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Improv 04

Some artistic preoccupations 2006
... a personal report from M



Talking with poet and educator Marty Rosenblum at a party on New Year’s Day 2006, we discussed some contemporary concerns:

• collecting, appreciating, and disseminating the arc of your own work over a lifetime

• seeking to reach the potential young audience for your work through new methods of communication such as iTunes, podcasts, myspace, and youtube etc.

• helping young people (our students) explore the past so that they can create their own future

• being aware of the machines of culture that suppress the spirit for the purpose of consumption and for creating a profit

• realizing what little shared cultural experience there is today even between colleagues and friends

Retrospectively, the subject of these statements, that I wrote to sum up our conversation, would preoccupy many of my thoughts and explorations for the year.


In January, Hal Rammel and I got together to record sounds for what we hoped might prove as material for a collective composition. I went on to create some sound works with our multi-tracked source material and some selectively added manipulated voice recordings. The result, in the nature of a monster stitched together by Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, became prototypical compositions I called Voice of Frankenstein. The recordings remain in my iTunes library as monsters waiting to be animated through high voltage (or a fresh blank CDR) and set upon the world. God help us. (No serious request for copies of this unholy offspring denied; please e-mail for details and ordering information.)


Listening in February to Alvin Lucier at the Milwaukee Art Museum describe his working process in developing work was insightful. “I figure out what not to do; if it’s extra baggage, then it’s wrong.”


Later that month, observing Bruce Nauman’s neon work, also at MAM, brought into focus the issue of the authentic reproduction of art works. The majority of the pieces exhibited were labeled as “exhibition copies.” No provenance, no aura. Merely constructed to represent originals. Only the “Corridor with Mirror and White Lights” was noted as belonging to the Tate Gallery, although it was clearly constructed in Milwaukee specifically for this installation. Where is the art? As with music, is a recording more authentic when you purchase it from Ye Olde Record store, iTunes, the artist at a gig, or just listen to it on myspace?


Publishing recordings of music now moves away from only creating CDs in un/limited editions with their cost and distribution challenges to on-demand editions, podcasts, or downloadable MP3s. If the focus is on the music and getting the music into the listener’s environment, static recorded objects become collectors items for listeners of an older generation. Our relocated native son, Jon Erickson, writes in The Fate of The Object, “The big question in art or in an artful life, is whether to allow others to objectify you or to try to take control of your own objectification.” St. Jon: patron of self-objectifiers.

While trying to put some of my things in storage in April, I came across some DAT tapes of improvised guitar solos I recorded at the end of 1998 and early 1999. Upon listening back after all these years, I picked out eight of them that sounded unique and showed where my guitar playing was heading after nearly a decade of neglect. In a way, it help me discover the foundation of the solo work that began with Elementals in 2001 and the ensemble playing with Audiotrope which only really came together around 2000. The result is Solo 99 (Let me know if you want a copy.)  I also came to realize that these completist collections of solo work, like 3 Years Ago Tomorrow and Pipe Balm, could be published as on-demand recordings; and in fact the last two had been and it was ok not to obsess about the legitimacy of the package and edition. It’s about the music.


Reading Robert Storr’s “An Interview with Ilya Kabakov,” quoted in Irving Sandler’s Art of the Postmodern Era: From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, made it clear to me for the first time that the innovations of modern artists (collage, readymade, use of noise, chance, etc.) I had been teaching to my students, were combined, juxtaposed, and used ironically by so-called post-modern artists beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Today’s postmodernist works with readymade artistic languages,” observed Kabakov. It made me realize I could teach art history prior to that time as a set of modules and building blocks that became the colors in my student’s paint boxes from which the would create new art.


I began work in July on a list of modern art innovations with descriptions, references, principle artistic innovator or subsequent successful practicing entrepreneur, etc. I drafted, almost ironically, a post-modern art maker process where by choosing one concept, action, method, technology, material, or type of artifact from lists, you could develop a recipe to create your own work of post-modern art. For example, readymade + collage + abstraction + video + light + performance (combined) = work of post-modern art. Question: should this be a board game, a funny essay, a curriculum for a course of study, a serious essay, or just something that remains in my notes? Subscriptions excepted gladly.


Walter Gropius stated in his Bauhaus manifesto of 1919 that “art cannot be taught.” On a visit to Madison last summer and my favorite Borders store in Wisconsin, I found James Elkin’s Why Art Cannot Be Taught. Inside, he writes, “Do you really want your children (or your students) to appreciate the same people you appreciate?” Recently, while listening to Sir Ken Robinson speak on-line at about creativity and education, he reminded everyone, especially educators, that children entering kindergarten today will graduate in 2065. What can we do to prepare them for the future when we don’t even know what the world will be like in 2010?


The positioning statement for my Spring 2006 class at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design stated: “Sound + Art + Language is a historical survey of sound, language and visual art and where they intersect as intermedia during the twentieth century. The course challenges students to explore history through action as well as reflection and analysis and expects nothing less than transformation.” The positioning statement for my Spring 2007 class at MIAD states: “From Utopia to Today is an exploration of the designers, artists and think-tanks that used their utopian visions to create the concepts, media and products we take for granted today. Students will participate through reading, listening, observing, research, writing, and discussion.”


I thought educational chauvinism might rear its ugly head during my interview in spring with both the deans of fine art and design for an opportunity to teach a studio class in MIAD’s Time-Based Media curriculum on Introduction to Sound. This was a class that I thought I had been in training to teach since circa 1974; perhaps one of the longest on-the-job educational gestations on record. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the students, other than a brief question during the interview about the lack of the requisite degree (in what subject?), in the end in turned out that the school couldn’t cover my fee anyway.


My friend, colleague, and client, Paul Krajniak asked me during lunch this fall what I would do at a place like MIAD if I could wave a magic wand. Was he a jinnee to tempt me with a Shahrazadian story of wonders beyond imagining? I didn’t hesitate but replied I would get rid of the division of the school by discipline-based deans; would replace the foundations curriculum with a curriculum about ideas and concepts not techniques; would insist on multi-disciplinary study for all students; would integrate the artistic and design curriculum with the study of innovation, technology, sustainability, and biomimicry; would invite the most outstanding doers in their respective fields to participate as educators; would get rid of tenure positions; would insist that potential fine artists studied applied and practical arts and that applied artists studied the fine arts; and a variety of other initiatives now lost in the fugue of sweetened middle-eastern tea. Was it only a dream?



I was pleased that Jamal Currie, the full-time instructor at MIAD, charged with bootstrapping the time-based media program, invited me to submit a work to his exhibit Calling Forth Certain Experiences which ran from October 31 through December 16, 2006. His call for entries stated, “I hope for this exhibition to be an educational display of work by media artists, hinting at the breadth and diversity of form-in-time that time-based media artists work with.” I responded by reworking my composition Grand Canyon, from 2003 appearing on 3 Years Ago Tomorrow, and forming it into a podcast-type recording with tongue-in-cheek musical and spoken introduction, and additional text content culled from Walker Percy’s essay The Loss of the Creature and Dean MacCannell’s study The Tourist: New Theory of the Leisure Class. The result, Grand Canyon, Reconsidered. An attempt to meet pedagogy with critique and comment from an outsider point of view. Posted on through December 16, 2006 when the exhibit ends.


Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny rose to the surface a few times this year. In the spring, I listened to the Columbia LP recording with Lotte Lenya and listened a few times in the car to another CD version borrowed from East Library. Then, while reading through Ronald Hayman’s Brecht: A Biography, I noted, “It was apropos Mahagonny that Brecht made a detailed and explicit formulation about Epic Theatre. Marx and Sternberg had convinced him that works of art were not only being conditioned by the “network” of publishers, newspapers, opera houses and theatres that mediated between artist and the public, but being judged according to their value as material for the network. The intention in Mahagonny, he said, was that ‘some irrationality, unreality, and frivolity should be introduced in the right places to assert a double meaning.’” Brecht saw the entire “network” as a machine of culture that censored out art to make way for consumer goods. I haven’t experienced any substantially different behavior from today’s media. Have you?


In the fall I saw Harry Smith’s film version of Mahagonny at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee with its refracted and split screen images that accompany the Colombia recording, scene by scene. Smith was grappling with trying to reflect his view of New York society through the lens of Brecht’s creation. Mahagonny is a city of nets designed to trap individuals and part them from their money as they spend it satisfying their grossest desires.


After listening to both Ilhan Mimoraglu’s tape music that I downloaded from some fan site, and the works by artist Jean Dubuffet that Mimaroglu published on his Finnadar LP label in the 1970s, Hal Rammel suggested I read Dubuffet’s Asphyxiating Culture which I found on-line stored on Tier 3 of the main Milwaukee Public Library. Dubuffet states, “ I am an individualist; that is to say that I consider it my role as an individual to oppose all constraints brought about by the interests of the social good. The interests of the individual are opposed to those of the social good. Wanting to serve both at once can only lead to hypocrisy and confusion.” And later, “ Now, the essence of arts creation is innovation, at which professors will be less apt as they will have long sucked the milk of works of the past…The creative spirit is as opposed as possible to that of the professor.” So there.


Upon discovering the work of trumpeter and cartoonist Mazen Kerbaj, of Beirut, Lebanon during the Lebanese and Israeli “conflict,” I began writing an essay about art in the time of war: We’re at war. Other countries are at war. The whole global political environment seems to be laced with war. How do artists deal with this situation? How do art audiences find enjoying and appreciating art when issues and situations of life and death are pressing at our consciousness? ¶ It is said that every act is political. Artists may generally eschew this sentiment in the pursuit of art for art’s sake, but if they truthfully examine themselves and their acts they come to learn that everything anyone does, every choice anyone makes is part of the body politic. Do your actions support war, fight against war, survive war, wage war, or show ambivalence toward war? ¶ Midwestern American’s are pretty lucky. The bombs, terrorist attacks, invasions, death and destruction are not visiting us directly. Families of guardsman and soldiers are affected, families with relatives in the wrong place at the wrong time may be affected, but most of us are insulated and just continue to read about and view these unpleasantries through the media. What do artists who live in the thick of war do?



Like Kerbaj, they go on doing what they do with all the outrage and foregrounding they can to their circumstances. Visit Kerbaj’s blog at Tom Raworth, in his poetry and music duo with Peter Brotzmann at Woodland Pattern Book Center this November read some of Kerbaj’s words giving me a chilling reminder that you can’t bury this work even if the bombs have stopped falling.


So tell me of artists today and their role in society? Mauric Tuchman in his book From the Russian Avant-Garde and the Contemporary Artists writes, “Richard Serra disparages the role of the American artists in society: ‘every artists I know is working for the shopkeeper, the gallery, or the museum;’ but the Russians implied something else.’’ I understand that in the context of commerce. Artists want to earn a living like everyone else, and who is it to refuse them their place in society? But then the New York Times publishes an article stating, “Don’t mistake them for Russians: Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitsky, Alexandr Rodchenko and Alexandra Exeter were actually born, or identified themselves as, Ukrainian.” Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930 is a revisionist exhibit at the Ukrainian Museum in New York that I’ll miss this year. But the message is still clear. We work for the shopkeeper, gallery, or museum; not for the revolution or to improve society. I take some comfort in thinking of my work as fair trade. I exchange my work for the modest cost to produce and publish it. But I don’t fool myself that I provide more than artful entertainment.


Having participated in what I already took to be two digital revolutions––first the Macintosh/Postscript/ Photoshop/Sound Edit era in the late-1980s and second the Netscape Browser/World Wide Web era in the mid-1990s––I wasn’t at first prepared for Lev Manovich’s assertion in The Language of New Media that, “Today we are in the middle of a new media revolution––the shift of all culture to computer mediated forms of production, distribution, and communications.” Those first two revolutions were required to bring about the production and distribution conversion of all forms of cultural communication. Today the computer and its offspring such as game consoles, mobile phones, iPods, and whatever will be introduced this year in time for the holiday gift shopping season are the de facto locus and center of all that cultural content. Whether we paid attention, the revolution was televised and streamed to a computer in front of you.



The collective experiences of the past where everyone shared watching the same film or listening to the same song is long past. Yet audiences for content increase exponentially. Films and songs are still consumed by millions, but increasingly by individuals in their own personal bubbles. A shift has taken place from shared centralized space of a theatre to networked personal space in our mobile society.


In 1974 when I dreamed of owning a professional tape recorder or 1982 when I dreamed of owning a word processor, I looked forward to owning the means of production just as Brecht did lobbying for his own theatre. Today anyone with a laptop, microphone and desktop printer can create those old media artifacts of recordings and print. But with no more means of distribution than Brecht had fighting the network of cultural controllers. Ironically, just as the tools of production are placed in our hands, manufacturers shift their emphasis from tools to consumption. The dominant players from Apple to Microsoft now tailor their wares for us to consume someone else’s content, not make it. “What do you want to do today?” really means what do you want to consume today.


Marilyn Crispell’s solo piano performance in October at Woodland Pattern was a musical and social highlight. Crispell told the rapt audience of 40 or so that the WP gallery space was one of her favorite places to play in the world. Her musical gift was shared in a rare intimate experience with all those there. Earlier in the day she had held a "master's class" in improvisation for eight adventurous and lucky souls. Sorry if you missed either.



Some music recordings I listened to many times in 2006 included: The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse on Decca; Anthony Braxton Quintet (London) 2004 on Leo; Impro-Micro-Acoustique (Noël Akchoté, Roland Auzet, Luc Ferrari) on Blue Chopsticks; Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble Memory/Vision on ECM; Fritz Hauser Deep Time on Deep Listening; Earle Brown Chamber Music, Dal Niente Projects on Matchless; Iannis Xenakis Chamber Music 1956-1990 on Montaigne; Ilhan Mimoraglu’s select electronic works downloaded on-line; Mauricio Kagel Acoustica downloaded from; Swim This (Nick Didkovsky, Michael Lytle, Gerry Hemingway) downloaded on-line; and various editions of Alternating Currents downloaded from Reading about Brecht, Moholy-Nagy, Yvonne Rainer, radical poetics, media theory, and discovering Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s Cubism and Abstract Art (20 years late), also took up some of my time.


Just this week, Maja Ratkje and the Norwegian trio POING of bass, accordion and sax, direct from the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco and on their way to Chicago, NYC and Washington DC, performed at Hotcakes Gallery. This was another musical high point at the evolving experimental music series at Hotcakes Gallery ( Time to put them on your radar screen.


Peace for the new year and best wishes to all. Keep making music and art,


Thomas Gaudynski


Necessary Arts LLC

3134 N. Cambridge Ave.

Milwaukee, WI 53211 USA