/ November 5, 2007

"Bridge and Tunnel"

This year’s Editions/Artists’ Books Fair, the tenth, was staged at The Tunnel, formerly a legendary New York nightspot, now a smart multipurpose venue that adjoins Chelsea’s newish Twenty-seventh Street gallery strip. The runwaylike interior gave the event, which featured sixty exhibitors, a nice democratic feel, no one suffering from a disadvantageous position or enjoying pole position—with the possible exception of Brooklyn’s PictureBox Inc., which sat front and center, an unsurprising placement given the company’s 2005 Grammy Award for the packaging of Wilco’s album A Ghost Is Born. Arriving on the early side for last Thursday’s gala preview (a benefit for P.S. 1), I had ample time for a few laps before things got busy. A performance from Eric Singers’s League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR)—a group of musicians, robotics experts, artists, and designers—was promised but failed to materialize in time for me to catch it. Instead, I was party only to some muted beats courtesy of radio DJ Jeannie Hopper and a glimpse at LEMUR’s eccentric-looking mix of mechanical and organic gadgetry (no guitar/bass/drums/vocals for these guys).

An abundance of white gloves and supersize portfolios spoke to the seriousness of the dealers in attendance but soon left me hankering for something a little less precious. Pleasing though it was, then, to see On Kawara’s multivolume One Million Years at Brussels’s mfc-michèle didier and early editions of Ed Ruscha’s similarly classic photo books at New York’s Anartist, slightly scrappier-looking editions ultimately fared better. Raymond Pettibon was everywhere—he produced the cover image for the fair’s catalogue, and his work cropped up in a number of booths, but his most striking appearance was at Specific Object/David Platzker, in the form of a cluster of original fliers for early-1980s Black Flag shows, complete with incidental ink stains and pinholes. London dealer Paul Stolper also went the rock-’n’-roll route, showcasing—in timely fashion, given the current hoopla over Anton Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic Control—prints from Kevin Cummins’s moody late-’70s Joy Division shoots.

After exchanging hellos with British artist Graham Parker, who was en route to Stolper’s booth; noting painter Kathe Burkhart hovering by her work at Regency Art Press Ltd.; and passing dealer Matthew Marks, I quit the scene for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, arriving just in time to negotiate a polite throng of sensitive young men and women and to take an orchestra seat in the imposing Howard Gilman Opera House. The occasion was the world premiere of Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’s “symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway,” The BQE, commissioned by Next Wave Festival producer Joseph Melillo. Expectations among the indie-kid community—bolstered by profiles of Stevens in New York, the New York Sun, and elsewhere—were running high. Trailed as a rare affectionate take on the geographically divisive, confusingly marked, endlessly potholed road, Stevens’s half-hour, seven-movement magnum opus turned out to be part Koyaanisqatsi-style audiovisual meditation on human folly (specifically that of the BQE’s notorious architect, Robert Moses), part self-indulgent venture into faux-classical composition, and part excuse for a hipster reclamation of the hula hoop.

As the house lights dimmed, a tripartite screen above the stage lit up with 16-mm and Super 8 footage (taken by Stevens with friend Ruben Kleiner) of the thoroughfare and its immediate environs, while an orchestra (with help from Stevens’s regular band and My Brightest Diamond singer Shara Worden) struck up an appropriately busy tune. Initially concealed behind a scrim, the players were revealed as Stevens, sporting a baseball cap and the tightest white jeans I’ve seen in some time, bounded onstage and took up his seat behind a concert grand. Five hula hoopers also made strategically timed appearances, their circular gyrations mirroring the endless cycle of traffic but contrasting nicely with its workaday purpose. “As a symbolic construction,” writes Stevens in “The Hula Hoop vs. the BQE,” an essay printed in BAMbill, “the hoop is an existential goldmine.” Perhaps recognizing that some might not share his enthusiasm for such relatively esoteric concerns, he devoted the post-intermission part of the show to “the hits.” This, coupled with an endearing anecdote about his attempted escape from bassoon camp, revealed a lingering discomfort with his new role as composer. But warm applause and a well-attended after-party at the theater’s upstairs space suggested that he had retained a firm hold on local affections— even if those forced to take his road of choice home may wonder at his latest muse.

Image: Musician Sufjan Stevens