Taking its title from a 1968 song by rock group The Mothers of Invention, Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer‘s first solo presentation in Germany, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black, channels some freaky spectres. Installed in the darkened interior of the Kunstverein’s upstairs gallery, the exhibition consists of a ‘mechanical play’ that reworks and expands on a project Farmer first showed in 2011 at REDCAT in Los Angeles. Let’s Make the Water Turn Black uses the life of American composer and Mothers frontman Frank Zappa as a frame for an expansive, six-hour script that collages together a history covering Zappa’s lifespan – 1940 to 1993. The work does this by way of a vast sound archive including among other things, recordings of Allen Ginsberg, Terence McKenna and Kathy Acker, as well as compositions by Edgar Varèse and John Cage – both of whom influenced Zappa’s idiosyncratic approach. Although the play pays homage to and is anchored in Zappa’s life, it is not biographical. Rather, Zappa here is used as a cipher for a historical moment – one character among many.
The installation itself comprises a low stage platform that takes up most of the exhibition space and is populated by an extensive ‘cast’ of sculptures and assemblages, some of which are mechanized. Varying from near-monumental to the size of a figurine, many of them house coloured light bulbs and/or speakers of different sizes, and have names like ‘Martin Kippenberger Tomato’, ‘Big Bird’, and ‘Suzy Cream Cheese’. Visual echoes of Edward Kienholz and futurist performance are contrasted with allusions to Sesame Street and animatronic theme-park displays. And while this mix of references lends a certain absurdity or charm, it’s also quite unsettling. As is the installation’s overall indifference to the human spectator. While they rotate, flash, teeter and chime, the sculptures seem to perform only for each other. Ambient gibberish is augmented by fragments of songs and radio interviews; psychedelic light sequences are punctuated by blasts of percussion, silent blackouts and sudden floods of color. Making use of Zappa’s ‘xenochronic’ (strange + time) method of self-sampling and self-reference, the play even revises itself. While certain parts remain more or less intact, others are improvised, reshuffled daily by means of a computer algorithm. In this sense, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black invites further comparison to its namesake practice: suburban adolescents distilling liquor from raisins in their backyard. The resultant brew is perhaps intoxicating, maybe even hallucinatory. But whatever it is, it’s full of impurities.
Neither wholly sculpture nor strictly theatre, Farmer’s ‘play’ resists being understood as a totality. For the most part, the lengthy work eschews narrative and can’t be adequately grasped through its individual parts. Amid the motley troupe of characters, few can be identified as individual speakers and only some can be recognized as the icons, rock gods or counter-cultural anti-heroes with whom they share names. Linear progressions of cause and effect are also short-circuited. On this kaleidoscopic register, it becomes difficult to distinguish plot elements from filler, signal from noise.
At some point between the second and third hour of my visit, the lights turned red and a thickly accented voice began reciting a monologue on theatre structure. Some of the sculptures that had stopped moving started up again and a voice claimed: ‘if we didn’t know how to dramatize, we wouldn’t know how to laugh. Without laughter, we wouldn’t know how to challenge authority.’ While I’m generally sympathetic to this idea, Marx’s famous phrase on history repeating itself nevertheless came to mind: ‘first as tragedy, then as farce.’ As Farmer’s installation points out, Zappa’s statements surrounding freedom of expression were grounded in a critique of restrictive social norms. But it also shows how rhetoric favouring the individual is quickly appropriated by self-involvement where subjectivity comes to mean eccentricity and disregard. Indeed, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black is eccentric and even farcical, but only insofar as Zappa himself was.