BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Michael Smith and Joshua White

BY Frazer Ward in Reviews | 07 JUN 97

Visitors to Michael Smith and Joshua White's show 'MUSCO: 1969-1994' might have been forgiven for hesitating in the doorway, so convincing was the display of commercial detritus in the hallway (cardboard boxes and plastic bags of broken fluorescent tubes and lighting equipment with little MUSCO labels), together with the pathetic photocopied notes sticky-taped to the garbage, denying rumours that MUSCO was going out of business. It was worth going inside. Smith and White's installation consisted of the office and showrooms of a fictional, bankrupt lighting enterprise. MUSCO (for music and colour, pronounced 'muse-co', though little inspiration was evident) is headed by Michael Smith's blankly naive, regular guy alter ego Mike Smith (Smith has been performing as Mike in various contexts since the late 70s). But the story begins at the end of the 60s when Mike, working in his dad's store, asked a hippie buying lighting equipment whether he was doing 'some kind of happening'. Mike teamed up with the hippie, Joshua White (who really was the designer of the light shows at the legendary Fillmore East), to sell psychedelic lighting to the 60s, disco lighting to the 70s and club lighting to the 80s. Or so we were told by the infomercial running in the showroom, which perfectly captured the feel of low rent, local network advertising.

The whole thing was layered with commercial kipple from three decades: authentic or authentic-looking bits of paper, cards and invoices; traces of office domesticity like grimy coffee cups and cigarette butts, and, mostly, evidence of years and years of trying to turn belatedly recognised zeitgeists into money: hand-painted slides so your slide projector can produce professional-quality light effects; oil and water dyes to drop on the glass plate of a schoolroom overhead projector to make groovy psychedelic shapes; even a police car light, the MUSCO Rotating Trip Beam, to energise the dance floor. The grid of the MUSCO Fever Dance Floor, just like the one in Saturday Night Fever (and portable 'except for one main feature') looks like it returned in the 80s as a modular video wall ­ and of course there were the inevitable disco balls in a range of sizes.

There was no computer in Mike's office, though. In a reconstruction so meticulously detailed, omissions must be attended to as well, so perhaps it was information technology that finally did it. Whatever. By the 90s, inevitably ­ but unfortunately for Mike ­ MUSCO's desperate and comical recycling of low-end technology had entropied. Mike's failure to profit from cultural and subcultural trends is poignant, because the attempt was hopeless and not at all cynical (hopeless, perhaps because not cynical). This failure leaves us, on one hand, with the farcical attempt to package the 60s, 70s and 80s in miniature as MUSCO's own boîte-en-valise, the Joshua Light Show In-A-Box (batteries not included, 18´ x 16´ x 3´, 2lbs). On the other hand, there is the dusty demonstration area, a black-painted room complete with a range of clicking dysfunctional dance floor lighting effects from three decades of sites of adventure and desire; especially the desire to be hip or cool that Mike could just never get a handle on (see the catalogue ad with Mike in the reversible, red satin, metallic thread MUSCO Disco-Time Vest). The thing is, all dance floors look the same in daylight. They only become themselves when lit up in the dark. 'MUSCO' failed, and forgive me if I labour the point, at selling this paradoxical enlightenment. In extracting a narrative from Smith and White's archaeology of failure, a parallel, metaphorical archaeology also emerges, in which enlightenment is bound to the success of commerce. 'MUSCO: 1969-1994' tells an unsentimental, sad little tale of Modernity.