PRINT November 2002


Spend any time in Providence, Rhode Island, and you begin to see why H.P. Lovecraft never moved away. The master of prewar horror lit was born in Providence and for much of his adult life could be found walking the streets of the old seaport, soaking up its indistinct light and sepulchral vibe. A kind of low-level dread held him there, he told friends, one he could only hope to insinuate into his writing.

Forcefield hasn’t left Providence either. The four-man artist collective has been working there since attending the Rhode Island School of Design in the early ’90s. They’ve taken the town’s spooky languor as a resource and, along with a good-size circle of friends, fellow artists, and musicians, forged an idiosyncratic local scene.

Much of Forcefield’s work—music, sculpture, film, video, graphics, comics, costumes, even textiles—was born out of Fort Thunder, a sprawling warehouse that from 1995 until its demolition last year served as a communal redoubt for some dozen young artists. Two of them, “Meerck Puffy” and “P Lobe” (not their Christian names, if you need to ask), were attempting to make music with a Moog and a ring modulator, a synthesizer that produces only the sum and difference frequencies of two input signals. The results were jarring and desolate, and Meerck and P Lobe were soon distributing cassettes under the name Forcefield. Meerck had made comics in his native Texas before coming to RISD. Together he and P Lobe drew and screen-printed covers for the tapes, then flyers for their live performances. From the start, Forcefield’s graphics were disarming, the mutant pop logos of another world—geometric talismans, irrational schematic charts, Jarry-esque homunculi. They stood out, even in a town full of design students.

Fort Thunder swarmed with activity. One of its founders, Brian Chippendale, formed a trio called Lightning Bolt who, with only drums, a mike, and a bass guitar, whipped up torrents of exactingly layered noise. Lightning Bolt masked their faces with electrical tape and performed amid the audience. In turn, Forcefield began playing their music in costumes pieced together from gaudy afghans they found at junk stores. Shrouded from head to toe, they would hunch over their keyboards or dance arcanely in place. Other nights Fort Thunder was given over to spectacularly staged wrestling matches. An aesthetic was evolving—one that linked absurdist ritual to superhero theatricality—and Fort Thunder began to draw crowds.

Forcefield’s recordings are slippery, at first seeming to be no more than pulsing sound strung along a digital time line, with little “music” other than oscillating clusters of notes and chords. But like a 3-D optigram, the music suddenly pops into relief: sly morphings between rhythm and melody; a fussy attention to texture; cadences appearing and falling away almost symphonically. Beats crop up that you can nearly move to, or tunes you can nearly hum, but soon they’ve melted back into the ether. There are distorted voices too-bellowing, chattering, bickering cyborgs and humans, transmissions from remote worlds or from just down the block. In the course of eight albums, Forcefield has evolved a truly psychedelic music, somehow unmetaphorical and darkly fantastic at once.

Over time the group has grown to include “Le Geef” and “Gorgon Radeo.” Both share Meerck and P Lobe’s interest in simple, instinctual modes of production. One of their recent projects together is a series of films made by churning various colors of plasticine, shaping the result into “loaves,” and putting them through a meat slicer. Adjacent slices were then painstakingly exposed in sequence, frame by frame, to a camera. To Forcefield, the end product is as much engrossing evidence of a process—in this case, one that releases the hermetic contents of its raw materials—it is a visual experience. And, as in the animations of Harry Smith, there is a specific optical quality that couldn’t have been realized in any other way.

Forcefield’s videos are their most narrative works, though at first they might seem as obscure as the music. They star the members of the group, concealed in kookily glamorous allover body stockings. These are knit on industrial looms by Gorgon and look like the unisex clothing of a multisex species. On video their ice-cream colored zigzag patterns take on a pixelated buzz, which obscures any nuance of the wearer’s body language until just silhouette and broad gesture remain. Thus the characters have an alien-/Other-ness to them, even if their onscreen lives appear terribly humdrum. We see them playing clunky video games, chasing after small runaway creatures, or holding forth in gibberish from behind colossal laminated desks. If these are broadcasts from another green world, it’s obvious that the aliens’ televisions serve the same purpose as our own. But wait, here’s their Discovery Channel: Forcefield figures dancing in slow motion around a tall, willowy knit pyramid, clapping their hands in a ritual of. . . pacification? Worship? But soon this exotica looks familiar, too, and the thought begins to creep in that these aren’t extraterrestrials at all but ourselves at an inane remove.

When Forcefield was asked to participate in this year’s Whitney Biennial, a dream was realized. Not exactly Forcefield’s dream, but rather that of Lawrence Rinder, the show’s chief curator. Deputized to scour he country for compelling regional vision, in Forcefield he bagged an ace specimen. Indeed, their installation, Third Annual Roggabogga, 2002, wasn’t quite like anything else in the show. Staring out of a darkened gallery, thirty sculpted creatures, varying erratically in size and DNA, clicked and buzzed at each other like conventioneers in an elevator. Roggabogga turned on familiar Forcefield themes of magnificence and oafish ness, but the deadpan quality puzzled some viewers. With little postconceptual-zing-as-usual, the piece came across to some critics as underdetermined and naive. One even guessed that Roggabogga, with its “tribalist” style signals, might herald a mannerist phase in the Modern Primitive movement.

It will be interesting to see how the work translates to other contexts. Until the Whitney, Forcefield was largely, and perhaps by choice, under the art world’s radar. A recent live show in Brooklyn,though, demonstrated just how much that situation may be changing. Performing in full regalia at 180 beats per minute, they easily got the attention of several hundred beer-guzzling artists at a Williamsburg block party. But it was the peculiar beauty of the music that seemed to galvanize the crowd. Within minutes they’d formed a mass around Forcefield and were either listening with knit brows or furiously head-banging. It was all over in twenty minutes, but Forcefield was on everyone’s lips for weeks. This fall they show at Daniel Reich Gallery in Chelsea. It would appear that Forcefield’s days as Providence’s best-kept secret are numbered.

Steve Lafreniere is a New York-based writer.