PRINT February 2004


Bennett Simpson on art and pop music

DO YOU WANT NEW WAVE, or do you want the truth? So asked the punk band Minutemen in 1984—and the verdict is still out, especially in art. The prominence of pop music in recent art, from rock and punk to noise, techno, and hip-hop, is one of the most ambiguous developments of the past five years. Music figures centrally in the practices of significant and established contemporary artists such as Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, and Rodney Graham. It is a conspicuous influence for artists otherwise as disparate as Elizabeth Peyton, Jeremy Blake, and Nick Relph and Oliver Payne. It is employed as semiotics, performance, metaphor, structure, sound track, attitude, and target. Within the past two years alone, a slew of museum exhibitions have expressed art’s new interest in pop, from “Sonic Process” at the Centre Georges Pompidou and “Rock My World” at the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco to surveys of work by Christian Marclay and Patti Smith to the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s homage to Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. But zeitgeists are messy and often transcend institutions’ ability to reflect them. Beyond the museum, art is now scattered with new categories: artists who play in bands (or in groups that function like them); bands posed as art projects; artists working with sound; musicians making installations; and art that works on pop music’s codes and mass memory.

Discerning the manifestations of this hydra-headed beast requires first seeing through the thematization or illustration of pop music one now experiences in works by, for example, Dario Robleto or Fischerspooner—to mention only two artists who seem to take pop’s glittery subjectivity and hot-wired style as ends in themselves. The reassembly of pop signification this work hinges on (the beat, the hairstyle, the album cover, the stage move), while perhaps making Robleto’s installations or Fischerspooner’s performances more legible to audiences already familiar with these kinds of objectifications from music itself, does little to distinguish their art from its object, celebrating pop as an endlessly configurable set of codes with no history save nostalgia. One would do well to remember that pop music has been synonymous with cultural and technical miscegenation—mixing and scratching—from its inception in the nineteenth century. At our late moment in the appropriationist arc of postmodernism, in which memory can be synthesized with the drop of a needle or the flick of a mic, the need to make a few contextual distinctions about art’s relationship to pop music is pressing, to say the least.

Pop music is most interesting in art when it enables contradictions specific to art itself, rather than simply providing art with a new palatability, theme, or style. For a first distinction, witness the rise of the band as a disaffirmative artistic model. At the moment, actual art bands have never fared better. Buoyed by the widespread “return” to rock, with its distorted nostalgia for the ’80s motifs of pastiche and punk, groups such as Black Dice, Angelblood, and A.R.E. Weapons have gone from playing galleries and demimonde gatherings to releasing albums, touring, and finding niches in the commercial music landscape. More complicated, however, is the band metaphor seen in the recent crop of youth-oriented art collectives like Forcefield, Space 1026, and the Royal Art Lodge—or in the scenes around Scott Hug’s K48 ’zine in New York or Barry McGee and Chris Johanson in San Francisco. Seemingly in defiance of the academization and professionalization of so much art in the ’90s and symptomatic of the broader artistic turn away from theory, such groups have cohered around a renewed aestheticism directly connected to youth and music culture: cartooning, graffiti, skateboarding, DJing, psychedelia, and club fashion. If the street or bedroom subjectivity of these aesthetics suggests an outsider take on art’s discursive relationship to pop, precedents for this work are, nonetheless, not hard to find—in Raymond Pettibon’s album-cover drawings for Black Flag and Minutemen, in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s stilted hieroglyphs, in the subjects and touch of Karen Kilimnik. But precedents may not really matter. One intuits that the appeal of these groups (seen notably in Lawrence Rinder’s 2002 Whitney Biennial, which featured installations by Margaret Kilgallen, Forcefield, and Johanson), like that of the Neuen Wilden thirty years ago, springs from their aura of independence and self-sufficiency, which is otherwise perceived as lacking in art today. Like the so-called indie bands they resemble, collectives traffic in freedom, DIY ethics, and insurgent autonomy. They provide images that carve out space—accessible, commonsense space—for like minds to enter. No matter that opposing “legitimate” images—provided by the art gallery, the art museum, the art school, and the art magazine, as well as mainstream pop music—are needed for contrast. No matter that such alternative aesthetics have been simultaneously promoted by commercial culture (Urban Outfitters, Jack Black’s School of Rock, “Williamsburg”) or that this pendulum has swung before, most recently in the early ’90s. For those who find it, freedom is as hard to resist as it is easy to sell.

In art, the embrace of pop and the struggle against it make sense of each other and replay the old dichotomy between new wave and punk. Where the former mines music as commodity code and postcritical spectacle, the latter disdains it for the same things (while still putting faith in its ability to transport, critique, and create anew). A response to this double bind can be found in the return to modernist negativity one sees in Steven Parrino and Jutta Koether’s “band” Electrophilia. Taking inspiration from America’s long history of electric noise culture—the A-bomb, Kerouac, Little Richard, the Grateful Dead, the Stooges, Suicide—Parrino started Electrophilia in the mid-’90s as an analogue to his painting practice. The group’s performances can be endurance tests of immersive improvised feedback, throttling bass and synth giving way to the buzz of amplifiers. In a recent collaborative exhibition, “Black Bonds,” at the Swiss Institute in New York, Koether and Parrino paired this sound with an installation of their respective paintings (for which they are both better known). Parrino’s resembled crumpled heaps of broken stretchers and canvases poured with thick, glossy black enamel. Koether’s were more ethereal—large dusky works overscrawled with fragments of words and knotted lines. It was hard to tell if the works had been made as such or if they were failed paintings “blacked out” and reborn in theatrical defiance. The ambiguity was intentional, in any case, and only helped set the stage, literally and metaphorically, for the exhibition’s other main component, a program of weekly performances by noise musicians Merzbow, Black Dice, Foot, Christian Marclay, and Electrophilia itself. The ritual negativity of these concerts, on the avant-gardist extreme of the pop spectrum, combined with the abnegation and insistence of the paintings, suggested a dialectic whose origins could be traced, in a not unobvious way, back to the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich’s legendary Dada venue of the 1920s. If the parallels between that time and now—cultural quiescence, economic bust, threats of war—could be imagined burning though the exhibition’s dark catharsis, incommensurability was quick to follow. We are no longer shocked by noise: Another Hugo Ball, Thurston Moore cannot be. One was left with the sense that a recognition of anxiety may, today, be its own reward.

Koether’s increased role as a facilitator of art around music recalls certain projects by Martin Kippenberger, Albert and Markus Oehlen, Kai Althoff, and Cosima von Bonin, a group of artists, once all based in Cologne, with whom she is often affiliated. Althoff and the Oehlen brothers, for their parts, have played with the groups Workshop and Van Oehlen, respectively, for many years. Workshop is perhaps the more traditionally “pop” group in this scene. Like Althoff’s paintings, its several albums since the early ’90s show a sophisticated deployment of historical stylization—part rock, folk, psychedelia, and soul—put to vaguely spiritual ends. Van Oehlen plunders rock motifs with abandon and suggests Albert Oehlen’s painting work with its aggressive juxtapositions and piling on of digitally sampled forms. The critic Diedrich Diederichsen has written that in Oehlen’s painting, “it’s not a question of the number of elements, but of the distinctions among them—these being as great as possible while still allowing interferences and relationships to develop.” The same statement could apply to Van Oehlen’s music, in which, for instance, glam histrionics and off-rhythm guitar become propositions to think between. Cosima von Bonin’s video works Pryde: Exigencies, 1999, and Alles Roger Commander, 2001, are further examples of this kind of distinction-opening, as they occupy a slippery, playful ground between music video, musical theater, and institutional critique. Against images of preteen tomboys frolicking with sled dogs in a remote mountain kennel, Pryde’s disco sound track features a male voice crooning instructions for the installation of one of von Bonin’s stuffed fabric sculptures: “I should be smoothed out. . . .” The (melo)drama of art’s material conditions continue in Alles Roger, which marshals a chorus line decked out in nautical garb to document the (actual) transport of another of von Bonin’s sculptures to a recent exhibition of her work in Hamburg.

A much longer study could be written on the function of music in this recent German context. Suffice it to say that music offers a kind of theatrical or dramatic platform for artists such as Koether, Oehlen, Althoff, and von Bonin, a stage on which to perform aspects of artistic and social identity. For artists intimately experienced with the charismatic position-taking of Joseph Beuys or Sigmar Polke, the appeal of pop music’s special language of gestures—of trying on and displacing voices, of speaking within and for audiences who listen with rapt attention—cannot be underestimated. In this light, Kippenberger’s and Oehlen’s willful adoption of Rat Pack, night-carousing personae (Kippenberger signed more than one painting “Sinatra”), which at times seemed to overwhelm the reception of their art, might be understood as a parodic reprisal of Beuys’s guru status—one that is itself reprised by von Bonin’s queerish sailor chorus line in Alles Roger Commander and her joyful girl community in Pryde. The noisy call-and-response between artists and art history that became a hallmark of the Cologne art world in the ’70s—and later migrated to Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York—has a kind of musical character at its core, with its lead singers, studio bosses, and fans securing or disproving the release of each new proposition.

In the new DIY collectives, in Electrophilia’s noisy ablutions, and in the Cologne scene’s self-performativity, one sees three distinct problematics in the relations between art and pop music today. They are hardly reconcilable—and they needn’t be. Pop is heterogeneous, deeply relative in reception and meaning across cultures, and as changeable as it is available. But it is important, in this moment of pop’s heightened visibility and new combinations in art, to maintain the usefulness of critical distinctions locally and comparatively. Identifying zeitgeists or parsing categories cannot account for the history of stubborn and deeply intelligent experiments of thinking culture like the Red Krayola, Mayo Thompson’s four-decades-running artist band, or Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw’s wildly original performance group Destroy All Monsters, both of which take music and art to places where they are inseparable from one another. While the social aspect of this work is transparent for those who seek it—who was listening to what, who collaborated with whom when—the cultural and aesthetic grappling that defines it as art practice is a song far more contradictory in its hearing.

Bennett Simpson is associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.