artforum.com / February 17, 2010
LAUNCHED IN POLAND IN 2003, the experimental music festival Unsound made its first overseas foray this month, landing in New York for ten days of events in ten venues scattered across Manhattan and Brooklyn. First up, on February 4, was a performance at Lincoln Center’s recently opened David Rubenstein Atrium, an imposing space, though not without the bland atmosphere common to atria everywhere. On offer was a set by superbly named Finnish laptopper Vladislav Delay with visual accompaniment by German video artist Lillevan, and Solid State Transmitters, an unlikely collaboration between German electronica producer Sebastian Meissner and Polish avant-garde ensemble Kwartludium. I arrived to find a line snaking down the block, the venue packed beyond capacity, and Delay in full swing (or better, given his oceanic ambient sound, full flow).
A youthful and sleekly black-clad crowd lapped it up, then turned its attention to SST. If the acronym seems familiar, think of Bad Brains, the Descendents, and the Minutemen. Sure enough, as ill advised as it might sound, what Meissner and Kwartludium were about to attempt was nothing less than a new-music interpretation of some minor classics from the cult American hardcore and alternative-rock label. Beginning with Black Flag’s “I Can See You,” they moved on to Blind Idiot God’s “Roller Coaster,” Grant Hart’s “The Main,” and Husker Dü’s “Something I Learned Today.” Accompanying each piece with a slow-dissolving projection of some of the band’s record-cover illustrations (Raymond Pettibon’s designs for Black Flag being the most familiar to an art-world viewer), they gave each one a different, radical, and surprisingly effective spin. Even Joe Carducci might have approved. Might.
Fast-forward to the festival’s penultimate day, last Saturday, and a panel discussion titled “Mapping Sound in Art” at the Goethe Institut’s Wyoming Building on East Third Street. Gathered to address the theme were Artforum contributor Christoph Cox, curator Regine Basha, composer Michael J. Schumacher, and artist Asa Stjerna. As the participants in and audience for a previous panel, “Bass Mutations,” filed out (these events came thick and fast), I overheard New York dubstep DJ Dave Q being accosted by an earnest admirer keen to impress on him the vitality of the Venezuelan dance music scene. If the founder of the Dub War club night seemed to find his devotee a little, uh, intense, at least the man had passion. My panel of choice, while boasting fine minds and eminently reasonable viewpoints, could have used a little of whatever he was on.
After an exhaustive rundown of the panelists’ myriad accomplishments, earnest moderator Kabir Carter began by asking Schumacher for an account of his beginnings in the field. (In addition to making his own work, Schumacher also helms sound art gallery Diapason.) The nonchalant composer’s detailed response led quickly into a discussion of the lack of curatorial understanding of the practical demands of sonic work (or, in Schumacher’s suggested formulation, “listening art”), especially in the context of group exhibitions. “It’s usually either dissonance or cordoning off,” sighed Basha, “and there’s always something in the elevator, or the bathroom.” “They don’t listen with the ears of a sound person,” agreed Schumacher. “I feel for gallery attendants, though,” conceded Cox, in reference to a general feeling that exhibiting institutions tended to put curatorial rigor aside in the name of convenience, describing one particularly uncompromising piece by Tony Conrad that might drive its caretakers rather quickly to distraction. Questions from the floor ranged from the specific—a query about sound art’s place in the art-educational system—to the baffling: When “sound” is referred to as “conceptual vibration energy,” one begins to see the appeal of the “fuck art, let’s dance!” camp.
Fortunately, that evening’s event at the Williamsburg club Public Assembly (temporarily—and slightly worryingly—subtitled The Unsound Bunker) offered ample opportunity to throw some shapes. Scheduled to run from 10 PM until an endurance-testing 6 AM, the night was focused on bass-heavy electronic sounds from American and European artists and DJs, including the aforementioned Dave Q, Dutch techstepper 2562, and cult German tech-dub specialist Pole (am I getting my subgenres right?). The impressive lineup was split between a front room that seemed to attract a mixed but fairly sedate crowd and a heaving back room that was, for no clear reason, where the dance-floor action was. “Lovestep” innovators Sepalcure had a bash at livening things up, bobbing and weaving behind their glowing MacBooks, but it was Romanians TRG and Brits Untold who really moved the crowd. At 2 AM, and despite the snow, there was still a sizable line outside. By dawn, “conceptual vibration energy” had regained some traction.