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.
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.
- Peter Tyndall ‘SLAVE GUITARS (formerly SLAVE GUITARS of the Art Cult)’, Art + Text no.4, Summer 1981, pp.44–45.
- Peter Tyndall Letter to Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia, 3 May 2000.
- Peter Tyndall ‘FOREIGN KNOWLEDGE (I have made a heap of all that I could find)’, Tension 21 June 1990, pp.40–51.
- Ashley Crawford, ‘detail: a person looks at peter tyndall’, Tension 18 1989, pp.42–45.
John McCaughey SLAVE PIANOS & ASTRA / MACIUNAS & LANDSBERGIS
SLAVE PIANOS & ASTRA / MACIUNAS & LANDSBERGIS
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
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.
Nationalizing Aliens in Indonesia by Antariksa
Nationalizing Aliens in Indonesia
It should not come as a surprise that after the term BETA1 (Benda Terbang Aneh, or Strange Flying Object) was coined in the 1960s as the equivalent of UFO (Unidentified Flying Object), in its cultural pratices Indonesia the notion was never be the part of the discourse of science, but a supernatural discourse. As discourses on politics, economy, and sports, discourses on aliens or unidentified creatures in Indonesia, UFOs and USOs (Unidentified Submerged Objects), are almost always linked with mystical stories that have their roots in various cultures in Indonesia. Up until today, these stories play an important part in the shaping of Indonesia’s mass recognition for all political agencies and events. They are constantly reproduced and reified.
The tale of Jaka Tarub may be the oldest written narration in Java. Included in Babad Tanah Jawi (The Javanese Court Chronicle), which was published in 1722,2 it tells of the relationship of a man and a humanoid entity from space.
The central character of this story is Jaka Tarub, a dashing young man with super powers. He comes in and out of jungles to hunt on a sacred mountain. On this mountain, there is a pond. One day, he sees seven goddesses swimming in the pond. Allured by their beauty, Jaka Tarub steals one of their scarves. After the goddesses come out of the water, they dress up and get ready to return to heaven. One of the goddesses, unable to find her scarf, cannot fly along with her friends. They leave her behind as they must go back before dusk. Jaka Tarub then appears before her, pretending to offer help. The goddess by the name of Nawangwulan agrees to follow him home. To cut the story short, Jaka Tarub marries Nawangwulan, and in the future their offspring, with their semi-god qualities, become the rulers of Mataram, one of the largest and longest-standing kingdoms in Java. According to this tale, the ancestors of the rulers of Java, with Yogyakarta as its center, were a breed between a human being and a creature from outer space.
In regard to USOs, some Indonesians talk about them in relation to putri duyung, or mermaids.3 A legend from Riau talks of a couple of husband and wife living on the coast of an island in the Natuna Archipelago. In the story, the wife was five-month pregnant. One day, the wife said: “Dear husband, the tide is low this afternoon. I fancy myself some setu (sea berries). I have been craving for it and I would like to have some today.” The man agreed, although questions arose within him, for setu are not tasty and they grow underwater. Later on the beach, the husband caught fish while the wife ate all the setu she could find on the shore. Once she could no longer find any on the beach, she walked into the water for more. The man warned his wife of the rising tide, but she would not listen. After some time, he realized that his wife was missing,only to see her swimming too far from the shore. He shouted for her to return, but she simply told him to wait for her. She kept on eating the berries and paid no attention to her husband’s fearful shouts. She swam farther and farther away to the sea, and her husband became more and more terrified, forcing him to call his friends. Suddenly, something strange happened. He saw his wife’s feet morphing into a fish tail. People later referred to her as the buyung (pregnant) fish. Several generations later, the term changed into duyung. Reports on the sighting of mermaids are rare. The people of Natuna, however, still talk of a mermaid appearing sometime around 1965–1966 (the end of President Sukarno’s reign) and in 1998 (when President Suharto resigned), triggering the belief that such a sighting can only mean a massive change in the country’s political scene.
In Java, USOs are linked to a most well-known and most important supernatural deity in Indonesia’s political history: Nyai Roro Kidul or Ratu Kidul (Queen of the South Sea). Every political leader in the history of Java and post-colonial Indonesia is always related to the figure of Ratu Kidul. All kings of Yogyakarta, as well as Sukarno and Suharto, were believed to have a special relationship with her. It is often said that the Queen of the South is their invisible wife, ready to strengthen their position in Indonesia’s political scene and to warrant their spiritual connection to Java’s past rulers — a common theme in Indonesia’s messianic nationalism discourses.4
Unlike the sea-berry-eating mermaid who “presents” herself through a visual appropriation, those who practice kejawen or believe in Javanese mystical tales say that the presence of Ratu Kidul can only be felt through fragrant smells brought about by the winds, or through sounds such as hisses and loud noises.5 The most reproduced story of Ratu Kidul visitations involves the lampor, or Ratu Kidul cavalry with its stamping horses. In Yogyakarta, old people would relate stories of lampor as coming from the south sea, charging along the Code River, and then back to the south sea. This, they say, means that Ratu Kidul and her army was visiting the heart of the City. Some remember of the sound of lampor as appearing in 1965–1966, during nights when abductions and slaughters of people related to the Communist party were carried out by the Indonesian army under Suharto’s orders. They say that the lampor came to claim the lives of the communists, making them new recruits in the Queen’s very own army. The supernatural entity may be identified through the senses of smelling and hearing, but as a consequence it is ephemeral and leaves no trace behind. If the Queen of the South Sea wishes to leave more lasting trace it was in the form of disasters: big waves that can drag and drown anyone, whirlpools that can suck boats into the deep end of the sea, earthquakes, or tsunamis.
Since the 1970s, more modern forms of reportage on UFO have appeared in magazines such as Aku Tahu, Aneka BETEBEDI, Mekatronika, Omega, and INFO UFO (now BETA-UFO). These magazines generally talk about UFOs in a scientific manner, although many of their articles are mere adaptations of those from foreign magazines. Out of these magazines, BETA-UFO stands as being distinctive. The magazine provides local contents in each of its editions, for example in the form of readers’ reports on UFO and USO sightings in Indonesia. It also has a “comparative study page” that put local aliens and their “imported” counterparts side by side. One edition has tuyul compared with gray aliens.6 The magazine also has a “creative page,” allocated for those who wish to share personal sighting experiences through images. One contributor that particularly caught my attention was Dendi Virsa Pribadi, who depicted his experience of sighting a UFO hovering over the famous Selamat Datang (Homecoming) Monument in Jakarta, and also shared two works illustrating the popular story of Borobudur and Prambanan temples being alien vehicles.7
INFO UFO did not miss the opportunity to present one of the most popular, modern abduction stories from Indonesia, namely that of Sudjana Kerton (1922–1994), a famous artist who claimed to have been abducted by aliens in a hilly region in Bandung, West Java, in 1979.
Kerton said he saw a mysterious, disc-shaped aircraft beaming a light toward the Dago Pakar Hill Range at night, as if looking for something. And then, it flew toward Kerton’s studio. All of a sudden, the strange aircraft shone its light around Kerton’s body, as if hypnotizing him. In a “half-conscious” state, Kerton felt the presence of two robot-like aliens with a stiff walking gait and a height of roughly 95 centimeters. He could not resist as they ushered him past his front yard before guiding him into the craft that was hovering above the ground. The glaring light, functioning like a fine electromagnetic staircase, allowed him to get on board. Kerton felt that he was being taken to a strange place where everything was white. In that place, he met with four pallid aliens around 3 meters tall. Kerton explained how he remembered them as being gigantic, looking like Mongolians with raised tips at the outer ends of their slanted eyes and lips so thin that they could only be described as threadlike. They had pointed noses, and their heads were hairless.8
The story is important as Kerton holds an important place in the history of Indonesia’s modern fine arts: he was known as a nationalistic artist and was involved in the documentation of guerilla battles during Indonesia’s struggle against Dutch colonialism in the 1940s.9 To me, Kerton’s story is as important as those of the relationships of Ratu Kidul and the kings of Yogyakarta, Sukarno, as well as Suharto.
Visual appropriations of aliens in post-colonial Indonesia, namely efforts to turn them into images, which began in the 1950s, can be seen as the emergence of a political order in which their “visibility” was used to create a mass recognition for all political agencies and events through the circulation of images. The emergence of visual appropriations of UFOs in post-colonial Indonesia, as well as the efforts to constantly relate them with the actual political scene, can be understood through the same perspective, namely that materialization and reification something that was the other—be it from the West, from a different world (a mystical one), or from a different time period (from the past and future). Mystical powers have been made real, and have been nationalized through the mediation of images.
The term BETA was coined by an Indonesian air force pilot named J. Salatun in the 1960s. Salatun wrote many working papers and books on UFO, and was later appointed the head of LAPAN (Lembaga Penerbangan dan Antariksa Nasional, or the National Aeronautics and Space Institute) — a government institution that deals with UFO-related issues, among others. In the 1970s, Aneka magazine proposed another term, which did not quite catch up: BETABEDI (Benda Terbang Belum Dikenal, or Yet To Be Identified Flying Object). ↩
Followers of kejawen (Javanese mysticism) generally believe that Babad Tanah Jawi is a history book on Java. However, historians such as Ras have come to regard the book as muddled with mythology, cosmology, and fairy tales. See J.J. Ras, “The Genesis of the Babad Tanah Jawi: Origin and Function of the Javanese Court Chronicle,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1987; Deel 143, 2de/3de Afl.: 343–356. ↩
See reports such as “Apakah Putri Duyung Berkaitan dengan Fenomena USO?” (Are Mermaids Related to USO Phenomena?), INFO UFO, 2002; 13 (2): 26–30. ↩
In regard to Sukarno’s relationship with Ratu Kidul and her mystical role in Indonesia’s anti-colonial struggle, see Robert Wessing, “A Princess from Sunda: Some Aspects of Nyai Roro Kidul,” Asian Folklore Studies, 1997; 56 (2): 317–353. ↩
For a more recent research on the seen and the unseen aspects of Ratu Kidul, see Karen Strassler, “Seeing the Unseen in Indonesia’s Public Sphere: Photographic Appearances of a Spirit Queen,” Comparative Studies in Socitey and History, 2014; 56(1): 98–130. ↩
See for example “Apakah Tuyul Mirip Alien” (Do Tuyuls Look Like Alien) INFO UFO, 2001; 1 (1); “Apakah Jenglot Termasuk Jenis Peri” (Are Jenglots A Kind of Fairy), INFO UFO, 2001; 8(1): 38–39; see also “Apakah Putri Duyung Berkaitan dengan Fenomena USO?” (Are Mermaids Related to USO Phenomena?), which I mentioned earlier. ↩
BETA UFO, 2008; 14: 18–19. ↩
This part of Kerton’s life was set aside in every texts on the history of Indonesia modern art, except in one unpopular 1996 book of 198 pages by Dedy Suardi, Tafakur di Galaksi Luhur: Kerton Diculik UFO? (A Contemplation on a Majestic Galaxy, Was Kerton Abducted by UFO?), Bandung: Remaja Rosdakarya Publisher. A comic version of the story was published by INFO UFO, 2001; 6(1): 24–28. ↩
See Astri Wright et. al., 1999, The Revolution & Evolution of Sudjana Kerton, Bandung: Sanggar Luhur Bandung. ↩
The Lepidopters by John McCaughey
Astra concerts traditionally travel in time and in geography, moving among musical artefacts of differing provenance. The choir as a medium of performance has a special place across the whole span of musical history — a collective human presence whose repertory dramatises interactions, contradictions and affinities between contemporary composition and other times and places. Such things in our programs are frequently expounded by movement within the architectural space itself, and by shifts in the varied sonic directions that a building can offer.
In The Lepidopters, the Astra Choir has the privilege of being placed in the physical presence of other modes of sound, visuality and vitality! The work of Slave Pianos has traditionally evolved from unique forms of research and creation, such as could only result from a cooperative of acoustic and visual artists. Invariably they also take issue with histories in both domains. The Lepidopters, as our second large collaboration with them, draws in a performative cooperation of a new and different order — Punkasila from Yogyakarta joining a multi-directional array of voices, players, film and text — gathered around the central sculptural presence of the automated Sedulur Gamelan. The choir offers its own direction among the projections of images, materials and scenarios assembled by the Slave Pianos creators in their tale of moths. New choral compositions by Slave Pianos draw their designs from Robert Smithson’s visual compositions. In one case, choir is combined with a frenetic ‘history-remembering’ solo piano and other instruments; in the other, thirty-two vocal lines enter a micro-tonal domain, in cooperation with the gamelan sculpture itself.
Further choral images in the program come from widespread origins:
from the end of the Thirty Years War, with Heinrich Schütz’s ‘Geistliche Chormusik’ of 1648: Many will come from the East and West and will sit down with Abraham… there will be wailing and clattering of teeth;
from two centuries later, Robert Schumann’s (1848) emphatically original double-choir setting of a Goethe poem — God’s is the East, God’s is the West — which reflects the poet’s deep knowledge and interest in oriental and Arab art, Islam and the Koran;
from present-day Venice, the premieres of two new Agnus Dei settings: by Gianluca Geremia, a young composer at the Venice Conservatorium, whose treatment of this final movement of the Mass liturgy makes oblique reference to Erik Satie’s keyboard Mass of the Poor (1895);
and by Gianandrea Pauletta, where the words are set into a flutter of multiple reiterating voices, which settle and then take off again.
IF by Chris Kraus
If a mandible is an insect’s jaw
And the collection of islands united as Indonesia contains thousands of species of insects including a wide range of Lepidopters
And Lepidopters are an order of winged insects, including all butterflies and moths
And one of the three common features of this order is holometabolism, or complete metamorphosis
Then moths are pure sex
And a Hindu tradition persists throughout Indonesia even though Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country
If Rati, the Hindu goddess of love and the god Kama’s favored companion, is understood to represent a fecund force for enjoyment, a euphemism for non-procreative sex; if she is an avatar of arousal, desire, and (incongruous also to western culture) prosperity … then she, herself, is actually somewhat moth-like
And moths, with their penchant for darkness, attraction to light and somber wings are not necessarily lesser than butterflies.
If cone-shaped clouds gather in swaths over the sky like larvae
And the TV announces: RETURN OF THE MOTHS?
And an American stealth ship called the Jack B Quick is anchored offshore Indonesia
And Punkasila is slated to play in Djakarta but the airports are closed and the curfew is active again but the population remains busy with its own problems
And the bomb clock says 00:01
Then CHRYLSWEET, an innocent sex-loving local girl in a short dress with bare legs and sneakers who’s texting a MISTEREX on a dark road somewhere in Indonesia, is destined to become Queen of the Moths
And time will stretch out like indigenous rubber.
The Lepidopters, Mark von Schlegell’s second full-length graphic novel, is, like the rest of his work, a bracing, bewildering, and finally wholly enlightening mix of pulp fiction, high science, calculus and fantasy that hurtles its readers past markers of Shakespearean verse, revolutions, extinctions, American realism, nature and sex, technology and ancient mythologies. Von Schlegell’s texts are a very strange drug in which one may experience absolute clarity within discrete fragments, while at the same time feeling oneself slipping, or even dissolving, within a general network of chaos. To read von Schlegell’s work is to become physically disoriented. Like the best science fiction, his writings are true to the present. And in this case, it’s a present rendered in its most acute, heightened form.
In The Lepidopters, he borrows the name of the CIA spy boat Jack B Quick, and the character name ‘Michael Moran’ from Alan Moore, the visionary graphic novelist and writer who created Miracleman for Marvel Comics.) Alan Moore’s ‘Michael Moran’ is a reporter who morphs into Miracleman. Here, in The Lepidopters, he is a half-Vietnamese, half-American researcher or scientist ambiguously employed by the CIA, who will eventually become the consort of the enemy-revolutionary Queen of the Moths. When Moran’s CIA research/stealth vessel, the Jack B Quick, anchors offshore Indonesia, he rows into land and checks into the Room 11-A of the Unik Motel. In this strangely moth-rich environment, he meets Cheryl Sweet. Arguably more sexually prolific than her prostitute friend who works at the motel, Cheryl approaches the Unik in constant phone contact with MISTEREX who, in the third mandible, will be revealed as an alias for the Head Moth, whose real name is Ornikon. If The Lepidopters were a spy novel, MISTEREX would be Cheryl’s control. Watching over her he imparts fragments of moth wisdom. For example: MISTEREX: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NOW. Cheryl engages Michael in all kinds of sex in Room 11-A. She’s a prim, temple-going Indonesian daughter and student; she is Rami, the Hindu sex goddess. Like MISTEREX/Ornikon, Cheryl has more than one psyche or being … which might be to say, she is just like a moth.
OK. THEY ALL LIKE SEX. BUT EVERY MOTH IS SINGULAR. EVERY MOTH IS LIKE A DISTILLATION OF PURE PERSONALITY. IT IS WHY WE DON’T SAY MOTHS. THE MOTHS ARE ALWAYS ANY ONE
She says while Michael is kneeling before her …
Between their first meeting and Michael’s conversion, Cargo Cultism will be explained and overthrown by a duo of bookish anarchists; Punkasila will perform; Moran will kind-of defect from the CIA; curfews will be imposed and uprisings fought; the moths will prevail and Punkasila will sing
EVERYTHING IS NAKED EVERYTHING IS PLAIN
TO SERVE MOTH! TO SERVE MOTH BRAIN!
and we will be left with the delicate music made by a single muslin-winged moth as it alights on a keyboard. Too much light for the moths is vulgar.
Chris Kraus, 2014
Confusion of Angles by Chris McAuliffe
CONFUSION OF ANGLES
[W]hile I strive for the effects of randomness on one level, the effect is achieved by a tightly controlled system of internal reference, puns, ironies, logicjumps which no single reader may be fairly expected to follow … and should give the effect, among others, of time in a state of flux, men in a state of introverted confusion, close to fugue. (Michael Moorcock1)
The Lepidopters is a mutant performance dreamed up by the eccentric think-tank that is Slave Pianos. It melds Surrealism and B-movies, paranoia and metaphysics, fear and fantasy. In structure and mood it draws on new wave sci fi authors of the 1960s and ’70s; Moorcock’s ‘randomness’ meets Ballard’s ‘complex of polyperverse acts’.2 The libretto is a science fiction comic book, written in Germany by Mark von Schlegell and illustrated in Indonesia by Iwank Celenk. The show hits the stage like a Roger Corman movie come to life. The ghost of American artist, Robert Smithson, stalks the set; his quirky psychedelic minimalist sculptures are repurposed as props, costumes and electric guitars. Indonesian art school punk rockers Punkasila arrive, as if through a wormhole direct from London’s Roundhouse circa 1972, to deliver a silver lamé–wrapped serving of glam space rock.
THE ENTROPY EXHIBITION
The Lepidopters, like early sci fi stories, has its roots in the Gothic. It’s a nightmarish adventure in an exotic location. The protagonist, Mr Moran, finds himself in Jawa Tengah province, Indonesia, where he must do battle with an alien moth species. Here, the plot shifts into the idiom of classic mid-twentieth-century sci fi. Cold War paranoia is displaced onto extra-terrestrial invaders and radiation-poisoned mutants. Add women and weaponry to the mix and you’ve got a Freudian field day of castration anxiety and over-compensation. But these are just the broad brush elements of the narrative. What drives The Lepidopters is the sceptical explorations of inner, rather than outer space, initiated by new wave sci fi writers like Aldiss, Moorcock and Ballard. No more space-age Daniel Boones traversing the galactic frontiers of future centuries. No more hypertrophic, yet conveniently miniaturised, technology propelling everything from warp drives to universal translators. No more generation-spanning space operas and neo-Homerian sagas played out among the stars. To writers with Vietnam, Watergate, Marshall McLuhan and RD Laing on their minds, 2001: a space odyssey looked like a ‘pageant’; an ‘historical romance’3 closer to Gone with the Wind than the not-too-distant dystopian future.
The Lepidopters is set in the here-and-now and hints at a bleak tomorrow. It’s a world on the brink of disaster, whose coordinates are defined by conspiracy theory and schizophrenia rather than science and reason. In 1966, Ballard demanded that sci fi explore ‘the jigs and props of our consciousness’4 rather than the distant reaches of the galaxy. By now these jigs and props are looking pretty shaky, especially for a protagonist holed up in a cheap hotel in Indonesia. ‘Maybe we can go back in time to stop the bomb’, suggests Mr Moran. Yeah, right. That’ll work for Bill and Ted, dude, but not here. The landscape of new wave was ‘a zone of advanced entropy, a collapsed undifferentiated environment’.5 A world of ruins, fragmentation and decay. A psyche stifled by ennui, loss of faith in humanity or science, and resigned to an imminent end (with a whimper, rather than a bang, naturally). That’s what attracted Robert Smithson to writers like Aldiss and Ballard. He found in them scenes of industrial decrepitude, environmental decay and entangled time that mirrored his own explorations of stasis and endless reflection. In novels like Aldiss’s An Age, set in a prehistoric landscape, we can recognise a Smithsonian landscape. Paleontological fragments, geology and time are piled haphazardly in jumbled strata; ‘They lay heaped about meaninglessly … Everywhere about, they made a confusion of angles, while underneath them lay snares of shadow.’6 In Smithson’s sculptures, mirrors and crystals are metaphors for an art world grinding to a halt. Inner space again. The jigs and props of art deteriorating like those of consciousness. ‘The surface gestalt lies in ruins, splintered and unfocusable, the undifferentiated matrix of all art lies exposed, and forces the spectator to remain in the oceanic state of the empty stare when all differentiation is suspended.’7 No, not Aldiss or Ballard, but Anton Ehrenzweig, the Jungian art educationalist whose theories Smithson cited.
THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT ROBERT
Robert Smithson; psychedelic minimalist, earthworks sculptor, writer, theorist. A cool dude in the New York art world in the 1960s, when a cool scene was at its coolest. Girls wanted to talk with him, guys wanted to talk like him. His dealer was 3M heiress, Virginia Dwan. His wife was smart and stylish artist, Nancy Holt. He had a date book chock full of appointments with Bob [Morris], Phil [Glass], Annette [Michelson] and Dan [Flavin]. Drinks with Nico. Then off to a Captain Beefheart gig.8 He was so cool that even the cool guys paid homage. Jim Carroll – teenage prodigy, junkie, poet, punk musician – said Smithson was ‘the one person who frequented Max’s for whom I had total respect.’9 That’s Max’s as in Max’s Kansas City, the coolest bar in New York. So cool that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe couldn’t get in when they were kids. Smithson left an unpaid bar tab of $997.97 at Max’s when he died in a plane crash in 1973.10 That’s about $5000 in today’s money. That’s some serious cool … the drinking, and the keeping of the tab at bay. There’re artists who’d consider that a career-defining achievement. Carroll bumped into Smithson one night on a downtown street. Jim had been trying to track down the terminal point of a laser beam art installation. When he found it, Smithson was already there. Of course. They, like, rapped. Smithson gave him some advice on ambition. ‘The point is’, he said, ‘we don’t all of us want fame.’ ‘Come back to Max’s’, Smithson said, ‘and I’ll buy you a beer.’ Of course. What’s another couple of beers on a $900 tab? Might as well clock it over into four figures.
An intellectual, a wise-ass. A little bit of Beat and a whole lot of downtown. The smokin’, drinkin’ Korean War vets who built the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake for Smithson in 1970 thought he was a hippie who ‘smelled like he hadn’t hit the shower for days.’11 That’ll happen if you wear your Greenwich Village leather pants out in the Utah sun. But he won them over in the end. Bob Phillips, the foreman of the crew, thought the whole project ‘was kind of weird’, until a French film crew turned up with a helicopter: ‘That’s when I thought that this guy must know something that we don’t’.12 And that’s kind of what the next generation of artists thought about Smithson too. Weird is always bankable. Knowing something no one else does is the gold standard. A tragic early death brings out the latent romantic in all young artists, but it was the publication of Smithson’s collected writings in 1979 that sealed his status as a go-to role model. Here was a guy who moved seamlessly from Borges to Barthes to B-grade science fiction movies. Page after page: complex ideas about time, space, landscape, vision and philosophy. Snotty: Smithson puts the boot in plenty, especially when it came to Clement Greenberg and his ‘Just the paint, ma’am’ approach to abstraction. Funny, too: ‘The first time I saw Don Judd’s “pink Plexiglas box,” it suggested a giant crystal from another planet.’13 And this description of Passaic, New Jersey, the town of his birth: ‘a typical abyss or an ordinary void. What a great place for a gallery!’14 Smithson was a wildly discursive thinker. Ready to lose himself in ‘the illusory babels of language … to intoxicate himself in dizzying syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning, strange corridors of history, unexpected echoes, unknown humors, or voids of knowledge.’15 Riffing on Poe, Ballard and Robbe-Grillet while quoting Roland Barthes, the Manson family and the Utah Geological and Mineralogical Survey, Smithson embarked on a quest ‘full of bottomless fictions and endless architectures’ at the end of which was ‘only meaningless reverberations’.16 What attracted Slave Pianos to Robert Smithson was first of all his reputation, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. That is, both his cult coolness and his academic status as American postmodernism’s John the Baptist. But since then they’ve been seduced by his practice: his iconoclastic, even Oedipal, attacks on modernism’s gurus; his scepticism towards art’s formal edifices; the way he used hare-brained, even monomaniacal projects to build knowledge, in-jokes, parodies. His discovery that being out there was what got you in there, to the heart of the art world. It could be said of The Lepidopters, as Smithson said of his own writing, The following is a mirror structure built of micro and macro orders, reflections, critical Laputans, and dangerous stairways of words, a shaky edifice of fictions that hangs over inverse syntactical arrangements … coherences that vanish into quasiexactitudes and sublunary and translunary principles.17
SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUN
So it makes sense to add space opera to the mix. To the extent that anything makes sense, that is. Slave Pianos have learned a lot from Smithson, Fluxus and other movements at the pataphysical end of the modern art spectrum. David Byrne’s exhortation – ‘Stop making sense’ – could pass for their motto. (Would it have the same ring in Indonesian, I wonder?) If it’s weird scenes in the goldmine that you’re after, then space rock – an arcane sub-genre of English psychedelia – is a good place to start. It’s rock music that echoes the cosmological scale of EL Doctorow and Frank Herbert’s so-called space operas; multi-volume sagas of galactic empires, quests and power struggles. Think early Pink Floyd, with songs like ‘Astronomy Domine’ and ‘Interstellar Overdrive’. Or Hawkwind, with albums titled X In Search of Space and Space Ritual. Loosely-linked song cycles or concept albums pursuing themes of interstellar travel and off-world romance. Characterised by long-form jamming, layers of organ and string-bending guitar solos. To be performed on a grandiose scale using woozy light shows, props, costumes, electronic equipment. At its most convincing when the gig involved exotic locations (such as Pompeii or Stonehenge), the wearing of shiny capes and platform heels, and a fug of what the tabloids called ‘the strong, sweet smell of incense’. But don’t mistake this for camp parody: adding space rock to Robert Smithson doesn’t deliver Spiral Tap. The Lepidopters have unearthed, not invented, a pattern of hybridisation between art, music and new-wave sci fi. They are revealing, in a raucous, polyperverse performance, the significance of quasi-legitimate cultural genres — sci fi, comic books, punk rock — in the historical formation of postmodern culture. Like Lawrence Alloway, the early theorist of Pop Art, they are happy to invert the cultural pyramid, to relocate a trashy monster movie from the base to the apex. And, like Alloway, they would say: ‘our feeling was never that we were slumming, or getting away from it all, or not being serious. It was our assumption that what we felt at, say, Tarantula, was as serious and interesting and worthwhile as our other aesthetic feelings.’18
Michael Moorcock, ‘In Lighter Vein’, in his Sojan (Manchester: Savoy, 1977), quoted in Colin Greenland, The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British ‘New Wave’ in science fiction (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 146. ↩
JG Ballard, ‘Tolerances of the human face’, Encounter, Vol. 33, No. 3 (September 1969), 12. ↩
JG Ballard quoted in Brooks Landon, Science Fiction After 1900: from the steam man to the stars (London: Routledge, 2002), 151. ↩
Colin Greenland, The Entropy Exhibition, 57. ↩
Greenland, The Entropy Exhibition, 61. ↩
Brian Aldiss, An Age (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 148. ↩
Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 121. ↩
Smithson’s appointment diaries are held in the Smithsonian Institute Archives of American Art, Robert Smithson Papers. ↩
Jim Carroll, Forced Entries: the downtown diaries, 1971–1973 (New York: Penguin, 1987), 42. ↩
Micky Ruskin, the proprietor of Max’s, sent Smithson’s widow the tab. It’s now held in the Smithsonian Institute Archives of American Art, Robert Smithson Papers, microfilm roll 3832, frames 674–683. ↩
Dan Egan, ‘Coming Around: First a Joke, Then a Jewel for the Guys Who Built Spiral Jetty’, Great Salt Lake: An Anthology, ed. Garry Topping (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2002), 242. ↩
Egan, ‘Coming Around’, 243. ↩
Robert Smithson, ‘The Crystal Land’ (1966), in Robert Smithson: the collected writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 7. ↩
Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’ (1967), in Robert Smithson, ed. Flam, 72. ↩
Robert Smithson, ‘A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art’ (1968), in Robert Smithson, ed. Flam, 78. ↩
Smithson, ‘A Museum of Language’, 78. ↩
Smithson, ‘A Museum of Language’, 78. ↩
Lawrence Alloway, ‘Pop art since 1949’ [December 1962], reprinted in Lawrence Alloway, Imagining the Present, ed. Richard Kalina (London: Routledge, 2006), 72. ↩
No-one Plays the Piano Anymore — Slave Pianos’ Sedulur Gamelan by Philip Brophy
No-one plays the piano anymore: Slave Pianos’ Sedulur Gamelan
Arbitrary Culturation No.1 (maybe read this second)
How did things end up this way? This is the question to be asked incessantly should one wish to penetrate the conditions by which sound and music is made manifest.
Consider this random snapshot of how music exists today. An ‘early music’ ensemble: young and fresh out of college, dressed in black for that mix of edginess and formality so beloved of Melbournians who call themselves ‘Melbournians’. Performing at a Yarra Valley winery on a Sunday: how spiritually secular, what with the day, the blood of Christ, and the transubstantiated bourgeois cuisine in place of the pasty Eucharist. Keeping alive the art of music: attended nonetheless by hordes of the grey dollar, subscribing to ABC Classical-FM on their death-beds, their Volvos hard-tuned to the station for their slow cruises into the gentrified rural prettiness of greater Victoria. Advertised by well-designed flyers: depicting things like strawberries dipped in chocolate (how Viagra-sensual), Photoshop layers of sepiatoned grape vines (how digital-rustic), wide-screen sunset vistas (how symbolic-autumnal), and printed on eco-correct paper. The event is likely supported by some ethical tax-dodge hedge-fund operation of upper-tier professionals who now channel their dollars into ‘the arts’ like Philip Adams preparing his grand tomb for the financial afterlife.
Attending such an affair, one could listen to the music. But is that music really there? Is the ensemble even playing music? There might be the wafting presence of some archaic language floating as coded vibrations across the air, but there is equally a deafening silence unleashed by the affair’s mechanics, posturing and site-specificity. I hear no pre-Baroque chordal flirtation; I hear the stomach acids of the audience digesting their Stephanie Alexander-style repast, intermingled with the gurgling forensics of heartburn, acid reflux and irritable bowel syndrome, all exacerbated by quality wine and fine local produce. What is the function of music here? What is the reason for the theatre of its presentation? What is the relational effect between its sonority and its social reception? It’s all like a scene from a scripted movie — but, as per cinema’s ambivalent and amoral linguistic operations, it is simultaneously celebration and damnation. It could be written by Joanna Murray-Smith or Hannie Rayson as a witty acknowledgement of their audience (as per the undying ‘quality’ template Australian cinema and ‘realist’ theatre has rehearsed ever since the likes of Hotel Sorrento). Or it could be a septic posterisation of how vulgar, tacky, ignorant and self-centred ‘the arts’ has become in the over-marketed, over-accessible, over-neutralised twenty-first century. That ‘early music’ ensemble could have been constructed by me — right down to that fucking strawberry dipped in chocolate — as a solipsistic exercise in registering the tenor and contemporaneity of how music has ended up this way in this instance.
Whatever. The monumental conflict in perspectives on such an innocent manifestation of music is never uncovered, never sited, never sounded. For the description, evaluation and postulation of music today remains profoundly dumb in regards to its acknowledgement of how it has ended up the way it has. Musical discourse — if indeed it even exists — today reads more like a series of Wiki-fied descriptions prised from press-releases derived from Wikipedia entries about music’s declared purpose and the aspects of its alignment. That ‘early music’ ensemble, for example, thus plays music from history, keeping it alive, making it accessible, and providing people with access to an unassailable definition of ‘beauty’, an encounter which is deemed to be therapeutic for the soul, the spirit, and one’s all-round well-being. Me — I get labelled as a nihilist just because I venture how deadening and decrepit such a display is. While so many champion the naïve dribble of Julian Assange and his retro-’90s ‘information warrior’ shtick (which is now the province of millennial Hollywood script-teams of late-thirties goatee-sporting nerds), they seem to be unaware of how they are drowning in the glut of all that ‘free information’ which queries nothing, states nothing, declares nothing, and evidences nothing. The childish prescription that information and its determining systems should be ‘transparent’ only nurtures an inability to discern the great opacity that makes up culture. That ‘early music’ ensemble is a deafening din of discursive density, rendered ‘transparent’ only by the paucity of critical analysis afforded it.
Arbitrary Culturation NO.2 (maybe read this first)
How did things end up this way? This is the question enabled by Slave Pianos’ Sedulur Gamelan. The wish to penetrate the conditions by which its sound and music is made manifest is openly interrogated by this strange musical object-event. Officially described as ‘two interlocking wooden structures that reconfigure elements of traditional Javanese architecture through the De Stijl philosophical principles of neoplasticism to create an abstraction of an eighteenthcentury double grand piano’, the weird gamelan amalgam resulting from this design procedure leaves one querying its purpose. Essentially a modified gamelan hybrid into which has been incorporated electro-mechanics to trigger ‘keyboard events’ for sounding the Yogyakarta gamelan components (much as a piano can be sounded by the incorporation of the ‘player piano roll’), Sedulur Gamelan answers that its purpose is to perform ‘musical transcriptions of drawings by American artist Robert Smithson’.
You don’t have to ask this of Sedulur Gamelan: it asks of itself for you. If musical discourse were in a healthier state (openly intellectual, problematising humanistic assumptions, querying the materiality of musical language and the immaterial significations unleashed by music’s apparition), you would already be asking these questions as a matter of course. Consequently, Slave Pianos’ multivalent projects are predicated on intellectual assemblages of references, consequences and collisions of musical and ‘amusical’ signification. Sedulur Gamelan casts an especially wide net to define its rhetoric and logic. But its allusions and associations are neither random, collagist nor absurdist. Indeed, the modus operandi of Slave Pianos is to tacitly suggest that it might be impossible to not uncover density of content and opacity of form in anything aligned to music.
Standing in front of Sedulur Gamelan and experiencing its audiovisuality like a ‘theoretical hologram’, I start with a sensation of the work channelling Harry Partch. But that’s very ‘101’: all nouveau instrument design acknowledges the hobo-visionary of Partch, musicologically sounding the world around him via just intonation and repurposed materials to generate an alternative harmonic manual to those born of European ideologies from Baroque to Romantic. Equally known is the historical silence accorded non-European tuning systems which augur as rigorous a symbiosis between tonality and harmonics as purveyed by Bach at his most ‘temperamental’. The gamelan became a key musical object-event that inspired twentieth century modernist excursions in mapping out non-European compositional terrains and auditory sensations. So Sedulur Gamelan is clear about its base, both musicologically and sonically.
The shimmering tonality of the auratic gamelan timbres and their patterned harmonics and overtones notably evokes less a language — something authored and scripted according to a grammatical system — and more a space — an environment wherein sound frequencies collude to articulate a harmonic mirage that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This richness in tonality in gamelan music is regarded as extant and evident: it does not require authorial excavation to unearth its marvels, but in place requires training in hearing the interconnectivity between the associated gamelan components and performing a ritualistic score to honour the instrument’s internal and ‘living’ tonality. Slave Pianos cross-wire such a machine of tonal aura with its polar opposite: the precision mechanics of robotic performance and scripted event-control. But the result is not a disingenuous artsy gesture typical of the Fluxus legacy: the sound emitted by Sedulur Gamelan is the gamelan — something greater than either its performance or its appropriation. It is precisely this surfeit or abundance of its tonality that inspired twentieth-century adventures in alternative tuning systems.
Now we throw into that musicological mix composed interpretations of a series of Robert Smithson drawings, many of which read as proto-manuals or proposals for sculptural works and interventions with land. The result in Sedulur Gamelan is a series of meta-pastorals, which materialise or make manifest — via the gamelan’s distinctive spatialisation effect (we could call such tonality a concretisation of harmony) — mirages or apparitions of land masses potentially imagined by Smithson. While the history of pastoralism in music is predicated on Euclidean physics which describe optical assessments of land in terms of mass, scale and distance, the Sedulur Gamelan compositions evoke that Partch-like ‘transient hobo’ just intonation inhabiting the vast spaces between the diatonic keyboard’s determining topography. The absent or invisible composer (here interred as the executor of the compositions sounded through the modified gamelan’s electro-mechanical triggering) becomes a proto-Smithson, or at least an aural ghost of his imaginary, utilising a harmonic approach maybe unthought-of by Smithson, but to which his visionary drawings are suitably aligned.
In 1988 at the Münchner Klaviersommer Jazz Festival, Herbie Hancock performed for the first time on a Bösendorfer grand piano modified by IBM to record the keyboards hammers’ events and dynamics as he plays, and then replay that recorded data to engage electronic mechanisms to re-trigger the hammers as they had recorded Hancock’s performance. (Hancock introduced it as ‘a piano that would remember exactly what you played’.) After performing an improvisation on one Bösendorfer, Hancock then moved to a second one, hit F2 on an old IBM keyboard, then ‘played along with’ the original recording, now overlaying a secondary improvisation in concert with the mechanical reproduction of his initial improvisation. The two grand pianos prefigure the Sedulur Gamelan configuration — each facing the other, though in not so Futurist or Surrealist a flaying of the grand piano’s exposed ribbing — but more importantly, Hancock’s live duplication demonstrates another instance of how compositional strategies engage a ‘master/slave’ relationship in the act of sounding music.
Hancock’s notion of ‘playing with himself’ accords with an African-American lineage of sonorised flights of liberation to which jazz testifies. Jazz’s frenetic chromaticism and dense tetra-chordality is spurred by symbolic endeavours no matter how corny to free up harmonic space in severely restricted ‘40 acres and a mule’ zones (i.e., European equal temperament). Hancock’s mannered and quite daggy ‘playing with himself’ back in 1988 still speaks volumes when compared to the current vogue of ‘Free Jazz’ played by white bearded noisy-wannabes and their dicky little fuzz boxes. Theirs is a most phantasmal form of music, pumped up by a delusional Assange-like rhetoric of ‘freedom’. For all music today is supremely defined by ‘master/slave’ interpolations — as anyone who wasted money on a concert by Daft Punk could testify. Indeed, Slave Pianos might be an inverted Daft Punk: constructing sci-fi and pseudoscience musical object-events that provide the staging for a self-inflicted slavery to the mechanical constrictions of their chosen instrumentation. After all, is that not what every performer is engaged in? Andre Rieu smarmily half-smiling with cocked-head on his 1667 Stradivarius as he scans the millions of Euros represented by the packed stadiums before his gaze. Kate Bush desperately and clumsily flipping around a bass cello while she enacts a fey-feminist interpretive ecumenical dance about a faux-folksy babushka mother-daughter tussle. Daft Punk donning retro-futuristic cargo cult costumery and camping up their l’amour des robots Françaises while pressing F2 on an old IBM keyboard. Slave Pianos turning on their Sedulur Gamelan.
This is how things end up the way they do.
The Gametic Must Make Molting by Anna Parlane
‘The Gametic Must Make Molting’
Locked in their robotic embrace, the Sedulur Gamelan, the Gamelan Sisters, obediently reproduce the sounds that are wired from their cyborg control console. Drawings have been converted into musical notation, and notation converted into sound: the music is performed mechanically. The original images that became notation, and then sound, to be played by these enslaved siblings were conceived by American artist Robert Smithson: He who wrought Sculpture from the Flesh of the Land. They were drawings of his ideas for sculptures; in their own way, they too were scores. The sisters’ genetic inheritance, however, is more diffuse. It can be read across their unwieldy bodies: a strain of De Stijl is visible in the joints of the wooden frame which houses the Gamelan ensemble. Here, the cross-breeding of traditional Javanese architecture and the Western grand piano has produced something almost unrecognisable, something alien.
The mad scientists who collectively sired these genetically improbable twins are themselves a motley bunch. With a core membership of artists and composers, Slave Pianos’ porous boundaries allow them to collaborate with a miscellany of special guests: an Indonesian punk band, a science fiction writer, musicians of every stripe. Gleefully conjoining a logicdefying array of cultural references, they have spawned twin creatures that, in their sheer heterogeneity, recall the experimental offspring brought into being by generations of science fiction writers. Think of Ira Levin/Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Cronenberg’s The Brood, von Trier’s The Kingdom, not to mention Demon Seed, Extro, Possession — even the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ. But in the case of the Sedulur Gamelan, the murderous alien twins birthed by nice-girl-turned-demon-mother Sandy in the low-budget 1982 flick Inseminoid spring to mind. Or perhaps the ‘constructs’ in Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy, hybrid babies which are the product of a political and biological compromise made between humans and aliens, and which represent a last resort for the survival of the human race in a postapocalyptic world. And, as sure as a pregnancy in a science fiction plotline will turn into a nightmare scenario of uncontrolled reproduction and destruction, Slave Pianos’ new alien birth will, no doubt, exceed the expectations, and control, of its creators. We all know where alien-human reproduction leads: a lot of sneaking about in dark corridors, hapless crew members succumbing to violent death at the hands (or tentacles) of a rampaging mother or child, a heroic and desperate final stand, and, inevitably, a sequel. Because you can’t just have one. Once the genie’s out of the extraterrestrial reproduction bottle, things are only going to escalate. The alien-human hybrid clone of Ellen Ripley in 20th Century Fox’s dubious fourth installment of the Alien franchise is testament to this. As Ripley correctly predicts to the scientist and wannabe alien farmer Dr Jonathan Gediman, with respect to the alien queen that Ripley was genetically re-engineered to birth: ‘She’ll breed. You’ll die.’
All these parables about the monstrous reproductive capacity of the female body (and the monstrousness of attempts to control this capacity) have collectively helped to produce a sci fi stereotype of the female body as a site of transgression and a vessel for anxieties about unpredictable reproduction. But the transgression of boundaries is, of course, wholly fundamental to the risky and powerful processes of both biological and artistic evolution. As science fiction writer Robert Silverberg rightly points out in his foreword to Ellen Datlow’s wonderfully titled anthology Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, ‘The essential thing to keep in mind about sex is that its inherent purpose is to bring two alien beings together to create a third being different from them both.’1 Without the unruly seepage of genetic material across bodily confines, without the use and abuse of existing ideas and forms, new things and new bodies simply wouldn’t come into existence, the magic and terror of the unanticipated would not occur. Instead, as Silverberg notes, and as Smithson well understood, inevitable entropic degradation would set in.
That being said, this analogy that I’m labouring between these two forms of creativity—artistic and biological—does have its limits. If it’s taken too far, you end up with the kind of cultural Darwinism that underwrote colonialism, the kind that ranked cultures on a hierarchical evolutionary scale. The assumption that artistic production operates along the same principles as biological reproduction—that, long-term, its offspring evolve unidirectionally via same-species breeding and a series of generational refinements—resulted in horrific racism and cultural carnage, finally producing a weird fiction in which some cultures were seen to be more evolved than others. This fiction was established in part through methodical ethnographic documentation that glossed over the significant and inherent differences in various artistic forms in an attempt to precisely quantify their position on the imagined evolutionary spectrum.
This systematic documentation was, necessarily, a process of conversion that violently homogenised the object of ethnographic study. Reducing, for instance, a musical performance to mere sonic information, it enabled data from various sources to be compared and ranked. When Carl Stumpf, a comparative musicologist avant la lettre, made transcriptions and phonographic recordings of the songs of a Native American performing troupe that was visiting Berlin in 1885, the processes of converting live performance into written notation or wax phonograph cylinders profoundly altered the nature of his object of study. Technologies like the phonograph allowed Stumpf to visualise a grand project of empirical musical comparison, which would accurately measure ‘the distance between Bach and Nuskilusta.’2 Riding roughshod over fundamental irreconcilability, Stumpf mistakenly assumed that cultural production and biological reproduction operated along similar principles; he saw an evolutionary continuum where there was, in fact, radical and multifaceted cultural difference.
The bricolage of existing cultural material that Slave Pianos performs, with tongue firmly in collective cheek, does similar violence to its sources. Slave Pianos’ method of transcribing existing artworks into musical notation suitable for reproduction on a piano (or a Gamelan), comes directly from colonial-era comparative musicology. Just like Stumpf’s recordings of Native American songs, Slave Pianos reduce the objects of their study into sonic information that can then be reproduced in all sorts of unpredictable forms and guises. In the same way that the reduction of female characters in sci fi plotlines to their biological function is simultaneously an expression of anxiety, awe and aggression in the face of reproductive volatility, Slave Pianos performs an act of love that destroys the object of its affection. With homage comes destruction; and destruction is necessarily a form of homage.
Is, then, the space opera epic The Lepidopters, within which the Gamelan Sisters play a central role, yet another iteration of pregsploitation, that endlessly fertile sci fi trope of the horror pregnancy in which the female-and-fertile becomes the victim of her own reproductive power? At the outset of the comic written by Mark von Schlegell and illustrated by Iwank Celenk, it seems that yes, it is. Alien moths invade Indonesia, intent on the colonisation of Earth via interspecies reproduction. A mysterious female character (sexually promiscuous: usually a sure sign that she will shortly bite the dust—only the pure survive) seems a likely candidate for becoming the vessel of humankind’s demise. The setting for this dastardly act will be the Unik (eunuch?) Motel in Yogyakarta. However, as time and space loop and spiral back on themselves, the narrative seems less and less likely to rehearse this familiar trope.
Instead, we are thrown headlong into a warped temporality that is reminiscent of Smithson’s thought and work. As Chris McAuliffe has described in a recent essay, science fiction’s alternative conceptions of time became Smithson’s ‘riposte to formalism’, a weapon that he could wield against the Greenbergian criticism that so dominated thinking about art in 1960s America.3 When, in a 1966 essay, Smithson claimed that ‘the biological metaphor is at the bottom of all “formalist” criticism’, he meant that Darwinian evolution and Greenbergian modernism share a teleological perspective: a faith in the unwavering progress of time’s arrow, and the unidirectionality of the evolutionary development that is dragged along in its wake.4 Slave Pianos share Smithson’s iconoclastic determination to corrupt the purity of formalism, to bend unidirectionality into a dissolving spiral. They have revived the politically and ethically tarnished methods of comparative musicology, but instead of using them to implement a system of hierarchical classification, Slave Pianos have repurposed this methodology as a mixing desk, a tool for interbreeding wildly disparate cultural forms. The Lepidopters, and its star performers the Sedulur Gamelan, are ludicrously heterogeneous, in the etymologically correct sense of the term: their heterogeneity is playful as well as seriously experimental. As with the rampant uncontrollability of sci fi’s alien births, you simply don’t know what you’re going to end up with. The fertile machine that is Slave Pianos churns through sources in a reproductive cycle that is akin to the transformative ‘molting’ of the Lepidopters. As Madrigal, third ring bright representative of the Lepidopter Imperial Fleet insists: ‘The gametic must make molting when molting must its hetero-gamete make. Come. All things can be made images and then be told again.’
Robert Silverberg, ‘Foreword’ in Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex, ed. Ellen Datlow (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), xi. ↩
Carl Stumpf, quoted in Eric Ames, ‘The Sound of Evolution,’ Modernism/Modernity, Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 2003), 307. ↩
Chris McAuliffe, ‘“On the decrepit margins of time”: Robert Smithson’s science fiction tactics’, in Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction, ed. Amelia Barikin and Helen Hughes (Melbourne: Surpllus, 2013), 102. ↩
Robert Smithson, ‘Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space’, Arts Magazine, Nov 1966, reprinted in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), note on 35. ↩
An elegy for the Societet Building by Syafiatudina
An elegy for the Societet Building
Or Notes from The Lepidopters at Societet, Yogyakarta
The chandelier is still there, hanging in the ceiling of Societet building, Yogyakarta. But no one, at least no one I know, has ever seen any light coming through its glasses. What once served as the majestic sign of the space, the chandelier is now collecting dust and perhaps some unexpected empathy.
But, Societet is not an abandoned building.
It’s located inside the Taman Budaya Yogyakarta complex, among the bustling Beringharjo Market, which is the central traditional market of Yogyakarta, full of small bookshops where plenty of illicit forms of reference such as pirated books can be found, and behind the most touristic area of Malioboro Street. Far from isolated, Societet, along with Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, is managed by the government and is claimed to be the window onto Yogyakarta, the heart for all things cultural in the city. So how is it possible for a place that filled and surrounded by liveliness, such as Taman Budaya Yogyakarta, to be infested by symptoms of decay?
I always perceive claims of liveliness by Taman Budaya in a dubious light. Societet was part of a leisure centre for the privileged class during the Dutch colonial era. In this same place, my great grandfather died after experiencing a huge amount of loss from gambling. It was rumoured that my great grandfather had vowed to prefer death rather than living in poverty. He died right after a big loss, and left behind his family with barely anything.
‘Are the moths really here? Is that their cocoon floating above the ocean? So is Chrylswt one of them? Or was she one of us, and then turned her back against us? What is “us”? What will her parents think about her activity in Unik Motel?’
Many years afterwards, during the New Order repressive regime, Taman Budaya — including Societet, which was established and managed by the government — became the space for “legitimate” forms of culture. The New Order regime had established many cultural centres, such as Taman Budaya, in different cities in Indonesia to locally regulate the cultural activity and ensure the display and performance of non-critical art. Since the downfall of the New Order and the emergence of alternative art spaces, institutions like Taman Budaya Yogyakarta are still struggling to locate their cultural role within the city.
Entering Taman Budaya Yogyakarta complex.
You will need to park your vehicle outside the complex, in front of the gate. Although there are plenty of spaces inside the complex for free, the parking assistants will insist you to park outside so they can charge you a parking fee, which is two thousand rupiah for a motorbike and four thousand rupiah for a car. This is not a scam. This is a small part from much larger parking mafia. These parking assistants are the frontliners and they have daily targets to accomplish. And they have to give some amount of their income to the police.
After passing through the gate, you will see Societet on your right side. There’s one big banyan tree in front of the entrance door. The wooden doors are an ordinary brown. The hallway is always dimly lit and this creates a sluggish atmosphere within the building. A distinct contrast to its outside environment. But another different set of contrasts is being presented by The Lepidopters inside.
Under the pathetic dusty chandelier, on the stage to light old legitimate culture and current uncertainty, that night The Lepidopters came into existence with futuristic outfits and the shining guitars of Punkasila, Rachel Saraswati who sings Javanese musical tunes while constantly holding her stomach as if she will deliver a thousands of moths anytime soon. The Slave Pianos. The all-girl gamelan group, Sekar Jindra. The woman with a silver crown who played bass clarinet. The video with its combination of old Indonesian superhero films, the comics with moth invaders, and weird hexagonal motifs.
While all of this is playing simultaneously, many things started to occupy my mind. Is this the so-called East meets West? Traditional meets modern? But Australia is in the Southeast of Indonesia. So should it be called Southeast meets Northwest? Is there equal cooperation between each of the performing members? Is confusion becoming the sign of current legitimate art?
I guess this is the start of a long farewell to the world we all once knew.
Born in Melbourne, Syafiatudina, or for short Dina, is a researcher always seeking various new ways to develop different methods of knowledge inquiries, ranging from fieldwork research, to curating and performance. She is currently working as program manager and researcher at KUNCI Cultural Studies Center (www.kunci.or.id), in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.