Sebastian Smee Slave to the Music, Sydney Morning Herald, 1999


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

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

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


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.

Peter Frank

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
Weekend Edition
May 5–6, 2001
Spectrum, p.12

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’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

Susan Shineberg
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!”