I’m generally pretty suspicious whenever any institution tries to make explicit connections between pop music and art, whatever that term means, mainly because musicians’ dumbshit ideas about art have resulted in some of the most boring and joyless forms of music ever invented: abstract jazz, prog, glitch, all that shit. Once musicians starts taking themselves uber-seriously and looking for new, more direct forms of self-expression, they usually lose all connection with the idea that music should be fun to listen to, that you can find plenty of ways to play around with ideas and preconceptions without sacrificing any notion of rhythm or melody. The new exhibition at the P.S. 1 is called Music is a Better Noise, and according to the museum’s website, it “brings together musicians who make art and artists who make music, or for whom music is an integral part of their creative process.” Questionable grammatical construction aside, it’s an interesting idea: stripping the music away from art-music and dealing with these musicians’ work through a whole other prism. The exhibition is named after a song by Essential Logic, a British postpunk band who made a whole lot of screechy bullshit that I’ve never been able to stand. I’ve only ever heard of a little more than half the artists whose work is included in the exhibition, and most of them come from the impenetrably arty wing of pop music, which means I’m not exactly predisposed to giving a fuck about any of them. Still, the exhibition includes a few artists who have made music that I actually like: early-rap weirdo Rammellzee, head Boredom Eye, Big Boys guitarist Tim Kerr, main Suicide guy Alan Vega, vintage-synth meditators Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore. I honestly don’t know shit about visual art, but I liked some the stuff on display and didn’t like some other stuff, and there wasn’t a huge amount of crossover between the artists whose music I like and the artists whose art I like.
But I did have a good time at the show’s opening yesterday, and free beer was only a small part of it. I’d never been to P.S. 1 to actually look at art before, and it turns out to be a totally fun thing to do: five bucks to get in, a whole lot of corners and crannies to explore, the weirdly self-satisfied feeling you get from looking at a whole lot of art that you might understand but probably don’t. And there was plenty of stuff all over the museum that probably could’ve fit the music show’s theme comfortably, like the painting of the Supremes holding the severed heads of white women. Todd P once told me that a whole lot of people are leaving the noise-rock scene because they can make a whole lot of money in the art world, that art people are a whole lot more likely to take young artists seriously if they make scary music. But then, a whole lot of people in the noise-rock scene went to art-school anyway, and there are crossovers between both worlds all over the place. So it wasn’t all that shocking that the first thing I saw walking into the exhibit was the collage that ended up on the cover of Black Dice’s Broken Ear Record. In Music is a Better Noise, some stuff deals with musical iconography (Kerr’s Sun Ra portrait, Thurston Moore’s hero-worship photo collages of Brian Eno and the Ramones), and some stuff doesn’t (Don Van Vliet’s ugly-ass primitivist paintings, Alan Vega’s post-apocalyptic crosses made out of scrap metal and lightbulbs). But I like the idea of an art world so totally besotted with music’s mystical power that they’d put together this big show of work that tried to explore it or at least leech some glamor off of it. And I’d rather look at Black Dice cover-art than listen to their music.
But the big downside of the art-music connection became totally explicit in Alan Vega’s opening-night performance. With the first couple of Suicide albums, Vega was actually trying to make something approximating pop music, stuff that dealt with depression and squalor but still sounded really cool. In his performance yesterday afternoon, I guess Vega didn’t really need to sound good at all, and he didn’t. Everything about the performance looked amazing. The room had this weirdly beautiful circus-tent setup left over from an anniversary gala the week before, and so it had brilliantly colored cloth walls and a mirror ball hanging above everything, and Vega performed in front of a blindingly white wall. All the colors and contrasts were sharper and clearer than the ones in rock clubs because rock clubs are dirty and big art galleries aren’t. And Vega looks every inch the old-school New York survivor. He’s ugly as all hell, like Stephen King with fish-lips, and he wore a leather motorcycle jacket and sunglasses even though he’s old enough to be my dad. But the music itself was a total endurance test. The show started when a frizzy-haired lady started making static noise with a Themerin, and she kept doing that while clanky industrialized beats pounded away in the background and Vega ranted for half an hour. Vega doesn’t sing; he just repeats phrases over and over, and you couldn’t actually hear any of his words because he held his mouth too close to the mic and because the room wasn’t set up for acoustics. (I think I heard him say “freedom smashed” a bunch of times, but that’s really just a guess.) When he got done, the room applauded politely. I guess you can get away with bullshit like that if you’re an artist.
Voice feature: Simon Reynolds on Alan Vega