PRINT March 2005


My first experience of “recording artist” Anthony Burdin began with a morning-after phone call. On day four of the 2004 Frieze Art Fair, a trusted colleague rang me up to report that an unscheduled, late-night event had been, well, an event. The off-site concert, it turns out, had found its way onto the fair’s special-events calendar as a consolation prize of sorts after fair organizers pulled the plug on New York dealer Michele Maccarone’s high-decibel Burdin booth, which was deemed incompatible with the merchandizing of Hirschhorns and von Plessens nearby. One wonders, of course, how a youngish dealer with the wherewithal to scrape together the fair’s substantial exhibitor’s fee and travel her “undiscovered” talent to London would not have seen it coming. Suffice to say that whether a masterminded scheme or merely a deft save, Maccarone and Burdin pulled off an outright PR coup: For although the booth remained “closed” for the duration, Burdin’s little-seen “event” turned her quarters into the club you had to get into.

As luck would have it, Michele “Anthony calls me his Sharon Osbourne” Maccarone arranged a private visit-cum-performance the following afternoon. Performance for Burdin, it should be noted, comprises not just the live act in the conventional sense but every “life-based” gesture and ostensibly private encounter; not just the moments I spent cooling my heels at the back of a line of frustrated shoppers outside Maccarone’s dead-bolted and barbwired stall but also the tireless ministrations that ultimately landed me my private audience. Burdin’s stage-managed antics are, of course, as much a coy come-on as a rebuff, and I was (surprise!) whisked into the booth by the star himself, whose welcome-to-my-castle courtliness, I suspect, was only partly an association with his Visigothic regard.

Some things about Anthony courtesy of Anthony:

1) “I’m, like, a totally failed rock star.”

2) “I’m kind of like a record company . . . but without the resources.”

3) “Basically, I do things as insanely as everyone else. . . . I churn out all this cryptic garbage. . . . It’s really just life based.”

Some things about Anthony courtesy of his able agent:

1) “Anthony doesn’t like people to experience his work without being present himself.”

2) “Anthony doesn’t have a house; he lives in his car.”

3) “Anthony ‘tours’ like a rock ’n’ roll star, but he never gets out of his car.” (The one, it follows, that he lives in.)

Did I mention these two were playing me like a fine instrument? But—and it is all in the but—their giddy-making, he-said/she-said routine was as generative as it was giddy-making—truth-telling in the way the best stand-up (and art) sometimes can be. All great artists may be great hustlers, but the reverse is not always true. Burdin’s work is effective because his hustle remains a by-product of his will to make visible and audible an artistic world equal to (but different from) the real one he’s passing through, which at this particular moment happened to be an art fair. Indeed, what I began to intuit inside Maccarone’s booth were the pathways of a multitentacled “recording industry,” a seemingly unmasterable cosmology branching out from the agent/talent art-fair act to inform some half-dozen interconnected bodies of work.

Let’s begin with the drawings, a few of which I was able to see that afternoon by flashlight. Take, for instance, a group from his 2002–2003 Maccarone Inc. solo, conceived as prospective “album covers” and bearing the words THE MOST FAMOUS WITCHY REVIVAL rendered in spidery gothic script. Although such typography has grown fashionably ubiquitous in new-talent roundups these days, Burdin’s investment in the style is absolutely integral to his larger purpose. In the post-Warholian universe, the elaborated artistic persona need not take the form of dandy/gadfly or Dale Carnegie huckster, and Burdin, in appropriating the pop-goth semiotic, inhabits, though not without the requisite note of irony, such outré personae as the shaman/high priest and the outsider/wildman, lifting them from the only quarter in which they still work their magic—pop music. Imagine a hot Richard Prince or a wired Mike Kelley: In his dangerously performative incorporation (and regurgitation) of the whole, mad, mediated, modern world, Burdin reclaims for art an almost ritual immediacy, a purchase on mysteries that the institutional critics and pop didacticians may parse and quantify but rarely turn into art.

If Burdin’s art fair succès de scandale burlesques the art-world ladder even as he climbs it, so too do his “Art Hoaxes,” which include a series of ads that he ran in the LA circular Recycler in the ’90s. Mimicking the want-ad convention of exaggerated abbreviation, he would promote his own work (ANTIQUE, DRAWING DESERT MIX UNDERGROUND STUDIO SESSION IN ORIG FRAME, IN PENCIL, $1200 OR MUSEUM TOUR 310-453-8311) or lampoon elders such as John Baldessari, even going so far as to supply real gallery phone numbers that he would crank call himself, just to make sure his name and business would tie up the lines of the art-world powerful.

Burdin’s process of “performing” himself into the gallery system depends on his aping art-world postures that might seem opaque to the noninitiate. Still, those codes of meaning are easy to crack compared with the rules and references that govern his recording art, which can seem virtually occult in the particularity of its liftings. But Burdin is an initiate: Pop culture is his culture, and it is this fact that binds him to his generation (Warhol, for instance, never raided the pop-cultural icebox so greedily). Recorded, as they say, “on the road,” the ongoing series of “Voodoo Vocals,” which Burdin began making in the early ’90s, shows him tweaking the conventions of the recording industry while mining its goodies. The artist, in fact, holds to a rigorous “touring” calendar—the twist being that he never gets out of his car. He pops in a CD with one hand, points a camera out the window with the other, and records himself singing over himself singing over some beloved borrowing from the pop archive in an infinite sonic regress in which the original tune is scarcely recognizable. In an age in which “sampling” has become something like the privileged mode of meaning, the “covered” anthem has a frisson that the original can only approximate. For example, one of Burdin’s “Voodoo Vocals” may owe much of its power to the Blue Oyster Cult’s 1976 classic “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” but it owes equally much to the videotaped ambience—traffic signals reflected in beads of rain on the windshield; the rush of oncoming traffic. And then there’s that voice!

In the “Desert Mixes,” Burdin’s camera tracks his progress across the Southern California landscape in which he anchors his peripatetic existence. Alternately aimed at the shale at his feet or wider desert vistas, the camera records his dusty scroungings, which are synched to subarticulate grunts and moans, punctuated occasionally by recognizable words or phrases (“I have to get that stick”). Like the perpetual, pointless agon of his doomed wanderings, the sound track conjures only senseless urge. It’s as if the desire behind the great, grunting labor were stripped of an object, rendered futile, so that all the remained was the thankless travail. Through Burdin’s strands of hair, the camera occasionally picks up a sign that man has passed this way before—a stand of barbed wire, an initially mysterious object that turns out to be a Styrofoam fast-food container, or an equally mysterious portal form that remains just a mysterious portal form, as if to mock our efforts to impose meaning on this parched universe.

“It’s hard work to chronicle the past, impossible, really, to catch up.” This is why, Burdin explains, we buy recordings in the first place, and why, as a “recording artist,” he no longer writes his own material. “There is enough already”; better “to let people catch up—try to catch up.” Burdin has been archiving his recording art for some twenty years now. His Scum archive holds the bulk of his output, including his vast record collection and material from KDOP, the half-fictional radio station he programmed but never broadcast from ’90 to ’97. By now the material is endless, and each new “performance” only adds to the magnitude of the catch-up task. Knowing that trunk space in a midsize car is limited, when I last spoke to Burdin I asked where he keeps the archive—“at a secret site,” of course. I’m typing in an LA hotel room, and the piece must be filed today. There may be time for one more telephonic performance, but the live event will have to wait. Depending on the weather, I may drive out to meet him tomorrow in the San Fernando Valley—a town called Saugus. From there, Anthony promises, we’ll travel together to the Junk Tomb.

Jack Bankowsky is editor at large of Artforum.