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.