Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Christian Marclay, The Clock, SFMOMA

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As SFMOMA prepares to close for its expansion, Christian Marclay’s cinematic masterpiece The Clock seems an appropriate final exhibition. The piece is all about time, how it passes and slips away, and returns over the cycle of a day. Thousands of movie clips, some well known and some obscure, were painstakingly assembled into a 24-hour video montage in which clock faces or verbal references to time appear at the time of day they represent. For example, an image of a clock at 2PM appears in the piece at 2PM.

Christian Marclay The Clock
[Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound; 24 hours; courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.]

Time is a powerful subject in film and indeed in all forms of art, and clocks have a long history as symbols. But a 24-hour video containing clips of clocks arranged in real time is something else entirely. At first glance, the idea of the piece can seem a little trite and gimmicky. And the lines to get in to see the piece are daunting – I waited over three hours on Saturday to see a night-time stretch. But getting past these initial impressions and obstacles is well worth the effort, as the piece itself is mesmerizing. It is easy to get lost in a two-hour or even a three-hour stretch as one focuses on the clocks, watches and other visual and verbal representations of time.

Christian Marclay The Clock installation view
[Christian Marclay, installation view of The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with sound; 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15–November 13, 2010; courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, and White Cube, London; photo: Todd-White Photography; © Christian Marclay]

I think our brains also naturally want to string the fast changing clips into a longer narrative around time. Towards this end, Marclay’s editing goes well beyond the placement of time in order, including overlaying audio from one film on top of another and having the sound cut out at specific moments, such as the closing of a door or hanging up a telephone. Scenes from different films are interwoven, such as through disparate actions and situations on opposite sides of a phone conversation. There are many moments of humor in these juxtapositions as well. Other scenes, however, just stand out on their own visually.

Christian Marclay The Clock
[Christian Marclay, video still from The Clock, 2010; single-channel video with stereo sound; 24 hours; courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York]

In both viewing The Clock and reflecting upon it, one is struck by the amount of effort it must have taken to make. Indeed, the process of collecting the scenes to cover the full 24-hour period seems even more daunting than the actual editing and post-production processes, though given the number of clips and the length that is an impressive feat in itself. It apparently took over three years for Marclay to complete the piece.

It is worth also seeing at different times of day to see how the scenes reflect our expectations of real time. Not surprisingly, the midnight to 2AM section featured a lot of bedroom scenes, as well as individuals in lonely places. By contrast, 1PM to 3PM contained a lot more action scenes and workplace scenes. 4:30PM had more transitional scenes as day gives way to evening. Some intrepid souls have been able to view most of the full 24 hours, though such a commitment is not necessary to get a good experience of the piece.

The Clock will remain on view at SFMOMA through its official close on June 2. Lines to see it will be especially long during this final week, so get there ahead of time and plan to wait for a while (bring a book).

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Pitta of the Mind, Doug Harvey, Other Cinema at ATA

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In the midst of this rather crazy time in May with multiple band performances, rehearsals, art fairs and other happens, we look back at the simpler time that was April. In particular, my performance as “Pitta of the Mind” with Maw Shein Win at Artists Television Access in San Francisco. The performance was part of a launch event for Doug Harvey’s new anthology “patacritical Interrogation Techniques Anthology Volume 3″, hosted by Other Cinema.

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Other Cinema events are always a fun mix of the campy, the strange, the beautiful, and sometimes challenging material. The selection during this evening included the hilarious but incomprehensible “Turkish Star Wars” and an interest abstract french piece, shown below:

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Throughout the evening, Doug Harvey also read selections from his new anthology. It was such an eclectic mix of elements ranging from criticism to found text, and I look forward to reading it myself.

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Our Pitta of the Mind performance featured readings from Harvey’s collection of spam poetry. It was a different sort of text from our usual, but a lot of fun and provided more opportunities from abstract musical response. You can see and hear our performance in this video:

ATA Pitta of the Mind from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I also had the opportunity to accompany Harvey’s Moldy Slides, a piece based on a collection of 35mm slides in various states of decay. The images and concept were quite beautiful, and I enjoyed the opportunity to improvise to it on iPad synths. Unfortunately, I do not have a recording of that performance.

Harvey wrote a very complimentary review of our performance on his blog. Here is an excerpt:

The highlight of the San Francisco launch event for ‘patacritical Interrogation Techniques Anthology Volume 3 at ATA/Other Cinema (Craig Baldwin’s 28-year-old underground microcinema) was undoubtedly Pitta of the Mind (Maw Win & Amar Chaudhary) translating found email spam poetry from the turn of the Millennium into swinging intergalactic electro-transmissions. I made a video, so hopefully that will find its way online soon, but in the emantime, here’s a couple of action shots, and a sampling of the spoems:

bodhisattva cohomology

Any dahlia can brainwash short order cook of, but it takes a real lover to for lover.Any trombone can approach fundraiser toward, but it takes a real guardian angel to traffic light of cleavage.piroshki remain sprightly.

lower adult drum electrophoresis

– Essie Russell

Follow the link to read more and see some photos.

A big thank you to Craig Baldwin of Other Cinema and to Doug Harvey for giving us the opportunity to participate in this event. I look forward to doing more with Other Cinema in the future.

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Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and Dan Plonsey’s Quartet

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Today we look at the recent premiere of Current Events by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble and a new quartet from Dan Plonsey. Both groups performed on April 28 at Berkeley Arts.

We have featured recordings by the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble (JCDE) a few times on The World of Wonder radio show and podcast, but this was an opportunity to see them perform a live improvisation to short experimental films. Joining Dubowsky for this performance were Hall Goff on trombone, Erika Johnson on percussion and Rufus Olivier III on bassoon.

Current Events is structured around five short films concerning recent events or contemporary topics. The first film featured TV footage and simulations of Air France Flight 447 that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. The second featured a variety of video sources concerning both the technical aspects and controversy about drone warfare. Through both of these sections the music was relatively pointed, with short and often inharmonic notes from all members of the ensemble. While this was the natural state for the percussion, is particularly noticeable for the trombone and bassoon. Dubowsky was mostly on acoustic piano during these films, but did switch over to the synth for some longer extended sounds.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky

The next film featured “futurist cities”, 20th century utopian designs for cities of the future that are long in the past. This was my favorite of the films, primarily because of the material – I am a sucker for past visions of the future and lament that fact that our time does not always live up to their ideals, at least in terms of design. Musically, this was a transition piece with more long tones leading into the final two films which focused on nature. The first was about the polar regions, including the melting ice caps. But it also featured penguins (and who doesn’t love penguins?).

Penguin in Polar Ice Caps video

The music for this piece did veer into some of the cliches of high sounds and noisy drones that often accompany images of ice and snow, but there were also parts that were simply musical improvisation. The final piece on the desert was more inviting, partly because of the warm environment it portrayed but also the variety of musical elements compared to the polar piece. In all, the suite as performed was a particularly fun live set combining music and visuals, and I thought it was well done and well prepared.

The second set featured the debut performance of Dan Plonsey’s new quartet with Steve Lew on bass, John Hanes on drums and John Shiurba on guitar.

Dan Plonsey quartet, 3 of 4 members

Between generous amounts of verbal banter – much of it around the relative difficultly and quality of the numerically titled pieces – the band delivered the type of jazz that still celebrates driving rhythms and strong harmonies alongside complex lines. I particularly liked the final “jam/funk” piece. It was just different enough to be original, but had the familiar qualities that makes funky pieces so addictive.

John Hanes and John Shiurba

Personally, I could have done with less of the banter. It did get a bit repetitive, especially when members of the audience started chiming in. Even Plonsey himself, a voluble individual, suggested that they could have gotten to more music if there was less of it.

While Plonsey’s big band is fun, too, I do like the spare and focused nature of the quartet and hope they continue to perform in the future.

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Issue Project Room: Mind Over Mirrors with Zelienople + The Ashcan Orchestra

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As part of my wanderings around New York this past week, I had the opportunity to hear an evening of experimental music produced by Issue Project Room. The concert, at the Actors Fund Arts Center in Brooklyn, featured two ensembles that were quite different in terms of music and instrumentation.

The evening began with a performance by the Brooklyn-based Ashcan Orchestra. The group is a project of composer p. spadine and involved a variety of colorful toy instruments.

[Ashcan Orchestra.]

Through the set of four pieces, the members of the ensemble rotated around the instruments, beginning with a piece for an ensemble of toy bells. The bells were actually quite sonorous, and one would be hard pressed to recognize this as a piece performed with toy instruments if only listening and not observing the bright colors. The colors were nonetheless an important part of the presentation and even part of the musical score.

As the performers rotated, the orchestration and timbres became more varied and complex, including more drums and other louder instruments, giving the impression martial music (ableit martial music with toys). In the end, however, they rotated back to the bells for one final piece. The music and presentation was a lot of fun, and I thought they could have easily done another piece. But the set as it was had a good structure. It was nice to hear the ensembles treatments of traditional harmony and ideas reminiscent of early-twentieth century music.

The second half the concert featured a collaboration of Mind Over Mirrors, the project of resident artist Jaime Fennelly, and the ensemble Zelienople. Fenelly’s work involves the use of harmoniums together with electronics. The combination was impressive to look at.

At least one member of Zelienople also used a combination of harmonium and electronics, while others used guitars and other instruments to produce music similar to droning or “space rock” that we have discussed on this site before.


[Mind Over Mirrors and Zelienople.]

In this case, the music was performed as a soundtrack to Gone, a film by Donald Prokop. The film appeared to be winter suburban scenes familiar to any of us who grew up around New York City, with bare trees, ranch houses, and white snow. A lone figure occasionally appeared, walking or entering and exiting a car, and occasionally the scenes dissolved into wintery abstract color contours. Throughout, the music remained based on long drones, but veered between moderate pads and loud dramatic flourishes. The structure of the music and the film both added to a sense of listlessness and disorientation – this was an experience to simply lose oneself in.

Overall it was a strong evening of music, and the performance was well attended. I hope that I can continue to hear programs from Issue Project Room during my visits to New York.

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Improv Hootenanny Revival, Berkeley Arts

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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.

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STILL, Pia Maria Martin, McLoughlin Gallery

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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.

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Wordless Wednesday: Possible Sequence (Night Light preview)

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

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

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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…

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Richard Serra Drawing and Sharon Lockhart Lunch Break, SFMOMA

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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.]

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

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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.

 

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