The high-powered players running this week’s Intel New York Music Festival are poised to pitch you a revolution: the Silicon Valley chip maker foresees online music halls; Music Boulevard expects you to start mainlining CDs from the Net to your hard drive; and the savvy producers, Andrew Rasiej and Michael Dorf, want to electronically network the world’s nightlife. All in good time. The radical changes actually afoot have to do with the least likely celebrities of all: the fans.
The wave of self-publishing and e-mail access has fostered a growing intimacy between bands and their die-hard admirers—an intimacy Rasiej hopes will shatter the music industry as it stands. The signals so far are small, endearing, and intensifying. John Weaver, an Alabama admirer of the New Orleans band Dash Rip Rock (playing this week), met his fiancée on the band’s fan-site bulletin board and convinced the trio to come play a gig in Birmingham for their upcoming wedding. Bassist Mark Wike of the Bogmen (a New York group that’s also playing this week) gets on his band’s Web site almost daily to read local concert reviews posted by their fans. (One of the Bogmen fan sites has gotten so good the band is folding it into their own.) Back on April Fools’ Day, the “semiofficial” fan site of the L.A.-based band Tool published a joke that band members had been injured in a bus crash in Australia. The rumor got so big that MTV had to report that it wasn’t true. Phish even employs an “Internet manager” to monitor the all-fan generated phish.net.
Though the fans don’t have much influence over the music, the conversation itself is building audiences. The Bogmen packed Irving Plaza with over 1200 people, while another 600 logged on to the cybercast at Arista Records. For Bogmen band members, says Wike, the shift to electronic communication with the fans takes the burden off the shows themselves. “I’d rather be close [over e-mail] than high-fiving them in the audience every five minutes,” he says. “During the show, it’s too exhausting to maintain a conversation with anyone.”
Since its creation four years ago, the four-day, 300-band Intel New Music Festival has gotten much smarter about using technology to satisfy the fans. For the first two years, the festival—then called the Macintosh New Music Festival—offered only minimal perks: e-mail, photographs, and choppy video. Last year, Intel introduced high-end kiosks in the clubs and streamed live footage of other concerts from clubs around the world (just why anyone would want to surf during a concert was never clear). This year, the chip maker’s horsepower—along with donated hardware from Unisys and servers from Real Networks—is all behind the Web site (intelfest.com). The online festival will cycle round-the-clock video footage of the shows. Viewers can fork over $40 for a concert pass or screen them for free online.
Fans may already be pushing profound changes in the music industry, says festival coproducer Rasiej. With online shows and tight, fertile communities to support them, performers like the edgy chanteuse Bari Koral (playing Fez) have a shot at surviving entirely outside the major-label system. “Bari may never have more than 20,000 fans and no record label will ever get interested in her, but if every one of those fans sends her 10 bucks a year for her albums, she’s making a living,” Rasiej says.
The hours of concert cybercast may even evolve into a massive new market for the bands. “When artists perform in clubs, that music is only available to people who are there and then it’s lost forever,” says Rasiej. “This tech allows the artists the opportunity to archive every one of their performances and then distribute them to their fans.” Rasiej is evangelical on this point—in his words, “music is the killer app.”
In 1993, a 21-year-old woman named Teena Brandon moved from her hometown of Lincoln to Humboldt, Nebraska, reversed her name, and switched genders. After living for some time as a man, Brandon was publicly revealed to be a woman by the local paper. Days later, on New Year’s Eve, Brandon was shot at point-blank range by John Lotter, who had broken into the home Brandon shared with a woman (who was also killed). In 1996, the court sentenced Lotter to death.
Now, after two years of incubation, comes Brandon, the Guggenheim Soho’s first commissioned interactive artwork (brandon.guggenheim.org). Though the demanding site might not be the last word on the case (a Hollywood version is nigh), it may very well be the first classic of the genre. With technical grace and an unprecedentedly epic scale, Brandon makes a bid to become the inaugural piece in the canon of online art. The Guggenheim explicitly intended it that way. Matthew Drutt, the associate curator for film and media who collaborated with media artist Shu Lea Cheang to develop the project, views Brandon as the foundation for the next Guggenheim—”the cyber equivalent of Bilbao.”
Cheang’s work has its own wild architecture: a fusion of testimony, chat, Web searches, puzzlelike interfaces, and a scrolling “highway” that constitutes the spine of the piece. Viewers first enter a “Theatrum Anatomicum,” an operating theater where icons from later sections drift by at the bottom of the screen. To begin Brandon, you must first type a personal statement into a ticker of text (with evocative epigrams like “Orgasm Data” and “Gender is just a toy”). Transcriptions from the trial then appear on the screen, eventually replaced by a “roadtrip” along Nebraska’s Route 75. Viewers can delve into related material by exiting into various exhibition spaces. Some of the material is rigorously academic—like the segments on Jeremy
Bentham’s “panopticon” prison design and Foucault’s case study of the transvestite Herculine Barbu.
It’s no surprise that the work is so radically disjunctive. Teams of international designers and programmers have worked with Cheang and Drutt to create the “multiauthor upload” of Brandon. Guggenheim curators had held off selecting interactive art for the permanent collection because they felt that the current state of digital art just wasn’t strong enough. It figures that the first piece to pass muster would not be the product of an individual but of a network of contributors—a process more akin to theater work than to visual arts.
But because of the quilted design, navigating the site can sometimes be baffling (forget using a Mac to view it—it petrifies the machine). “I am testing the limits of frustration level,” says Cheang. But this disorientation can also be a pleasure; just as with the CD-ROM success Myst, exploration, not achievement, is the point.
The site will be exhibited regularly on the museum’s video wall, and in the fall the Guggenheim will begin the live elements of the exhibition. A Brandon-inspired symposium on medicine, sexuality, and technology will come first. Then the museum, working with Harvard’s Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogue in Cambridge (created by playwright Anna Deaveare Smith) and the American Repertory Theatre, will stage an online public trial of sexual assaults in cyberspace. Drutt admits the work is all over the map. “This falls between the cracks of definitions—is it a work of art or an exhibition or a performance?” he says. “It’s all of them.”
Signal and Noise