in Frieze | 06 MAY 99
Featured in
Issue 46

When Worlds Collide

Close encounters between art and music

in Frieze | 06 MAY 99

1977 was a strange year for pop culture, torn between the confrontational alienation of Punk and the unifying reconciliation of Saturday Night Fever, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. When Close Encounters' massive Mothership, glowing in rainbow colours, moved onto the screen like a gigantic psychedelic chandelier, you immediately knew who was the real star of Spielberg's film.

At the foot of Devil's Tower, a table mountain in the middle of Wyoming, a secret space port has been set up for extraterrestrial visitors. At its heart, a stern-faced young organist in a white shirt and black tie positions himself at a large electric organ of the kind used by one-man-entertainers or gospel preachers. Behind him, a huge display of coloured light glows in sync with the melody he plays, each tone corresponding to a different colour field. (If you turn the illuminated colour-rectangles of Devil's Tower horizontally in your mind, you will see the floor on which John Travolta danced the very same year.) The strangely detached, simple melody, discovered by scientist Claude Lacombe (played by François Truffaut) across the globe, sounds like the endless signal of a defunct radio station, ending on an upward lilt like an uncertain question.

The Mothership reacts with colourful light beams and trombone-like drones, first echoing the audio-visual message, then expanding it into more complex, playful explosions of melody and light. Shortly afterwards, childlike visitors with big eyes emerge from the Mothership's belly. The combination of colour and sound has proven itself to be the truly universal form of communication. In this friendly contact, all social differences, even the 'ethnic' difference between aliens and white middle-class Americans like Richard Dreyfuss are bridged and finally absorbed into something higher and sublime.

250 years before Spielberg's Utopian encounter of science and religion moderated by art, a Jesuit mathematician invented the first colour-piano. In 1722, Louis-Bertrand Castel transformed his fascination with Isaac Newton's analogy of the colour spectrum and the tonal scale (based on the Pythagorean notion that colour and tone may both be characterised as waves) into a mechanical contraption that connected coloured lanterns to the keyboard so that a sound would be accompanied by a matching colour. In the 19th century, electricity allowed more elegantly functional dreams of colour-sound synaesthesia, but even Russian Composer Alexander Skryabin would only see crude interpretations of his visions realised in his lifetime. What he hoped for was a synaesthetic Gesamtkunstwerk of coloured light, music, movement, poetry and perfume at a temple in the Himalayas; what he got was the première of his colour-light symphony Prometheus at New York's Carnegie Hall, using a specially built colour-light apparatus that didn't work properly. The performance took place in March 1915, four weeks before Skryabin died and President Wilson failed to initiate peace talks between the combatants of the First World War.

The merging of disciplines in prophetic anticipation of the spiritual joining of mankind in a kind of joyful multimedia Judgement Day is a desire even the 20th century couldn't kill. More than ever, the digital age promises that the synchronisation of colour and sound is just a mouse click away. There's a bug in this as old as Pythagoras, though: this harmonious synthesis is only possible at the price of neglecting or even denying the social context that clings to the media being merged. Multimedia installations, often intended as ambient lounges that add 'social context' to large exhibitions through the presence of a DJ spinning club tunes and the installation of motion-sensitive lights, are supposed to subsume social differences, pampering visitors beneath a blanket of lovely colour and toe-tapping sound; but something smells underneath.

It is when political and economic disruptions have shaken societies that artists seem to become unsatisfied with their primary discipline. One reaction is a regressive retreat into harmonious, mostly formalist multimediaism, as if all senses have to be drugged into believing that everyone and everything is fine. Another is to regress into an Oedipal transgression of discipline that usually serves as a readily-embraced token of domesticated rebellion.

For an audience aware of this, both these approaches can offer exciting insights into how people organise their social and psychic life, but it seems that the aim of the most interesting protagonists is to strike a balance between these two theatrical extremes. Looking back at the history of close encounters between pop music and art, Andy Warhol's Factory remains paradigmatic. In 1965, a year after he had opened the second Silver Factory, Warhol declared he was no longer interested in painting. A year later, a large white banner spanned three floors outside The Dom in the East Village proclaiming 'The Exploding Plastic Inevitable' and 'Andy Warhol Live The Velvet Underground Live Dancing Films Party Event Now'. As David Bourdon writes in Warhol (1989): 'On the dance floor, artists, models, computer salesmen, and speed freaks all danced to the same din [...] despite the prevailing darkness, many people wore dark or mirrored glasses, fiendishly grinding their hips while flourishing spastic looking limbs'. Fiendishly grinding hips and wearing sunglasses doesn't really sound like a revolution, not even a sexual one, and certainly there were other dancehalls at the time, with better psychedelic lightshows. Nevertheless, it was the starting point of a relationship between art and pop music that moved beyond the quotation evident in record covers and works of Pop Art. In places like The Dom, direct connections between systems of production and the reception of art and pop were first lived on a daily basis. In the Factory and its outlets, the conduits were amplified and fed back by amphetamine and film; in John Dunbar's Duke Street St James Indica Gallery (the art space where Lennon met Ono in 1966), dope and Beatnik literature were the catalysts for a more traditionally bohemian - and generally more heterosexual - coupling.

The dislocations of High and Low in the magnetic field between art and pop music indicate an extremely raised level of social mobility fostered by the economic rollercoaster of boom and bust from the mid-60s onwards. At a private view you might find extremely sophisticated intellectuals who live on the dole rubbing shoulders with upper-class recipients of hereditary wealth and people who have learned highly developed techniques (such as DJing) that are not necessarily acknowledged (or convertible to capital) outside a certain subculture. It seems as if it only takes a shrug to switch from music to art on the level of reception, but on the level of production, cruising between club and cube is not as easy as it looks. The more interesting examples of crossovers make the friction between these social spheres visible rather than attempting to conceal them.

People who care for the scene they are networked into can feel somewhat unnerved by crossover tourists. Yet, it's a fine line between a well-grounded scepticism towards peeping toms and outright hostility towards those who dare to step onto your well-mown lawn. Against this background, it should be obvious that people who substantially change their production to work in a new context have made more than a minor investment. The shift is a way to deal with the desire for social elevation, or at least dull the social relations that cling to the old context. Either way, the crossover remains a way of coping with structural and actual conflicts experienced in one discipline by looking for resolutions in a different one. Out of one frying pan into another, if you like, but it's the level of amnesia involved that determines whether this equals a flight or a quest.

Often these processes are mythologised by artists, musicians and critics alike into parings, rebirths and baptisms. But perhaps the psychological and social necessity for the legitimising efforts that feature in so many rock-art biographies from Yoko Ono to Captain Beefheart is gone. Freeze-framed, today's crossovers look almost self-evident, as if the psycho-social cost was minimal. And in fact, over the last few years, a whole cultural paradigm has been built on this assumption: major museum shows like 'I Love New York' in Cologne (1998) or 'Andy Warhol. A Factory' in Wolfsburg and Vienna (1998/99) propose a primordial soup of metropolitan subcultural scenes ready to feed new audiences - and happy sponsors who get the bargain basement bonus of underground credibility in addition to their support of high art.

This neo-liberal stance doesn't attempt to extract cultural significance from social complexity to achieve a higher level of communication, but to accomplish greater efficiency. Market-oriented flexibility and freelance individuality have virtually become part of the way you walk: Hip-Hop cool, simultaneously relaxed and alert - second nature for the children of this era. But there is a good deal of illusion involved: you can't draw different social contexts, which have evolved over thousands of little actions, events and moments, from your pocket like business cards, or 12-inchers from your record bag, or slides from your portfolio, as many curators who proclaim DJs as their role models seem to believe. Most artists and musicians are aware of this difficulty, so the fantasies of a frictionless, on-the-fly change between contexts and super-efficient universal communication remain with the true control freaks. For them, numbed to the outside world, multitasking seems to be at their fingertips - though only as long as the process is not brought to a standstill by the desire to completely control every single operation. The fear of surrendering oneself to anything undefined could be the reason why both Jeff Koons and Kraftwerk, for example, have postponed the release of their new works for years and years, as if they were in a state of accelerating stasis.

At first, you might think that the minimalist Techno and videos of Berlin-based Elektro Music Department perfectly illustrate the ideology of a frictionless work process, universal communication and synergetic crossover. On their debut-CD and video-compilation, each element fits well into the other, a synthesis of electronic sound and abstracted corporate images in steady rhythm, apparently cleansed of any social signification. But the longer you listen, the more the music leads you back to the empty social experience inherent in the constant infrastructural and communicational exchanges around us. You may well click your fingers to it, but with a dull stare: no emotional relief is given. The video to 'Back at Ten' (1997) by Daniel Pflumm, artist member of the project, makes this most clear: the camera is fixed on the empty back seat of a taxi driving around on a wet night in Berlin; the steady beat starts to roll; each member of the group fades in and out, alone in the car, talking on a mobile phone. At first this seems to suggest total communication and unrestrained flexibility, but with every line from the phone conversations appearing as subtitles, this idea evaporates: 'chance is the one thing that makes houses stand still, planes not fall down, taxis drive straight,' says band member Kotai, 'and communication technology connect...', followed by a telling pause. In between, the seats remain empty as the taxi drives aimlessly around. Finally Kotai reappears and says on the phone that he hopes someday, the music of Elektro Music Department will become a history of its originators - 'you should be able to relate and not feel alone'. The next shot is through the window of a bank building - four brokers with phones glued to their ears each face in a different direction. Cash may be flowing, but the blood freezes.

Like Warhol before them, Daniel Pflumm and Elektro Music Department know that you have to be able to let go, to ennoble the dysfunctional - something managers often speak of, but never dare do. In the opening scene of Close Encounters, UFO scientists wander around during a desert storm in Mexico, speaking French and English, barely able to understand the native Spanish of the locals. It's a babel of confusion over the Mexican farmers' mysterious findings: World War II fighter planes, brand new and still working. The confusion is put to rest by the synaesthetic salvation of the film's finale when the Mothership spits out the pilots of the planes as young as they were in the 40s. The oppositions of Elvis and McCarthy in the 50s, of Vietnam and Counterculture in the 60s, are symbolically 'healed' out of the picture. But as we know, pop music did happen, and one of its main virtues, as Dave Hickey has argued, is to pack a great amount of energy into a very small component (a beat, a bass line, a to-the-point lyric) and to not care about control over the big picture - whether it ends up belonging to a conventional genre or as noise is unimportant. That's the crucial point: it is in the noises people make as they attempt to communicate, not in the illusion of perfect synergy between the formal and technical aspects of different disciplines, that art and music production really meet.