PRINT May 1995


Charles Long and Stereolab

WITHIN MINUTES OF TAKING A SEAT at Bubblegum Station, 1995, I enjoy a little epiphany. The centerpiece of “The Amorphous Body Study Center,” a collaboration between sculptor Charles Long and soundscaper Stereolab, Bubblegum Station is an enormous mound of plasticine that the viewer is invited to mold and mark. I’m hacking off some pink stuff with one of the scalpels helpfully provided, and this guy gingerly sits at the next stool and starts grinning shyly at me. I take off the headphones (through which Stereolab’s soundtrack is piped) and the guy asks, “Are you the artist?” I should have said yes, of course—since the point of Bubblegum Station is to erase the distinction between creator and spectator—but instead I politely explain that we can all participate in this work-in-progress. So the guy fiddles with a nodule of plasticine, then seems to get embarrassed and slopes off to look at the other exhibits.

Separating the irretrievably adult from those still in touch with the inner child, Bubblegum Station was definitely the hit of the several installations in Long’s “Amorphous Body Study Center, ” which showed recently at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York. This plasticine orb was pocked and protuberant with residues of collective creativity—coral fronds and tendrils, etched hieroglyphs, and a few figurative offerings (a dice with nines on each side, a shark, a motorcar). There were pink blobs under each stool, too (Long’s original inspiration for the piece was the bubblegum deposited under desks by bored school kids), and somebody had wittily sculpted one lump into an udder.

Stereolab, a London-based outfit whose core is the creative/romantic partnership of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, composed music to sound right whenever you happened to put the headphones on. There was one soundtrack per installation, with sets of ’phones supplied. For Bubblegum Station it was “Melochord Seventy Five,” a typical slice of Stereolab mantra-rock based around a blithe three-note melody and a minimal chord-sequence for guitars heavily phased to sound as pinkly inorganic as the plasticine. (Imagine a sort of Velcro Underground.) With their repetition esthetic intensified by the fact that each track was repeated on a loop, Stereolab abolished time, encouraging you to become totally absorbed in the polymorphous pleasure of palpating the pink plasma. This was big fun.

Bubblegum Station was also the piece that most substantiated the rather lofty concept behind “The Amorphous Body Study Center, ” in which Long aimed to focus awareness on the body and reaffirm its status, which he believes is threatened by the advent of an information-based culture. There are certainly technology-driven historical forces (the on-line revolution, CD-ROM, the explosion of cable, virtual reality) that implicitly or potentially devolve the human body into what Arthur Kroker calls “geek flesh,” i.e., blobs of atrophied muscle ’n’ sinew jacked into the cyberdelic domain, their only form of exertion the clicking of the mouse. But there ’s also a powerful countertrend working toward the intensification of bodily awareness and the exploitation of physicality as a resource. This trend is most obvious in a plethora of therapies, regimes, and rituals: the mania of fitness and working out with weights; body-piercing and tattooing; the unstoppable rise of dance music, etc.

Still, Long reckons that “the biological body is ignored politically and exploited economically with its vulnerability now being its major characteristic.” His “Study Center” is intended as a therapeutic haven, a space for rediscovering simple physical pleasures. Hence Butoop Butoop, in which viewers sit around a water fountain and sip life-giving H20 from paper cups while contemplating Long’s glossy, undulant objects. This might be quite pleasant if the seats—the metal, Easy-wipe kind you might find in kindergarten—weren’t so uncomfortable. But Stereolab’s “Pop Quiz ”—a locked groove of Muzak-of-the-spheres, all heart-pang strings and caressing feminine harmonies over a lurching, waltzlike beat—soothes away the aches.

On critically acclaimed albums like The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music”, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, and Mars Audiac Quintet, Stereolab have explored the secret links between ultrasquare ’50s/ ’60s easy listening (Martin Denny, Esquivel, Perrey & Kingsley, et al.) and ultrah ip underground rock (the Velvet Underground, their Krautrock successors Faust and Neu!, etc. ). In other words they effortlessly blend neopsychedelia (the metronomic throb of the “motorik” beat, one-chord guitar drones) with mood music (dulcet female vocals, synth gurgles). Like kindred spirits Pram and LaBradford, they like to use outmoded, artificial-sounding protosynthesizers such as the Moog, the theremin, and the Ondioline. It’s an esthetic I call “kitschadelia,” and it’s based in a fascination with yesteryear’s quaint “far out” notions—in a half-ironic, half-genuinely poignant nostalgia for the days when people thought the future would be fabulous (vacations on the moon, your robot butler bringing you fried eggs and bacon every morning—in pill form, naturally).

Long sculptures like 3 to 1 in Groovy Green, 1995, share this kitschadelic quality, their outré hues evocative of ’60s man-made fabrics, their globular shapes redolent of the squiggles of oil inside a lava lamp. Good Separation in Soft Blue, 1995, Long’s most kitschadelic creation, looks like a lounge suite out of Barbarella: five white cushions surround a blob of pale blue, which seems to have extruded a smaller version of itself on the end of a long thin tendril. Through the headphones wafts “Space Moment,” possibly Stereolab’s sublimest slice of avant-garde MOR yet. Call it “systems Muzak,” an imaginary collaboration between Steve Reich and Mantovani: a roundelay of fragrant Francophone sibilance braided out of the phrases “de la deliquescence” and “la cohésion sociale,” the whole swathed in spangly, celestial sounds.

Like Long’s sculptures, Stereolab’s quirky surfaces often conceal polemical purposes. (The band ’s 1994 single “Ping Pong, ” for instance, framed a Marxist critique of capitalism ’s cycles of slump and recovery in deliciously frothy girlpop redolent of ’60s Gallic chanteuse Françoise Hardy.) But both are more successful on the textural than the textual level—captivating the ear and eye with zany loveliness.

Simon Reynolds’ most recent book, cowritten with Joy Press, is The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ’n’ Roll (Harvard University Press).