Rachael Watts sound suspension: slave pianos, broadsheet #39.2, 2010


Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review

Juliana Engberg. “Artful Excess: The 17th Biennale of Sydney”. The Monthly, June 2010.

The Slave Pianos collective hangs an antique grand from a gallows scaffold, referencing the penal origins of the Cockatoo Island venue, and the musical history of the Sydney Biennale itself. The piano is regularly hoisted and lowered in a cycle of damnation and redemption. Despite the reference it makes to public hangings, though, Penalogical Pianology is one of the more spritely offerings.

The Monthly, June 2010, No. 57

Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review

Tom Rivard. “Things Of Desire: Art, architecture and the (pre) occupation of space.” Architecture Australia, September-October 2010

And so to Cockatoo Island, major venue for the biennale, and perhaps the premier example in a series of locations around Sydney that alter our perceptions of what public space is and what it can be. Despite well-meant attempts to sanitize the island, it defiantly retains both its tectonic grandeur and the scars of its barbaric history, a perfect location, one would think, for the insinuation of art that is not Art. The current discourse about these emergent spaces ought not to be with the architecture (existing or new) or the spaces themselves; beyond allowing a pastoral appreciation of Sydney’s natural wonders, the problem remains that it is unclear exactly what should take place in these spaces. Sites like this, though, can engender a more productive approach to making art that is both resistant and relevant, focused on the work’s relationship to environment (natural, human-made, social, virtual), a rejection of a second nature that exists only in the work. As the particulars of culture are elided by globalization, strategies for re-engagement of the local become more valuable as the field of art is subsumed by both commerce and critique. Reconsidered relationships between art and the public realm have the potential to provoke, to illuminate these new possibilities.

Cockatoo’s character, though, is the curator’s curse; its visceral reality easily overawes any work of questionable reality – and questioning reality is a leitmotif of contemporary art. Video art, in particular, suffers from incorporeality and placelessness all at once; most of it is hardly there at all.

The same might be said of much displayed on the island, disembodied Art longing for a proper home where it could be, if not appreciated, at least consumed.

There are notable exceptions. Penalogical Pianology – an installation by Slave Pianos in a dirt-floored interstitial space, in which a condemned piano is “hung by the neck until dead” – resonates within the site, while presenting its own evilly witty industrial machinery of movement and death.


Slave Pianos, Penalogical Pianology, Review

Adrian Gebers. “Slave Pianos”. adriangebers.com, 2010.

It’s a little difficult to know where to start with Slave Pianos, which is why most articles about them start by listing the members; from where you can begin to understand the extent of their work. Slave Pianos is made up of artists Michael Stevenson and Danius Kesminas, composer Neil Kelly, musicologist Rohan Drape and inventor David Nelson.

Slave Pianos deals with the interrogation and integration of art and art history through the medium of the piano. Who the slave is remains uncertain; the piano is played by eighty-eight solenoid fingers fed by a MIDI track, but it could just as easily be the artists, slave to the task of investigating the musical history of art (or at least the history of art through music).

Penalogical Pianism: The Timbers of Justice (2010) is the work created for the Biennale, situated in building 142 on Cockatoo Island. It’s a gallows, built specifically for the odd task of executing a piano. It’s magnificent in its construction, with no detail overlooked; from the arrow styled truss connectors to the studio lighting that so many artworks on the island lack.

The work references Cockatoo Island’s history as a penal colony. Although it did not serve as a hangman’s lair, arriving on Cockatoo Island for many resulted in the same fate.

An important part to understanding the work is the performance that occurred on Sunday the 16th of May The Fatal Score Or The Spectacle Of The Scaffold (The Way Up And The Way Down Are One And The Same). The Piano was captured at slipway one, carried to the gallows and sentenced to death in a quite unfair trial. A fifty-piece band from the navy accompanied the procession as well as a quartet in authentic period costume. After a final piece played by Michael Kieran Harvey the piano was then hanged. However, instead of crashing to the ground the piano’s fall is arrested, where it begins to play itself.

The ‘fatal score’ comes out of Robert Hughes’ 1987 novel Fatal Shore on the founding of Australia; a further example of the ever-expanding layers of meaning in the works of Slave Pianos.

The falling and rising (‘the way up and the way down are one and the same’) is repeated for the duration of the biennale. The counterweight to the piano serves as a platform for a two-channel video and sound installation. The video shows a judge sorting through piles of ‘evidence’ (artworks and transcripts) that are later used to sentence the works for “crimes against humanity.” In conjunction with the sentencing, each work listed is ‘played’ by the piano on the other side of the scaffold, where after a short while, the works are all hanged. Through the work of Drape and Kelly, each work has been transposed from its audio or physical form into a musical composition for the piano to play; some are more literal translations than others.

And here is where most articles on Slave Pianos end, at a point without conclusion, having only begun to skim the surface on the work.