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!”