Double Lives. Visual Artists Making Music

Eva Badura-Triska, Edek Bartz

Double Lives. Visual Artists Making Music

Eva Badura-Triska, Edek Bartz

Double Lives focuses on artists working both in the visual arts and in music — artists who have written, performed, or produced music, or have participated in band projects. Since early modernism this phenomenon has gained in significance, and today a strikingly large number of visual artists is also active in music. This exhibition looks at these developments throughout the twentieth century up to the present day.

As the divisions between the different artistic genres became more porous in modernism, artists had fewer reservations about leaving their own established terrain, selecting from a broad spectrum of different artistic media to suit the intentions of specific works. Turning to music has a logic, as the visual arts themselves have taken on various features intrinsic to music. These include performative approaches and various forms of collaboration and collective authorship. The visual arts have also sought more direct contact with audiences and increasingly come to see the production of art and its reception as forms of collective experience and social communication.

A decision to make music often means more than just shifting to a different medium. Public performances of music or the production of recordings may often involve different conditions of working, different locations, and also different audiences. In this sense, the exhibition title is taken from a book by Jörg Heiser — Double Lives. The ways that artists combine the two fields of music and visual art, or keep them separate, can be very diverse. In some cases their work in both areas is public knowledge, while others have different fan communities in each field — a broad spectrum with many variations.

This presentation of music by fine artists also highlights the impulses they provided to the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. At the end of the nineteenth century, music began to explore new forms of expression by expanding the tonal spectrum and breaking away from traditional rules and conventions on tonality, harmony, and rhythm. This coincided with the interests of visual artists creating music since the early twentieth century. However, as outsiders and often even amateurs in this field, they were freer from tradition and rules, and thus their approaches could often be bolder and more radical. This involved composing along principles of chance or developing noise music. Visual artists also began early to apply principles of later minimal and drone music, and their very deliberate disregard of the rules in traditional genres like jazz and rock made them pioneers of the bad strategies in punk and the dilettante music of artists bands since the late 1970ties. The work of visual artists still plays a considerable role in the diverse and divergent spectrum of contemporary music-making.

Principles of chance, noise music and scratching
Cornerstones in classical modernism

Even before he created his first ready-mades in 1913, Marcel Duchamp brought revolutionary innovations into music by developing compositions according to principles of chance. The artist only determines the framework, chance generates the work — thus the sequence of notes for Erratum musical was found by drawing cards with notes out of a hat.

In 1913, the futurist Luigi Russolo steered the extension of the sound spectrum in more radical directions than musicians had dared to up to then. He began to work with noises and developed his own instruments (»intonarumori«) to create these.

In 1923, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy directed his enthusiasm for new media towards the idea of generating sound and composition by directly scratching grooves into records. However, he never implemented this practically in the production of music but merely simulated it in a photo. Nevertheless, in doing this he prefigured a method that was further developed in the 1970s under the name scratching.


Monotone, minimal and drone

Visual artists have also made important contributions or even played pioneering roles in the field of reductive music, which has been characterised by terms such as minimal, repetitive or drone music.

As early as 1952, Gerhard Rühm wrote his eintonstück (»monotone piece«), which he described as the »Tao of music«. A single tone is subjectively given rhythm in seven octaves. With his Symphonie Monoton-Silence (1947/1960), Yves Klein created a sound field for choir and orchestra that is maintained for up to 20 minutes, followed by a silence of the same length, which can lead to »inner reverberation.« The sense of time is extended or even disconnected due to the long duration. The same intention underlies the repetitive music of Hanne Darboven or Charlemagne Palestine, the sound clusters of Hermann Nitsch, and also the drone music of Tony Conrad and Phill Niblock, where tones are held for a long period this way generating an increasing vibration of harmonics.

John Cage and Fluxus

Music and visual art are brought together closely in the Fluxus movement. Crucial impulses for this came from John Cage — a ground-breaking composer in many ways, who was always closely associated with visual artists and who created visual works himself. He also taught at interdisciplinary academies of art such as the Black Mountain College (NC) and the New School for Social Research (NY), where in 1958 his students included representatives of the later Fluxus movement, which further developed his concepts of noise music, (directed) chance and influences from Eastern thought.

Nam June Paik, who later became a pioneer of video art, was also significantly influenced by Cage, who he first met in 1958 at the international summer courses for new music in Darmstadt. In his performances, which were situated somewhere between music and visual art (and from 1964 realised together with Charlotte Moorman) he also wanted to give space to sexuality, which he believed was unjustly accorded little importance in music.

In Yoko Ono’s multifaceted musical work — between 1968 and 1980, also with John Lennon — the voice played a central part as an instrument. She explored its potential and sound spectrum to extremes.

Against the conventions of the genres

At the end of the 1960s / beginning of the 1970s, artists came on the scene who »bucked« against the rules and system of those genres from which they came — whether it was jazz, free jazz or rock. These breaks with convention took them into new artistic territory, while at the same time they protested against meaningless virtuosity as well as musical and social conformity and whitewashing.

In the early 1970s, the Selten gehörte Musik (rarely heard music), a communal project by representatives of the Vienna Group, the Viennese Actionists and their circle already practised conscious dabbling. Nine Gross and Conspicuous Errors, a cooperation of the Art & Language group of artists with Mayo Thompson, the founder of the band The Red Crayola, broached the issue of explicit errors and mistakes — in the philosophical sense too. With his »Archaic-Fri-Jazz«, A. R. Penck protests against the repressive GDR regime before being denaturalised in 1980. In the West, he played with jazz greats on occasions, who were unsettled and inspired in equal measure by his anarchic energy.

Destroy all Monsters, an American band of visual artistes, as well as the British formation Throbbing Gristle not only turned against the mainstream in favour of anti-virtuosity, trash and noise with their music. They also created films, juxtaposing the visual material recorded at their performances with footage, which addressed the dark sides and angst of humans as well as society.

By breaking the rules in free jazz and rock, Captain Beefheart and Alan Vega became idols and gave impulses to punk, as well as to the »dilettante music« of visual artists coming up in the late 1970s.

Songs between criticism of language, pop and protest

The genre of critical-ironic songs is represented incisively by visual artists in Austria. This has to do with a tradition of language analysis and scepticism, among other things, that is particularly marked here. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gerhard Rühm, Christian Ludwig Attersee and Peter Weibel were connected with the Vienna Group and the Viennese Actionists, artistic groupings that confronted language critically as a means of communication and a description of reality. Besides his experimental music, Rühm always wrote chansons too, which are in the tradition of the literature of black romanticism or surrealism and their cryptical ambiguity. The songs of Christian Ludwig Attersee and Peter Weibel, with his band Hotel Morphila Orchester, also assume elements from pop music. If playing with language is more characteristic of Attersee, criticism of its social misuse was at the forefront for Weibel. With Molto Brutto, a band of artists founded in 1980, the texts of the writer Fritz Grohs (»Blihal«), characterized by black humor as well as a play with phonemes and words, are of central importance, too.

Bands of visual artists in 1980s Austria

From the end of the 1970s, more and more bands were formed that consisted exclusively of visual artists. The hotspots were the academies of art. The background to the phenomenon was a return to traditional media, particularly painting, which was in full swing again after a long period of dominance by conceptual and performance art. As an antithesis and complement to working in their studios, young artist shifted their performing activities into the field of music where they were largely dilettantes. Their carefree approach was programmatic — a post-modern statement against dogmatic classifications into good and bad or right and wrong, and to oppose all utopias of ideal solutions. Musically they tended towards punk, New Wave and Noise, which fitted their conscious simplicity and enabled them to become »stars« who could stand on the stage and transport an audience into a (party) mood. In this context, the first steps towards electronic music were also made, particularly among those artists who were just starting to work with digital media in their visual art.

In Austria, the Hotel Morphila Band, founded in 1978 by Peter Weibel with Loys Egg, was one of the first artist groups. Pas Paravent and Molto Brutto followed in the 1980s. The artist duo GRAF+ZYX as well as Konrad Becker (Monoton) were among the pioneers of computer art and electronic music here.

Brilliant amateurism and bad strategies as concepts

Die große Untergangsshow — Festival Genialer Dilletanten (The Grand Demise Show — Festival of Brilliant Amateurs) was the title of an event that took place in 1981 at the Tempodrom in Berlin. Geniale Dilletanten (brilliant amateurs) then was a book that was published directly afterwards by Wolfgang Müller, co-founder of the band Die Tödliche Doris and which would achieve the status of a manifesto. The incorrect spelling of the word »dilettantes« was originally an error on the flyer for the event, which was deliberately retained in the spirit of a positive re-evaluation of errors and mistakes. This was part of a general programme, which unabashedly nailed its colours to the mast regarding the unavoidable failure of any utopias and claims to perfection, and which was thus a critique of the impossible promises of modernity.

This approach of a sought-after »badness« is also combined with specific socio-political concerns such as feminism with Les Reines Prochaines, or a settlement with the anti-democratic political systems of the Laibach group. The latter assumed a daring strategy of criticism through over-affirmation in their live appearances and music videos from the early 1980s in the former Yugoslavia.

Diversity in the 1990s and 2000s

The 1990s were essentially dominated by reflexive approaches, and the existing was rethought and re-questioned. Terms such as neo-conceptualism, appropriation and institutional critique designated a period, in which a discourse about strategies, production and reception of art, its self-image and its relevance, as well as the role of various media became part of the work of artists. The music of visual artists was characterised in a similar way. Its broad spectrum included forms of rock, repetitive music, free style or ambient as well as sound collages, (deconstructive) montages, reinterpretations of existing material and electronic music.

In his Turntablism, Christian Marclay worked with culled records from the whole repertoire of music — including kitsch and trivia. He changed them via mechanical processing, and as a DJ he used them to generate his compositions directly on the turntables. Stephan Prina and Emily Sundblad also reverted to existing musical material, which they appropriated and assimilated for their artistic purposes in reinterpretations.

A reflection of the various role models of the artist is the central theme of Ragnar Kjartansson’s artistic and musical creation. In the video The One (2006) with the formation Trabant he took the clichéd image of rock bands to extremes.

Angela Bulloch created the scenographic backgrounds for the group The Wired Salutation, of which she was also a member, playing electronic bass guitar. Their repetitive music with its ambient nature attempts to generate atmospheric moods in the same way as her geometric compositions projected behind the band, in which avatars of the musicians appear.

The work of Wendy Gondeln and Alva Noto (alternatively known as Albert Oehlen and Carsten Nicolai) combine electronic music with computer-generated visuals.