Artist Ed Ruscha once told writer Dave Hickey, ‘A lot of art is just […] a notation of loving something’. Most art filling museums concurs with this sentiment, whether it be a depiction of the Virgin Mary or a mat of water lilies in a murky pond. In our Pop-saturated world we frequently define ourselves by the bands we adore, those that make up our personal soundtracks. This notion informs the centrepiece of the latest collaboration between the artist Diana Thater and the musician T. Kelly Mason in the work Relay (2007), simply a half-hour video of a band performing three versions of the song ‘Why Can’t I Touch It’ (1979) by the seminal Punk band Buzzcocks. As the band that really put the Pop into Punk, they created the catchiest tunes ever to come out of the British scene. Thater and Mason had a simple enough idea: film a band performing a great, beloved song surrounded by mirrors, then project the film within a mirrored space in a non-gallery setting (in this case a former retail space). The results should be both visually and aurally enticing and conceptually suggestive. When love goes awry, however, it is sometimes hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong. In Relay that point happens to be everywhere.
In Mason’s band’s first version nothing is quite right. First, they bury the anchoring bass-line behind the guitars, as well as the vocals. This muddying of production comes across not as intentionally disorienting but as just shoddy, killing in the process the one thing that Buzzcocks were known for: the all-important hook. In the second version the band performs a mellow jam of the song. While this may sound good over your fourth beer at a college bar, one wonders where the creativity lies in tamping down such a fine song. And lastly, there is a Beatle-esque ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’-ish dirge, with the backward drum riffs and spacey vocals clearly recorded in the studio rather than being performed live on the film. While this version isn’t horrible, it does beg certain questions about what the point of this venture was in the first place.
The film, hobbled by some of the most hackneyed tropes available, does the band no favours. When the third version begins and the drums suck backwards, for example, the best that Thater can come up with is to run the film backwards too, making feet tap upwards and the drumming look a little odd – something the Beatles were already doing in their promo films in 1967. There’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious, but coming from such established artists, as opposed to art students who know no better, the conceit borders on bankruptcy.
Add to this underwhelming muddle the constant use of reflections of the band versus the band themselves. The mirrors used in the film were the same as those employed to create the theatre in which we watch Relay, and their warped surfaces were neither flat enough to become vistas of infinite narcissistic reflection (à la Yayoi Kusama) nor warped enough for psychedelic funhouse distortions. They were just slapdash and shiny enough to reflect viewers watching themselves become increasingly bored. The intended ‘reflections within reflections’ within the film, if handled less clumsily, could have been more than mildly amusing and led to some unsuspected intersections outside the gallery system.
Ironically, it was the co-option of the popular by commercial and institutional interests that led to the kind of culture that Punk sought to displace. At this rate Thater & Co. might become the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of the current plague of Conceptual art-pop music crossovers – similarly successful, long-winded and supposedly deep.
The work promises a lot but delivers little. As for Buzzcocks, they hammered things home by following ‘Why Can’t I…’ with ‘Something’s Gone Wrong Again’ to close out their brilliant album Singles Going Steady (1979). Read it as a warning to those who may believe that simply transposing a few of your favourite things is the same as transforming them, and the lyrics become as portentous as they are succinct: ‘Something goes wrong again/And again and again and again and again…’ Indeed.
We sincerely regret that the following serious factual errors were made in this review. The review states that there were three versions of the song 'Why Can't I Touch It', when in fact four versions were performed, of which the backwards version of the song was the third. This backwards version was played to a pre-recorded backing track of the vocals in reverse, and the band played the song inverted. This was then flipped so that the vocals appeared to be going forwards as the band attempts to play backwards. The review also fails to mention that the core concept behind 'Relay' was that it was recorded live in its entirety, including all the visual effects such as split screens, dissolves and fades.