Cool, Calm, and Connected

Los Angeles

Left: Philip Martin, Tony de los Reyes, Mary Leigh Cherry, James Elaine, and
William Basinski. Right: William Basinski.

A band of red parachute silk stretched across the length of the back of the parking lot, separating the ground from the sky. Above the band were trees, rooftops, telephone poles, telephone wires, and a great deal of purple-gray, then gray-to-black clouds. The busy Angelenos who dropped in at the Venice gallery Cherry de Los Reyes Wednesday night for an ambient concert by William Basinski don't usually pay attention to these things—or, I'd bet, to loops of wispy, smokelike fragments of sound that get repeated a hundred times or more. Do these people meditate? Three minutes during a yoga cooldown, maybe. But none of them were prepared for the spiritual slowing-down and spreading-out that took place during Basinski's “laptop concert” in the gallery’s backyard.

Basinski, the cocreator (with James Elaine) of a brilliant video-and-music work in the gallery’s current exhibition, trawled the audience with soft waves of echo-y, far-off sound that built, in gasping climaxes and rustling dissolves, to moments of godlike hum you could feel in your sternum—all-embracing, bright-white-light-at-the-end-of-the-hallway music. Like a repeating and delicately varying Noh drama, Basinski's music hurtled toward neither payoff nor punchline. His insistence on a slowing and cooling of perception made many in the audience palpably nervous, unable to downshift their what-I-gotta-do-next brains. (One hyperpolished woman—who described herself as a “corporate trainer,” whatever that means—spent much of the concert frenetically tapping away at a Blackberry. The only words I could make out were—in caps—“TOTAL NARCISSIST.”) But to me the concert's overall effect was of slowed breathing, widened sense perception, and the feeling of a full-body embrace. A rebirth, maybe!

Left: The crowd after the performance in the gallery back yard. Right: William Basinski and James Elaine, still from Trailer for 1,000 Films, 1998.

“My job is to take people into a spaceship,” the Byronic, leafy-locked Basinski told me. “We get on board and go away—to a place where children know. You see kids spacing out—nobody could distract a kid. Adults do this”—here he made the sound of an overanxious person tearing his hair out. ”You gotta scratch your way to the top just to keep a roof over your head. I get that part of it. But my job is not to listen to the audience's resistance. It's my job to pay attention. I'm in the music."

Also in the music is Basinski's partner Elaine, who shot inadvertently terrifying footage of ticker-tape paper floating past the World Trade Center some time in the ’90s. In Elaine's and Basinski's video, Trailer for 1,000 Films, couples clad like film-noir duos trudge through an infinity of post-parade paper. (Paper is the theme of curator/gallery owner Mary Leigh Cherry's wraparound show, “Paper Beats Rock.”) “I shot it on super-8, then transferred it to super-VHS, which gives it that quality of having been through many generations.” With its alternations of July 4 giddiness and apocalyptic crumble, Trailer is the opposite of Basinski's laptop concert—which Basinski summarized perfectly: “My job is to give you a blissout!”

Among those staggering around Cherry de los Reyes's backyard in a post-bliss recovery period were Kaz Oshiro and Kim McCarty; collector Dagny Corcoran; Flaunt magazine's Elliot David; and approximately seven thousand crickets, who gave Basinski's pregnant post-show silence a cheering serenade.

Lithe, freckly and disarming, Cherry spoke about the work in her space with unusual tenderness: There was an oddly protective fervor in her voice when she said that “the most important element is not so much communication, but culture. That's what separates us from the animals.” Was this a suggestion that Basinski's metabolic slowdown is “inaccessible” to hyperdrive-enslaved LA culture-vultures? “I think every kind of work of art produces a resistance,” said Cherry's partner, Philip Martin. “The role of an event like this one is to heighten and highlight that.”

Puffing yellow American Spirits after the show, Basinski enthused to a friend about his latest obsession—his DVD copy of Wong Kar-Wai's new film 2046. “I have it on all over the house! I could just have it running and running forever.” When I asked him if he thought it was a little, well, overlong, he replied with outrage, “Oh, I don't care about all that! The thing for me is that somebody created an ambient cinema!” As always, artists (unwittingly?) praise in others what they do themselves. Basinski created, with two speakers and an iBook, his very own ambient cinema, where the backyard of Cherry de los Reyes was the projector, and the insides of our darting, hopped-up, restless minds were the screen.