Slave Pianos, Recitals of Artist’s Music and Sound Works, Programme Essay


By Chris McAuliffe

Under the circumstances, the natural question is, “Who is Mike Stevenson?” Given Stevenson’s penchant for role-playing (and, lately, roll playing), it would be better to ask, “What kind of artist is he?” He has always been an observer, an outsider looking over the shoulder of other artists. Early paintings documented a kind of bar room origami peculiar to New Zealand, a folk craft folding cigarette packets into toy animals. A major body of paintings, drawings and installations melded the monomania of earthworks and minimalism art with the paranoia of the conspiracy theorist. Acting the part of a bitter and twisted provincial, Stevenson unearthed a plot to ensure his own marginality in a corruptly manipulated art system. Now, these crazed fictions (or are they…?) have given way to empirical research. Stevenson has become an anthropologist of the avant-garde, charting the rituals and mythologies of its shamen.

Stevenson’s research into the musical performances of contemporary artists generates a feedback loop. His pianola plays back the gestures of a provincial avant-garde, rendering mechanical their putatively intuitive and improvisatory performances. Repeating a vanguardism that was always already a repetition, Stevenson stages a perverse cover-version of modernist reflexivity. This is not a reflexivity that secures art but rather one that reveals something of art’s insecurities; its envy of mass culture, its efforts to compensate for its own elitism, its fear that vanguardism may wither if not ritually re-enacted. The CD and the 45 rpm single become talismanic proofs of the continued possibility of a global underground or a democratised avant-garde.

Stevenson’s mimicry could be seen as a post-colonial tactic: the periphery parodically echoing the centre, developing a resistant consciousness through too-slavish respect, an exaggerated emulation that eventually triggers an implosion. That might have been true of his earlier parodies of the international avant-garde; de Maria’s Lightning Field depicted as a NASA facility, Don Judd’s minimalist modules as the backdrop for Symbionese Liberation Army heist. But Stevenson’s work now apes the desire of provincial artists to join that international avant-garde, whether through Cagean meanderings or post-punk amateurism. He renders mechanical and digital, the provincial’s desire for a genetic affiliation with the international. In Slave Pianos (of the Art Cult), a collaboration with Danius Kesminas, avant-garde recordings are transcribed into sheet music by Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape of La Trobe University. These are then manufactured as player piano rolls, eventually becoming a mediated, mechanical echo of visceral performances. Slave Pianos generates multiple repetitions of something always already a repetition, something seeking to register its vanguardist difference even as it claims identity with an avant-garde tradition. It is art’s constant ability to mark the same as different that fascinates Stevenson. His own repetition traces the rituals of an art world in denial.

Chris McAuliffe is Director of the Ian Potter Museum, University of Melbourne

First published in Toi Toi Toi: Three generations of artists from New Zealand, Kassel: Museum Fridericianum, 1999, pp. 168–170. Copyright the Museum Fridericianum and the author.

David Cross Uncovering a Taxonomy of Australian Fluxus

Uncovering a Taxonomy of Australian Fluxus

Australia has a long history of Fluxus activity. Almost as soon as the madcap neo-Dada antics of Dick Higgins, Joseph Beuys and co. came to the fore in America and Europe in the early 1960’s, there was an Australian Fluxus. This was not, however, just another art fad that gripped this country at the time. It was not a movement lifted from the pages of Art International or Artforum as was the cargo cult convention in the 60’s. Unlike the assorted hybrid movements that had no problem mixing Minimalism with a bit of organicism and covering it all in playground covered paint, Australian Fluxus or

AusFlux, as it was known, was the genuine article. AusFlux was established on May 14, 1962 as a post office box in suburban Carnegie in Melbourne and existed up until 1997. In true Dada spirit, AusFlux began as the result of a chance encounter. George Maciunas, the Lithuanian raconteur and brains behind New York Fluxus, met Ian and Beverley Stock while they were admiring Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Maciunas was there to stage a Fluxus event and thought Ian’s outfit of knee high socks and sandals was part of his own group’s performance. The three got chatting and Ian mentioned he was an amateur artist from Melbourne. Macianus, always on the lookout for international networking, asked them if they had heard of Fluxus and whether they might be interested in starting up an Australian chapter. As it happened they had not heard about the movement but were keen to find out about it. Macianus invited them to his house the next day and introduced them to Alison Knowles and Yoko Ono, who was working on her first performance piece Cut. Ian and Bev were captivated by the charisma of Macianus and while a little uncertain about the nonsensical nature of Fluxus, agreed to develop a chapter from their home in Carnegie.

Ian was the coordinator of events while Margaret agreed to be the archivist and editor of the quarterly pamphlet known as Quirky and then later on after 1974, Ausquirk. The group was prolific although somewhat isolated from the Melbourne art community. John Reed, director of the newly established Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, thought them kooks and without the moral rigour of his beloved Angry Penguins. His lack of support coupled with their marginal status in the local scene meant that their work was not picked up at all by either the mainstream art press or the avant garde publishing scene. Staged happenings like Quarter Acre Block performed in suburban Moorabin and Event for Tom Roberts, that took place in the Wombat state forest, have no visual or critical record whatsoever. The only documentation was in the form of transcripts of each event taken from recordings on reel to reel tape that are now lost.

Little has been known about these pieces until recently. While there was talk of staged dressing and undressing in the manner of San Francisco dancer Ann Halprin and even Jackson Pollock inspired free gestural forest improvisation, most of the talk has been anecdotal and based on hearsay. Rumour about the existence of an avant garde fluxus group has existed for years but there has been no documented evidence to back up such claims. However, recent scholarship has uncovered the nature of the group, their activities and most interestingly their membership list. Masters student at the University of Sydney, Allison Carruthers, made a remarkable discovery while viewing the Fluxus archive in New York in April 1999 as part of her thesis on little known Czech Fluxus artist Vac Koval. While she was flicking through a number of unmarked boxes she came across a large container with a postmark from Australia. Although sealed she felt compelled to open it finding inside a letter and eight cardboard storage boxes. The letter, typed on an old typewriter, was from Bev Stock. It stated that AusFlux had ceased operations after 35 years due to her poor health. Rather than donate the archive to the National Gallery of Victoria she felt it best that it be shipped, in its entirety, to the international Fluxus archive where it would be appreciated and understood.

Most controversially she found a membership list of 14 names including three she recognised. One was a well known art critic now deceased, the other a prominent postminimal artist now in the stable of Roslyn Oxley9. And the third was the director of a state gallery. Yet just before she was about to publish this information in her thesis, an injunction was placed on releasing of the names. She has claimed that someone on the academic staff tipped off the now successful director who felt any association with AusFlux would be highly detrimental to his now ‘establishment’ reputation. This is indeed a pity as the information this director could no doubt supply would help establish and bring to light a secret history of avantgardism in this country. The case scheduled to be heard in the New South Wales County Court in August 2000 is being contested by Carruthers yet she has received little support and is not hopeful of succeeding.

While there have been a range of noted practitioners including John Nixon, Gunter Christmann and Phil Edwards to name three who have made distinctly Australian Fluxus art, they have done so intermittently and in tandem with other diverse practices. AusFlux on the other hand was a sustained movement solely dedicated to Fluxus and its unique permutations in this country. Its story long buried in prejudice and indifference is now coming out. Carruthers has spoken to a number of academics and presented excerpts on AusFlux at last years Art Association conference in Wellington. Her thesis should tell the full story and rewrite contemporary art history in this country. AusFlux deserves nothing less.

David Cross, 2000

Note: Owing to legal action pending certain names have been withheld in the publishing of this article.

John McDonald The Virtuoso of Failure, 2001

The Virtuoso of Failure

From the moment he burst onto the Melbourne art scene with his Technical Manifesto of Town Planning (1982), Tony Clark has been a virtuoso of failure. He has failed and failed again, failed and failed better, and has orchestrated his efforts with consummate professionalism. The paradox of Tony Clark is that he has harnessed an obvious lack of artistic talent to a ‘couldn’t-care-less’ attitude towards technique and finish, and placed the results within a frame garnished with the intellectual equivalent of costume jewellery — to capture the hearts of artists, critics, dealers and curators.

This is a very late–20th century phenomenon, and, it is tempting to say — a very Melbourne phenomenon. Although Clark has made his mark in other Australian cities, and gained a toehold in Germany after being included in Documenta IX in 1993, he owes his rapid rise to a special set of circumstances. In the early 1980s, Australian art was emerging from a long, boring winter of conceptualism, minimalism, earth works, feminist polemics, trade union banners, and embarrassing performance pieces. Sensing that it was time for a change, the young critic and social climber, Paul Taylor, had launched the magazine Art & Text, with the aim of promoting a new wave of emerging Australian artists. The new work was an unlikely alliance of ‘TransAvantGarde’-style paintings, and late-blooming Pop art. The intellectual pedigree came largely from Roland Barthes, and from Dick Hebdidge’s book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style.

Within a few years, the Art & Text putsch had conquered the citadels of contemporary Australian art. The artists who had been promoted by the magazine — including Jenny Watson, Mike Parr, Imants Tillers, Dale Frank, Peter Tyndall, Maria Kozic, John Nixon, Howard Arkley and a host of others — had become obligatory acquisitions for public art museums, and were first choice for overseas travelling exhibitions. The Marxist professors who had championed trade union banners and feminist art, were seduced by the conspicuous coolness of the new art, and jumped aboard the bandwagon.

In retrospect, the whole episode seems like a triumph of hype over substance, just as the financial boom of the 1980s was characterized by spectacular displays of wealth bouyed up by imaginary money. The best of the ‘new wave’ artists have maintained a presence in the Australian art scene, but there is no longer any suggestion of a small, closely-knit vanguard dominating every public exhibition.

In 1982, when Tony Clark made his artistic debut, Paul Taylor had put together an exhibition called Popism for the National Gallery of Victoria, as a showcase for his favourite artists. Iconoclasm was the order of the day, and Clark’s Technical Manifesto of Town Planning was a breath-taking new addition to the field. The work consisted of thirteen small canvas boards and one photograph arranged on a shelf. Each canvas board featured a piece of classically-inspired architecture, painted in the roughest, most awkward fashion. Clark’s method has been described as “Expressionist”, although it could just as easily have been called ‘inept’. Moreover, it was self-consciously and comfortably inept, as though it would have been beneath the artist’s dignity to expend any greater effort.

By this stage, Clark had already collaborated with the artist, John Nixon, on a series of equally raw musical pieces that appeared in 1981, and have recently been resuscitated by SLAVE PIANOS. His next venture was a set of Sacro-Idyllic landscapes of 1982–84, which led quickly to Clark’s Myriorama, a seemingly endless series of small temples painted on canvas boards, according to a formula devised by Englishman, John Clark, in 1824. Tony Clark started on this project in 1985, and by 1997 it was still crawling along. Quite possibly it remains a work in progress. Other projects have included the Chinoiserie landscapes of 1985–89, which began with a plasticene model of a Chinese temple, depicted on a series of small canvas boards against a decorative background. The Kufic landscapes of 1991 introduced Islamic characters into the mix, while the Jasperware paintings of 1993 borrowed from Josiah Wedgwood’s decorative schema of a white emblem, in bas-relief, against a flat, monochrome background. Another, much-touted work of 1994, called Important Contemporary Sculpture, translated a ‘formless’ rope sculpture by Eva Hesse into a silhouette wall piece, painted in gold.

Common to these diverse projects was the capacity to activate a series of art historical paradigms to produce a vertiginous impression of erudition and profundity. To the uninitiated viewer the works may appear amateurish, incompetent and repetitive, but to those alert to the play of references, Clark’s work took on the status of a philosophical investigation. It held a special appeal to those artists, writers and curators who felt able to decode the work’s iconographical associations, and explain how Clark ‘subverted’ various canons of taste and style. In brief, Clark allowed his admirers to enjoy the satisfying feeling of being ‘insiders’, while the rest of the world may have remained blind and deaf to his wisdom.

This process is documented in the catalogue of a survey exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, Heide Park, Melbourne, in May 1998. In his preface to Tony Clark: Public and Private Paintings 1982–98, the museum director, Warwick Reeder, discerns both “technical virtuosity” and an “anti-painting posture” in Clark’s work. This sort of paradox is repeated on almost every page of the catalogue. His painting is described as “punk classicism”; it inspires both “desire and revulsion”; it is positioned somewhere between “homage and satire” or “belief and disbelief”. In a “colloquium” a group of Clark’s artist friends discuss his work, admiring the way Tony “gets it wrong without even trying.” They compare him to Vermeer, “without the fourteen children”. They find certain pictures to be simultaneously “lumpy and horrible” and “beautiful”. They note that a mural Clark painted for St.Kilda public library in Melbourne is “really hated” by staff — which leads to the thought that “if it is disliked then maybe that’s the sign that you’re onto something.”

So too with a 1997 show of paintings on single stretcher bars, to which “people responded really badly”. One participant confesses his fear that “there is some quality like he hasn’t done any work, that he doesn’t give a shit about you, that he is trying to send you up…” Another speaker decides this is “really good,” since it provides “a tension”. For the next speaker this means Clark is to be praised because “he doesn’t give you any easy solutions.”

This extraordinary exchange of opinions, which is without parallel in Australian art publishing, has provided Slave Pianos with much of their libretto for The Broccoli Maestro. Further contributions are drawn from Clark’s own writings, and those of his female alter-ego, Judith Pascal.

By now it should be clear that Tony Clark’s reputation has soared on the wings of paradox and contradiction. He is not being praised for his skill and hard work, but for his “slapstick” and careless approach, which denotes a dandy’s contempt for the conventional social and artistic values. The fact that he has painted with a stick of broccoli, or allowed a picture to be covered with stray hairs from his lounge room carpet, is a sign that he is working on a higher plane from those artists who strive to achieve a pristine and unified surface. His most persistent preoccupation is Classicism or Neo-Classicism, which he debunks by painting classically perfect forms in the most incompetent manner. The references that he drops — to Mantegna, Wedgwood, Aldo Rossi, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux or St.Thomas Aquinas — to name only a few — are bewildering to most of his audience, but serve as shared badges of belonging for those included in the loop. In the world of Tony Clark, failure is success, trivialization is homage, incompetence is the highest form of skill, and mere names are passports to the realms of philosophy. Even pretentiousness is ruled out, because to be deliberately pretentious is to take shelter under the mantle of irony.

One realizes the mystical power of this position when reading one of the essayists in the Heide Park catalogue, who tells us that Clark’s work is “a depiction of the (almost) literal disintegration of western culture itself… a declaration of the impossibility of any such markers of cultural centrality or originality.”

To a mutually-supportive avant-garde sheltered at the ends of the earth, it must be comforting to think that cultural centrality and originality are all washed up. Neither is it a small matter that one artist from St.Kilda has single-handedly debunked the entire Classical tradition, using a piece of broccoli as a brush and his lounge room floor as an easel. Truly, this is the stuff from which grand opera is made.

John McDonald
Canberra, October 2001

Slave Pianos The Broccoli Maestro, 2001

The Broccoli Maestro

THE BROCCOLI MAESTRO draws together materials from four sources: 1) the writings, musical compositions, paintings and ANTI-MUSIC/OPERA of Tony Clark; 2) the writings of Clark’s literary pseudonym Judith Pascal; 3) musical compositions and commentaries on Clark’s work by his colleagues Stephen Bram, Constanze Zikos, Rose Nolan, Geoff Lowe, Angela Brennan and Gary Wilson; and 4) historical musical correspondences with Clark’s seminal painting ensemble The Technical Manifesto of Town Planning, 1982. The unifying figure of Tony Clark provides a mechanism to bring together musical, artistic and theoretical discourses spanning eight centuries and three continents by relocating Melbourne artists in 13th century Paris.

TONY CLARK belongs to a generation of artists whose practices have been informed by both conceptual art and popular culture. In Clark’s case, this position is all the more revealing for the artist’s strong interest in the history of classical art and architecture, and the attendant areas of interior design, decoration and music. Tony Clark’s work demonstrates a technical virtuosity, at the same time that it embraces a slapstick and off-handed anti-painting posture, in its investigation of the threshold between the properties of painting, sculpture and installation. Clark’s work issues from a longstanding interest in the history of taste, architectural embellishment and the disputes between classicism and popular culture. These issues are articulated by a deliberate amateurism whereby the concept of failure is built into the work, not only for the organic and uncanny possibilities it affords, but also to offset the lofty and transcendental values characteristic of Classicism. Tony Clark’s project is relentlessly contemporary, domestic and local - a travesty of the classics. Clark’s work assumes an anti-art position reminiscent of the historical avant-garde, and low-tech serial productions characteristic of pop. These forms are incorporated for their historical register in order to underwrite the artist’s historical inquisition from a contemporary position.

Clark was a founding participator in the activities of ANTI-MUSIC, a collective of visual artists initiated by John Nixon in 1979. ANTI-MUSIC shared an interest in politically and economically progressive means of sound production, which they called “industrial folk music.” Their practice is informed by the legacy of Futurist, Dada, and film music and coupled with a DIY attitude first associated with Punk. With Nixon, Clark explored the musical corollary of his interest in the Renaissance, which he described as ANTI-MUSIC/OPERA. The Synopsis (see facing page) of Clark’s own anti-opera Aquinas forms the conceptual framework for THE BROCCOLI MAESTRO.

The present libretto folds Clark’s scheme for Aquinas onto a series of anecdotes and critical responses to the painter’s work by fellow artists. It uses the form of Clark’s lyric drama as a template for inserting the painter himself (a complex and highly theatrical persona constructed as a deliberate part of his art practice) into the central Aquinas role with his feminine, scholarly alter ego, Judith Pascal as Philosophy. The conflation of textual sources - Clark’s ANTI-MUSIC/OPERA and the Colloquium - which are seemingly contradictory in both a historical and geographical sense - is in fact consistent with Clark’s desire to give expression to a “St Kilda version of classicism”.

The interleaving of related but disparate textual materials has a direct parallel with the musical structure. The fourteen scenes of the opera correspond directly with the fourteen canvas boards of the Technical Manifesto. Two streams of musical materials, one derived from Clark’s involvement in the original ANTI-MUSIC activities (1979–1981) and the other from his wide interest in classical formal structures, are folded together and presented simultaneously.

SLAVE PIANOS, Neglect Is No Laughing Matter

Neglect Is No Laughing Matter

In 1981, Peter Tyndall, commenting on his own work, described the manner in which meaning is constructed, how truth is relative and history contingent:

A painting does not float, independent, half-way up a random wall. ‘It’ is physically dependent on the strings which support it against the gravitational force which would bring ‘it’ down …nor can ‘the (one’s) perceiving’ be considered outside the influence or colouring of either the physical light (physical lights) or the metaphoric lights (cultural knowledge …)

Nineteen years later, in a letter to the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Tyndall objected:

I do not understand why for two whole decades the NGA has so ignored my work. (Even your recent, publicised, purchase of SLAVE PIANOS material has no SLAVE GUITARS material to properly contextualise it.)

FOREIGN KNOWLEDGE (I have made a heap of all that I could find) offers something of a correction to this complaint. This documentary monodrama is based on the aforementioned letter and an autobiographical lecture by Tyndall published in Tension magazine in 1989.

SLAVE PIANOS’ work has been constantly developing since 1998.

The most recent project of ours in the collection of the NGA was created in 2000.

SLAVE PIANOS are indebted to Peter Tyndall; he is ‘the go-between’. Firstly, the etymology of our moniker derives from his 1978 work, SLAVE GUITARS of the Art Cult. Indeed, we have adopted a form of his ‘Puppet Culture Framing System’ ideogram as our logo. Tyndall metamorphosed his universal framing device and his puppeteer’s marionette hand controls with strings into a guitar. We continued this evolutionary process with the same continued dependence on strings, a framing device and gravitational force to accommodate a piano.

Secondly, we have embraced Tyndall’s project - to render visible the viewer’s relation to art - and applied it to the phenomenon of visual artists’ music, improvisations and noises. Our transcriptions of these performances into musical notation objectify the abstract space of sound art.

FOREIGN KNOWLEDGE frames the relationship between the artist and the circulation of his art. The monodrama examines his dependence upon institutional support to: forward his career, give voice to his fundamentally critical pieces, and buttress his paintings against the said gravitational force. The libretto reveals Tyndall’s aspiration toward self-historicisation and the subsequent indignation regarding his perceived neglect. These are the unrequited conditions of a casualty of history, outside the influence or colouring of cultural knowledge, both physical and metaphysical.

Humour is pervasive in Tyndall’s work. In 1974 he coined the maxim, ‘If you’re really serious you should be laughing’. According to Ashley Crawford, ‘this has had the effect of severely disorientating critics… (and collectors, museum acquisitors etc) …and other viewers who take their Art too seriously.’ Sadly, neglect is no laughing matter. HA HA.

Ballarat – Berlin, September 2002.

  1. Peter Tyndall ‘SLAVE GUITARS (formerly SLAVE GUITARS of the Art Cult)’, Art + Text no.4, Summer 1981, pp.44–45.
  2. Peter Tyndall Letter to Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia, 3 May 2000.
  3. Peter Tyndall ‘FOREIGN KNOWLEDGE (I have made a heap of all that I could find)’, Tension 21 June 1990, pp.40–51.
  4. Ashley Crawford, ‘detail: a person looks at peter tyndall’, Tension 18 1989, pp.42–45.



The Lithuanian origins of Astra, through its founding in 1951 as a women’s orchestra by the immigrant conductor Asta Flack, are just one of many coincident factors of this collaboration with Slave Pianos — a joint project that has evolved over some years, and is as much ‘about’ the multi-form natures of our two groups as it is a representation of the two extraordinary Lithuanian figures of Maciunas and Landsbergis or an attempt at realizing the metaphorical power of their interactions in their diversely dissident lives.

Slave Pianos’ work since 1998 itself deals with overlappings, coincidings and transferrals. Made up of four artists from visual and acoustic spheres, the group has produced multiple explorations and re-workings of the last century’s boundary-crossings between art and performance, a labyrinthine heritage reaching back to early expressionist and futurist manifestations and taken up into the post-Cage Fluxus movement of which George Maciunas was the leading proponent. Slave Pianos performances and installations have gained a wide profile, extending from the National Gallery of Australia to Los Angeles, New York and several European centres. In 2001 the Frankfurt publisher Revolver produced a book of critical essays about their work (Pianology and Other Works) as part of a larger package (Slave Pianos: A Diagnosis) containing an audio ‘triumvirate’ on vinyl, CD and cassette. In 2004 at the National Drama Theatre in Vilnius, Lithuania they premiered their oratorio-theatre Two Lives in Flux and Vice Versa — the forerunner of this program’s new work — with many Lithuanian participants including ex-President Landsbergis.

Dissident Consonancesis an assemblage of sounds and sights, texts and actions, experienced across five distinct ‘genres’ of presentation in different spaces of the building. Its materials radiate from the specific — the tale and testimonies of its two central figures; to the general — artifacts of its background in consonance with both Slave Pianos’ and Astra’s performance traditions; and to the unique also — the moment when Alena Karazijiene, the sister of Vytautas Landsbergis and a longtime resident of Melbourne, performs her brother’s Spatial Poem No.5.

Extending from Slave Pianos’ trademark mechanized piano in the foyer, the music of the program surrounds the Astra Choir with its collection of early and modern keyboard instruments, previously at the former Music Department of La Trobe University, and here used in different configurations in the two new choral works by Slave Pianos composers Rohan Drape and Neil Kelly. (The keyboard arc does not stop there, but returns in Part 5 into the Slave Pianos domain with Danius Kesminas’s vodka organ.) Influences in common form further consonances between Astra and Slave Pianos, as represented in Keith Humble’s and George Brecht’s music-theatrical events that originated in the same Zeitgeist as George Maciunas.

The early-Baroque compositions of Monteverdi and Purcell were cherished by Maciunas as the last music of any worth. They are preceded by two mediaeval pieces, heard by the audience en passant - the famous 14th-century Lament of Tristan (organ portative) and the Organ Estampiefrom the Robertsbridge Codex (played on regal), the earliest published keyboard work to survive. A further composer of Monteverdi’s time, Jean deMacque, inspired the title of the whole work with his Extravagant Consonances, extraordinary and harmonically experimental keyboard pieces that reflect his membership in the household of Gesualdo in Naples. Claudio Monteverdi in his music from the Fourth Book of Madrigalsonwards develops new rhythms and harmonies that express a dissenting spirit between the singer and the surrounding world. His duo Zefiro torna for two tenors over a dancing, unchanging bass phrase depicts the west wind blowing across and transforming a natural and human landscape; it formed the title and part of the soundtrack for the film about Maciunas, and is here performed live in an adapted version for mixed choir. Henry Purcell’s music followed closely in Monteverdi’s heritage, giving each segment of text its own expressive force, frequently heard in overlaid patterns. “In the midst of life we are in death” provides a peerless display of dissonances and chromatic expression that, as with Maciunas, were to become consonant with the composer’s own external circumstances. Written as part of the funeral music for Queen Mary in January 1695, it was performed again at Purcell’s own funeral in December that year, following his death at the age of 36.


Slave Pianos The Execution Protocol


Created in April 1966 for an exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds are floating rectangles of metallised plastic film filled with a mixture of helium and oxygen. The Silver Clouds, designed with the assistance of engineer Billy Klüver, are an embodiment of Warhol’s ‘farewell to painting’, a physical manifestation of his desire for paintings to leave the walls and to float away.

“Oh! Oh! Oh, this is fantastic, Billy!… It’s going to fly away! It’s like a movie! Fantastic! This is one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me! It is so beautiful. Oh, Billy, it’s infinite, because it goes in with the sky. Oh, it is fantastic! Oh! … Billy, do you know what our movies are called? Up movies, and up art.” – Andy Warhol

The installation of Warhol’s Silver Clouds at the Great Hall provides the context for a significant new work by Slave Pianos, Electric Chair (2007). These two works, taken together, provide the conceptual foundation for a minutely examined & carefully choreographed evening of extravagant entertainment: The Execution Protocol.

“Is not a man an artist who can painlessly and without brutality dispatch another man?” – Charles Duff

Beginning in late 1963, and continuing though until 1967, Warhol made a series of Electric Chair prints and paintings, part of his extensive Death and Disaster sequence. These works are variations on a photograph of the execution chamber at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY. The Slave Pianos Electric Chair is, in turn, a large scale sculptural variation on Warhol’s work. It accommodates a suspended concert grand piano, held in an elevated position by leather restraints, and bound at its most delicate extremity by the QRS SLAVE PIANO mechanism. Throughout the evening this device will deftly execute the newly extruded Pianology repertoire, painstaking transcriptions of musical works by visual artists. The imminent demise of each work will be announced by an electrically lit sign, incorporated into the design of the chair, and modelled on the ‘SILENCE’ signal located above the entrance to the Sing Sing execution chamber.

“Being born is like being kidnapped, and then sold into slavery” – Andy Warhol

This will not be the first occasion where Warhol’s Silver Clouds have been subsumed into a larger endeavour. In 1968 they were incorporated by choreographer Merce Cunningham into his dance work RainForest, a collaboration with composer and electronic music pioneer David Tudor, and painter and costume-designer Jasper Johns.

“I immediately thought they would be marvellous on stage because they moved, and they were light, and they took light. So I asked Andy and he said, ‘Oh sure’.” – Merce Cunningham

RainForest was in turn subsumed into Persepolis Event, which was performed at the ancient Persian city of Persepolis in 1972 as part of the extraordinary series of international arts festivals held annually, and on an exceedingly lavish scale, from1967 until 1977, in honour of the royal court of the Shahanshah, and his artistically inclined wife, Shahbanou Farah.

“One of the odder aspects of the late Shah’s regime was its wish to buy modern Western art, so as to seem ‘liberal’ and ‘advanced’. Seurat in the parlor, SAVAK in the basement. …Nothing pulls the art world into line faster than the sight of an imperial checkbook… The main beneficiary of this was Warhol…” – Robert Hughes

“Examine the works of your predecessors and learn a lesson” – The Holy Qur’an

The ‘crippled-symmetry’ of the political, gastronomical and historical ramifications that this sequence of subsumptions suggests provides an illuminating framework to connect the central works to their contingent architectural presentation.

“I think of the whole thing as a huge deep, sonorous Persian carpet suspended in the air.” – Leonard French

A series of interventions are constructed to facilitate the provision of food and other distractions to the audience. A security entrance is reconfigured to apply 2000 volts of electricity to guests as they arrive. Dancers from the Merce Cunningham company will operate the electric chair and assist with the catering for the evening, which will be provided by McDonalds and Coca-Cola. Alcohol will be provided by Slave Pianos in specially constructed silver cans and from modified wine cask bladders.

“The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.” – Andy Warhol

“A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke… All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” – Andy Warhol

Biographical details: Slave Pianos have surely justified their motto, “Nothing Human is Alien to Us”. Its members have made music, pulled hoaxes, divorced, married, and even given birth. Slave Pianos have taken hostages, grown flowers, kept pets, written books, volunteered as human guinea pigs for medical research, played cricket, held picnics, put on plays, saved lives, studied, committed arson, committed suicide, murdered, raped, pushed drugs, gone mad, formed a union, and found God. Slave Pianos are Danius Kesminas, Michael Stevenson, Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape. Slave Pianos are represented by Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.