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
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