now were joined together in the center of the space. The two pianists (Christopher Jones and Ann Yi) playing cooperatively on a single piano, operating both the keyboard and elements within the instrument’s body. Their bodies often crossed paths and intertwined as they attempted to perform their respective parts – the motion seemed both chaotic and intimate at the same time. As the piece progressed, they spread out to both pianos – and in the final movement, they close their scores and attempt to play from memory. Throughout, the music was filled with intense, and sometimes violent energy especially when playing the interior of the piano. I contrast this to they very calm and contemplative nature of John Cage’s better known prepared-piano pieces. It fun to watch, and provided for a dramatic finish to the concert.


The concert was preceded by a screening of Bussotti’s 1967 silent Rara that included live piano accompaniment by Bussotti himself. The music, which was based on live interpretation of a graphical score in which he moved about at will, did not strictly follow the events and actions on the screen, but rather provided more of a backdrop and a counterpoint to images that would have otherwise been rather jarring to watch to watch in silence. [However, the music as performed did have a narrative structure of it’s own, moving between very abstract discrete tones and more idiomatic and even tonal sections.] The film itself consisted mostly of “film portraits” of figures from the Italian avant-garde – mostly images of men (though Cathy Berberian is also featured) in a variety of sexual and emotionally uncomfortable poses, including countless shots of tear-streaked male faces. As such, the film did not really hold my attention, although I did like the abstract imagery and close-ups of the musical score, as well as the play on the letters of the title R-A-R-A itself, that were used alongside the more homoerotic portraits. And certainly it was was interesting to see the composer and filmmaker respond musically to his own work after so many years.


Additional credit goes to Luciano Chessa, who organized the evening’s events. We had previously encountered him last year when he organized the event Metal Machine Manifesto, Music for 16 Intonarumori.

Outsound Music Summit: Blurred Lines

Last night was the first full concert of the Outsound Music Summit. “Blurred Lines” focused on the combination of music and visual media, i.e. film and video.  The pieces were more of a collaboration between film and music rather than one serving the other per se, although in each case the music making and film/video making were done independently .

The first half of the concert featured films by Martha Colburn with live piano improvisation by “local Bay Area pianist impresario” Thollem McDonas. Colburn’s films employ stop animation with original artwork and found images, as well as found footage. The overall look reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s animations (e.g., from Monty Python), though the material was generally much darker. Several of the films dealt with death and violence, particularly in U.S. history and current events. Destiny Manifesto in particular juxtaposed images of western settlers in conflict with Native Americans alongside contemporary looking soldiers and scenes that could have been from the Middle East or Central Asia. Images of people being killed and dismembered abound in these films. Other films, such as Meet Me in Witchita with its images inspired by the Wizard of Oz, but here again things turned dark with Osama Bin Laden’s head superimposed on the Wicked Witch and then being killed and collapsing in a mess of bloody body parts. There were lighter images in some of the films, such as figures that seemed influenced by South Asian shadow puppets and even abstract graphic squares reminiscent of a disco dance floor.

[click image to enlarge]

McDonas’ piano veered between more classical or film-score inspired music and more percussive prepared piano. The music did not follow each film structurally per se (i.e., in the manner of a film score), but did evolve over time and present a particular character in each film. Initially, it started off lighter with fast runs and anxious chords, later on being more percussive and employing prepared piano or plucked strings. As the set progressed, the piano music became dense and darker, with large clusters of fast patterns and arpeggios in lower registers, every so often punctuated by more percussive and plucked elements. Overall the music had an aggressive feel which both showed of McDonas’ piano skills and fit with the violent nature of the films.

The second half of the program featured the 2009 60×60 international compilation. This is a set of 60 one-minute compositions that were selected and ordered into a continuous hour-long performance. For this program, each piece was set to a one-minute video) by Patrick Liddel. I had actually heard the 2009 60×60 compilation before (without the videos) at the Long Night’s Moon Concert last December, and recognized several of the pieces from that performance. Many of the videos were abstract graphics, such as the pixelated images that accompanied the opening pieces by Halsey Burgund and Matthew Dotson, or the abstract kaleidoscopic images set to Polly Moller’s “Abdominal Cyclist Ultra”. Others had more representational images. #16 by Jane Wang featured toy piano and was set to footage of a toy piano being played.

[click image to enlarge]

Some were less directly representational and more evocative of the music, such as the scenes from 1950s television commercials set to Gregory Yasinitsky’s jazz piece. Although it was far more abstract, I would put the constantly moving gray rectangles against Patrica Walsh’s electronica dance music in the same category.

Among my favorite of the combined video+music pieces were Brian Lindgren’s music set to a slowly moving film of a woman in a black dress in front of a brick wall; and Enrico Francioni’s sounds featuring strong resonance and feedback that were set to a beautiful film of forward motion in a dark industrial hallway. Also of note were Jay Batzner’s music (which reminded me of Xenakis) set to geometric views of industrial girders, perhaps power lines; and the intricate grid (along with spiders) set to Anton Killin’s metallic sounds.

Overall, with 60 sets of constantly changing visuals and music, and my attempt to take at least few notes on each, the experience became one of sensory overload. Looking back on the notes, it is interesting in looking at my previous review of the 2009 60×60 mix how different pieces stood out more in the mix without the visuals while others seemed more prominent in the music+visuals mix.

Oakland Underground Film Festival Summer Salon

Last Friday, I participated in the Expanded Strangelet Minus One ensemble at the Oakland Underground Film Festival’s Summer Salon.

The event took place in the cavernous space that used to be a Barnes and Noble in Jack London Square in Oakland. There was a large screening area as well as several installations arranged around the space. The most captivating installation was Tracey Snelling’s Bordertown. She created a series of models at different scales that one might see in a small town in rural California. The scales range from life size in the “Maria” ice cream cart to a miniature commercial strip with detailed buildings. The entire model fits on a large table, but when photographed up close, one loses the sense of scale and the town seems like it could be a life-size model. One could spend quite a bit of time examining all the details, the buildings, the objects inside of them, and signs on the sides.



[Tracey Snelling, installation views. Photos by CatSynth (click to enlarge)]

[Tracey Snelling, installation view.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Several of the pieces incorporate video, such as the “El Diablo Inn” with videos playing in each of the rooms. The larger apartment building had movies playing in each of the windows, and videos of scenes from U.S.-Mexican border were projected onto a full-size screen behind the installation.

Although Snelling’s installation captures a small border town rather than a large urban area, some of the elements that she focuses on, such as industrial buildings and somewhat seedy spaces are similar to those that drive my current interests in urban photography. Urban photography was, however, the central focus of Idan Levin’s photography, which included scenes of colorful city buildings in Japan, industral lots and highway overpasses. As he states, “I prowl the streets at night, seeking a unique vantage point from which I can capture an alternate view of the world…”. He describes this view “prying, mysterious, lonely, and sometimes resembling a sci-fi post-apocalyptic cinematic scene.”

[Idan Levin, Tokyo Scape #1]

Only a few of his images were on display, but I encourage readers to visit his online portfolio.

Michelle Lewis-King’s installation featured projected video onto two cut-outs of female figures.


[Michelle Lewis-King, installation view. Photo by CatSynth (click to enlarge).]

The combination of the video and the empty space of each figure made it seem like both the adult woman on the left and the young girl on the right were present in the environment of the video.

The Expanded Strangelet is an electronic improvisation group founded by Lucio Menagon. He was not with us for this performance, hence the “minus one.” But we did have myself, Matt Davignon, Wayne Grimm, John Hanes, Suki O’Kane, Jonathan Segel, and Michael Zelner. I have played with them before at last year’s Oakland Underground Film Festival, and once again I had my minimal setup if iPhone and Korg Kaoss Pad.

[Expanded Strangelet Minus One.  Photos by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

With Suko O’Kane conducting, we performed an improvised set of exactly 45 minutes, with various duos and solos, and sections with low drones and high staccato elements to provide some texture and an arc.

During the performance, we also projected videos onto the wall, and floor, and even onto people who walked by. We projected my video of Luna from the Quickening Moon Concert onto the floor, and at times it was appeared on the clothes of people nearby:



[Click images to enlarge.]

Our performance was preceded by a pair of bands from Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, including the band Poison Apple Pie. The local nonprofit program “aims to empower girls through music education, promoting an environment that fosters self-confidence, creativity and teamwork.”

There were numerous short firms and videos shown as well, including work by the Cinepimps and others.

[Cinepimps.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Please visit the event site for a full rundown.