These posts are either "jump pages" for my weblog or posts-in-process that will eventually appear there. For what it's worth, here's an archive of these random bits. The picture to the left is by a famous comic book artist.
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Beating The Eardrum
Circuit Bending Festival Has Its Screeching Fans, But It's No Sonic Boom
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page C01
NEW YORK The Homicidal Choir is not actually a choir, but the group sounds like murder and it will put you in the mood to kill. There aren't many noises in the world as chaotic and as grating as the noise made by this duo on Thursday night, at the second annual Circuit Bending Festival in progress through today.
For 10 minutes, the two members of the choir -- known by the stage names Nobody and T-Bone -- whip up a plague for the ears made almost exclusively with a pair of children's toys. Nobody -- who for some reason wore a hockey goalie's mask for half the show -- plays a kiddie guitar, the sort of starter instrument that is supposed to make mellow synthesizer tones when you press its buttons. But this instrument's mellow days are behind it. Nobody had rewired it to make menacing blips and random gurgles. T-Bone has done something similar to her kiddie drum machine. Together the two make a cacophony that in most places would clear the room.
Peter Edwards with a Speak & Math and other toys whose wiring he's modified to produce the "musical" squeaks and squawks sought by "circuit benders," who are holding their annual festival in New York. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
But everybody here at a run-down performing-arts space called the Tank, in a soon-to-be-bulldozed part of far West 42nd Street, stays put. Even odder, they cheer. Fans of "circuit bending" aren't interested in hummable melodies or danceable beats. On this night they are not disappointed.
"Wow," murmurs one fan after the applause dies down. "That was tight." Tight, maybe. Bizarro for sure. Circuit bending started about 10 years ago when a geographically diverse group of basement tinkerers began to experiment with soldering guns and the cast-aside first-generation electronic Christmas gifts of their childhood. They discovered that if you pop the top off anything that has a simple circuit board and makes a sound -- an '80s-era talking doll, for instance -- you can hot-wire it and produce squawks that the manufacturer never had in mind, squawks that in some cases had never before been heard.
United by the Internet, circuit benders started sharing notes and trading pointers, and now they're a certified subculture. They tend to view themselves as outsiders, fed up by the hackneyed (to them) sounds that are emitted by conventional instruments. They also sneer at laptop computers, which are featured ever more prominently in electronica and hip-hop.
"It definitely has a defiant edge to it," says Peter Edwards, who says he makes a full-time living modifying such toys and, indeed, claims he can't keep up with demand. "It's become this new punk culture, a new do-it-yourself culture. But mostly it's people looking for unusual sounds."
Edwards started soon after he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied sculpture. After attending a live performance of circuit benders, he bought 30 Speak & Spells in an online auction for a total of $250. It turns out that the Speak & Spell -- which was made by Texas Instruments as a learning tool for children -- is gold to benders, beloved for its durability and its amazingly rich circuitry, not to mention the huge vocabulary stored in its chip. Though discontinued long ago, there are always a few for sale on eBay, many of them pitched directly to circuit benders in search of new hardware.
Which, by the way, is news to Texas Instruments.
"I can't find anyone who's ever heard of circuit benders here," Kim Quirk, a spokeswoman for the company, said yesterday. "We wish them the best of luck."
Edwards demonstrates his handiwork on a Speak & Math, a Texas Instruments gadget that was intended to teach arithmetic. It looks pretty much undoctored on the outside except that it has red buttons sticking out of the front and a series of silver switches attached to the sides. When Edwards turns it on, it begins babbling. When he flips those switches he can loop, distort and change the pitch of that babble. It isn't clear that he is "playing" the Speak & Math the way you play, for instance, a guitar, but he seems to control the sound a little.
"It's control within randomness," he says, as the voice of his Speak & Math twitches and drones in the background.
There are a handful of marquee musicians who own circuit-bent instruments -- among them, Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel -- but there isn't much risk that this phenomenon will go mainstream any time soon. Circuit benders are typically a few parts Moby and a few parts the Professor from "Gilligan's Island," without any of the former's appetite for commercial success. There are about 25 people in the crowd on Thursday night, nearly all of them men.
"We were joking before that these guys do this all for the chicks," Daniel Walker says.
Unbelievably, the Homicidal Choir is not the most difficult listening of Thursday night. That title goes to one Travis Fuller, who takes at least 10 years off the ear life of everyone in the Tank as he screams into a microphone wired through a contraption with a dozen different jacks and knobs on top. It sounds like a poodle being strangled, but much, much louder.
"This one's called 'Smile,' " he says, before he starts shouting again.
Joshua Hydeman is up next and he seems to want the prize for the Most Horrible Noise of the Night for himself. He nearly takes it, screaming through yet another obscure homemade thingamabob. He certainly comes up with the single most dada moment of the evening. He ends his set by peeling some kind of citrus fruit and rubbing it all over his face.
None of these people is playing songs, in the sense that a song has a chorus and lyrics, a beginning, middle and end. For the most part, the performers just make noise for about 10 minutes, then the noise subsides and when they say "thank you," you know the song is over. The pleasure for performer and fan alike comes from the textures of the noise, the idea of it as a landscape that has never been experienced before. It's all about sonic novelty. You get the sense, too, that these circuit benders just like to freak people out. T-Bone, for example, wears braids, which give her the look of a schoolgirl, until you notice the top of her head, which is shaved and vividly tattooed, like a Technicolor yarmulke. One can only think of her parents.
"It's kind of fun trying to bring this through customs," Nobody, who is actually 23-year-old Hector Castillo, says, talking about his modified "guitar" after the show. "The customs agents are, like, 'What is that for?' And I'm, like, 'It's to make noise.' And they're, like, 'What?' "
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What's Left After the End of Music
By KELEFA SANNEH
In the late 1990's, Moby wasn't yet an ideology or a brand name or even a pop star.
He was just a soft-spoken music geek, and he seemed likely to spend his career enjoying the kind of underground fame that might ordinarily attach to a punk rocker turned electronica producer turned eclecticist. But then came "Play," in 1999, which laid scratchy old gospel and blues samples over spotless new house music; nearly every track was soothing, sort of melancholy, unexpectedly hummable. And soon Moby wasn't just a musicmaker - he was a paradigm-shifter.
"Play" was an unexpected commercial success, even though the guy behind it had neither a famous face nor a famous voice nor even, at first, a famous song. Moby has been lodged in the celebrity constellation ever since. His albums don't sneak into record shops anymore, they arrive - or they are supposed to. This week, his new double CD, "Hotel" (V2), makes its disappointing debut at No. 28 on the Billboard album charts.
How did "Play" make Moby a star in the first place? As most articles about "Play" mentioned, Moby marketed his album by licensing the tracks to commercials and soundtracks; relying on the power of corporate synergy, he had made an end run around the pop establishment.
His wasn't just a success story, then, it was a new kind of success story. Even better (according to the strange rules that governed 1999), it was a success story involving the words "geek" and "synergy." Suddenly, regular pop stars seemed old-fashioned: a bunch of oversized personalities, jockeying for space on radio stations that broadcast their songs using an antiquated system of frequency modulation. By contrast, Moby was a scientist, a musical technician who listened to everything and distilled what he heard into some state-of-the-art pop essence.
"I want to have the broadest possible sonic palette to draw on when I'm composing music," he told Gerald Marzorati of The New York Times Magazine, adding that he'd been listening to "pop records, dance records, classical records." And you could tell he felt a bit sorry for those sad 20th-century types who confined themselves to a single genre. He was a pop star for a world too sophisticated to believe in pop stars - a post-pop-star, perhaps.
"The end of history will be a very sad time," the political theorist Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989, anticipating, after a fashion, Moby's world. Mr. Fukuyama imagined a future defined by "economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands." The appeal of Moby was that he would give us a way to enjoy this future; he would satisfy our "sophisticated consumer demands" through superior engineering.
In 2002, having picked up a few million new fans, Moby got a chance to put this theory into practice with "18," and it was immediately clear that something had gone wrong. In the liner notes, he opined, "One problem in writing an essay for this record is that the circumstances of the world are in such a state of flux," and many of the songs were just as banal (and, somehow, as smug) as this bit of boilerplate.
Too sophisticated to believe in musical genres, Moby caricatured them instead. "We Are All Made of Stars" had some vaguely new-wavey guitar, a gentle backbeat and lyrics that aped the spaced-out platitudes of a bad David Bowie song: "People they come together/People they fall apart/Nothing can stop us now/'Cause we are all made of stars." From the token hip-hop track ("Jam for the Ladies," which sounded a lot like the Chemical Brothers) to the "Play"-ish "Sunday (the Day Before My Birthday)" - which sounds less appealing, not more, when you learn that Moby was born on Sept. 11 - the album showed the limits of pop as science.
Last year, Moby followed "18" with a stopgap techno album, "Baby Monkey" (credited to his alter ego, Voodoo Child), which was meant as a lark but sounded like an insult. He seemed to think he was a smart producer dabbling in a dumb genre he had long since outgrown (he called the album "very simple, melodic, electronic, dance music"), although the CD swiftly disproved the notion that techno was easy.
And now comes "Hotel," packaged as a two-disc set: the album on one disc, and a series of "ambient" remixes on a second. Again, there are liner notes to guide us through the music. "I don't feel like making music that is airless and lifeless because I also really like people and the messy miasma of the human condition and I want to make messy, human records that are open and emotional," he writes, as if this truism unlocked a secret to music making.
More than ever, the focus here is on Moby as a singer and songwriter, which is strange, because he is not very good at either job. In his effort to leave generic constraints behind, he has drifted toward some rather neutral variant of alternative-rock. In the lyrics, as in the liner notes, he seems to mistake obviousness for truth: the lead single is a mind-numbing song called, "Beautiful," where the romantic dialogue consists largely of couplets like, "I love you baby/I love you now/I love you baby/I love you now."
This music isn't just dull, though. Like much of what Moby has produced since "Play," it's condescending, too. Much of it sounds like the work of a producer who thinks pop music is supposed to be kind of idiotic, and who thinks pop audiences should be glad that he deigns to give us what we want. Do we like sex? O.K., here's "I Like It," four singularly unpleasant minutes of heavy breathing. Do we like songs about how the world is happy and sad and good and bad? O.K., here's "Slipping Away," with a wispy beat and Moby crooning, "Open to everything, happy and sad/Seeing the good when it's all going . . ." - you can finish the couplets yourself. And, knowing that we like familiarity, Moby has his collaborator, Laura Dawn, sing a slowed-down version of the New Order hit "Temptation."
Maybe this isn't really Moby's fault so much as it is ours. Like so many other things in the late 1990's, his new paradigm seemed like a great idea: car commercials were going to be the new pop songs and laptop composers were going to be the new pop stars. But it turns out that we really do like those oversized personalities who clog the radio stations - some of whom even double as superior engineers.
Mr. Fukuyama, in his famous obituary, might have written (but didn't quite, of course) that "boredom at the end of music will serve to get music started once again." That's an appealing idea, but it's also appealing to know, listening to "Hotel," that it won't be necessary. The end of music seems to have ended itself.
Ben Neill's reply:
I had a few thoughts on Kelefa Sanneh’s review of Moby’s new album yesterday...
I’m writing this reply without hearing the album, because the issues raised here are much larger than just a review of “Hotel”. Mr. Sanneh describes Moby as a “paradigm shifter”. Perhaps the music establishment doesn’t like the idea of changing paradigms because they are threatened by such ideas. As a matter of fact, the changes that took place in the 90’s around the time of “Play” put the whole music industry up for grabs (including labels and critics). It was no more of a bad thing for music as a whole than the evolution of opera or the tone poem. As a matter of fact, electronica was the first new instrumental popular music to emerge since jazz, and it scared the industry because they couldn’t understand it. Anonymous artists that used pseudonyms, no lyrics, concerts that consisted of playing other people’s recordings, music as a backdrop for social interaction, it was all just too much for most people to grasp, which is what made it so exciting. And it was the popular manifestation of many ideas from the avant garde of the 60’s and 70’s such as Fluxus, Happenings and conceptual performance art that originally were far too strange for mass consumption.
Francis Fukuyama’s description cited in the article of a future defined by "economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands” points to a need for exactly the kind of eclecticism for which Sanneh attacks Moby. Ipods with a million different songs for every millisecond of your life, no matter what the emotion. Artists as search engines (i.e. DJs) rather than creators of original content...With design superseding art, art appropriates the commercial because otherwise it feels obsolete, and art changes from a product industry to a service industry. Dematerializing, if you will. Is that bad? Is that why we have “the end of music”? I think it’s more because in today’s sensational story-driven world, how can something as mental as “Music” (especially instrumental music, which is nearly impossible to write about and therefore to sell) compete with gang wars between rappers and Michael Jackson’s sex scandals? Of course people like “those oversized personalities who clog the radio stations” in the same way they like reality tv shows about plastic surgery. But is Moby really to blame for “the end of music”?
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Youth and the Market: Love at First Sight
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
THE second "Greater New York," the youth-besotted, cheerful, immodestly ingratiating jumbo survey of contemporary art, has opened to the predictable mobs at P.S. 1 in Queens. It roams from roof to basement, weaving in stairwells, a ramshackle behemoth.
The first installment, five years ago, arrived with deft timing, in competition with the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Fixed on recently emerged artists, it seemed fresh and a bit scruffy, even if it wasn't. Whitney Biennials and their equivalents, creaky relatives from a bygone age, too ecumenical and tradition-bound, increasingly supported a brand of installation art custom-made for hothouse festivals and their transient clientele but otherwise largely unwanted, unmarketable and wearying.
Then "Greater New York" happened, a messy, unformed rival and gambit, upbeat, offering multimedia efforts but with a stress toward paintings - well-behaved, clever, snappy paintings by young artists, of the sort making some headway in galleries. These were works suited to the dawning of a new art market boom.
As an act of civic boosterism, "Greater New York" also advertised a local horde of insouciant twenty-somethings, eclectically steeped in rock, 60's revivalism, personal codes, surrealism and cartooning, among other things, and serving up dollops of blooming sophistication and charm. Skill was a big selling point: a shambling, winking sort of virtuosity, not too heavy, easy to buy into, and drawing from old art and pop culture as if interchangeably.
Five years later, in the usual way that everything even moderately successful in art is instantly institutionalized, "Greater New York" has returned bearing some of the expectations previously heaped onto the starchy biennials. As a sign of the changed times, this opening seemed intended to coincide with last weekend's blowout art fair. It is said that fairs have now become the new art festivals, but it's equally true that the big museum surveys increasingly resemble fairs.
As before, "Greater New York" is organized by a curatorial team from P.S. 1 in conjunction with its parental partner, the Museum of Modern Art. It has already prompted counterestablishment protests: a clutch of women picketed the opening, noting the 2-to-1 ratio, male to female, among the 167 artists selected.
The show peruses a scene whose wide stylistic range, persistent teenage infatuations and overall dexterousness are firmly entrenched characteristics of the marketplace. Craft and finesse are de rigueur. Descendants of Amy Sillman, Shahzia Sikander and Elizabeth Peyton perform ever-greater feats of willowy elegance. Gallerists and their client pools of hedge-fund optimists, competing for the latest hot list, troll university campuses for budding talents. Last time, there were hardly enough Chelsea galleries to go around. Now there aren't enough artists. Some of the show's wall labels, I noticed, have galleries hastily scrawled in pen, as if the artists, buoyed by their inclusion here, were suddenly snatched up in the interval between printing and pasting up the names.
The show services this giddy scene - with its abundant gifts but, on the whole, its short-lived prospects - while still trying to present itself as a frisky, freewheeling and independent overview.
Actually, it's a mirror of the current power structure, which isn't all bad. Some galleries are predictably favored (these included Kreps and Feature last time; now they include Feature, Team, Maccarone, Postmasters, Canada and LFL); as are a few art schools, like Columbia and Yale, from which earnest and cunning students, not even yet graduated, are emerging already branded with signature styles. There's something rather depressing about such youthful professionalism, even while it is undeniably impressive.
Meanwhile, a smattering of discoveries, some having come over the transom of an open call (more than 2,000 artists sent in their works to be considered), lightly flesh out the roster. A strain of fashionable camp and sex is notably skipped over. Carping will of course come from insiders jockeying for authority over the choices. That's the blood sport of all surveys, whose other purpose is to validate trends.
Drawing is the new painting. There's one much-promoted trend. Everybody draws so preposterously well now that it's almost boring. Degrees of nuance have multiplied - the nuances of calculated hedonism, packaged with an occasional fillip of politics. Sincerity is also in. Depth is, however, hard to come by, which is a big source of disappointment. But then, I suppose depth is always hard to come by, depending as it does on a cultural climate more patient and skeptical, certainly, than the current one.
If I sound grudging it's partly because it is impossible not to feel implicated in the vast apparatus of this bullish market, from which the show, and hence its coverage, whether good or bad, cannot escape. No reasonable art lover resents good artists and dealers making a buck, of course. But to imply that the embrace of youth is a virtue in itself seems a bit craven and the survey's purview, reiterating marketplace emergence as a standard of value, is in many ways comically solipsistic and narrow. This is only to state the obvious and to sound like a spoilsport.
So let me move on to the relative pleasures at hand, which include Aida Ruilova's percussive video loop, one of her syncopated sorts of mad chants, just 20 seconds long, and also Dana Schutz's "Presentation," a big, dark-witted, strangely peopled panorama of sour colors and ham-fisted panache, vaguely reminiscent of Ensor, making a case for her painterly ambitions.
In a show full of drawings, Dominic McGill's humongous walk-in scroll is at least unavoidable, a kind of finicky, sinister timeline of half a century's global plots and catastrophes, ending, like a children's book illustration, in a black forest of spiders and smoke. There are other feats of sheer industry. Yuken Teruya's cut-out shopping bags (Tiffany's, McDonald's) with tiny paper trees are nothing short of miraculous, playing on nature versus commerce, while Tobias Putrih's sculptures, made of layers of corrugated cardboard, which turn transparent when seen against the light, have an architectural magnificence.
There are various trendlets running through the show. Henry Darger meets the Little Prince. Dystopian nature. Gaudy America. Music: David Ellis's "Granny (Drum Painting Project, Version 5.0)" is a Rube Goldbergian machine, in the vein of Tim Hawkinson's oddball contraptions, incorporating gourds, subway tokens, bells, paint cans, record turntables and various animal hides, all of which are almost too neatly put together but work nonetheless. It is the elaborate yin to David Moreno's yang: "Stereomo," two simple speakers on slender poles that slowly rock back and forth to minimalist music.
Mining late modernism is an area of wide currency, encompassing Karyn Olivier's trompe l'oeil construction of a cheaply ornate coffee table supporting a plain white pillar, and Marco Breuer's drawings, if that's what to call them: delicately scratched sheets of photographic paper, making multicolored stripes. Ann Pibal's small striped paintings, à la Jo Baer, also fit this broad category; as does Corey McCorkle's circular hole cut into a wall, letting light into a dark room, a riff on James Turrell; and so does Banks Violette's Goth-inflected shiny black stage with strip lights, which reflect as a kind of Frank Stella stripe painting, or like a Gerhard Richter mirror, in a facing black panel.
I don't grasp why there's so much buzz about some of what's here, like Jen DeNike's dual track video of frolicking teenage boys or David Opdyke's intricate sculpture of a miniaturized aircraft carrier cum shopping mall or Paul Chan's double-sided computer animation. And Justin Faunce's meticulous, kaleidoscopic painting, owing in style to Lari Pittman, and lightly dosed with social politics, seems unexceptional in its fastidiousness.
I suspect that artists like Gedi Sibony, whose arrangement of junk seems to aspire to Richard Tuttle's fine-tuned work but falls flat, aren't well-served by group samplers, which can distort and often reveal nothing about an artist. Surveys amplify extremes best: what's catchiest, loudest, simplest, biggest or, sometimes perversely, smallest.
For which reason I inevitably lingered over trifles like Oliver Michaels's video made with a camera strapped to a swiftly moving toy train whose tracks amble in and out of a building. And Kate Gilmore's video gag of extracting herself from a cement leg cast. And Shannon Plumb's jittery silent film versions of television commercials. And also Christian Jankowski's much more elaborate, noirish effort, a brief film of an artist's 16-millimeter film being screened before a crumbling office tower, the mood over the top, the message oblique.
I mean oblique as praise. Much new art seems tightly packaged, ready-made for the market. The attraction of artists like Wade Guyton or Seth Price or Guy Ben-Ner or Carol Bove has something to do with their resistance to easy absorption. Ms. Bove's arrangement of 60's paperbacks and photos on shelves is a conceptual twist on still life, and her curtain of tiny beads is both laborious and delicate, shifting with the light through a nearby window and flirting with your inattention.
It's good, in this context, to find a selection of Steve Mumford's painted dispatches from Iraq, plainspoken journalistic pictures of a throwback kind. They announce a mature artist looking closely at what is urgently unfolding around him. Their traditional sobriety stands out in a show that, like the burbling young art world now, seems gladly co-opted and almost too able to please.
"Greater New York 2005" remains at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens, (718) 784-2084, through Sept. 26.
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