Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, Whitney Museum

We at CatSynth have long been interested in the intersection of art, technology and conceptual process.  Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 surveys over 50 years of video, computational and conceptual art, cleverly weaving them together into a single narrative whole.  The three disciplines are united by the concept of a “program” or set of instructions through which the work of art unfolds, whether a computer program, instructions for a performance, or strict concept on a visual object.  Video and lights abound, but there is also painting, dance, and more.

Installation view.   Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

One of the artists who embodies the range of works is Nam June Paik.  Immediately on entry to the gallery, we are bombarded with his massive installation Fin de Siècle II.  Originally made in 1989, it has been beautifully restored for this exhibition.  It contains numerous clips from broadcast video and art video taken out of context and turned into a moving collage on a grand scale.

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Nam June Paul’s beautifully restored Fin de Siecle II. #whitney #nyc

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At the opposite end of the video spectrum is his 1965 piece Magnet TV.  A black-and-white CRT television set is disrupted by a large magnet, creating a unique but sometimes unpredictable pattern that is in its way rather spare and graceful.

Nam June Paik. Magnet TV, 1965. Modified black-and-white television with magnet.

In the first piece, the process is in the composition, arrangement, and looping of the various video clips.  In the latter, it is the physics of the magnet and the CRT.

Motion and experiments with electronics are also at the heart of James L. Seawright’s contemporaneous piece, Searcher, which features gradual motion and changes in light.  The shadows it casts are also part of the experience of the piece.

There is an interesting juxtaposition of one Joseph Kosuth’s classic neon text pieces, Five Words in Green Neon, and W. Bradford Paley’s Code Profiles, a Java program that generates images.  They bring together the concepts of “text as art” and “code as art” – the message is the medium.

Joseph Kosuth.  Five Words in Green Neon, 1965.  Neon
W. Bradford Paley.  Code Profiles, 2002 and 2018.  Java applet.

Paley’s code may be one of the most literal examples of the exhibition’s theme, but code need not be computer code as we think of it today.  Many works from earlier periods were based on a series of instructions, where the instructions are the work and the performance or visual object are the expressions of said work.  One such example is Sol Le Witt’s sculpture Five Towers.  The three-dimension grids are assembled by a program with various combinations into a simple but beautiful result.  I particularly enjoyed looking through it.

Sol LeWitt.  Five Towers, 1968.  Basswood with alkyd enamel paint.

Josef Albers’ color-field rectangles can similarly be generated from a “program”.  Like Le Witt’s piece, one could conceive of doing something like this with a computer, but neither artist chose to do so, instead being themselves the interpreters for the code.

Josef Albers.  White Line Square VI, 1966. Screenprints on board

The performing arts have long been linked to programs, whether the traditional score or choreography, or more modern uses of algorithms or conceptual instructions.  Performance was most strongly represented in the exhibition by Lucinda Childs’ Dance, done in collaboration with Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass.  Childs, who is known for a precise and almost algorithmic approach to dance, choreographed a series of 5 pieces to a score by Glass.   She made drawings in different colors for the different movements and projected these onto the floor.  During the dance segments, the colors of her drawing were also used for the lighting.  Finally, LeWitt filmed the dancers, and the film was then projected behind live performers.  The documentation of this complex counterpoint was on display in the gallery, including the film, score, and drawings.

Philip Glass.  Score for Dance #1, 1979.  Photocopy with ballpoint pen.

Program, object, video and performance also come together Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna.  Lorna is an interactive video story on a laser disc (anyone else remember laser discs?).  Users can determine how the story unfolds through one of three endings via a remote control.  The screen and control are placed within a simulated apartment decked out entirely in leopard print, and the viewer is invited to sit in a comfy chair while the controlling the story.  This self-guided performance is at once programmed, but also immersive in that the viewer becomes part of the piece, both in space and in terms of control.

Lynn Hershman Leeson.  Lorna, 1979-84. Video, color, sound; with television, interactive laser disc shown as DVD, modified remote control, television cabinet, night table, end table, wood chair, upholstered chair, mirror, fishbowl with plastic goldfish, clothing, wallet, belt, shoes, watch, telephone, magazines, framed storyboards, and framed art

Video permeates the entire exhibition, popping up directly and indirectly in at least half of the pieces, or not more.  But video has many different aspects.  Is not a collection of discrete LEDs programmed to represent a moving image, as in Jim Campbell’s Ambiguous Icon #5 (Running, Falling), a video?  It is certainly a low resolution one, but this low resolution and discrete electronics allow us to see the individual elements that simulate movement in our perception.

Jim Campbell.  Ambiguous Icon #5 (Running, Falling), 2000.  LED lights and custom electronics.

We conclude this survey with a new site-specific commission by Tamiko Thiel.  She created an augmented-reality mobile app (in collaboration with developer /p) that overlays organic forms on the angular, geometric space of the museum’s outdoor terrace.  

Thiel’s organic growths are beautiful and playful, but also have a darker aspect.  Some resemble plastic refuse, and others coral formations.  Both are emblematic of the crises facing our seas due to pollution and climate change.  At the same time, the algorithmic process she uses, a formal grammar developed in 1968 by the Hungarian biologist and botanist Aristid Lindenmayer, is fascinating.

Tamiko Thiel  (with /p),  Unexpected Growth, 2018. Augmented reality installation, healthy phase. Commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art

There were many more works in this exhibition that we can discuss in a single article.  Each one had something compelling and different about it.  For anyone interested in or curious about these forms of art, I highly recommend checking out this exhibit! 

Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art through April 14, 2019.

The Art of Paper at Sundaram Tagore Gallery

The Art of Paper is a multi-artist exhibition currently on display Sundaram Tagore Gallery at their Chelsea location.  The term “works on paper” often refers to drawing and print, but the medium and can be used in so many more ways.  Each of the artists in the show uses paper in a very different way, showcasing its breadth and versatility as a raw material for art.

Korean artist Chun Kwang Young creates fantastic three-dimensional sculptures from mulberry paper.  This thin and delicate paper is prized as an artistic material, but also has mundane uses as wrappers.  Chun sources his paper from old books and wraps them into tight triangular forms that he then assembles into beautiful and complex forms he calls Aggregations.

Chun Kwang Young, “Aggregations” installation view

Some are flat and wall-mounted while others are freestanding.  But in all cases, they are three-dimensional full of complex depth and texture.

The jagged triangular elements seem sharp, even a bit dangerous up close.  But at the same time, they seem fragile, like delicate crystals that could fall apart among touch.  When viewing closer, they seem soft, especially as the details of the paper come into view, including the original printed text from the source material.  There is something almost science-fiction-y and other-worldly about the result that I find captivating.

Aggregation 17 – DE099​, 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 59.4 x 59.4 inches/151 x 151 cm

Chun has a simultaneous solo exhibition from his Aggregations at the Brooklyn Museum, which we will be reviewing in a separate article.

The work of Anila Quayyum Agha also uses paper as a basis for sculpture with a very different set of styles, techniques, and sensibilities.  She is best known for her works featuring paper laser-cut into large intricate forms.  Many of the paper cuts are assembled into cubes placed in immersive spaces with light.

Shimmering Mirage, 2016, lacquered steel and halogen bulb, 36 x 36 x 36 inches/91.4 x 91.4 x 91.4 cm

Being in the space of this piece and viewing it from all angles was a captivating experience.  It doesn’t seem like paper, but rather intricately carved stone or metal.  Some of the same principles of light and the spaces in between the material are at play in Agha’s two-dimensional works. The designs of Agha’s laser-cuts are reminiscent of the intricate designs found in Islamic art and architecture, such as the mosques of her native Pakistan.  Growing up as a woman there, she often found herself excluded from such spaces, and this informs her art today.

In contrast to Agha’s highly intricate designs, Miya Ando’s work is more subtle and spare.  She is known for more abstract work in metal, but she brings that work to paper in her “moonlight” pieces for this show.

Miya Ando, Gekkou (August) Moonlight 2, 2018, silver leaf and pigment on Arches paper, 41 x 29 inches/104.1 x 73.7 cm

Paper is often white, but it can be many different whites and shades in between those gradations.  The subtle changes give the round form a very natural feel in contrast to the stark white background.

There are several more artists in this show, more than we at CatSynth are able to cover in this article.  For more information, please visit the gallery’s website.  They are located at 547 West 27th Street, and the exhibition will be on display through December 15, 2018.

CatSynth Pic: Luna and Mellotron Micro for Halloween

Not our Luna, but another sweet black cat who shared the name 😻and all dressed up as a sushi roll for Halloween!  From Yoselin Alcala‎ via our Facebook page.

A Cats on Synthesizers Halloween submission! Our little Luna in her sushi costume with a Mellotron ✨🎃 

“Sushi Luna” is posing with a Mellotron Micro synthesizer.  We at CatSynth are quite interested in this smallest edition in the venerable Mellotron series.  It is also the subject of our most popular CatSynth TV episode.



Transphobia and Misogyny

In general, I have been fortunate.  Transphobia is rare in my own life.  I was able to come out and transition on the job, I have supporting friends and family, a nice home, a sweet cat…I have not experienced any trouble in the more conservative places I enjoy traveling.   In many ways, plain-old sexism and the increasing menace of misogyny have been a much bigger issue .  This is why it can be so jarring when it does reach me, as it did over the past two weeks.  There were three punches: the statement that existing civil rights laws on sex don’t apply to gender identity; the active support of businesses’ right to discriminate against transgender employees and applicants; and most sinister of all, the attempt to hard-define gender as fixed at birth, erasing the lives of trans people and taking away the rights and privileges we currently enjoy.  This last one is the one that worries me the most – no, they probably won’t yank my passport or my social security card, but sadly I can’t trust them not to.

I don’t think the buffoon at the top of the executive branch cares one way or another about trans people, but he certainly does like to tweak his base, which seems to take particular pleasure in things that hurt women, trans people, gay men, and the like.  That is the cynical answer to “why now”, but why this seems to be a particular obsession is a more complex question.  I don’t pretend to have definitive answers, but I would point to the prevailing and growing misogyny.  It’s not new, but it’s been particularly ugly of late.  Basically, the recently concluded court fight made the statement that a woman’s pain from sexual assault is not as important as getting a man into a position where he will uphold the traditional authority of powerful men over, well, everything.  They hate women who challenge them, and they hate men who are “not with the program.”  This explains why it is gay men and trans women who bear so much of the anti-LGBTQ violence worldwide.  Both groups are perceived as men who are deviating from the program, and therefore as much a threat as women who defy their authority.

Up to this point, I have focused on patriarchy and misogyny without looking at religion, but it’s impossible not to see the interconnection.  The Abrahamic faiths are practiced by millions upon millions of wonderful people, and their worship and rituals are often very beautiful, but their scriptures are all deeply misogynistic to the core.  It’s not surprising that the fundamentalists of each are the easiest people to rile up against women and sexual minorities.  It’s time we finally recognize this and not treat it so gently.  When civil rights are taken away from LGBTQ folks, they lose everything.  When they are restored, no one loses anything.  The deeply conservative and religious claim they are victimized but we must at every step ask them to list how they are harmed.  Except for a few cases of violence which should be dealt with accordingly, they lose nothing.  What does a county clerk lose when she hands a marriage license to a same-sex couple?  Nothing.  What does the baker lose?  Nothing.  If they fear they lose their faith by participating in civil society, it’s probably time to question the strength of their faith, and not the lives of others.

And progressives who claim to be allies need to prioritize this.  No more excusing bad behavior for economic issues (again I could write a book about how some white progressives see only class and forget race, gender, or sexuality).  No more cynically complaining about “pinkwashing” when a large company does the right thing, as several did in North Carolina two years ago.  Don’t just say you stand with us, make it your priority!  And don’t tolerate those who stand against us, whether TERFs, religious communities that claim persecution, or otherwise.

Oh yes, and please do VOTE.  But that’s just a start…

CatSynth Pics: Gracie and Ensoniq SQ-80

Gracie and Ensoniq SQ-80

Gracie is back!  This time with an Ensoniq SQ-80 synthesizer. From Alsún Ní Chasaide (Alison Cassidy) via Facebook.

It seems that Gracie really likes this particular synth 😸

The SQ-80 is an interesting synth that came out about the same time as the Ensoniq EPS (which along with its successor the ASR-10 were mainstays of my studio until about 2000).  From Vintage Synth Explorer:

The SQ-80 is basically a reved-up ESQ-1 with a total of 75 waveforms, a 61-note keyboard with velocity & aftertouch, floppy disk drive for storing patches and sequences, and an enhanced sequencer. Great for organs, analog-type sounds, pads and sound effects. Like the classic ESQ-1, the SQ-80 functions in providing analog-type 4-pole lowpass filtering and editing of digital waveforms. Each voice can combine up to 3 of the 75 waveforms. These waveforms include multi-sampled transient attack waves such as violin bow, plectrum picks, mallet, hammer, breath attacks and percussive sounds. There are also 5 sampled drum sets. Three LFOs are onboard for some pretty wild modulation of the sounds you create or edit.

René Magritte: The Fifth Season at SFMOMA

We at CatSynth have been extraordinarily busy since the start of summer with work, music, and other obligations.  As a result, our explorations of visual art have suffered a bit.  But we start correcting that today with a report from the blockbuster René Magritte: The Fifth Season exhibition at SFMOMA.  I’m glad I was able to get in to see it before it closes in two weeks!

The exhibition focuses on his later works, from World War II through the late 1960s.  It is billed as “If you think you know Magritte (1898–1967), think again.”  Yet, this period includes many of his most iconic works – other than perhaps his most famous La Trahison des images (aka “this is not a pipe”), including many of my favorites from the broader Magritte retrospective I had seen at SFMOMA in the early 2000s.

Les valeurs personnelles
Les valeurs personnelles (1952)

The work depicted above,  Les valeurs personnelles, is perhaps my favorite of all.  I find myself drawn to it not just because of the stark juxtaposition of larger-than-human-sized objects in a smaller-than-human-sized space, but for the various textures that defy painting.  The objects themselves have the hyperrealistic sheen of graphics from the 1990s (we were all proud of our ability to render glass) with the more pedestrian room space and strangely realistic sky on the wall.  These are the characteristics of many of Magritte’s pieces during his Hypertrophy period in the 1950s.  It’s taken to an extreme in a piece that features one of his iconic green apples swelling to gargantuan proportions and pushing against the walls of a modest room.

The Listening Room
The Listening Room (1952)

And of course, there were many bowler-hatted gentlemen, some with green apples, some without.

The Son of Man
The Son of Man (1964)

The image of the bowler hat and the bowler-hatted man has appeared throughout Magritte’s career, but it was more closely associated with the artist himself in his later works, a form of self-portraiture.

The Happy Donor
The Happy Donor (1966)

In addition to the green apple, we see many objects and concepts that appear in other works from this period applied to the bowler-hatted man, such as the small round stone, birds, and negative spaces.

In both sets of works, we see the discrete juxtaposition of elements that may or may not fit with real-life experience.  I see this is as “quintessentially Magritte” and consistent throughout most of his career.  In that sense, I disagree a bit with the thesis of the exhibition that this later period was a break with surrealism, but rather a reimagining of it with different subjects and techniques and without the heaviness of the movement’s manifesto.  If there was one section of the exhibit that truly represented a break from what I know of the artist, it was the first section that featured his vache period immediately following World War II.

Lyricism (Le Lyrisme) 1947
Lyricism (Le Lyrisme) 1947

I would never have guessed these grotesque parodies of van-Gogh-style impressionism were his work if they were not presented and explained.  At the same time, it is not surprising that the experience of the war (Magritte remained in his native Belgium during the Nazi occupation).  It feels like his weakest and least memorable work, but one theory suggests that his retrograde style during this period helped avoid Nazi attention and persecution.  We are certainly glad he returned to form in his later years.

One of late series, collectively called The Dominion of Light, brings together a nighttime city streetscape with a daytime sky. 

The Dominion of Light

It takes a moment of adjustment to realize the confounding of night and day in the image, as our eyes are so used to assumptions about the passing of time and light.  The series is at once playful, but also a bit melancholy, pointing to the later years of a life and life’s work.   Fortunately, there was one more chapter to come that was both more curious and more uplifting.

A Sense of Reality (1963)

This bizarre series of boulders floating in space or sitting isolated on an apartment terrace is a return to form, but also an exploration of time and gravity and even more fundamental assumptions that we make in everyday life.  Their lightness and starkness also make an interesting statement at the end of a career that spanned several decades and saw the massive changes of the 20th century.  We should note that the bowler-hat portraits featured in this article were done during the same late period, and are stronger both as works in themselves and as a career-spanning statement. 

The exhibit was overall a delight to experience.  It was hung in a minimalist but also warm style without too much crowding or overwhelm, and it weaved a narrative even as I took in the works as individuals.  It also marked a return a place of solace, the museum, after a long period of intensity and focus on other practices.  I won’t stay away as long again.

If you are in San Francisco over the next couple of weeks, I strongly recommend checking this exhibition out before it closes on October 28.  For more information, please visit https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/rene-magritte/.

Secret Chiefs 3 and Cleric play Zorn’s Masada

Greetings, and L’Shana Tovah! Today we look back to a show from last weekend at The Chapel in San Francisco where two bands interpreted selections from John Zorn’s Masada songbook. It was part of a four-day residency by Zorn at the Chapel in celebration of his 65th Birthday.

“Masada” has morphed and grown as a musical concept since Zorn’s original Ornette-Coleman-inspired group from the 1990s. There have been follow-up projects, notably Electric Masada that we at CatSynth are most familiar with. But it is as much a songbook as a collection of ensembles. The “Masada songbook” contains hundreds of short compositions, sometimes just fragments, scales, or concepts. Originally intended to be performed by the ensembles, these compositions can be interpreted by other bands. And on this night, the bands took them in decidedly rock direction.

First up was Cleric. The Philadelphia-based “avant-metal” band currently features Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Nick Shellenberger on keyboards and vocals, Larry Kwartowitz on drums, and Daniel Ephraim Kennedy on bass.

Cleric plays Masada

As their background implies, the performance was decidedly metal, a full-on triple-forte projection with growling vocals and fast runs punctuated by heavy drones. Nonetheless, it was top-notch musicianship and an adventurous choice of music. Within the mix, I found myself mostly focused on Shellenberger’s vocals and keyboards, though Kennedy’s six-string bass took center stage visually, and Hollenberg’s guitar performance added a solidifying aspect to the music. It was a solid set, and certainly an interpretation of the Masada songbook we have never heard before (and may never hear again).

Next up was Secret Chiefs 3, who brought a decidedly different sound and presentation to the stage.

Secret Chiefs 3 plays Masada

Led by guitarist and composer Trey Spruance (formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More) and heavily featuring Eyvind Kang on violin, the group weaved together jazz, rock, folk, klezmer, and Middle Eastern influences into their eclectic set. Rounding out the group on this night were Jason Schimmel on guitar, Matt Lebofsky on keyboards, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, Ches Smith on percussion, and Kenny Grohowski on drums.

It was an inspired and highly dynamic performance from these hometown favorites, and the band seemed a good match for the Masada songbook. There is an explicit thread of mysticism and the esoteric in both Zorn’s music and the work of SC3, so this is not surprising. I even recognized a couple of songs from Electric Masada recordings. The orchestration was brilliant and clever, bringing out each of the musicians as well as the Jewish influences of the songs. There were contrapuntal moments where the musicians played different lines and rhythms but coming together for short emphatic choruses with syncopated lines. It was crisp, tight, but also fun. And one could sense that the audience – a packed crowd on both levels of the Chapel, was having a great time along with them. The set was also the perfect length, keeping up the energy without petering out or overstating their welcome, leading to a single climax note that ended the music and cued Zorn and the musicians from Cleric back to the stage for a final group bow.

All together with John Zorn

Overall, a fine night of music. As with many multi-day festivals, I regret not being there for the other nights, but glad I was able to make it to the one that I did. September is always the busiest month for music (and art) in San Francisco, and we will have much more to experience and share in the coming weeks.

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: Camera Study

The vast majority of my recent photography has been done with the iPhone, but for the upcoming Outsound New Music Summit, I will need to use the SLR and lenses.  So I’m getting back into practice with Sam Sam.

I think this one came out beautifully, especially as Sam Sam was being the perfect model.  I recently got a new faster camera, and so far it has been a joy to use, especially with our existing portrait lens on manual.  With the iPhone, I have forgotten both the fun and hazards of managing optics.  When focused properly it really brings out the detail of her fur and puts the background in the background.  Some shots work better than others, of course.  This one was less than perfect, but I really liked her vocal expression.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t shoot some pictures of her scratch’n’roll.

Sam Sam definitely knows how to ham it up for the camera.

I will be on photography duty for most nights at the Outsound New Music Summit, or at least the nights I’m not also performing with my band CDP.  You can find out more about the festival, including tickets, on the official website.

CatSynth Pic: White Cat and Modular, Vertical View

A beautiful pic from Davor Gazde and his white feline companion.  It looks like the cat is inspecting the patch quite intently.

We are pretty sure this is the same Modcan modular synthesizer from their previous photos.  You can see all of their contributions via this link.

 

Wordless Wednesday: Sutro Baths Ruins at Lands End

The ruins of the Sutro Baths at Lands End on the western edge of San Francisco.

Quite a few of our recent Wordless Wednesdays have focused on the western parts of the city.  Here are some previous posts:

Wordless Wednesday: Orizaba

Wordless Wednesday: Lake Merced Abstraction

Wordless Wednesday: Windmill (Golden Gate Park)

In addition, there is our video and article about Lake Merced.