Stephen O’Connell Slave Pianos, art/text #67, 1999
art/text #67 1999 : REVIEWS
Slave Pianos LOVERS, MELBOURNE MAY 15 — MAY 23, 1999
Slave Pianos is an ongoing collaborative project by two Melbourne-based artists, Michael Stevenson and Danius Kesminas. It has already been exhibited at the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel and Stills Gallery in Edinburgh. Following its presentation at Lovers in Melbourne, it tours to the Auckland Art Gallery, Darren Knight Gallery in Sydney, Lombard/Freid Fine Arts in New York, and China Art Objects in Los Angeles.
The centerpiece of this exhibition is a player piano: a traditional piano fitted with a mechanical arm which rests across the keys and performs programmed music on demand. The play list consists of avant-garde or experimental “sound art” by artists ranging from Jean Tinguely and Louise Bourgeois to contemporary Australians and New Zealanders such as David Thomas and Ronnie van Hout. Most of the sound tracks were originally produced by visual artists and consequently generated in the context of gallery performances or by kinetic art works. With the assistance of Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape (musicologists from La Trobe University in Melbourne), Stevenson and Kesminas have uploaded original recordings of these transientart happenings to the computer and transcribed them as conventional piano scores. In effect, performances that were intended as one-off events have been rarefied and digitally re-recorded so that they can be played over and over again. Accompanying their electronic player piano is a range of merchandise which includes copies of the CD, a set of beautifully rendered sheet music, and an archival cabinet filled with collectable EPs, posters, production notes and photographs. This fan-boy paraphernalia helps to frame the self-playing piano as a ghostly incantation of unique historical happenings.
In his solo career, Kesminas has a reputation for mocking the seriousness of the art world with irreverent antics. For example, he often sets out to annoy his contemporaries by appropriating their work in ways that erode artistic aura. Given Kesminas’s modus operandi, it is tempting to view Slave Pianos as a puerile, Simpsons-style parody of avant-garde pretense. And this is reinforced by a LED text box installed above the piano which flashes snide remarks about art world “operators.” Stevenson is also concerned with making art about art, yet his practice is inflected with self-doubt and apprehension. In the past, for instance, he has reproduced quintessential images of twentieth-century art in pencil, but then withdrawn from the intimacy of these painstaking homages by presenting them as cynical investigations into the machinations of the art world. In contrast to Kesminas, who plays at being an uncouth rascal, Stevenson has styled himself as a paranoid white Protestant who knows too much to let himself enjoy simple pleasures.
From the perspective of Stevenson’s oeuvre then, Slave Pianos deals with the complicated sentiment of longing for an avant-garde purity which has been tarnished by critical knowledge and historical hindsight. But, by collaborating with Kesminas, the former has also been able to emphasize the showy element of his paranoid persona. Conversely, by sidling up to Stevenson, Kesminas has drawn attention to the anxiety that lies beneath the surface of his animosity. Working together, they express intensely tortured love/hate relationships with the art world. At face value, then, Slave Pianos is an intriguing, performative document of “sound art” in the twentieth century. But the particularly interesting aspect of this collaboration is the way that it explores a compromised economy of desire and fear.
SLAVE PIANOS Installation detail, Lovers, Melbourne, 1999.
Charles LaBelle Slave Pianos, Frieze, #53, 2000
Mike Stevenson & Danius Kesminas
China Art Objects, Los Angeles
The key question to Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas’ on-going project, Slave Pianos (2000) is who or what is subservient. Driven by a seemingly selfless desire to ‘broaden the knowledge appreciation and understanding ofworka in sound’, the two Australia-based artists have collected audio worko from artists as diverse as Stephen Prina, Joseph Beuys, Jean Dubuffet and Martin Creed. Transcribing each work into a score for piano, the resultant compositions are then played mechanically with the aid of a sophisticated computer program.
Slave Pianos takes the form of a white grand piano to which the artists have added two giant X-shapes representing the cross-bars used to manipulate marionettes. These hover ominously over the piano, attached to the ceiling with black plastic chain. During the premier of the work in LA, the gallery was filled with thick, white fog a la Liberace. Indeed, there’s a high degree of showmanship involved in the piece, a performative aspect (without the performers) that seems to have paid off. Like Tom Jones or the Rolling Stones, Slave Pianos is a touring animal, having played Germany, New Zealand, America, Scotland, and Sydney, Australia. After its stint in LA, it moves onto Russia.
The success of the project is timely. Finally, after decades of neglect, aural artworks seem to be getting their due. A number of good books on the subject have recently come out, while Sonic Youth - perhaps the most avant of pop bands - released Goodbye 20th Century last October, a double CD which features, among others, renditions of seminal works by John Cage, Georges Brecht, and Yoko Ono.
Given our current cultural fascination with fluidity, leakage, slippages, displacement and nomadism, sound is a model worthy of more thorough investigation. Immediate and invisible, receptive to chance operations and capable of pausing through walls, it naturally exercises strategies of formlessness. The antithesis of architecture, sound is a violent stirring of molecules - entropy made manifest. It can embody both the abject and the spiritual, the concrete and the nebulous, is at once completely of the moment and timeless, site-specific and ubiquitous. As a strategic operation, sound art stems from both utopian aspirations (Cage) and nihilistic impulses (Japanese Noise). Rebellious by its very nature (even at its most quiet), it is a form in which every note and decibel is a gesture of defiance, a small step towards liberation.
However, the inescapable problem with Slave Pianos is that the convoluted process of ‘recomposing, arranging and translating’ the source material ultimately consigns a lot of anarchistic noise to the prison-house of ‘music’ and leaves formerly biting works toothless. In the hands of transcribers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, works radically disparate in both form and intent end up sounding strangely similar. In fact, much of the music sounds like mid–20th century Modern - minimal, ethereal, sometimes beautiful but ultimately, painfully generic. Martin Kersels’ fax machine track (from Objects of the Dealer 1995), a Katharina Fritsch recording of frogs croaking (Unkeu (sic), 1990) and Chris Burden’s attempt to breath water (Velvet Water, 1974), are all boiled down to an awful Erik Satie-like ballet score. Is it any wonder that Australian artists John Nixon and Marco Fusinato have demanded that their work not be included in the ‘Slave Archive’? Given this woeful shortcoming, one starts to view the project as a clever careerist manoeuvre or Dadaesque prank poking fun at a lot of pretentious sound art.
Merlesu-Ponty said that to turn something upside down is to deprive it of its meaning. Unfortunately, Slave Pianos neither succeeds in turning the source material on its head nor furthering our understanding of it. In fact, if anything, the project makes you yearn to hear the original works. Despite Stevenson and Kesminas’ stated intentions Slave Pianos is, at best, a dubious tribute to a lot of important work by a lot of other artists. Viewed as an art work, it is, at the very least, perplexing and irresolute.
Mark von Schlegell Slave Pianos, Flash Art, May-June, 2000
Mike Stevenson & Danius Kesminas
China Art Objects
At China Art Objects, the traveling Slave Pianos, collaborative project of Australian and New Zealand artists Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas, made a suitably LA stopover. Part sound-art, part cultural investigation of the piano, part conceptual rumination on the relation of art historicism to contemporary art, this complicated piece presented a single, self-activating performance.
A white baby-grand piano sat majestically on a bed of white smoke while a black metallic bar fixed over the keyboard hammered out digitally transcribed sound works of post-war international art.
Sound art peaked in the 70s and faded into the image-based technologies of recent art. In Slave Pianos this silenced genie found a path through digitalia back into an art world far changed from the idealistic milieu from which most of the sound works cited sprung. George Brecht’s Fluxus-induced recording of a thumb buzzing through a plastic comb emerged from a mechanical Liberace soaked in irony, commodification and politics.
In its use by artists from Salvador Dali to Joseph Beuys to Sherrie Levine, the art piano has always produced an aura of Enlightenment grandiosity. But in a chiasmic reversal worthy of Frederick Douglass, the Slave Pianos are finally free. Shining white, held by a massive black chain, riding a cloud of stage smoke and hammering out works composed for toilet bowls, plink bands, and plastic combs, the nineteenth century’s pop inventiveness may have finally vanquished its own pretensions to grandeur.
This machine proved full of ghosts. When the android piano poked out the notes of a duet by Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, the artists’ presence was palpable. And without explanation, the gaudy confederate markings of the underside of the piano-top’s black cross opened a dark historical fissure into the work’s ironic celebration of contemporary art.
Mark von Schlegell
Mike Stevenson & Danius Kesminas, Slave Pianos. Installailon view. Photo Kent Williams.
May-June 2000, Flash Art, pp.117–118
Stuart Koop Slave Pianos, art/text, #86, 2001
NORTH MELBOURNE TOWN HALL, MELBOURNE
JUNE 22 - 23, 2001
Slave Pianos has been mixing things up for several years. Its four members - Danius Kesminas, Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Mike Stevenson - have transcribed well-known as well as marginal recordings by twentieth-century artists for all sorts of wide-ranging re-mixes, using anything from a player piano to world-renowned Krasnyi or Flux quartets to Dj Olive and the Burley Griffin Brass Band. And they’ve amassed a substantial archive of recordings and scores, too (a collection forthcoming through Revolver publications in Frankfurt later this year): Brecht’s hair-comb music scored for piano, or Kippenberger’s New York Auschwitz for string quartet.
Their latest “opera”, The Broccoli Maestro, performed at the North Melbourne Town Hall by Chamber Made, is based on the esoteric Australian painter Tony Clark (indeed, the work absurdly realized Clark’s own ambitions at one time to pen an opera on Aquinas). Clark was a linchpin of Melbourne’s art and music scene in the ’80s, blending his interests in classics and Sufistic philosophy with a rank, punk amateurism. His paintings combined classical motifs and Cyrillic script within sfumato landscapes, becoming increasingly abstract in later years, and celebrated in a 1998 survey at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne.
An early, 14-panel Clark “masterwork” provided the formal structure both of the opera’s staging, complete with large copies of Clark’s paintings, and the libretto, which derived from a colloquium held at the time of the artist’s retrospective. The roles of soprano, tenor, or baritone conformed to one or another local artist talking about Clark’s work (“I think he wants to be Eva Hesse”; “He paints beneath himself”; “I loved the show!”) or otherwise quoting from Clark’s extensive writings (“My figure is present with its absence”).
The music was a heady brew of obscure artist forays into music (A Constructed World doing pop songs, or Marco Fusinato playing noise guitar), which was first of all sourced, then transcribed for orchestra and set amongst “classical” bits from such pieces as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde or a Bach chorale. The whole was performed by Melbourne’s leading chamber opera company, and was a surprisingly affecting experience - despite the composition-by-numbers structure. Familiar classical motifs were partially obscured by throbbing guitar feedback (here transposed for strings and percussion), while the occasional artspeak rang out in operatic fortissimo. Many more things were “extruded” through the singers, cellos, violins, bassoon, and trumpet. Indeed, there were grand, fulminating moments where the sheer excess of material seemed like the giddy whorl of culture itself.
A clever, gentle mocking of high-art seriousness on one hand, The Broccoli Maestro revealed the constitution of local visual art culture on the other, since the even instrumentation and voices rendered everything in consistent high camp, suffusing the incidental details of the local milieu with the generic passion of grand opera. Local hero Clark, his work, his influences and his peers were all stark features in this eccentric and unauthorized portrait of 80/90s Melbourne.
The transposition from one context to another, however, released something else, something atmospheric, a texture appealing to other senses; it left behind a kind of ozone or some other thrilling smell, no doubt arising from the rapid turnover of references in the mixed score and libretto. Perhaps the excess in the Slave’s rampant, fever-pitched citation is the burning of that ether in which art and culture usually function more slowly.
SLAVE PIANOS, The Broccoli Maestro, concert performance with Chamber Made, North Melbourne Town Hall,June 2001, projected paintings by Tony Clark.
Alistair Riddell From the lip: myth, word, aesthetic recycling, Real-Time Arts, September, 2001
Alistair Riddell From the lip: myth, word, aesthetic recycling, Real-Time Arts, September, 2001
From the lip: myth, word, aesthetic recycling
This concert proved a fine example of a hidden jewel in Melbourne’s winter cultural world. Buoyed by an enthusiastic and substantial audience eager for that magic which breaks the bonds of musical convention, the second of the from the lip concerts (produced by Chamber Made Opera) tackled issues of authenticity, integrity and originality. In an historical sense it was not experimental but each work contained elements that seemed to reference the idea of the experimental, while being set within essentially conventional contexts.
The concert began with Narcissus and Echo, an opera by Robin Fox and Elizabeth Parsons. Here the myth found a sympathetic interpretation through a range of challenging sounds and performance practices. Rich in detail, the work utilized a bewildering array of sound sources including pre-recorded sound, traditional instruments, turntables, fans with records on them (yes, vinyl!), a tape loop, speakers and singers. The theatricality of the performance effectively suggested ‘too much’ and, of course, ‘obsessiveness.’ The visual feast and complex sound established a compelling momentum of excess with which the audience could readily empathize, perhaps to the detriment of those moments of subtlety.
In stark contrast, Ania Walwicz’s solo reading of her text, Diana (a reference to Princess Diana), was equally spellbinding. As a delirious, self obsessed, verbal barrage, punctuated by changes in tone and subject, Walwicz’s accomplished performance was dearly a part of the experimental performance tradition of the last 30 years. Solo readings by Chris Mann came quickly to mind because of the musical treatment of the text. In many ways, Walwiczs performance was both refreshing and passionate and moreso through the raw and powei-ful experience of witnessing the composer as performer.
Finally, The Broccoli Maestro. This visual and aurally impressive chamber opera in 2 acts, for 6 voices, 6 players and tape by Slave Pianos, unfolded as a challenge to contemporary musical thinking. An aesthetically complex work and perhaps exemplary of how the reputation of Slave Pianos is spreading as their working methodology becomes more widely appreciated and understood. This methodology may be summarized as: the use of re-composition, in this case, composing with other people’s music; the use of other art forms and intellectual subjects including literature, painting, philosophy, religion and politics; explicit reference to other artists (in this case Tony Clark) and a complex performance context which forms a nexus and crucial point of originality. All of this adds up to a sophisticated means of substantiating and legitimating the immediate work.
The effect in performance was as a massed force which advanced on the audience from all directions, forming a convincing experience through the sheer weight of the artistic evidence. The musical component was reminiscent of digital sampling, which is often a crude and frequently short lived experience in comparison to the juxtaposed instrumental material found in this performance. As a collaborative enterprise, The Broccoli Maestro was a formidable example of aesthetic recycling with its many levels of reference and representation. A product of an institution, or society in this case, it was also a fantastic work of synthesis, of the moment and worthy of further discussion.
ChamberMade 2001: from the lip, Concert No.2, The Experimental, North Melbourne Town Hall Melbourne, June 22
RealTime 44 August - September 2001 p.42
Slave Pianos, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, Review
Mitch Spee. “The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea: Part II_.” Frieze, 145, March 2012. [Review essay]
Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver, Canada
’The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea: Part II’, is the second in a three-year trilogy of exhibitions curated by Cate Rimmer, which focuses on the relationship between humans and the sea. In both shows to date, this procedure was broadened through the inclusion of a selection of artefacts borrowed from Vancouver’s Maritime Museum and from private collections. While the proximity of the gallery to the ocean lent the exhibition a certain resonance, its antiquated lighthouses and sailing ships stretched that intimacy out to give a broader historical perspective.
The first work viewers encountered was one in a series of drawings by Los Angeles-based artist Karl Haendel, depicting Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 mission to the South Pole, which ended in 1917 when his ship was crushed between two ice floes. Here, several of these drawings were installed – high, low and upside-down – in the Charles H. Scott Gallery’s deepest and tallest room, which had been painted grey. A familiar strategy of Haendel’s, this style of installation diffused the emphasis put on singular images by implicating them in a broader experience.
Shackleton was also the subject of Nina Katchadourian’s video Endurance (2002), wherein an image of his sinking ship was projected onto the artist’s tooth. For ten minutes the ship descends, as Katchadourian holds a clenched smile. Also on display was Bas Jan Ader’s Bulletin 89/Bas Jan Ader In Search of the Miraculous (1975), an unfolded broadsheet featuring a spread depicting the young artist sailing away from the camera and, on the other side, the score to the 19th-century sea shanty ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’. Originally distributed by Art and Project – an Amsterdam gallery active between 1968 and 1989 – as part of a project for which artists produced information bulletins to be sent through the mail, the work wove the image of the artist beginning his fateful voyage across the Atlantic into the reality of the mobile conceptual document.
Slave Pianos’ The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader (2001) comprised a radio play, a musical score and a collection of documents drawn from an interview with Ader’s widow and the ramblings of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst. This breathed new life into Ader’s historicized romantic conceptualism, and Crowhurst’s lesser-known story. Having died after abandoning his course and reporting false positions while competing in a one-man, round-the-world yacht race in 1969, Crowhurst was fitting company for the Dutch artist’s melancholic spectre. Viewers were invited to listen to the radio play, broadcast from a shortwave signal, the script of which was mounted on the adjacent wall. But, because it was difficult to coordinate one’s position in the convoluted story with the script, and because the play was read in English as well as Dutch, the experience oscillated between cohesion and dislocation.
Inevitably, the inflections that accompanied the anthropological artefacts included in the exhibition – a chunk of driftwood bearing the last words of a doomed sailor, newspaper clippings recalling the details of disastrous journeys – rubbed off on the art works. In positioning film, journalism, anthropology and art-making in relation to one another, Rimmer gave her audience cause to observe the susceptibility of each discipline to the influence of the others. Delivering a constant pattern of illumination and disappearance, the lighthouse featured in the first chapter of the series – in the work of Rodney Graham and Tacita Dean – served as an apt metaphor for the general operation of these exhibitions. Artefacts and art works alike appeared only momentarily as discrete objects before dissolving into a kind of darkness represented by a sea of competing histories, and meanings.
Slave Pianos, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader, Review
Rachel Kent. “Pun to paradox: Bas Jan Ader revisited”. Parkett, 75:177–181, 2006. [Review essay].
Crowhurst and Ader together form the subject of Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson’s chamber opera, The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader (2001). Performed in Germany in October 2001, under the artists’ collaborative rubric, Slave Pianos, the work blends the satirical humor for which both artists are known with a deeply integrated understanding and exploration of musical structure, which, mirroring the lives of its protagonists, “tapers into a diatonic oblivion.” 1 Drawing on extracts from interviews, diaries, and other printed materials, the voices of Crowhurst, Ader, Ader’s widow, and her interviewers are interwoven to create a layered piece about their search for enlightenment, with its inherent frustrations. Ader’s voyage into oblivion
Quoted from program notes produced by the artists to accompany the opera and its performance in Aachen and Düsseldorf, October 2001. The Strange Voyage of Bas Jan Ader formed the second of a twopart chamber opera. The other component, The Broccoli Maestro (after writings by Tony Clark), cast an Australian slant on the notion of “failure.” ↩
Anthony Gardner The Same River Twice, Art & Australia, 2009
The Same River Twice
By Anthony Gardner
‘The Same River Twice’ was a strikingly ambitious project helmed by two curators from Brisbane’s leading public art galleries. The Institute of Modern Art’s Director Robert Leonard, and Angela Goddard, the Queensland Art Gallery’s Curator, Australian Art to 1970, drew together eight international artists and collaborations in a two-part exhibition that spanned five months of Brisbane’s summer and autumn. More significantly still, it focused on one of the core concerns of recent contemporary art practice. This was the notion of the ’re’ as it has affected contemporary culture, from the restagings and re-enactments of historical events in a number of movies and theme parks worldwide (think Merchant Ivory period films or the earnestness of Old Sydney Town), to the so-called ‘historiographic turn’ of artists as they revisit and revise art’s past so as to rethink or even resolve the problems of the present.
These themes have often weighed heavily in other exhibitions, such as the revolutionary drives in Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s 2008 Biennale of Sydney or Marina Abramovic’s development of protocols for reproducing performance artworks in her 2005 series ‘Seven Easy Pieces’. For ‘The Same River Twice’, however, Goddard and Leonard brought a more playful and humorous spin to the topic, mixing renowned and less expected works from this relatively new art genre. This was evident from the project’s first instalment, which combined works by key figures from the emerging canon of ’re-enactment art’ — Irish and English artists Gerard Byrne and Jeremy Deller (working with filmmaker Mike Figgis), Thomas Demand from Germany and Pierre Huyghe from France — together with the high jinks of the Melbourne- and Berlin-based collective Slave Pianos (a group comprising Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson). Their installation, The execution protocol, or pianology: A schema & historo-materialist pro-gnostic, 1998—2008, continued their practice of mechanising grand pianos and transforming them into high-end pianolas playing experimental sound pieces from the historical avant-garde. The repetitive plinkety-plonks emanating from the robotic ‘piano, and the instrument’s presentation within an oversized execution chair a la Claes Oldenburg brought a vicious cutesiness to the surrounding works. Recounted in Byrne’s three-monitor video installation Newsexual lifestyles,2003, the tales of liberated sexuality drawn from a roundtable discussion printed in a 1973 issue of Playboy magazine’ including details of some women’s engagements with their dogs that go far beyond a walk in the park ’ became more silly than scandalous or sordid. Similarly, Goddard and Leonard brought a pathos and futility to the mix-ups between memory and fiction in Huyghe’s The third memory, 1999, and between re-enactment and performance in Deller and Figgis’s The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, that have been difficult to experience in other presentations of these works.
This combination of the amusing and the pathetic was extended in part two of the exhibition. British artist Emma Kay’s Shakespeare from memory, 1998, abridged each of the Bard’s plays according to the details remembered by the artist; some summaries remained completely blank, as though the relevant text had not yet been read, while others were relayed in colloquial English, riddled with blatant errors and the ever-so-slightly misremembered. American Omer Fast’s two-channel video projection Godville, 2005, directly tackled the tourist industry of ‘living history’ museums, presenting a series of interviews with ‘interpreters’ from a theme park in Virginia called Colonial Williamsburg. Fast had fractured and re-edited the interviews so that words taken from different discussions some conducted in historical character, others more personalised and emotional ’ were combined like a videoed ransom note, making the interviewees appear locked in a netherworid between lived and re-enacted histories, projection and experience, and hostage to cultural memory. In a side gallery, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s video FreshAcconci, 1995, showed naked porn stars re-enacting Vito Acconci’s seminal performances from the 1970s, an odd yet fitting conjunction that ultimately teased out the fine line that both porn and performance art tread between the earnest and the ridiculous.
Indeed, it was precisely this path between that ‘The Same River Twice’ identified as the core of contemporary re-enactment cultures. Such remobilisations of the past are never simply nostalgic, just as they are not inherently full of potential. They cannot be boiled down to pathos, to memorials, to a long-dead past or a sense of amusement garnered from the naivety of our forebears. As this two-part exhibition correctly revealed, aesthetics of restaging and re-imagining operate instead between these various positions, perpetually countering the ease of forgetting while ensuring that the rethinking of history can be a continuing font of wry pleasure.
The Same River Twice, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Part 1:6 December 2008 28 February 2009; Part 2:7 March’25 Aprii 2009.
Rachael Watts sound suspension: slave pianos, broadsheet #39.2, 2010
Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review
Juliana Engberg. “Artful Excess: The 17th Biennale of Sydney”. The Monthly, June 2010.
The Slave Pianos collective hangs an antique grand from a gallows scaffold, referencing the penal origins of the Cockatoo Island venue, and the musical history of the Sydney Biennale itself. The piano is regularly hoisted and lowered in a cycle of damnation and redemption. Despite the reference it makes to public hangings, though, Penalogical Pianology is one of the more spritely offerings.
The Monthly, June 2010, No. 57
Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review
Tom Rivard. “Things Of Desire: Art, architecture and the (pre) occupation of space.” Architecture Australia, September-October 2010
And so to Cockatoo Island, major venue for the biennale, and perhaps the premier example in a series of locations around Sydney that alter our perceptions of what public space is and what it can be. Despite well-meant attempts to sanitize the island, it defiantly retains both its tectonic grandeur and the scars of its barbaric history, a perfect location, one would think, for the insinuation of art that is not Art. The current discourse about these emergent spaces ought not to be with the architecture (existing or new) or the spaces themselves; beyond allowing a pastoral appreciation of Sydney’s natural wonders, the problem remains that it is unclear exactly what should take place in these spaces. Sites like this, though, can engender a more productive approach to making art that is both resistant and relevant, focused on the work’s relationship to environment (natural, human-made, social, virtual), a rejection of a second nature that exists only in the work. As the particulars of culture are elided by globalization, strategies for re-engagement of the local become more valuable as the field of art is subsumed by both commerce and critique. Reconsidered relationships between art and the public realm have the potential to provoke, to illuminate these new possibilities.
Cockatoo’s character, though, is the curator’s curse; its visceral reality easily overawes any work of questionable reality – and questioning reality is a leitmotif of contemporary art. Video art, in particular, suffers from incorporeality and placelessness all at once; most of it is hardly there at all.
The same might be said of much displayed on the island, disembodied Art longing for a proper home where it could be, if not appreciated, at least consumed.
There are notable exceptions. Penalogical Pianology – an installation by Slave Pianos in a dirt-floored interstitial space, in which a condemned piano is “hung by the neck until dead” – resonates within the site, while presenting its own evilly witty industrial machinery of movement and death.
Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review
Adrian Gebers. “Slave Pianos”. adriangebers.com, 2010.
It’s a little difficult to know where to start with Slave Pianos, which is why most articles about them start by listing the members; from where you can begin to understand the extent of their work. Slave Pianos is made up of artists Michael Stevenson and Danius Kesminas, composer Neil Kelly, musicologist Rohan Drape and inventor David Nelson.
Slave Pianos deals with the interrogation and integration of art and art history through the medium of the piano. Who the slave is remains uncertain; the piano is played by eighty-eight solenoid fingers fed by a MIDI track, but it could just as easily be the artists, slave to the task of investigating the musical history of art (or at least the history of art through music).
Penalogical Pianism: The Timbers of Justice (2010) is the work created for the Biennale, situated in building 142 on Cockatoo Island. It’s a gallows, built specifically for the odd task of executing a piano. It’s magnificent in its construction, with no detail overlooked; from the arrow styled truss connectors to the studio lighting that so many artworks on the island lack.
The work references Cockatoo Island’s history as a penal colony. Although it did not serve as a hangman’s lair, arriving on Cockatoo Island for many resulted in the same fate.
An important part to understanding the work is the performance that occurred on Sunday the 16th of May The Fatal Score Or The Spectacle Of The Scaffold (The Way Up And The Way Down Are One And The Same). The Piano was captured at slipway one, carried to the gallows and sentenced to death in a quite unfair trial. A fifty-piece band from the navy accompanied the procession as well as a quartet in authentic period costume. After a final piece played by Michael Kieran Harvey the piano was then hanged. However, instead of crashing to the ground the piano’s fall is arrested, where it begins to play itself.
The ‘fatal score’ comes out of Robert Hughes’ 1987 novel Fatal Shore on the founding of Australia; a further example of the ever-expanding layers of meaning in the works of Slave Pianos.
The falling and rising (‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’) is repeated for the duration of the biennale. The counterweight to the piano serves as a platform for a two-channel video and sound installation. The video shows a judge sorting through piles of ‘evidence’ (artworks and transcripts) that are later used to sentence the works for “crimes against humanity.” In conjunction with the sentencing, each work listed is ‘played’ by the piano on the other side of the scaffold, where after a short while, the works are all hanged. Through the work of Drape and Kelly, each work has been transposed from its audio or physical form into a musical composition for the piano to play; some are more literal translations than others.
And here is where most articles on Slave Pianos end, at a point without conclusion, having only begun to skim the surface on the work.
Slave Pianos, Punkasila and Pipeline to Oblivion at MUMA, by Dan Rule
Slave Pianos, Punkasila and Pipeline to Oblivion at MUMA
AK–47 shaped guitars, lo-fi video works and a performance by an Indonesian punk band are just a few pieces of this collaborative show at MUMA with Japanese artist Midori Mitamura and Danius Kesminas.
By Dan Rule, 13th May 2011
Running alongside Midori Mitamura’s stunning series of shifting domestic installations and breakfast gatherings and a succinct exhibition of works from the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) collection, Danius Kesminas’s suite of projects might appear a tad convoluted at first glance.
A vodka still and automated PVC pipe organ that plays the traditional Lithuanian drinking song Gerkit Gerkit, Broliukai (Drink Brothers, Drink); an installation of revolutionary murals; AK–47 shaped guitars; lo-fi video works and the odd performance by an Indonesian concept punk band; and a self-playing grand piano perched on a giant electric chair and controlled via an audience-operated computer console: the uninitiated could hardly be blamed for evacuating the building in a bewildered terror. But there’s a disarming coherence to these incredibly intricate, painstakingly conceptualised and engineered works – a kind of collaborative bind.
Indeed, it’s a sensibility that emanates from Kesminas’s Pipeline to Oblivion project with every blocky note puffed from the PVC pipe organ. It takes its cues from a myriad of narratives surrounding Lithuania’s independence from the former USSR, Eastern Europe’s alcoholism epidemic and an illegal series of underground pipelines pumping black market vodka or “moonshine” across the border to Lithuania from neighbouring Belarus.
Kesminas’s organ effectively snuffs the process. By utilising the vodka distillation process to power the organ’s Lithuanian drinking hymn, he subverts the drink’s devilish effects. The binding power of song – the same social glue that helped facilitate Lithuania’s “singing revolution” and eventuated in the country’s successful pro-democracy movement – is re-enabled and re-activated.
In the adjoining space, a very different kind of collaborative musical creation hammers out its distortion-prone, luridly coloured attack. Punkasila (which translates to “punk principles”) are a Yogyakarta “post-disaster” punk band who play hand-carved AK–47- and M16-shaped guitars. Formed by Kesminas whilst undertaking a residency in the city during 2006, the band represents a mash-up of traditional and post-Suharto Indonesian ideologies, politics and iconography. The space is garnered with giant, revolutionary murals and posters depicting the band in a kind of heroic stance. Their guitar weaponry perch on mechanised tripods, swinging about the room, ready to unleash a wave of distortion on anything that moves. Video works and an interactive music box take the place of fold back monitors; waves of sonic and visual noise pre-empt a diverse, playful, empowered new Indonesia.
In the third space, the latest incarnation of Keminas’s longstanding Slave Pianos project – which sees avant-garde sound works by visual artists reconfigured into the classical form – consists of an automated grand piano positioned atop a gigantic electric chair. Audience members can then control the piano by selecting a composition via an adjoining computer consol. On selecting an artist to be “executed”, a mechanical plotter with video screen moves across a wall-mounted world map, landing on a point of geo-political relevance to the artist. It’s a kind of arcane, hilarious and slightly sinister surveillance process. Artists are selected, tracked and musically executed.
That said, what’s most striking about Kesminas’s selected projects is their very collectivity. Indeed, ultimately, these works seem to preface the power and potential of community. Though inherently complex – even convoluted – in their sprawling forms, justifications and artistic and political logic, these are works that have been built from the ground up.
Be it an Indonesian punk militia or a swathe of artists willing to be executed, the catalyst for each of these projects is a convergence – or at least a consideration – of many heads, hearts and hands.
Slave Pianos | Punkasila | Pipeline to Oblivion runs until July 23 at Monash University Museum of Art.
Punk rocking the old order, by Robert Nelson
Punk rocking the old order
Reviewed by Robert Nelson
June 1, 2011
Indonesian art band Punkasila attacks the pomposity of acronyms at MUMA.
Slave Pianos, Punkasila, Pipeline to oblivion,
MUMA, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, 900 Dandenong Road, Caulfield,
Until July 23
PREPARED for its final chord, a piano has been secured to an electric chair. As visitor to the Monash University Museum of Art, you become a witness to its execution and can participate in its death throes. The chair is huge and of asymmetrical shape to accommodate the grand musical instrument.
How the piano came to merit a death penalty is a long story. The macabre work by Danius Kesminas and an art collective called Slave Pianos sums up the avant-garde history of stressful relations with the keyboard. Advertisement: Story continues below
Representing melodic music as if it were universal, the piano stands accused of cultural arrogance. On a keyboard, all the chromatic tones for metrical music are laid out with the air of regular and invariable rules, like destiny. With this system, you can substitute for a whole chamber ensemble and still express individual subjectivity as a performer.
As for the piano condemned at MUMA, it doesn’t even need hands to make music, much less subjective interpretation. Along the keyboard there is a register of pistons that press the keys by electronic signals, like a digital pianola. A range of sources can be selected, which will cause the piano to play and testify, in its final moments, to the case against it.
The idea that musical instruments belong to a theatre of destruction is further investigated in the next room. Here Kesminas teams up with an Indonesian art band Punkasila, which he helped to form. In their dress and gestures, the members adopt the language of guerillas, taking music to an extreme of violent hyperbole by crafting their guitars as guns.
The war they wage is political in a funny, deconstructive way. At stake is the status of certain acronyms, which proliferate in Indonesian as much as promises or loan words from other languages. In Bahasa Indonesia, and even our own language, an acronym - no matter how recent - already sounds like an official institution.
Any pretentious idea can be given an acronym and automatic authority is conferred upon it, as if long established, like NATO, which suggests a body originating with the very birth of Western civilisation.
Acronyms give plans, hopes and ideologies a rhetorical mechanism for appearing sturdy and determined, when they may be nothing but a hollow shell for vanity and folly. So Punkasila wages the Acronym Wars.
Kesminas produces a final anarchistic critique of false order in /Pipeline to oblivion/, also with collaborators. A beautiful organ operates by an old-fashioned mechanism - a large drum has intervals recorded on separate tracks and, as it rotates, armatures are shifted to release pressured air to pipes of different lengths, yielding a melody.
This vigorous work sits alongside a more inward installation by Midori Mitamura that also involves sound and chaos.
The artist has collected objects and conversations and assembled the disparate objects to form a narrative. In a sweet gesture, she links the themes by a fragile piece of yarn and also makes breakfast for guests in the gallery.
The installation sums up the thoughtful sense of self-possession that keeps us from vodka.
Critical Mass: Cultural Conduits, Translations and Provocations, by Shelley McSpedden
Critical Mass: Cultural Conduits, Translations and Provocations in the Work of Danius Kesminas and Collaborators
by Shelley McSpedden
Danius Kesminas is an artist who likes to tinker with arcane technologies and semiotic orders. His provocative experimentations with these systems function as a kind of critical mass, sparking creative chain reactions amidst an expanding network of collaborators that course out in seemingly inexhaustible manifestations, mutations and iterations. Slave Pianos, Punkasila, Pipeline to Oblivion: 3 Projects by Danius Kesminas and Collaborators (5 May – 23 July 2011), curated by Monash University Museum of Art’s Director, Max Delany, provides a raucous rendition of three of his major projects to-date.
Pipeline to Oblivion 2011 serves up an explosive blend of folk art, music, dissident production processes and a DYI mentality, all doused in a good soaking of moonshine liquor. In a distillation of a deliciously preposterous instance of backyard ingenuity in which a three kilometre pipeline for smuggling black market vodka in from neighbouring Belarus was discovered by Lithuanian authorities in 2004, Kesminas presents a pipe organ fashioned from PVC water pipes and other repurposed household equipment which also doubles as a fully functioning vodka still. Resembling the Lithuanian folk instrument, the skudučiai, this automated device pumps out the traditional drinking song Gerkit Gerkit, Broliukai (Drink Brothers, Drink) at regular intervals. The high spiritedness of proceedings is hampered somewhat by a cluster of paintings adorning the gallery walls which appropriate 1930s Lithuania posters promoting abstinence. Nearby, a bust of the Bishop Motiejus Valančius – a teetotaller who led the popular temperance movement in Lithuania in the mid 19th century – watches sombrely over proceedings.
As Boris Kremer evocatively attests, “If vodka is culture, and no doubt it is, then Kesminas’ still is the neo-rustic version of the alchemists’ melting pot and the art it spurts out is the panacea against museum fatigue.”1 Kesminas utilises the “social lubricants” of music, drink and subversive humour to grease the wheels of ethnographic encounters and the projects that they engender.2 Mining the crude cultural caricature of the vodka swilling Eastern European, this work reveals some sobering insights into the way the vodka trade flows through the history of Lithuania and its relations with neighbouring Slavic countries.3 The underground pipeline also functions as a potent emblem of economic and political concerns of contemporary Lithuania, as the recent increased demand for black market spirits is just one up-shot of massive inflation linked to the nation’s entry into the European Union in 2004. 4
Each of Kesminas’ projects is anchored by his role as agent provocateur. In a documentary video in Pipeline to Oblivion for example, he and a small film crew scour the streets of Eišiškės, a remote Lithuanian village, approaching locals to help orientate them in relation to a map of the underground network they have. At one point Kesminas even presents this map to Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s first head of state and later its representative to the European Parliament, asking him what he knows about the fabled network.5 This seemingly earnest attempt to locate and verify the existence of the system is, in fact, based on a ruse as the map is a highly speculative fabrication created by the artist. Here Kesminas’ irreverent cultural incitements come across as an affectionate in-joke in large part because of his own Lithuanian heritage, a lineage made evident to the viewer by his effortless grasp of the language (an old world version inherited from his grandparents) and numerous references to local diasporic manifestations of the culture, such as the inclusion in the installation of a painting borrowed from Melbourne’s iconic Lithuanian Club.
In Punkasila however, Kesminas takes on the role of the cultural interloper. This “high octane” punk band was formed as a kind of contingent structural improvisation – a tactic to penetrate a culture and country he had no real knowledge of whilst on residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2006.6 In a parodic nod to Malcolm McLaren he set about handpicking a ‘Super Group’ scouted from the vibrant local music scene.7 Their status as an art collective/punk band has seen them play across diverse forums – from official art events such as the Tenth Biennale of Havana in Cuba in 2009 to local music mainstays such as Melbourne’s Ding Dong Lounge.
Punkasila’s moniker riffs off Pancasila– a five prong ideology devised in the Sukarno era (1945–65) as the new order of Indonesian nationhood. The band makes further playful gestures to the state apparatus in Post-reformasi Indonesia through their irreverent embrace of military motifs. In the installation at MUMA we find alongside the obligatory paraphernalia accompanying any self respecting rock group – t-shirts, video clips, promotional posters, comics and even business cards – a sprawling bricolage of objects ripped from Indonesia’s cottage industries – custom-made mahogany guitars carved to resemble M–16s and AK–47s, camouflage fatigues fabricated from batik, hand painted bollywood style banners, and most strikingly a Garuda (Indonesia’s national emblem) plastered with band’s insignia and gripping their iconic gun guitar. These objects attest to a hyper-collaborative effort involving countless Indonesian crafts people and artisans.
Kesminas’ role amidst all this energetic Indo-centric production is slightly perplexing, what is this middle aged Australian man doing thrashing about with all these young Indonesian punks? He is brazen about this cultural disconnect and promotes the fact that he does not speak the language of his fellow band members and has only a rudimentary knowledge of their country’s political history gleaned from a copy of Damien Kingsbury’s The Politics of Indonesia.8 Rather than being “paralysed by taboos”, Punkasila instead embraces the generative potential of this culture clash.9 Kesminas claims there is a certain artistic license afforded to him as the “White Buffoon”, ignorant to Indonesian customs and cultural sensitivities, which allows Punkasila to sidestep political and cultural embargos, such as in their appropriation of the Garuda Pancasila.10
The productive miscommunications, linguistic slippages and chance formulations which occur in the personal intercultural space occupied by the band translates into their broader strategy of “semiotic guerrilla warfare” – with their song titles and lyrics consisting solely of Indonesian acronyms of government, military and religious organisations. These official insignias are recast as rousing new idioms; KORPRI (Civil Servants Corp of the Republic of Indonesia) becomes Korak Pringisan (Smiling Criminals); while RPKAD (Army Para-commando Regiment) is reinterpreted as Rampung Kenthu Anake Duwekmu (Let’s Have Sex! But the child will be yours). In the proud punk tradition, these seemingly juvenile semiotic shifts perform a poignant emptying out of state, religious and moral imperatives. As anthropologist Dick Hebdige suggests we should not underestimate the signifying power of the spectacular subculture, “as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation”11.
An assault on the symbolic order is launched on an entirely different front in the remaining section of the exhibition by Slave Pianos – a collective of artists and musicians Rohan Drape, Neil Kelly, Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson. Slave Pianos’ central mission is the recuperation of a range of avant-garde works using the protocol of the classical cannon. Archiving and transcribing these works into musical scores, the conversion exchanges the currency of radical singularity for repeatable legibility. This should not be seen as a complete taming of the original materials however for it also offers them the possibility of new and unimagined articulations. This long running project has seen Slave Pianos collaborate with a varied ensemble of musicians, artists, actors and writers in constructing and presenting these scores in a cacophony of operas, concerts and performances across the globe.
In a schlocky rendition of Cold War aesthetics, Slave Pianos presents The Execution Protocol III: Mutually Assured Production (The MAP room) 2007–11 at MUMA, an installation which situates the viewer inside a ‘war room’ containing an oversized computer terminal tracking data on an adjacent wall-map of the globe and connected to large scale electric chair in which a 19th century piano attached to a computer controlled solenoid device sits waiting passively. Viewers are invited to sentence an avant-garde artist to death by selecting them from a list of names on the console – at which point biographical data about the artist appears on the monitor and their movements plotted on the map. In a particularly perverse form of persecution these experimental trailblazers are then sent to their death as the mechanised piano ‘executes’ their work in automated tones.
Whilst an irreverent play on the artistic aura of the avant-garde, the work also functions as a form of homage – an animated archive of a diverse range of conceptual practices. Not only concerned with the artistic itinerary of individuals, the work can be seen to track the topography of complex networks of avant-garde production across the globe. As Max Delany observes, “Cartographic mapping – extending the tradition of Fluxus’ genealogical diagrams and the psycho-geographic cartography of the Situationists – is a feature of Slave Pianos’ methodology”12. In positioning local artists such as John Nixon and Ronnie van Hout alongside international luminaries such as Martin Creed, Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, Slave Pianos provokes their audience to envisage artistic links, nods and reverberations across time and space. Thus, in each of the projects exhibited Kesminas and his collaborators can be seen to chart the subterranean cultural flows which refuse to be contained by national borders or official channels.
ReturningThe Gift: Slave Pianos and Conceptualising Music, by Philip Brophy
Returning The Gift: Slave Pianos and Conceptualising Music
Slave Pianos’ performance of The Gift – Redaction And Decontamination (2011) at the Monash University Museum of Art closed a partial survey of some of Danius Kesminas’ varied collaborative projects. The Gift specifically ‘performancised’ three rooms containing Kesminas projects – meaning, Slave Pianos elaborated the themes and references from each of these installed spaces into performed works.
Let me briefly sketch these complex spaces. The Slave Pianos room contained a Cold War-era fabrication of a global bunker for disseminating obtuse musical texts composed by contemporary artists. These were ‘audio-visualised’ via a huge wall-map across which an automated map-plotter bore a small TV screen which named a piece’s title, date and composer when it reached that composer’s country of residence, at which point a MIDI-controlled grand piano (affixed to a fashioned electrical chair) ‘performed’ the quoted piece. The Punkasila room contained numerous artefacts from Kesminas’ collaboration with the Indonesian agit-punk group Punkasila, displaying the bands ‘meta-batik’ costumes, hand-painted banners, and rifle-prop guitar constructions. And the Pipeline To Oblivion room projected Kesminas’ documentary interview with a Lithuanian farmer who illegally distilled vodka, while in the centre of the room a working still was hooked up to a pump organ to play a Lithuanian folk melody.
While the installations featured the objects and texts described above, the Slave Pianos’ staging of those objects and texts rendered all references musical. The rooms generated the score for the performance, and in turn illuminated their musical genesis. All of Kesminas’ art is wilfully and sardonically tainted by music and musicology, and while many of his performance projects have occurred in a variety of music venues and contexts, his Slave Pianos project often occurs within gallery and museum contexts. The Gift was an astounding declaration of the trajectory Slave Pianos has refined over decades.
Now if this were 1961, we could continue tra-la-la-ling down a Fluxus garden path. I could programmatically champion how the gallery allows space for contra-musical pro-conceptual investigations of music – a sort of music heavy on conceptualizing the performative and light on exploring the sonic. For those early Fluxus manoeuvres were warranted retorts to the academicism of notational avant-garde music – especially the revolutionary atonal/post-tonal modes which had struggled to define a post-war canon for the concert hall. Inspired by John Cage’s late 50s philosophising on musical eventfulness and procedures for activating a consciousness in musical practice, Fluxus were trans-medial in the true dada tradition, despecifying art forms and in the process welcoming actionist tactics and conceptual strategies.
Unfortunately, if one reads supposedly critical (let alone theoretical) writing on contemporary music sixty years later in 2011, it seems we are still living in 1961. Many things currently appear to be at stake – the drive to explore, the will to comment, the need to subvert, the power to startle, the mandate to re-orient – but a theatre of ideological gestures qualifies these views. Rarely has experimental/exploratory music/sound/art (pick your own T-shirt: one size fits all) evidenced conceptual rigour which opens up a critical and discursive space for discussing music. In place, experimental music enacts experimentalism as a series of codified tropes, almost as if the 60s is fetishised as some golden period where, well, experiments were undertaken. Sure – modulating nodes like punk, Max-DSP, globalism, the internet, etc. have changed a few things in the now, but as a survey of the names of the myriad new-sound/music festivals around the world attest, their claims to radicalism reside in their branded logos more than generative outcomes.
Yet Slave Pianos’ staging of The Gift achieved so much of what Fluxus only ever flaunted in its insular pseudo-utopian conceptualization of a revolutionary/liberating/empowering art. Far from making effete claims to being music of an exploratory post-Cageian form, The Gift instead uses music as a platform to articulate and vent a dense conceptualism of music as a textual force. Hilariously quoting risible bourgeois waffle about ‘the art world’ from a Joanna Murray-Smith play, an autobiography by Nikola Tesla, ruminations on Nietzsche’s pessimistic attraction to pianos, and Soviet journalist Vitali Vitaliev’s earthy embrace of vodka, The Gift plotted an obtuse series of incidents where music and creativity are treated as produce of ‘the gifted’. Kesminas seems bent on debunking creativity as a privileged act, and his conceptual interrogation of the muse in music – via his quoted texts performed by actor Richard Piper – ably queries musical production and its musicological reception.
There is boldness in this move. In the arts, few things are so upsetting to more people than shifting (more like dragging screaming) music into the conceptual domain. That most turgidly theoretical and nullifying abstract of places, wherein the sonic, the experiential, the exploratory should not venture. The fundamentalist tenets of music believe it to be somehow capable of mystically escaping discourse. I sense this in just about any writing on sound and music: the feeling that the words distrust themselves, that they are dreadful linguistic apologies for the supreme essentialism of ‘music itself’. Such a view verges on the theological: as if to speak about sound/music with any conceptual bent incurs wrath. This implies that music is mired by an awful iconic orthodoxy which prohibits discourse due to sound and music’s inalienable unutterability.
Cage – in a supreme stroke of authorial scripture which is rarely critically attributed to his oeuvre – actively halts discussion post-performance. It is as if the event – the thing which most excited Fluxus – allows conceptual birthing but forbids conceptual growth. Discussion about the Cageian legacy tends toward discussing the concepts behind the sounds of works like the Variations series (its instructions, their interpretation, the works’ eventfulness, etc.), rather than discussing the sounds conceptually. This has partially shaped the ongoing impasse of incisive writing on new/experimental sound/music: its critical writing enforces either humanist performance mechanics (paraphrasing traditional jazz ideologies) or reverts to authorial acquiesence. It’s a situation I find entirely conservative.
The thing is, Cage – via Duchamp – gave me license to accept that all material and plastic arts (i.e. everything but literature) are powerful enough to carry any conceptual weight thrust on them. Music especially seems that way to me. Far from shirking from the fear that one might ‘kill’ sound/music by being too analytical about its materiality – let alone its cultural semiotics – I’ve always figured sound/music to be an immersive world which activates critically reflexive thought while it incites psychologically responsive feeling. To write about music – to acknowledge its textual potentiality – is inevitable, exciting and productive. To continue invoking historically proscribed pseudo-radical truisms about music’s linkage to avant-garde, experimental and exploratory strategies seems quite the opposite.
Experiencing The Gift as an actual outcome of Fluxus practice, I was forcefully reminded that ye olde white cube still has power. This particular Slave Pianos event maximised the ‘void-space’ of art to consider music in a way that is unthinkable in the current social contexts for experimental/exploratory music-making. And while maybe a recording of The Gift would be played as few times in my collection as my Cage recordings, the eventfulness of the staging sharpened the conceptual precision of the project. More Godardian than Cageian, The Gift returned the conceptual to music. Think of it as a welcome home gift.
Un Magazine | Slave Pianos Review by Dylan Rainforth
Un Magazine | Slave Pianos Review | Dylan Rainforth
Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
5 May – 23 July 2011
Curated by Max Delany
Review by Dylan Rainforth
Slave Pianos was formed in 1988 by Kesminas, Rohan Drape, Michael Stevenson and Neil Kelly, and also includes Dave Nelson. The group’s core business is the subjection of a geographically and historically diverse range of visual artists’ music projects to a process of translation and transcription; for example, an early ‘anti-music’ piece by John Nixon may be transcribed for pianola (the player — or slave — piano is the group’s exemplary instrument but they have also worked with a range of approaches, from chamber orchestras to turntablists). It is a forced fit, where dissonance, experimentation and non-standard instrumentation are neutered in order to, in Kesminas’s own words, return the avant-garde to the conservatorium.
At MUMA, The execution protocol: Mutually assured production (The MAP room) III 2007–11 presented a parlourgrand piano strapped to an oversized electric chair. The protocols consisted of selections from the Slave Pianos repertoire executed by a piston-machine (converting the baby grand to a pianola) that pummeled the ivories in response to audience selections on a retro-looking console whose Get Smart-Cold War aesthetics were borne out by a gloriously over-the-top final-day performance starring actor Richard Piper as an artistically minded Eastern European army general suffering from a Dr Strangelove-like monomania. The performance saw the piano sentenced to death and the execution presided over by an honorary member of the Punkasila junta; a wake was held in the Lithuanian-inspired vodka room.
In what I am confident amounts to one of the most significant exhibitions in Australia of 2011, Kesminas and collaborators have successfully mapped ‘execution protocols’ for folk-based lines (in the musical sense) with macabre motifs of death, anarchy and ruinous alcoholism. This is not done for shock value, or in a celebration of cynicism or pessimism, but as a process of knowledge production based in experimentation, research, performance and a testing of the limits of what might be thought of as a social epistemology based in various vulgar or popular forms, of which art, music and clear spirits just happen to be some of the most easily soluble.
Sebastian Smee Slave to the Music, Sydney Morning Herald, 1999
SLAVE TO THE MUSIC
Last Friday, I attended the opening night of an exhibition at Darren Knight Gallery which confounded almost every expectation one has of art exibitions’ — and, for that matter, of openings. To begin with, it was more about music than art. But, unlike most of the audience at Vanessa Beecroft’s VB4O (an event which was about group psychology and the inherent strangeness of attending to real, eroticised bodies over long stretches of time as much as about “fine art”), few people seemed to mind. The Darren Knight exhibition, called Slave Pianos, is a carefully curated, wholly fascinating show about artists’ experiments with music. It’s a little known fact that some of the best known modern and contemporary artists both here and overseas - including Kurt Schwitters, Bill Viola, Joseph Beuys and Louise Bourgeois - had or have a serious interest in composing music. To bring home the point, curators Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson have set up a computer-controlled, mechanical “slave piano” in the main gallery at Darren Knight, which plays musical scores by these and other artist-composers. The presence of this demented, playerless grand piano, producing some of the stranger sounds I have heard coming from a keyboard, is eerie, to say the least. With the help of colleagues, Kesminas and Stevenson have arranged, and transcribed for piano, music from their own archive of artists’ music. In the second gallery, the sheet music is arranged on the wall, along with some of the artwork that originally accompanied the music. Indeed, it is the presentation that makes this exhibition so extraordinary. Stevenson himself is one of the more way-out, kooky artists on the scene, but this exhibition reveals him at his most fastidious. If art really is one of the freest of arenas, why is it that artists who position themselves at the furthest extremes of art practice are so often dry, control-fixated and obsessional? John Nixon, whose music is represented here, is a fine example. Is it the slowly dying legacy of conceptualism, or just one more art-world irony? Here, anyway, the curators fastidiousness helps create a show that’s a once informative and experiential. The opening night also featured peformances of artists’ music by the Elektra String Quartet (Bill Viola and Kurt Schwitters were stand-outs) and a band performance down the road, which I missed, at the Iron Duke pub. Until August 28. Phone 9699353.
Sebastian Smee Slave to the Music, Sydney Morning Herald, 1999
Adrian Dannatt. Duchamp and Beuys, Not Debussy and Beethoven. The Art Newspaper, 99, January 2000
Duchamp and Beuys, not Debussy and Beethoven
Last month, a series of avant-garde Australian events was staged under the resonant title, “Slave Pianos ¡¡Emancipate the dissonance!!” This three day mini-festival of mayhem at Lombard-Freid’s former SoHo space featured visual artists’ music and sound-art whacked out on the frightening “Slave piano”, a computer-controlled mechanical piano player created by the young Australian multi-media mavericks Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas which they use to explore the history and practices of visual artists working with sound. The repertoire ran front Mike Kelley to Tinguely, Beuys to Duchamp, with notably scary contributions from Yoko Ono and Chris Burden. Apparently, the artists originally created this piano as a critique of public perception of Australia as a hotbed of pianism due to films such as “The piano” and “Shine.”
Adrian Dannatt. Duchamp and Beuys, Not Debussy and Beethoven. The Art Newspaper, 99, January 2000
Peter Frank Piano Slaves, LA Weekly, March 17–23, 2000
“Slave Pianos,” another labor of collaborative love with a (baby) grand piano at its heart, involves performances, transcriptions, and translations of other artists’ work - in this case actual music. New Zealander Mike Stevenson and Australian Danius Kesminas have compiled a raft of compositions for piano (or for some sort of soundproducing device, then re-notated for piano) by erstwhile visual artists. These Stevenson and Kesminas present not on recording, but in a digital file that drives a Playola (the cybernetic version of the old player piano). So the sound is live, even if the performances aren’t. Cooler still is the roster of, er, composers: Jean Dubuffet, Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Mike Kelley, David Wojnarowicz, Paul McCarthy, Bill Viola, Dieter Roth, George Brecht, Stephen Prina, Tony Oursler, Louise Lawler, Katharina Fritsch, Martin Kersels, Thomas Lawson, Martin Kippenberger and others, including our old pal Duchamp. With the piano front and center in the tiny storefront, its lid propped open with a peculiar crucifixture edged in red like a Malevichian machine, what you hear is what you see - music of myriad means by people whose work you’d by and large expect to look at, not listen to.
‘Slave Pianos’ at China Art Objects Galleries, 933 Chung King Road; thru March 25. (213) 613–0384.
LA Weekly, March 17–23, 2000
John McDonald Never mind the quality, feel the price, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2001
Never mind the quality, feel the price
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 5–6, 2001
The MCA has a new strategy but the space cadets are still leading the charge. Gallery review by John McDonald.
Times have changed at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Once there were silly exhibitions, attended only by a few confused tourists. Last Sunday there was a silly exhibition packed with youthful members of the general public. What has brought about the change? Is it an injection of new ideas from the “pulchritudinous” Liz-Ann Macgregor (as Giles Auty is wont to describe the MCA director)? Is it the threat of impending demolition still an option if Frank Sartor finds a celebrity architect with megalomaniac tendencies? Is it that the masses have finally seen the light and embraced the religion of contemporary art?
None of the above, I suspect. It is the simple expedient of dropping admission charges that has done so much to attract bigger audiences. This long-overdue initiative, for which the museum can thank telstra.com’s sponsorship, has reduced the feelings of resentment and hostility that used to be a feature of visits to the MCA (and remain a feature of all my dealings with Telstra). The shows may still be lightweight, intellectually garbled or vapidly fashionable but at least one need not feel ripped off. It may even be possible to have a good time. The hordes of young visitors to the exhibition Art > Music: Rock, Pop, Techno seemed to be enjoying themselves - insofar as any teenager can be seen to be enjoying him or herself in this era of conspicuous, inarticulate blankness.
Art > Music is a good idea for an exhibition aimed at a younger audience. The National Gallery of Australia was planning a similar show called Clubland, but the idea has been canned. In light of the good response to the MCA show, perhaps the NGA’s planning gurus might think again because there is an audience for this material, even if it is far from the halls of High Culture.
The show is hung in a way that banishes most aesthetic expectations at first glance: it is an awkward, ramshackle, bursting-at-the-seams sort of mess. This is not necessarily a bad thing because most of the work is individually so slight that the show gains impact through the sheer accumulation of visual data. It would be pointless to nominate particular pieces for detailed analysis, since nothing is engineered to sustain one’s attention for longer than a few seconds.
It is appropriate that the MCA exhibits this work but less acceptable that there is nothing whatsoever in the show or the broadsheet-style catalogue that passes as a critical overview of such an avant-garde flea market. The curator, Sue Cramer, writes as a fan and seems to believe that fandom is an acceptable form of engagement with the latest art and music.
In reference to Kathy Temin’s My Kylie Collection - a teenie bedroom shrine to the pop princess - she tells us that “Temin herself is one of Minogue’s biggest fans” as though this were a mark of integrity. But fans are often like religious fanatics who see their idols as perfect, untouchable models of everything desirable. Those fans who take a more critical perspective on rock, pop or techno are in danger of becoming masters of trivia able to make fine discriminations between works that the rest of the world finds utterly uninteresting. I speak as a one-time master of trivia.
Eager to make up for my own descent into middle-aged ignorance in the ways of rock, pop and techno, I logged on to the MCA Web site in search of a promised “Internet performance” by DJ Spooky. It proved impossible to find. Undeterred, I tried a well-known American music store which provides samples of contemporary music. In one afternoon I listened to bite-sized chunks of Sonic Youth, DJ Spooky, stereolab, Destroy All Monsters, Blur and other acts that happened to be featured in the MCA show. It was a depressing experience, since everything sounded like a throwback to the ’70s and early ’80s apart from Blur, who sounded like the Beatles and provided the only music that bopped along in a vaguely agreeable way. Woo-hoo!
On the menu at the MCA: electronic sludge, aimless pop doodling on a synthesiser, raucous feedback, guitar-based rock that comes across as an awful parody of the Velvet Underground or Iggy and the Stooges. Worst of all: the utter pretentiousness of self-proclaimed avant-gardists working in a no-man’s-land between art and music.
Yet reading Cramer’s descriptions in the catalogue, it seemed she was describing an entirely different show. Christian Marclay’s video Guitar Drag (2000) shows a Fender guitar being dragged behind a pick-up truck, emitting the odd yelp and fart. Cramer finds this “electrifying”. She is likewise entranced by “the sheer beauty and opulence of disco balls” used in an installation by John Armleder. With no apparent irony, she refers to DJ Spooky as “a key figure in developing and promoting the concept of the DJ as an artist, postmodern poet or urban philosopher”.
The disappointing feature of Art > Music is that it reinforces the impression of contemporary art as the cultural plughole of our times. Bad theatre passes as performance art; bad film passes as video art; bad, incompetent music is avant-garde art. Naturally it’s not all bad, but there is a mass of work that merely reinvents the wheel and leaves it somewhat square-shaped. Much of the art reads like a spoof on the formalism of the ’70s given a thin varnish of irony. This is a small saving grace, since the thought that the artists might be serious is too grotesque to imagine.
Look for a little irony in artists such as Julian Dashper or Daniel Pflumm, who make coloured decorations of staggering vacuity. Fear the worst for Marco Fusinato who makes monochrome paintings in response to Thurston Moore’s mistreatment of a guitar. Pipilotti Rist most certainly has her tongue firmly implanted in one cheek.
Art > Music suggests an alarming reliance on recycling, and a dose of cultural amnesia. The words “cover version” appear from time to time in Cramer’s catalogue but she doesn’t make much of the concept. Perhaps it would be dangerous to open the door to such an idea because this exhibition is full of cover versions of vintage avant-garde melting moments.
It may finally be time to reassess Clement Greenberg’s influential essay on “Avant-garde and kitsch” (1939) which became a sacred text for a generation of formalist artists. Greenberg thought there was a “tremendous interval” that separated avant-garde from kitsch. That interval has closed so dramatically that much of today’s avant-garde art is nothing but kitsch. While kitsch is seen as imitating art in forms that are overtly sentimental, popular and accessible, avant-garde kitsch treats art history as a game of charades. Its forms are the shells of previous avant-gardes, emptied of their spiritual or philosophical content. Only the pose of seriousness remains: imagine a DJ with “urban philosopher” written on his business card.
Philosophers who are not DJs have suggested that one of the distinctions between kitsch and art is that art creates a kind of psychic distance between itself and the viewer. One responds to a work on an immediate level, before discerning other layers of meaning. The great works of art seem to be infinitely suggestive, revealing another dimension upon each new viewing. With kitsch, however, what you see is what you get. The experience is immersive, like plunging headlong into a bath of syrup. This is perhaps not so far from those raves or dance parties that generate an atmosphere of all-encompassing repetitive rhythm, in which blissed-out participants jiggle away for hours on the dance floor achieving a state of nirvana a Buddhist could only envy.
One thinks of Luis Bunuel’s film Simon of the Desert, in which the devil finally succeeds in luring the saint down from his platform in the wilderness only to deposit him in a New York disco. The message is that solitude the “school of genius” in Gibbons’s memorable phrase is increasingly hard to find or achieve. A show such as Art > Music is a monument to distraction, an anthology of avant-garde leftovers, rewarmed long after they should have been binned.
One feels that everything in this show was more fun to make than to endure, fascinating for the artist but of little interest for most viewers. It all reads like a massive effort at staving off boredom for another hour or two.
It is worth noting that this exhibition does not include the smartest and most engaging of all recent art and music crossovers: the Slave Pianos project put together by Michael Stevenson, Danius Kesminas, Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape. Immaculately deadpan in approach, the Slave Pianos crew has made musical transcriptions of artists’ music and even the noise generated by artists’ performances and constructions.
These pieces have been recorded on CD and performed internationally by various ensembles, including string quartets and brass bands. The result is that even the most unlovable noise begins to sound like music. This has drawn considerable hostility from artists such as John Nixon and Marco Fusinato, whose work has been included in the Slave Pianos repertoire. Presumably they resent the fact that their experimental doodlings, which may be sampled at the MCA, have been transformed into a persuasive form of avant-garde music.
I suspect the real reason that Slave Pianos has been omitted, and has drawn the ire of the self-conscious avant-garde, is the horrible suspicion that it might all be a piss-take.
Yet the beauty of the project is that it takes this “music” far more seriously than the original artists ever envisaged. The satire comes from the disparity between the banality of the original as opposed to the sophistication of the transcription and performance. Oddly enough, a Slave Pianos satellite “Adawo: Australia’s only Martin Creed tribute band” is included in the show, but with no suggestion that a tribute band devoted to one fashionable contemporary British artist might actually be a send-up.
While the MCA may be more user-friendly nowadays it seems that navigation duties are still in the hands of the space cadets.
ART > MUSIC: Rock, Pop, Techno
Museum of Contemporary Art
Until June 24
John McDonald made Slave Pianos his first purchase during his brief career as head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia.
Jeff Pressing Condiments spice a meal of miniatures, The Age, 2000
Jeff Pressing Condiments spice a meal of miniatures, The Age, 2000
Condiments spice a meal of miniatures
A Long Tale with Many Notes
DeFlocked String Quartet
RMIT Gallery, July 15
Review Jeff Pressing
An ancient artistic maxim declares that form follows function. This maxim came to mind last Saturday evening at the RMIT Gallery, where the DeFlocked String Quartet ran through some 30 sonic miniatures within a space whose walls were decorated with careful documentation of the cultural artifacts that had helped bring about that same music.
All the evening’s scores were displayed under glass, for example, next to collections of European kitsch, public manifestos and a Nam June Paik crucifix-shaped video installation.
The central theme, orchestrated by the cultural organisation Slave Pianos, was the Fluxus movement, a 20th-century anarchistic process of cultural deprogramming and deconstruction that mixed the profound, the profane, the mundane and the downright silly in shifting proportions, reaching notable prominence in a series of 1960s festivals.
Its roots were there for all to see, displayed in the exhibit Fluxus Family Tree by George Brecht: Dada, action painting, futurism, vaudeville, anti-art, the circus, the Happening, Theatre of the Ordinary, Experiments in Art and Technology, the contact microphone (making the inaudible audible), guerilla warfare against musical standards, and so much more.
On the evening, we were served a multi-course dinner of very short Fluxus entrees, with one main course. The pieces were predominantly written by visual artists and most of them fitted the mould of a setting-in-motion of parallel sonic processes, from which some kind of formal shape emerged. No sonata forms here, no development. Rather, short and whimsical testimonies of character.
For example, in several pieces, three members of the quartet engaged in serious counterpoint while the fourth acted as interloper, sawing away obsessively at an unrelated activity. In several others, (for example Hard Rubbish Drive, 1998, by Philip Edwards) the materials for each performer were executed at independent rates and allowed to meander or disintegrate. Glissandi and crisply executed extended techniques there were a-plenty.
A spirit of fun prevailed. In Philip Corner’s Carrot Chew Performance (1964), Hope Csutoros lurched towards musical communication despite several large carrots inserted between her violin strings. George Brecht’s Three Telephone Events (1961), kept interrupting. A centrally displayed fax machine churned out musical notation. In an excerpt from Allan Kaprow’s 7 Kinds of Sympathy (1975), violinist Daniel Stefanski and violist Jenny Thomas swapped instruments and taught each other what to play, as did Helen Mounteford (cello) and Csutoros. A pizzicato arrangement of John Lennon’s cri de coeur, The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969), surprised with its incongruously measured delicacy.
Despite other appealing diversions by Erik Satie (Le Tennis, 1914) and Marcel Duchamp, compositional substance was often thinly stretched, with one exception: the string quartet of George Maciunas and M.C. Ciurlionis. This larger and stylistically diverse work suggested how whimsy could coexist with deeper musical processes and was handled, as throughout the evening, with rock-solid musicianship by DeFlocked.
Finally, the performers exited, leaving food for their cats in bowls. A copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and a toy wooden robot looked on disapprovingly from a display case.
Clive O’Connell Enthusiasm no substitute for gravity, The Age, 25 June 2001
Chris McAuliffe Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?, The Age, 2001
Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?
By Chris McAuliffe
Is ART a laughing matter? The hushed atmosphere of art museums, the sobriety of art historical texts and the intellectual’ intensity of art magazines suggest it is not. It is as if the caption of that legendary Australian cartoon “Stop laughing, this is serious” had become a kind of high cultural commandment.
But art is often the butt of humor. Perplexed or pretentious responses to abstraction have fuelled many a New Yorker-style cartoon; “His spatter is masterful, but his dribble lacks conviction”. And Tony Hancock’s 1961 film, The Rebel, established the bohemian farce as a cinematic genre, later employed by greats such as Scorsese (AfterHours, 1985) and, less successfully, Paul Cox (Lust and Revenge, 1996).
Two very different variants on these themes have recently been staged in Melbourne. David Williamson’s play, Up For Grabs, still showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company, revolves around fierce bidding for a Whiteley painting, orchestrated by a dealer whose tactics include infidelity, bisexuality, hyperbole and deceit.
An opera, The Broccoli Maestro, produced by the Slave Pianos collective and staged as part of Chamber Made’s recent program, From the Lip, hovered between parody and homage in its treatment of Melbourne artist Tony Clark. If the plays have in common their willingness to laugh at art, the different ways in which they construct their humor is telling.
Williamson’s play joins Art, Six Degrees of Separation and sundry others in using the competition and status-seeking of the art market to reflect on both the decline (moral) and inflation (commercial) of value in contemporary culture. Seeing the two as synonymous is perhaps where the weakness of the argument lies; the risk is that art will be seen as the corrupter rather than the corrupted. When the market is the whipping boy, the sins of the middle class — ambition, avarice and amorality — are visited upon art wholesale.
If Williamson’s medium is broad parody, Slave Pianos’ is the construction of an elaborate in-joke.
Consisting of artists Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson, and composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, Slave Pianos appropriate the arcane languages of avant-garde art, and, by inflating the scale and formality of their presentation, hope to see them collapse under their own weight.
The humor, smelling suspiciously of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety, lies in the translation of Clark’s deliberate amateurism into a medium in which the expectation of profound metaphor leaves the audience hanging on every word or gesture.
But The Broccoli Maestro is beyond a joke. So elaborate is Slave Pianos’ involvement with Clark’s oeuvre, so willingly do their performers adopt his position, that what might have begun as parody concludes as homage. Constructing a libretto from published comments by Clark and his colleagues, Slave Pianos paints a picture of an artist acutely conscious of the conceptual and cultural limits of his work.’ Where Williamson focuses on what should not be done with art, Slave Pianos throws the spot on contemporary artists’ sense of what art can no longer do. The negative tone of The Broccoli Maestro lies not in Slave Pianos’ pastiche, but in Clark’s own refusal to be swept away by the transcendence of art. It is the latter that Williamson’ throws to his characters as a lifeline; redemption dawns when it is realised — in a suitably awe-struck epiphany — that there is more to art than its dollar value. There is no such lifeline for The BroccoliMaestro, only an art prepared to engage with the threat of inadequacy.
Williamson’s humor lies in the failure of his characters to live up to the standards of art. Slave Pianos’ success, inadvertently but more productively, emerged as their subject transcended the standards of their humor.
Chris McAuliffe is the director of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.
Chris McAuliffe Art. Isn’t it the kookiest thing?, The Age, 2001
Elvira Surniene Jungtinis Koncertas Melbourne, Mūsų Pastogė #27, 2007
Aligirdas Šimkus Lidijos Šimkutės Poezijos popietė, Mūsų Pastogė #2, 20 Jan. 2010, p.3
Aligirdas Šimkus Lidijos Šimkutės Poezijos popietė, Mūsų Pastogė #2, 20 Jan. 2010, p.3
Susan Shineberg Meet the wonderful weird guys in their orange jumpsuits , The Age, October 20, 2007
Meet the wonderful weird guys in their orange jumpsuits
The Age, October 20, 2007
At the glitzy opening night of Berlin’s Art Forum trade fair, the Slave Pianos are in their element. The zany Australian art/music collective has teamed up for some intriguing performance-theatre mayhem with a group of American and European Fluxus-inspired conceptual artists. One of their number is, bizarrely, the ex-president of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, busily plunking away on a harpsichord and playing speed chess.
The Slaves scamper around in bright-orange boiler suits, getting tangled in ropes, holding placards in Lithuanian and ushering on the backing groups — a string quartet and small choir, whose members cheerfully munch on carrots between their respective performances of music by Monteverdi.
While anything is possible with this Melbourne-based group, the Berlin show seems at first a very different proposition to its collaboration with The Cloud Party homage to Andy Warhol at the National Gallery Of Victoria. Being touted by the Melbourne International Arts Festival as a “once in a life-time happening”, it’s a recreation of Warhol’s novel event in 1966 at a New York gallery, where the artist launched large numbers of silver helium-filled pillows, or “clouds” into the air; choreographer Merce Cunningham (also here for the Melbourne Festival) would incorporate them into his piece Rain Forest two years later. Yet the Slave Pianos are in many ways an ideal complement to Warhol’s clouds and the implied artistic exhilaration and anarchy of the ’60s.
“We wanted to turn up the heat on both those sides of Warhol,” says composer Neil Kelly. “You know, that really playful side — which is the silver clouds — but also that very curious dark side. Actually for us it was less about the image used in Warhol’s Electric Chair paintings and more about the idea of executing these mechanically played works.”
The great pity is there are only 200 available tickets to the Cloud Party performance, with a $250 price tag — that apparently only covers the cost of catering. Festival director Kristy Edmunds acknowledges this with obvious regret (was this decision forced on her?), pointing out that the rest of the festival is rather more inclusive.
“Actually we wanted to have Campbell’s soup and hot dogs,” says Kelly mischievously.
But guests get to take home a genuine Warhol “silver cloud”, and there’s also a rumour that Warhol’s contemporary, Merce Cunningham, and some of his dancers may take part in the Slave Pianos’ performance.
The Slave Pianos — comprising composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, and visual artists Danius Kesminas and Michael Stevenson — come together at irregular intervals to present seriously playful art/music happenings, with an assortment of other groups. These have included the Astra Choir, Chamber Made Opera, and the Krasnyi (Red) Quartet, a Russian string quartet who play exclusively Soviet music; for the latter, the Slaves fashioned special sickle-shaped bows.
Computer-operated pianos also feature prominently in their performances, and this is certainly the case in The Cloud Party installation Electric Chair. A suspended grand piano will play a series of compositions, transcriptions of musical works by visual artists, using 88 solenoid-driven fingers. The pieces will be symbolically and systematically “executed” in the large electric chair underneath, the Slaves’ orange suits providing a clear reference to the uniforms worn at prisons such as Sing Sing and Guantanamo Bay.
“We’ve got about 20 pieces for this performance,” says Kelly, “and they range upwards from about one minute or so. Oh, there’s also a piece by George Brecht, one of the Fluxus artists, that goes for about 20 seconds.”
Kelly and fellow composer Rohan Drape are considerably more reserved than their live-wire colleague, installation artist Danius Kesminas. Melbourne-born Kesminas (also a singer in an Indonesian punk band) is of Lithuanian descent, which helps explain the Slaves’ significant associations with that country. This includes a fondness for the ideas of eccentric Lithuanian conceptual artist George Maciunas, founder of the ‘60s Fluxus (“fluid”) movement — a loose network of artists, composers and designers noted for blending different artistic media and disciplines. While Fluxus concepts are just one source among many of the Slaves’ offbeat artistic inspirations, the affinity is obvious, and the Australians have clearly got a kick out of working with the ’60s veterans in Berlin — and vice versa. One of them, New York artist Larry Miller, gave an entertaining but shrewd assessment of the Melbourne group in a running commentary fuelled by drinks afterwards.
“Well, there’s these wonderful weird guys in orange jumpsuits who somehow seem to have mystically absorbed some Fluxus history from various sources, and they sort of mash it up into their own ideas,” Miller says. “Then with their great, winning personalities they talk us into becoming kind of human, off the shelf ready-mades to be in their mash-up. I sense a kind of irreverent reverence about these guys, you know? I mean, three guys in orange suits,” he finishes, spreading his hands. “How can you say no?”
The Cloud Party, at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Great Hall on Monday at 8.30pm. Book on 1300 136 166. The Age is a sponsor of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Susan Shineberg is a Melbourne writer.
Penny Webb Clouds mostly hot air second time around, The Age, October 24, 2007
Clouds mostly hot air second time around
Penny Webb, Reviewer
The Age, October 24, 2007
Kristy Edmunds’ intricate third festival program draws on the creative legacy of John Cage. Given the genius of Slave Pianos (visual artists Danius Kesminas and Mike Stevenson; composers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape), we might have enjoyed a Cagean moment at the NGV on Monday night. But, like a balloon with a puncture, The Cloud Party wound down almost as soon as it started. Certainly, the lyrical promise of hundreds of large, slowly circulating, floating silver balloons, glimpsed as you approached the Great Hall, was never fulfilled - but chance is a fine thing.
Billed as a happening, The Cloud Party took its name from Andy Warhol’s helium-filled silver “pillows” (Silver Clouds as they were called when exhibited). Festival visitor and long-time Cage collaborator Merce Cunningham liked them so much when he saw them at Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1966 that he incorporated them into the choreography of RainForest. David Tudor’s soundtrack for the work was the highly charged but minimal sounds heard as you entered the space, part of Slave Pianos’ concept for The Execution Protocol. (The name Slave Pianos comes from the Cagean device of a prepared piano.) At the centre of this event was a computer-controlled piano - a slave to a controlling mechanism, for sure - that executed about 25 transcriptions derived from sound works by visual artists as diverse as Rolf Harris and Joseph Beuys working with Nam June Paik; Jean Dubuffet and Tony Clarke.
Silver pillows/Slave Pianos - what odds would an SP bookie give you on the chances of this lovely conjunction of S’s and P’s? Although chance was more valued in early modern art and music than it is today, Cunningham still uses it as part of his working method. Did anything happen by chance on Monday night? Not that I could see.
Slave Pianos attempted an antithesis: a darkly disturbing Warhol motif, that of the electric chair at Sing Sing, was evoked as a contrast to the reflected light and floating movement of the pillows. A huge, chunky timber “chair” supported not only the piano, but a video monitor and two batteries each discharging 15,000 volts of energy intermittently. Unfortunately, this pristine structure lacked visual menace. The video monitor showed the title of the work being transcribed interspersed with the word “silence”, a detail of Warhol’s image that critic Robert Hughes found so chilling.
Poignantly, another chair and another mechanical movement had earlier taken centre stage. Cunningham, confined to a wheelchair, had briefly recounted for plainly adoring listeners his use of the pillows - “We never called them clouds,” he said. (A freestanding screen set designed by Robert Rauschenberg for Minutiae in 1954 and Jasper Johns’ modules for Walkaround Time in 1968 are on show in an upstairs gallery until Sunday.)
Perhaps happenings are always apocryphal. In years to come, I might boast that I was in the Great Hall when silver pillows filled the air and one nudged my leg like a cat at meal times, and that I gazed at the Leonard French ceiling and felt we were all in a giant snow dome with whirling particles reflecting the light. But right now I feel like part of a public that wanted to be participants. “Go, Slaves!”