art>music

rock, pop, techno; sound particle #4; none more blacker; tougher than art
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; The Cell Block, Sydney; 200 Gertrude Street, Melboume; First Floor, Melboume
21 March - 24 June 2001; 23 March 2001; 2 March - 24 March 2001; 14 March - 24 March 2001

The relationship between art and music is one of those subjects that has been a perennial favorite with both curators and artists. The theme is endlessly recyclable, which accounts for its regular appearance on curatorial agendas. Capturing the essence of music within art however, is a bit like trying to bottle smoke-it tends to be elusive.

Art>Music: Rock, Pop, Techno, None More Blacker and (to a lesser degree) Tougher Than Art are recent exhibitions by artists interested in the cultural appeal and attitude surrounding the making and recording of music. The exhibitions operate on a number of levels, including popular mass produced music, independent sounds and the avant-garde limited edition of experimental recording. Like LA artist Susie Parker's installation Searching Kenneth Reaf, 1998, which documented her obsession with Keanu Reeves and his Band Dogstar, Art>Music, None More Blacker and Tougher Than Art present, with varying degrees of success, work created from the perspective of the fan. The increasingly blurred demarcations between star and fan has been a recent subject of exploration within pop music, television and film, from Rap artist Eminem's video 'Stan' {which features the singer as a delusional and ultimately suicidal fan of himseiD through to fan generated constructs like 'Popstars' and the nostalgic, sentimental views of fandom as portrayed in films like Detroit Rock City and Almost Famous.

Gauging from its title, the show Art> Music: Rock, Pop, Techno, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, seems to be making a populist appeal to the sensibility of the ordinary music fan, an attempt to broaden the audience for contemporary art. The work in Ari>Music vacillates from annoyingly superficial to overbearingly pretentious. Somewhere in-between are some solid pieces. Christian Marclay's video 'Guitar Drag', a stand out work, has a formal simplicity coupled with a palpable sense of violence. Watching Marclay attach a rope to the neck of a guitar and then drag it behind his tow truck is a disturbing experience, reinforced by the 'white noise' of the amplified guitar feedback on the video soundtrack. Kathy Temin's My Kylie Collection, a shrine-like tribute to Kylie Minogue, is less resolved . My Kylie Collection has little insight into what it means to be a Kylie Fan or why you would want to become one. lt lacks a sense of intensity or obsession-a quality that you might expect to find in a piece about fandam. The 'pop' component of Art>Music is curiously gendered towards female artists while the avant-garde, experimental and 'critical' soundwork seems to be predominantly male. The term 'popular' therefore seems narrowly defined. Maria Cruz's Yoko Ono song list paintings, a reference to a seminal female crossover artist, is almost the only exception. Cruz's approach is echoed elsewhere in Art>Music with Ronnie van-Haul's reprised work from Hangover (embroidered canvases based on hand written band advertisements) Jon Campbell's painted set lists, and A Constructed Worlds Player Guitar, together representing a veritable school of the DIY rock star variety.

Even though curator Sue Cramer has assembled a formidable array of crossover practitioners, (the Musicbox project in particular represents an interesting archive of material) the viewer comes away with no real sense of the impulse or creative spark that drives artists to produce music. In this respect the techno section of Art>Music was perhaps the most successful with artists like Gerwald Rockenshaub, Daniel Pflumn and Carsten Nicolai being good examples of how a visual arts practice can be combined with work in sound. The Art>Music live event at The Studio was a further extension of these concepts. The performances (that included grungy noise merchants Marco Fustinato, Lee Ranaldo and Christian Marclay) took place in a small amphitheater. The intimate atmosphere, with the audience gathered expectantly around the small centre stage, was reminiscent of a countdown crowd, waiting on cue to start cheering for their favorite band. Carsten Nicolai, with his trademark apple Macintosh laptops and videoscapes, later performed alongside Dion Workman and Michael Graeve at Sound Particle #4. This event (presented by Artspace) at the Cell Block gave another overview of local practitioners' work with Dion Workman creating high-pitched electronica {that drilled holes in my eardrums) and Michael Graeve who produced a powerful set of sounds by running amplified record stylus's across the bare rubber of turntable mats.

Most of the experimental or techno work in Art> Music generally seemed weighted towards musical influences that were largely Eurocentric, straight, middle class, and white (with the exception of DJ Spooky possibly because he samples musicians like Sieve Reich, a white Anglo Saxon, avant-garde composer). Sonic Youth, a noise band with artistic pretensions, were accordingly elevated to pole position in the exhibition reflecting their seminal status as alternative rock icons. The Sonic Youth room presented rare recordings, fanzines, sketches, scrawled notes and other ephemera generated throughout Sonic Youth's long career; a grunge museological display celebrating the obsessive nature of the fan.

Concepts of fandom underlie other recent shows about music such as None More Slacker and Tougher Than Art. Lara Travis, the curator of None More Slacker seems to be positioning herself from a fan's point of view when she states that:

None More Blacker was not designed to target artists, academics or art industry people. If they see the show then that's great, but my target audience is far more general. I hope the exhibition will appeal as much to an Ugboot wearing, Charger driving Mettalica fan from Warburton as a Chapel St wannabe rocker. The exhibition will tour galleries in large regional cities, especially those with an industrial character. This is because I think that this is the best way to target headbangers and also it is a homage to the fact that many bands have come from these types of cities. Detroit, Newcastle, etcetera. I would be deeply disappointed if None More Slacker was in any way educational, erudite or comprehensive. Lt would be very sad to have a Metal/glam show that aimed for academic credibility or to meet any expectations other than to have a very good time.1

In some ways None More Slacker is similar in its approach, curatorially, to a film like Detroit Rock City. Loosely basing its narrative structure on The Warriors the four male protagonists of Detroit Rock City are rock fans who loose their tickets to a Kiss concert and travel to Detroit to try and obtain replacements. Full of nostalgic references to the '70s, the film tries to recreate the atmosphere of excited commitment that being the fan of a rock band represents. Clearly outlined in Detroit Rock City are the hotly contested divisions created by fans; the necessary demarcations and codes that fans identify each other with. None More Slacker on the other hand willfully blurs these divisions. In this respect it seems neither overly glam, nor particularly metal. The notion that pop cultural references to glam or metal could lie outside the sphere of academia seems to be an attempt to create a sense of transgression. In the theory bound environment of the late eighties or early nineties this may very well have held true but exhibitions dealing with art and music subcultures are, in international terms, already very much part of a mainstream discourse. The fact that 200 Gertrude St was chosen to launch the exhibition (staying within the confines of the white cube) indicates a desire to retain establishment credibility rather than utilising an opportunity to show at venues (such as concert halls or pubs) where fans are likely to go. What potentially could have been an interesting aspect of None More Slacker, its 'counterpoint to the1980s generational ethos of the second degree, alternative music and post-punk'2 (a long overdue stance) is somewhat undermined by the inclusion of Adam Cullen with his avowedly punk credentials. Hayley Arjona's retro excess's are however a good critique of the sexual politics located within the male/female personas of '70s Rock. Lyndal Walkers's pop/rock Runaways-like construction Femme seems less successful in navigating this terrain. Bands like Bikini Kill, L7, Luscious Jackson, and Hole are now easily accommodated within the rock mainstream. Even though groups like the Spice Girls, Destinys Child and Bardot represent a large and important teenage demographic, pop music of the manufactured all-girl group variety is usually sidelined and ignored by 'serious' rock journalism. The potential for exploration of this theme within None More Blacker (and its lack of representation in Art>Music) seems to be a missed opportunity given the genre's popular but critically marginalised status. The catalogue statement 'Something like Bardot is an incredibly superficial, a completely constructed thing, and this is even more superficial, but it's also a lot less superficial as well, in the sense that largely it's about rock .. .'3 seems to reinforce rather than explore these kinds of stereotypes.

Tougher Than Art curated by Mark Feary at First Floor, with its suburban grunge feel and designer dirt attitude tries to embrace as many stereotypes about suburbia as possible. References to AC/DC, panel vans, pit bull atrocities, decals, customised sandshoes, beer and barbecue culture abound in the work of the eight artists and selfconfessed fans of all that is 'Bogan'. Renee So's knitted Pit-Bull Terrier with news cuttings along with Mathew Griffins's loser tee shirts and barbarian babes gives the theme a fashion orientated twist. Tougher Than Art (and None More Slacker) have some conceptual parallels to the exhibition Hangover, curated by Robert Leonard and Lara Strongman that toured New Zealand in 1995. Hangover, an ironic take on 'trash' culture that referenced heavy metal, tattoos, and rock and roll , was perhaps more grunge than glam. Nevertheless there is a similar sense of flirtation with, as Mark Feary puts it, 'the little Bogan in us all'. Art critic Justin Paton's criticism of Hangover in 1995 as 'the polite exoticism of a forbidden subcultural thrill to a mainly middle class, mild mannered, middle aged audience' 4 could just as easily be applied to the Age art critic Robert Nelson's review of None More Slacker as it could to Tougher Than Art. Exhibitions like None More Slacker and Tougher Than Art are as Kale Rhodes puts it, 'low grade transgressions, seemingly content with presenting a light hearted, nostalgic take on their chosen subject that neither rocks the boat or disturbs the status quo.

notes: 

1. Travis Lara, None More Blacker, ACAM discussion, 2/3/01.

2. Delany, Max, None More Blacker, ACAM discussion, 213101.

3. Walker, Lyndal, None More Blacker, catalogue, interview with Lara Travis, 2001.

4. Paton, Justin, 'Low Job Nine Notes on the Sub-cultural Swoon', Art New Zealand, 1996.

5. Rhodes, Kate, Tougher Than Art, catalogue essay, 2001. First Floor, Melbourne.