Archive | June, 2011

Ann Liv Young’s Fireworks

18 Jun

Ann Liv Young, The Mermaid Show. performance still by author. 2011

Pop music is so ubiquitous now as an element in performance, video and installation art, that it’s easy to ignore or dismiss its role. Isn’t it presence, after all, tautological? Pop music is used as a medium to establish a common basis with an audience because it is, after all, popular. The medium is the message, and that’s the end of it. Or is it?

From the standpoint of affect theory, the use of popular hooks and melodies, and the participatory frisson of karaoke and the fan singalong, is all provocative grist for the mill. Indeed, opinions for and against the use of pop music in art contexts can recapitulate a standard distinction in affect theory (which also serves as a rough division of labor between two main camps in affect studies): the distinction between affects seen as impersonal, asubjective flows, and affects seen as instantiated, stylized and consciously experienced by particular subjects and communities. Music can also be divided in this way (or seen from these incompatible two vantage points that produce a parallax shift). It emerges out of and indeed is noise, particularly at its bleeding edges of distortion, feedback, and (a word made famous by American Idol judge Randy Jackson) ‘pitchiness.’ But pop is also experienced as a specific emotional response, it colors the affective tonalities of the multitude, it possesses shape, depth, organization; it envelopes and even threatens to overwhelm us with a direct address to who we are in ourselves, whatever that is. Pop is divisive because someone else’s pleasure is always threatening to earworm itself into becoming our own.

For such reasons of its power, pop is used in a variety of ways in performance, ranging from the ironic (of course) to the almost painfully sincere, from the deliberate courting of schlock to the surprising selection of pop as a pathway to musical sublimity.

This ‘Hipster Arial’ is doubly apropos for Ann Liv Young’s Mermaid Show, which I caught last Thursday at HKW in Berlin. It was my first time seeing a Liv Young show, although her reputation definitely precedes her. Someone who knows her work better described this as ‘minimal Ann Liv Young’ which I can definitely see. Underneath the hype-generating fights, scat, and naked is a rigorous conceptual experiment, and stripping down the show really brought this aspect to the fore for me.

The set piece for me occurred early on, with Liv Young, seated in a lime green kiddie pool wearing a mermaid costume and sporting fright contact lenses, is suddenly thrown a mike and begins to sing along to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ as two other performers — men in sailor suits — try to reel her in with the microphone cord-turned-fishing line. This worked well as allegory, particularly when prefaced by a spoken text about mermaids in folklore. Like their sisters the sirens and maenads, mermaids seduce and consume men with their sensuality and song.

Frederic Leighton, The Fisherman and the Syren. circa 1856–1858

We routinely call pop singers ‘sirens,’ defanging that word in the process, since the original sirens lured sailors to their shipwrecked doom. Caught on the line of the pop ‘hook,’ the mermaid thrashes as she belts out Perry’s lyrics of bland self-affirmation.

You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July

Later on, Liv Young inserted some scary shark teeth and flopped around threatening the front row of the audience, who giggled and snapped photos until she started to tear into the real dead fish she was carrying, at which point most backed up. By the point she was being spun around by her fins in a mess of bloody water, to the tune of Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair,’ the alienation/identification effect was complete.

I whip my hair back and forth
I whip my hair back and forth
I whip my hair back and forth

Here was pop lyric as found instruction piece, with Liv Young opting for the Lacanian tactic, not of simple transgression of the dominant order, but of ‘persisting to the end‘ finding in that persistence a sublime doorway onto creativity.


Sherry confronts an audience member, The Sherry Show. Performance still by author, 2011

I went back on Saturday for a second helping of Liv Young, this time to see the Sherry Show. I continued my informal audience research on her performance. One person felt she was unable to discern the intent of the Mermaid Show because Liv Young “had a lot of trouble with her costume” and therefore the performance didn’t come off for her. That was an odd response, as I was pretty sure the grappling with the costume was part of the show. But another’s eyes lit up and called the piece “soulful” which was not the word I would have thought of, but seemed apt as soon as he said it.

Soul, r&b, and rap are certainly major components of her show, given her US southern roots. But these black musics are not delivered in anything like an Amy Winehouse or Adele ‘blue-eyed soul’ style. Instead she sings raucously over original tracks, layering her voice (badly) with the preexisting vocal track so as to prevent any comparison with the professionalism of karaoke.

This lingering in the negative allows the show to achieve moments of extraordinary force, such as one in which she confronted a male heckler until she somehow got him to talk about his deceased father, and how much he missed him calling up to ask how he is, at which point Sherry dedicated a song to him — T.I.’s “Dead and Gone.”

This is known as ‘taking it too far.’ But rather than bad taste, it rather seemed to me a palpable brand of stranger intimacy I longed for. After lingering on the edge of the performance, I scooted into the front row, but my eagerness to participate was perhaps discernable, and Sherry overlooked me for more aghast prey.

Another male skeptic (this one an art critic, poor sod), got Lionel Richie’s “Stuck on You” dedicated to his 9 month child. The humor and pathos of this particular title is only occurring to me now, as I write this.


David Bowie as Performance Artist

13 Jun

Can’t wait to see this …

This summer, the Museum of Arts and Design is proud to present David Bowie, Artist, a multi-platform retrospective re-framing Bowie’s daring, multi-discipline career as that of an artist working primarily in performance.  From his roots in such performance-based practices as cabaret, mime, and avant-garde theater, to Ziggy Stardust, his revolutionary tour that synthesized theater, music, and contemporary art into a rock spectacle, as well as his innovative video collaborations, and his work in cinema and theater, David Bowie, Artist presents Bowie as one of the most iconoclastic cultural producers of the 20th century.

Presented as a multiplatform retrospective— including cinema series and interactive kiosks —David Bowie, Artist will presents a layered and shifting body of work that has continually innovated practices throughout a multitude of cultural spheres.

Geo Wyeth at Joe’s Pub

12 Jun

Geo Wyeth at Joe's Pub, June 11, 2011.

Novice Theory no longer, Geo Wyeth played original songs and some choice covers (‘Long Black Veil,’ ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’) at Joe’s Pub last night. No shorthand does justice to his sound, which has developed in the years since I began catching his shows. The songwriting is more imagistic than on the first Novice Theory CD, the voice raspier, the performance style even more furious, possessed, incantatory. Last week, by coincidence, I had caught his first show in Berlin, at an alternative art and dance space, and that short set was different (although it also featured ‘Long Black Veil’): he banged his drum so hard on the cement floor that he snapped his guitar cable in two, and had to scramble for a new one. He also used live looping in that show: this one featured a horn player. I bought the EP “Black One” by Jive Grave, Wyeth’s “experimental rock ensemble,” which is a great amuse bouche for this fall’s LP “Alien Tapes.” Also amusing is Cole Escada’s interview with Wyeth at East Village Boys.

To the break of dawn

5 Jun

Berghain, the best club in the world.

The last time I was in Berlin, I actually did not spend as much time out listening to music as I should have. I think I was turned off by the amount of US music on the German radio, and the prominence of international touring acts on the rosters of the most heavily advertised venues in the city, and hastily concluded that the music scene was not as interesting as art, performance, and theatre.

Of course, Berlin is a global capital for music, that music being techno. And while I do enjoy all forms of electronic dance music (which I sometimes think is the closest thing to my music) I am now facing that fate that all aging ravers confront: do I have the stamina and enthusiasm to go to the break of dawn with the kids, especially without the kick of drugs to get me over the 2 AM hump?

The Sunday soreness all over my body reminds me its not easy, but it is doable. Going along with younger friends helps, sort of like a training buddy (and that analogy reminds me that one of the most compelling reasons for continuing to subject my body to the nightclub is to forestall that other awful fate of the aging raver: having the space in your world allotted to dance music steadily diminish until its only remaining role is in the workout mix).

But the myths are all untrue: it is possible to get into Berghain without a two hour wait at the door. You don’t need to be high to enjoy the music, although if you don’t dance you will quickly doze off. Cola and the occasional ice cream cone (which is sold inside Berghain, elegantly enough) will keep you reasonably fueled. And, most untrue of all: the music isn’t tuneless, repetitive, or thudding. Hours on end of four on the floor can indeed be remembered as such, perhaps. But its hard to imagine that they can be experienced as such in the moment, if you are really in that moment, and not distracted, wishing you were elsewhere. Minimal techno is indeed a powerful form of musical subtraction: minimal use of color, vocals, “warmth,” etc. But to further reduce this musical form to the parody of “thud thud thud,” — usually with a mock hand gesture to accompany it — misses out on the pathway that subtraction opens up to collective musical rapture.

In moments when it became too intense I’d attempt to step out of my immersion in the sonic overload, and try to picture this scene as filmed. I thought about how rarely I had seen a rave properly captured on screen. The need of narrative cinema to foreground the movement of individuals through their various problematics requires the dance clube to always remain a backdrop, a wall of noise that the characters must shout over, walk into or out of, etc. Offhand, I can’t think of a scene on film that depicts what is in fact the most quotidian experience of the rave, the point of it all, which is to lose yourself, your voice, your friends, and your individuality (or at least your sense of personal space) in an impersonal, durational, collective improvisational performance. Maybe this scene:

Perhaps the most cliché moment from a night at Berghain, or at any rate the most easily retold,  is the moment, around five am, when the blinds in Panorama Bar are momentarily raised to let the morning light cut across the dance floor. “What fellowship can light have with darkness?” This moment seems to hold an answer, and I admit I was waiting for it, pacing myself, hoping to make it to that moment in order to be able to say I was there at the dawn, I made it through. And then I crashed into a cab and was in my grateful bed with a mask on, and slept until four in the afternoon.