In Mike Stevenson and Danius Kesminas’s on-going project, "Slave Pianos" the question of who or what is subservient is key. Driven by the seemingly selfless desire to "broaden the knowledge, appreciation and understanding of works in sound," the two Australia-based artists have collected existing audio works from artists as diverse as Stephen Prina and Joseph Beuys, Jean Dubuffet and Martin Creed. Transcribing each work into a score for piano, the resultant compositions are then played mechanically with the aid of a sophisticated computer program.
In the gallery, "Slave Pianos" takes the form of a white grand piano to which the artists have added two giant X-shapes representing the cross-bars used to manipulate marionettes. These hover ominously over the piano, attached to the ceiling with black plastic chain. During the premier of the work in LA, the gallery was also filled with thick, white fog, a la Liberace. Indeed, there’s high degree of showmanship involved in "Slave Pianos," a performative aspect (without the performers) that seems to have paid off. Like Tom Jones or the Rolling Stones, "Slave Pianos" is a touring animal, having played Germany, New Zealand, New York, Scotland, and Sydney, Australia. After its stint in LA, it moves on to Russia.
The success of "Slave Pianos" is timely. Finally, after decades of neglect, aural artworks seem to be getting their due. A number of good books on the subject have recently come out and Sonic Youth-- that most avant of pop bands-- released "Goodbye 20th Century" last October, a double CD featuring their own faithful renditions of seminal works by John Cage, Georges Brecht, and Yoko Ono among others.
Given our current cultural fascination with fluidity, leaks, slippages, displacement and nomadism, sound is a model worthy of more thorough investigation. Immediate and invisible, opening itself nicely to chance operations and capable of passing through walls, sound exercises strategies of formlessness naturally. The antithesis of architecture, sound is a violent stirring of molecules--entropy manifest. It embodies both the abject and the spiritual, the concrete and the nebulous. It is at once completely of the moment and timeless, site-specific and ubiquitous. As a strategic operation, sound art stems from both utopian aspirations (Cage) and nihilistic impulses (Japanese Noise). Rebellious by its very nature (even at its most quiet), it is a form where every note, every decibel, every magnetic pop and binary O is a mini coup d’etate, a gesture of defiance, a small step towards liberation.
The inescapable problem with "Slave Pianos" is that the convoluted process of "recomposing, arranging and translating" the source material ultimately consigns a lot of anarchistic noise to the prison-house of "music" and leaves formerly biting works toothless. In the hands of transcribers Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape, works radically disparate in both form and intent end up sounding strangely similar. In fact, a lot of the music produced by the slave piano sounds like mid-20th Century Modern-- minimal, ethereal, sometimes beautiful but ultimately, painfully generic. Martin Kersels’ fax machine track (from "Objects of the Dealer" 1995), a Katharina Fritsch recording of frogs croaking ("Unkeu" 1990) and Chris Burden’s attempt to breath water ("Velvet Water" 1974), are all boiled-down to an awful Erik Satie ballet score . Is it any wonder that Australian artists John Nixon and Marco Fusinato have demanded that their work not be included in the "Slave Archive?" Given this woeful short-coming, the whole project quickly falls under suspicion. One starts to view it as a clever careerist maneuver or dadaesque prank poking fun at a lot of pretentious sound art.
Merleau-Ponty said that to turn something upside-down is to deprive it of its meaning. Unfortunately, "Slave Pianos" neither succeeds in turning the source material on its head nor furthering our understanding of it. In fact, if anything, the project makes you yearn to hear the original works. Despite Stevens and Kesminas’ stated intentions, "Slave Pianos" is, at best, a dubious tribute to a lot of important work by a lot of other artists. Viewed as an art work, as a curatorial/appropriationist gesture perhaps, it is, at the very least, perplexing and irresolute.