Left: A view of Tom Friedman's exhibition at Feature. Right: A scene from artist Lee Walton's “life theater.”
Legendary Feature Inc. director Hudson describes the “more inspired . . . larger jumps” in Tom Friedman's latest work as a function of “maturing, expanding one's consciousness, expanding one's thinking.” The delicate, precious (yet conceptually rigorous) new works crowding the modest space precluded the possibility of an opening party, and on the first day of the show connoisseurs and the curious alike were admitted by appointment only. Continuing his Wittgensteinian explorations into the nature of experience (with an Einsteinian bent), Friedman tinkers in paper, paint, Styrofoam, and stuffing, fashioning a universe of phenomenological phenomena. In contrast to earlier explorations (or experiments, as he would describe them), Friedman now combines a variety of his signature materials within single works.
My 4:30 appointment left time before Chelsea openings, so I downed a quick egg cream at neighborhood standby Empire Diner and then caught the C train downtown to see the shows at Art in General. Arriving just after six, I found the art-seeking crowds already beginning to file in to see the new exhibitions. In the ground level window space, artist Lee Walton had installed a “life theater,” where guests could sit on particle-board bleachers and watch the show unfold on Walker Street (the real spectacle, of course, was the guests themselves). Beyond its rather didactic interrogation of the spectator-spectacle relationship, the piece soon realized its potential as a “chill room,” though the mothers and babies and murmuring couples had to share their quiet time with some even more antisocial characters. (A thin man in an NFL baseball cap with an NYPD patch sewn on the back came in and muttered something about “stealing your souls” to an instantly wary audience before staggering out). Upstairs, artist-in-residence Chemi Rosado Seijo produced a skate map of New York (with young scenesters gathering cross-legged in semicircles around the 411-style videos), and on the sixth floor, artists Sharon Hayes and Melissa Martin showed their newly commissioned works. Martin's crafty Pop-meets-Renaissance science portrait of her father as an (anatomically correct) array of cross-sectioned, shrink-wrapped butcher-counter meats, arranged in a faux refrigeratormade, all 300 pounds of it, entirely of chewing gummight signify any number of outré Freudian conflicts. Martin notes that she had to chew all the “fat” herself to achieve the proper consistency. “I stepped into the role of the father,” she explained. “My spit became like sperm.” Throughout this exegesis her actual father stood beaming by her side, his arm around her shoulders. In the adjoining room, Hayes's exploded multi-screen video installation (with four projectors and a central tower of monitors) featured on-the-street interviews (in the tradition of Chronicle of a Summer) shot during the month or so between the Republican National Convention and mid-October 2004.
Hailing a cab back up to Chelsea, I got off at West Twentieth for the closing of Feigen Contemporary's “Carry On.” Fashion photographer (and musician, artist, and filmmaker) Mark Borthwick had taken over the gallery for the evening, draping a wall of his own photographs with multicolored streamers and spreading figs, red grapes, and wild apples on stiff kale leaves across the gallery floor amid pots of black-eyed susans, bundles of mint, and eucalyptus leaves. (Needless to say, the air was heavy with the scent of another ancient herb.) I arrived just as the crowd passed around some crumbling, green tea-infused chocolate. Borthwick was sitting inside a teepee framereplete with windchimescradling a guitar as he breathed lines about love, interspersed with Sigur Ros-like yodels, into a microphone. Also needless to say, there was a bongo accompaniment, provided by artist David Aron. Sitting on the floor on a felt mat and stuffing bits of dried fruit in my mouth, I found myself wondering what the Ray Johnson bunnies peering out of their collages amid assorted mandalas and third-eye paintings (the press release terms the show “a gentle psychedelia”) were making of it all.
Up the street, John Connelly Presents was showing Nick Lowe's compulsively rendered drawings including “heads with cornrows vomiting into toilets, feeding flip-haired, hand-holding bodybuilders” all atop, of course, the ubiquitous pile of skulls. The hour of eight had come and gone, but I managed to slip inside Yinka Shonibare's opening across the street at James Cohan just before they shut the doors. The show, titled “Mobility,” was based on Sir Henry Raeburn's portrait of the Reverend Robert Walker ice skating. Skipping ahead a century in foot-powered technology, Shonibare's signature caramel-skinned, headless dandies in batik couture now perch atop nineteenth-century-style unicycles. Only the eclectically patterned guests rivaled Shonibare's richly patterned textiles (which included a bicycle batik): I saw bindis, Japanese scarves, peacock feathers in hair, and a woman wrapped in a Near Eastern print with a slit carefully cut for a peek of cleavage. (Happily I had chosen plaid-on-plaid for the evening.) Always one for the switcharoo, the artist himself stood apart from his admirers in a sharp black suitperhaps a sartorial homage to his Reverend muse. In a room drafty with the crosswinds of postcolonialism, Shonibare's unicyclists were up to more than one tough balancing act.
“Excuse me, do youis thisdo I find the earplugs here?” “I’m sorryexcI’m so sorry, do you have the earplug box?” “Hi, hey, yeah, do youyou don’t happen to knowwhere they put the box with the earplugs?” It’s around 10:30 on Saturday night in the lobby of Royce Hall, UCLA’s home for the performing arts, a dour, doughty, Lombardian fortress erected in imitation of Milan’s Church of San Ambrogio. This is the kind of place you go to for an evening of John Cale burbles, or maybe some Laurie Anderson found-word poems, or perhaps a deadpan morsel of Tom Waits or Lou Reed. You know, the boomer avant-garde as seen in the BAM Next Wave brochure, that annual lineup of well-into-their-fifties, once-edgy cats, as predictable, really, as Marty Allen following Jack Carter and Shelley Berman at Caesar’s Palace back in the day. What you most assuredly do not typically find at Royce Hall is a rush of well-heeled West Side minimalist-music aficionados tear-assing into the lobby to raid the cardboard box of earplugs. But the concluding performers of the night, the Japanese trippy/metallic noisemongers Acid Mothers Temple, are cranked so high their amps are belching Spinal Tap-ian clouds of purplish smoke.
It’s Terry Riley’s latest seventieth-birthday bash. At the start of the festivitiesoh, about three and a half hours agoUCLA Live’s impresario, the effusive David Sefton, informed us that Riley’s birthday was actually in June, and that he has had several shindigs since then, though ours has the distinction of being “the last of the celebrations.” It was clear that Sefton, an excitable Brit, had an agenda. This wasn’t going to be some fuddy-dud, Ph.D.-in-composition, grit-your-teeth evening of “new music” appreciation. No, this was UCLA Live, remember? And so the curator decided to sacrifice the sensibilities of his largely bobo, very academic subscriber base on the altar of Prolonged Sustainable Hipness. Sefton decreed that, after performances by electronic duo Matmos and Riley himself, a bunch of eardrum-searing Japanese neo-hippie hipsters would round out the evening with a rendition of Riley’s landmark keyboard composition “In C.”
As an oldster with fragile ears, I stand in the hallway just outside the auditorium, enjoying the rolling eyes of Vanessa Verdoodt, a Dutch-Belgian UCLA undergrad who can’t believe the wussiness of L.A.’s faux-edgy audiences: “Where I come from, if you come out of the club and your ears are not ringing so you cannot hear, they didn’t do a good job!” I can’t begin to describe the depths of wussiness to which I feel I’ve descended as the sonic onslaught drives me through the Royce lobby to the lounge, where, in a bizarre culture clash, the reward for the evening’s aesthetic rigors is a plastic cup of Bud Light on draft. Of course, even here, a good 200 feet from the big doors to the main hall, you can feel Acid Mothers Temple in your kneebones and the fillings in your teeth. Still, it seems craven not to endure the “permanent damage” Sefton promised, up close and first hand . . . until I notice the gentleman to the right of me in the ersatz VIP lounge. Long white beard, Father Christmas smile, eyes closed in chuckling beneficence . . . who is this dude greeting a gaggle of random well-wishers? An aging biker? A Boyle Heights car-wash owner? No, wait . . . good Lord, it’s Terry Riley! The birthday boy himself is blowing off the cow-sterilizing decibels of his acid-metal acolytes. I guess I don’t have to flay myself after all.
The crowd around Riley seems to split about fifty-fifty: Half Santa Monica culture vultures, half adorable teen hipsters who look like they stepped out of Bresson’s The Devil Probably. Somewhere in the center is a passel of early-middle-aged new-music types, like Phil Beaumont and Bruce McKenzie of the brilliant ambient-psychedelica ensemble Maquiladora, who toured with Acid Mothers Temple and revere them still. The soulful McKenzie, who once described himself as “Steve McQueen meets Jennifer Jason Leigh,” likens Riley’s four-hand piano piece to the nightmarish player-piano works of Conlan Noncarrow.
As for the Bressonian teens, I have one of the most surprisingly insight-strewn conversations I’ve ever enjoyed in a theater lobby with a trio of youthful Rileyites who see a continuum between his pioneering trance states and twenty-first-century digital composition. “Youth culture’s preoccupation with noise is naïve,” opines Annie O’Malley, a twenty-one-year-old senior at Occidental. “You look back at Beethoven and he was writing something to reproduce the feeling of the end of a rainstorm. Today there are things like Animal Collective that aim higher than just producing torturous soundthey aim for transcendence.” What’s Animal Collective? A quick Googulation tells me a) that it’s an outfit whose sound recalls “the psychedelic freak-outs of ‘90s west coast isolationists like Caroliner and Sun City Girls, the emotional hooks and bursts of punk, the textures and structures of minimal techno (à la the Kompakt label),” etc., and b) that I hate music critics. T.K. Broderick, a musician and recent USC film student, suggests that the question facing Riley’s compositional heirs today is the role of the listener: “How can the audience participate in real time? Be non-passive?”
The sagest exegesis, however, comes from one of three short, squat, mushroom-Afro’d white teens who emerge from Royce Hall in Acid Mothers Temple T-shirts with ehhh-whatever sneers on their faces. “It’s not that I don’t like feedback,” one of them shrugs, clearly at the beginning of an aesthete’s lifelong journey of cred-proving. “It’s that I don’t like this feedback.”
Left: Vito Acconci in conversation with Jeroen Boomgaard. Right: Artist Rezi van Lankveld and gallerist Juliette Jongma.
It all started Thursday night on the eleventh floor of POST CS, the Stedelijk Museum’s temporary home in Amsterdam’s former post office building, where Vito Acconci was giving a talk in conjunction with hisI should say their, since technically it’s the Vito Hannibal Acconci Studioretrospective, opening the next day.
But before that, at 7:30, W139, an alternative gallery space also taking temporary shelter in the POST CS building (albeit in the less glamorous basement) was launching a series of books, short monographs on recently graduated art students. They were running late as usual, in their laid-back, alternative-space kind of way. By 7:45 none of the scheduled speeches had commenced. Most days I’m happy to linger, but this time I just wanted them to get on with it so I could follow the buzz echoing through the hallways: Vito, Vito, Vito…. I discreetly bailed at 7:55 and headed upstairs to the “auditorium” (a rather official term for what was really just one half of the eleventh floor, the other half being taken up by the restaurant and hangout spot sensibly named Club 11). Most of the front row was marked “reserved,” something new in Amsterdam. Evidently it meant that some bona-fide VIPs were in our midst. Feeling deserving, I sat down in the hallowed row, next to Corinne Diserens, curator of the show, which was initiated by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and co-organized by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes. She was next to Barbara Gladstone. Behind us, the auditorium was packed, proof that we Amsterdam residents crave not only stardom (though every true down-to-earth Dutch citizen will deny this) but also intellectual stimulation … and that perhaps we’re not getting enough of either.
Acconci spoke with Professor Jeroen Boomgaard from the University of Amsterdam for a full knee-drumming, foot-tapping hour about his practice, moving chronologically (like the show itself). He began, as he did the last time I saw him talkin Miami four years ago (but who’s counting?)by discussing how he started as a writer, not an artist. “I became obsessed with the page, with the page’s sense of space. Choosing a word became impossibleany word referring to anything outside the page was wrong. Only direct references were possible, words like ‘there’ and ‘here’.” And from the middle of the page he moved to the edges and then to the corners and then right off of it onto the street, entering the art context through the back door, in order to defy, as he put it, the “Do Not Touch the Artwork” signs, which to him “seemed immoral, as though art was more valuable than people.” Asked to participate in the “Street Works IV” show in 1969, he came up with the infamous Following Piece. At this point in the talk he dropped a bombshell, revealing (for the first time, as far as I know) that the legendary photos of this work, of Vito apparently following different people in the street arebrace yourselfstaged. He never had pictures taken during the actual following. In fact, it was really because of gallerists that he started to make documentation at all, the kind of documentation that could be sold for as much as a painting. Instead he believes that documentation should be just that, documentation: Cheap, free for all, unlimited. I looked over two seats.
Left: Stedelijk Museum curator Maarten Bertreux with gallerist Waling Boers. Right: Artist Yang Fudong, an interpreter, and Stedelijk Museum director Gijs van Tuyl.
“Isn’t he divine?” Gladstone smiled to Eva Presenhuber, who came to say hello after the lecture. One young American artist could only agree, practically drooling as she opined, “I could fall in love with him, even though he’s three times my age. The way he talks, his passion, I hung on every word.”
The opening the next day was fine. Just fine. A bit quiet. The museum’s newish director, Gijs van Tuyl (brought in to put the museum back on the art world map, for God’s sake!) asked me, “Where are all the people of your generation?” Downstairs in the basement, I thought, drinking and smoking and probably dancing by now. “We have to make this museum young again, get the young people back to the museum. Wake it up and shake it up. This is a small town and it needs more….”
More indeed. Steve McQueen (one of Holland’s most prominent artists, though not Dutch) and Bartomeo Mari (MACBA’s chief curator and former directorpre-Catherine Davidof Witte de With in Rotterdam), apparently weren’t enough for a proper celeb attendance score. Was everyone packing for the “EindhovenIstanbul” openinga pendant to the Istanbul Biennialat the Van Abbemuseum the next night? Probably the biggest and most welcome news spinning around the Becks bottles was Nicolaus Schaffhausen’s appointment as new director of Witte de With. Maybe soon we’ll meet everyone there. Though not a basement, I hear it’ll be swinging.
Left: Dr. Christina Weiss with award recipient Monica Bonvicini. Right: Boxer René Weller with artist Tobias Rehberger.
I woke up Saturday morning to find red wine stains on a blouse I wore to the Tuesday night awards ceremony for the €50,000 Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Artodd, considering that I thought I had only drank champagne. That was several nights ago, so heaven knows what blows my memory has suffered in the meantime. I vaguely remember a story the director of the Kunstverein Braunschweig, Karola Grässlin, was telling me about riding a hotel elevator up and down all night longlike a somnambuliste dangereuseuntil her beau, gallerist Christian Nagel, came to her rescue. That was at the Clegg and Guttman book release party, and I know I drank only water there. That much I remember. Was that Wednesday? No, that was Friday . . . I think.
The capriciousness of memory was the topic of collegial conversation at neugerriemschneider the evening after the ceremony, when, as part of his exhibition, Rirkrit “Ne Travaillez Jamais” Tiravanija invited Tobias Rehberger to take part in the “Magazine Station #4” events at the gallery. Rehberger then invited René Weller (former world featherweight champion) to narrate for a live audience that night’s televised broadcast of the heavyweight boxing championship. Or was it the middleweight? None of the gallery-goers really knew anyway. Weller informed us that after a boxer has been knocked out, half an hour later he doesn’t have the slightest inkling of what happened! As if memories were physical things floating freely around our heads until some punch knocks them into exile…. Later I gabbed it up with Anri Sala, whose performance in Pursuit of Happiness, 2005, Jimmie Durham’s latest film (on view at the just-opened Art Forum Berlin fair), had me in a swoona girl’s easily impressed with a man who sets his mobile home on fire. He was mulling the confounding fact that firemen are actually called firemen. They should be called anti-firemen, right?
I came home that evening trying to sort through the memories of the night before. Word on the street was that a woman would receive the Nationalgalerie prize this year (previous winners being men, namely a bad painter whose name I forget and the unforgettable conceptual art duo Elmgreen & Dragset). It was high time for a lady to win, everyone said, to which I said “Bollocks!” Since when did “equal opportunity” politics ever truly play a role in the art world? Among the four nomineesJohn Bock and Anri Sala, representing this year’s out-of-luck gender, along with Monica Bonvicini and Angela Bullochthe general sentiment was that the latter was a shoe-in, having broken out of her well-known Pixelbox shell, so to speak. Granted, Bulloch had us all befuddled at first, but then enchanted with her Disenchanted Forest x1001, 2005, a living and breathing form of institutional critique. It makes use of the rules for numbering Berlin’s city trees and a cybernetic dance floor that took its cue from a classic Duchampian gambit: making things difficult to see in order to see them better.
This was perhaps also the philosophy of the Nationalgalerie jury members, who, in making it difficult for us to see the whys and wherefores of their decision, made it easier for many to speculate that it was certainly going to be difficult for Bulloch to win, given that she signed the petition against controversial collector Friedrich Christian Flick in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung earlier this year. Alas, whether or not this was the case, it seems all too true that institutions have been corrupted by the wicked ways of private collectors. But what else is new?
Left: Anri Sala, Waling Boers, Michael Krome, Caroline Schneider, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Right: Martin Klosterfelde and John Bock.
And then there was the strange fact that nobody knew in advance that there was going to be a “second” (read: consolation) prize, namely the “public’s choice” awardakin to Miss Congeniality: No money, no crown, just a general acknowledgement of having almost cut the mustard. When it was announced that Bonvicini had taken first place and “public’s choice” was going to Bulloch, we really couldn’t believe our ears. Bonvicini too seemed aghast and was literally speechless when she received her golden bar of chocolate and a Day-Glo-green check for €25,000 (plus another €25,000 for the acquisition of the workan installation typifying her own form of institutional critique and involving an ironic, sadomasochistic playground of chain-and-black-leather hammocks). Meanwhile Miss Congeniality played her part well, gracefully taking the stage to receive her silver bar of chocolate from Peter Raue (Chairman of the Friends of the Neue Nationalgalerie). He mistakenly called her “Angela Bollock," but she remained as poised and was the belle of the ball as she received deep condolences from all and sundry. Everyone felt she had been robbed; even a fairly sober critic I ran into sledging around the Art Forum the next daywho loves Bonvicini’s identity-bending oeuvre just as much as the rest of ussaid, “It was as if there was a dog pissing against my leg all evening long.”
Later, while Bonvicini was hamming it up on the dance floor in the Hamburger Bahnhof’s café, Bulloch was running around town, leaving her aluminum-foil wrapped chocolate in one restaurant bar after another, which made it difficult to reconstruct events the next day. (“Where did I last leave my chocolate? Shouldn’t I retrieve it so that I might give it to John Bock for one of his videos?”) So I met her at the Tiravanija-Rehberger shindig and she was carrying around a purple sack with the aluminum-foil-wrapped prize inside. I think, if someone sees you with that, my dear, I thought, they’re going to say you’ve got your knickers in a wad, unable to get over the fact that you are an also-ran for the second time (the first being the Turner in 1997), “No, no,” she said when I voiced my concerns, “it’s just that I keep leaving the thing behind. I am quite pleased to have won the ‘popular’ prize.”
What a relief the week is over. We can all go back to our wild fantasies of starting up our own worldwide Gagosians, an idea inspired by Gagosian Berlin, a “guerrila franchise gallery” opened on Monday night by the curators of next year's Berlin Biennale. (No word from Larry yet.) During Thursday evening's performances by Icelandic artists at the Münzclub, Tiravanija suggested Gagosiann Bangkok (with a swirly Thai “g” and double “n”) and Sala would helm Gagozian Tirana, with plenty of red wine flowing and spilling over all those things we'll forget about in the near future.
Everyone who has any clue about fashion is over everything (I mean idea-wise, silly, not shopping!). So I was curious to see how this panel of prosdesigners Alice Roi, Behnaz Sarafpour, and Imitation of Christ’s Tara Subkoff, chatting with New Yorker writer Judith Thurmanwould vivify the deadish horse of “Generation X Fashion.” Of course you gotta wear something (as one was painfully reminded that September day, when the transitional weather presented huge challenges) but lately new ideas in fashion are as scarce as decent Gucci at Century 21: It’s all recycling, vintage, “modernity,” blah blah blah. “It’s a conservative time,” said Roi. “People are sick of extremes, think extremes are all cliché. So what do you do?”
The surprisingly healthy turnout for the panel looked mostly like fashion press, fashion students, and a smattering of schleps who maybe just go to anything branded The New Yorker. I sat next to a Boston-based gal with a power bob who sold ads at the mag. We had ample time to chat because the panelat the sleek new Alvin Ailey studios, a multi-culti paragon where fresh white tweens were being fetched by their Upper East Side-looking moms after Afro-American dance classstarted half an hour late, fashion standard time.
The ever-canny Thurman presided in a sheerish navy blouse and tailored skirt, gold bangles going up both arms (potentially gypsy-lady, but well pulled off), and brown pumps with navy opaque hose, striking the perfect note of polished but edgy bluestocking (literally). The all-girl panelists were contemporaries whose points of view emerged in wonderful contrast. Thurman cited Imitation of Christ’s echt-Gen X t-shirt of the early ‘90s: “Sincerity is the new vulgarity.” If she teased out a generational trait, it was perhaps a heightened self-consciousness about sincerity vs. irony, originality vs. copying. Far more interesting than the panelists’ shared zeitgeist was how their M.O.s were so different.
At a moment when the fashion center does not hold, Thurman opined, “There’s anarchy in the street, yet there seems to be a lot of creativity.”
“Creativity is pretty much dead,” Subkoff declared, “Vogue America is still dominant. It’s politics. How much you advertise.”
“There’s a lot of fear in the air,” said Roi, “A lot of propriety. For some people that feels good.”
Left: A design by Imitation of Christ. Middle-left: A design by Behnaz Sarafpour. Middle-right: A design by Alice Roi. Right: Tara Subkoff.
“I don’t agree,” said Sarafpour, who emerged as the Vogue ideologue of the bunch. If the panelists were fashion designer Barbies, Sarafpour would be Fashion Biz Barbie: A true believer in “modernity” (exclusivity, craftsmanship, whatever merits the crazy price points) and notG-d forbidlazily recycling vintage. Poised in a no-nonsense button-down shirt, knit tank-vest and slacks, she had on tomato red ballet flats that added a knowing burst of color to her neutral ensemble. Self-described “extremely wacky” Roi would be Artsy Barbie: Pudgy, in a white T-shirt, black smock-like jumper, shiny black tights, and flats, drawing attention to her face with an asymmetrical braid. Subkoff, rolling her eyes as Thurman listed her fashion credentials as a former preppie/actress/art school dropout, would be Bad-Girl Barbie. Adept at throwing attitude, she looked like a knockoff Gwyneth Paltrow in a skimpy sundress, jean jacket, and strappy sandals, but was refreshingly candid.
Subkoff brazenly de-mystified designer “originality,” revealing that she had worked as a “ragpicker” for big names (Isaac Mizrahi!), which meant combing thrift shops for stuff “they’d send to a pattern-maker, then down the runway with nothing changed.” “Something exclusively aesthetic is depressing,” added the art school dropout. “I’m interested in something that says something.” Imitation of Christ imports ‘80s art ideas to the shmatte set: Appropriation, the virtues of recycling, having shows in weird places, agitating against globalism, sweatshops and world hunger through fashion, rather than art because “the art world is tiny, and those (art) people know all this already.” She mentioned being influenced by “Situationist texts” (as Guy Debord rolled in his grave). The panel didn’t shy away from juicy topics, tackling whoppers such as: Why are there so few high-profile women in fashion and so many gay men? “Women are very unsupportive of each other in the fashion world,” Subkoff observed. “Anna Wintour only supports young gay men.”
“I only know a few straight designers,” added Roi. “And they’re horrible.” Sarafpour, the only female in her class of eighty to succeed as a designer, speculated, “Maybe I wanted it more than the other girls in my class….”
Moving from fags to fat: “The average selling size in America is sixteen plus!” Subkoff declared with conviction, after which a skinny live mannequin modeled one ensemble by each panelist. Subkoff showed a red suede trapeze mini-dress with cutout armpits and a hoodie. “It’s nice to have something on your head in the winter,” she glossed. “You waste ninety percent of your body heat through your head.” And you’ll need it, if you’re wearing little else. “I don’t think that would look very good on a plus sixteen size,” she admitted. Like I said, candid. Roi struck me as the most free-spirited and down to earth, though her black smock alarmed me, as did her chosen outfit, which was “inspired by Harold and Maude” and “mixing different feelings together.” So far, so good. But it was a “monastic or dentistry” tunic with a shearling vest over “feminine leggings.” Yick!
The highlight was when Subkoff coolly observed that Sarafpour’s frock was the “most retro, vintage-inspired piece we saw today.” Meow! Sarafpour coolly replied: “Inspired is the key word in that statement.” Snap! The frock was Audrey Hepburn-esque: Strapless, with a faux-passementerie pattern specially fabricated for Sarafpour in the Far East. Alas. When Sarafpour wasn’t havin’ it, Subkoff smoothly retracted her claws: “It was very pretty,” she added, kind of convincingly. Lovely.
Left: Ani DiFranco. Middle: Ric Ocasek, Ani DiFranco, Steve Albini, Sasha Frere-Jones, and the RZA. Right: The RZA.
If my first stop at the New Yorker Festival doled out a satisfying amount of bilemostly directed at Hollywoodthe next panel on my docket promised greater internal acidity. After a calming hour in the sun at Bryant Park, I steeled myself for my appointment with the RZA, the LZA (Ani DiFranco), the Old Skinny Popster (Ric Ocasek), and the Rapeman (Steve Albini)not exactly Wu-Tang, but some kind of hell-spawned super-group nevertheless. Moderated by Sasha Frere-Jones, the magazine’s pop music critic, the panel was guaranteed to be volatile, based on the presence of Albini alone. An angry pencil-neck made goodas the frontman of Big Black, Rapeman, and Shellac, and as a prolific if absurdly Spartan producerand a notorious musical puritan, Albini has, over the years, lashed his sharp tongue at bands that made his aesthetic famous (The Pixies, Nirvana) and at just about everyone else who doesn’t meet his curmudgeonly underground standards. Matching him with Cars frontman Ocasek, his near twin in the pale-skinny department but mortal enemy in terms of musical sensibilities, seemed perverse in the extreme. Then there was the RZA, whose crew’s handling of gender issues has been less than sensitive, paired with the personal-is-political righteous folkie babe DiFranco. The potential for harsh words, even violence, was high.
Which is why I was not merely surprised but gobsmacked to see the RZA head-nod approvingly to a DiFranco-produced song and Albini clapping enthusiastically afterward. A kinder, gentler Albini? Say it ain’t so! Indeed, the scrawny rock gadfly seemed positively avuncular, timidly stumbling over his words and politely waiting for the other panelists to finish before interjecting. Perhaps he was cowed by the presence of the RZA, a big man with street cred to burn. Or maybe it was the patina of mainstream cultural acceptance the magazine’s sponsorship conferred. Whatever the reason, I began to wonder if this Albini was some kind of animatronic stooge filling in for the real Steve. Until, that is, he indulged himself in an extended metaphor comparing music production to gynecologya producer should get no more emotionally involved in his client’s music than a gynecologist should in his patient’s privatesa deadpan burst of verbal license that embarrassed the pants off the RZA and had the crowd roaring. Albini then said that while he may come to enjoy the fruits of his production labor after the job is done, during the recording process they’re all “bummers of equal magnitude,” leading Frere-Jones to quip, “just like writing for the magazine I work for.”
DiFranco, who self-produced her many albums and is the picture of confidence when performing, seemed scattered and shy as a panelist, unable to give definitive answers, while Ocasek had the easygoing cool of an aging rock star who’s sold a gazillion records. The RZA was unexpectedly humble and funny, noting that if recording engineers are not on point at a hip-hop session, they can be, and often are, physically attacked by impatient MCs, and that, in certain ways, producing the Wu isn’t much different than scoring a film with a symphony orchestrarappers and first violinists smoke dope with equal ardor in the studio, he asserted. This last observation provided the image that, to me, summed up the best intentions of the Festival in general and these events in particular. After all, if you find yourself sitting in a midtown venue listening to the RZA and Steve Albini, with the MTV studios clearly visible across the street and the children of the head monk of the Shaolin Temple of New York capering through the aisles, some sort of cultural cross-pollination is definitely occurring.