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


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


Recitals of Artist’s Music and Sound Works



Marco Fusinato
EP in E

Joseph Beuys & Nam June Paik

Ronnie van Hout (in absentia), Jason Greig, Mark White, Dave Imly, James Greig, Paul Sutherland
Bank Roll


Jean Tinguely
ReliefMeta-mechanique Sonore 1, 1955

Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Niagara, Jim Shaw
(as performed by Barney McAll)

John Nixon
Two Greys Becoming 2


Daniel Malone
Soundtrack to The Strike Church

Dieter Roth
Der Akkordeon Fluch, 1981–82
(as performed by Barney McAll)

Peter Tyndall
Slave Guitars 6


Katharina Fritsch
Unken (extrait)

George Brecht
Comb Music (Comb Event), 1959–62

Dom de Clario
Pensive Piano Moods from the Opaque


Jean Dubuffet
Coq a L’oei1 1961

L Budd (with Ivan Zagni)
Soundtrack to Studies for Existence

Tony Clark
The Living Rococo (Untitled)

With the Assistance of the Chartwell Trust

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


By Chris McAuliffe

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

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

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

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

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