PRINT January 2004

Martin Herbert on Guy Bar-Amotz

YOU'RE WALKING DOWN A LONDON STREET ONE evening and you spot a man wearing a weird, sci-fi backpack—a humped piece of bottle-green, sparkle-finish fiberglass inset with halved tennis balls and a circular loudspeaker that’s chiming out the chords to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” A female passerby is singing the lyrics (they’re flashing up on a video screen in a nearby shopwindow) in a tiny, squeaky, heartfelt voice; watching, fascinated and apparently longing to take a turn, is a pretty young man wearing a butcher’s apron and the surly pout of a young Joe Dallesandro. This slice of plein air karaoke is being filmed, which is fortunate. It’s a very Guy Bar-Amotz moment.

The Israeli-born, London-based artist (wearing the funky mobile sound system in this 2001 performance, entitled Positive Vibration and held outside the Architecture Foundation) has made several works involving karaoke and weirdly mutated loudspeakers since graduating from Goldsmiths College in 1997. Burning Love, 2000, a contribution to a two-person show at Deptford’s APT gallery, invited visitors to sing along to Elvis—the lyrics again shown on-screen in authentic karaoke style, the backing music and the audience’s vocal efforts booming through suspended speakers in the shape of rockets. For a 2002 solo show at East London’s One in the Other, Bar-Amotz went further, leaving the equipment for a whole, as-yet-unformed band—keyboards, bass, drum machine—lying around and plugged into molded fiberglass backpack-speakers in the shape of dragons, slugs, and grasshoppers: a seductive, wrong-footing aesthetic seemingly designed to distract one from stage fright.

But Bar-Amotz’s interest in coaxing unconventional performances from gallery visitors does not rest simply on some formal idea of turning artworks into audience- led matrices of possibility: He sees karaoke in particular, in its ideal state, as an extension of the Barthesian concept (see “Musica Practica” in Image–Music–Text [1977]) of “growling,” an affirmation of human corporeality in an increasingly virtual and homogenized world. And he describes his use of homemade loud- speakers, inspired by hanging around the hyperspecific sound systems created by dub DJs, as a “stand against the approach of hi-fi’s Brave New World, which is a universal sound system that can play all music and any sound but will ultimately average their qualities.” Bar-Amotz and fellow artist Fabienne Audeoud spelled this out, wordlessly, in a performance in 2000 at W139 Gallery in Amsterdam. For fifteen minutes nonstop he groaned and she ululated, the sound emerging from white speakers that resembled cartoon star shapes, their woofers made out of black plastic buckets.

The acme of his production so far, however, shown in 2003 both in a one-off performance at Tate Britain and subsequently at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, is Dance Machine. Easier to operate than to describe, this is a sound-producing system activated by bodily movement; as they register in the eye of the camera, different motions and different colors trigger specific samples, ranging from a slammed car door to gunfire and from rich orchestral pads to sexual noises. At Tate Britain, dancer and choreographer Jasmin Vardimon demonstrated the machine, playing it like a multitimbre harp and recalling Clara Rockmore’s extraordinarily melodic performances on the theremin, an electronic device better known for producing a tuneless whoop. That, however, was an expression of Vardimon’s innate litheness. If you get in front of the Dance Machine (it’s appearing in Bar-Amotz’s solo show at Project, Dublin, in May) and fear you’ll produce a musique concrète cacophony, don’t sweat. The important thing is to remember the ontological necessity of making a spectacle of yourself and, as James Brown would say, get up, get into it, and get involved.

Martin Herbert, a writer and critic based in Whitstable, Kent, most recently coauthored (with Hamza Walker) the first major publication on the work of British artist Darren Almond.