Beat Street for REAL

New MOCA Jax exhibit shows that in contemporary art, there’s more to the music than a pretty melody


"It takes dexterity to survive in a society that is largely antagonistic to transgressive black and brown bodies resistant to various forms of control,” wrote Darnell L. Moore in one of the catalog essays accompanying Rashaad Newsome’s show at the De Buck Gallery last year. This idea, of access and propriety, is further refined with Newsome’s new work, The Conductor.

As a part of MOCA Jacksonville’s summer show, Synthesize: Art + Music, The Conductor smartly illustrates the show’s premise—the intersection of visual art and music. On opening night in early June, Newsome explained that he’d isolated the hand movements of famous rappers and MCs and also sampled (the oft-sampled itself) Carmina Burana. The result is an overwhelming visual and aural experience: The hand gestures have been multiplied into a static moving pattern, in time to Carmina. At first pass, it stands as winking nod to the genius of hip hop artists and the extraordinary results that mixing and sampling can make, and how disparate elements are conducted into a cohesive and unexpected new form.

However, a closer investigation of the work reveals its truly subversive nature, especially within the context of Newsome’s own intersectional identity as a black, queer-identifying, transgender advocate and cis-gender man. As Dr. Nicki Lane explained in her June 27 lecture at MOCA, “Hip hop language is heteromasculinist.” Which is to say, within the articulated rules of the game/genre, there is no space, physical or psychic, for voices that do not conform to a specific presentation, posture and nomenclature. Lane calls the process by which this particular paradigm is reinvested with meaning, “queering the mic.”

On the other side of the gallery, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s  harmonichaos 2.1 makes an absurdly serious cacophony, not unlike Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (though distinctly less harmony). The installation comprises 13 vacuum cleaners, each outfitted with a tuner, harmonica and lightbulb (the sucking of the vacuum activates the harmonica). Serious to the point of self-parody, the vacuums could be likened to droning monks engaged in a kind of aural endurance work. The vacuums themselves invite speculation on the nature of “acceptable” sounds, and the lengths to which an artist will go to realize an idea that might sound like a joke, and the surprising effectiveness of the piece. After initial resistance is loosened, and the improbability is embraced, a kind of actual solemnity lingers, like sheet-draped windows; a profound absurdity.

The other artists included in Synthesize are James Clar, Farrah Karapetian, Lyle Owerko, Robin Rhode, and Julianne Swartz. Clar’s Dance Therapy brings to mind the intersection of disco and hip hop culture: the way that the glamorous world of the discotheque was ultimately overshadowed by hip hop, and then, how hip hop in turn has embraced outsized luxury, while still maintaining a relationship to “the street” even as genius rappers build business empires. The work features projected video of street break-dancers and a disco ball that obscures each dancer’s face through the use of a motion-stabilizing technique.

In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, curator Jaime DeSimone writes, “imagined rhythms are communicated through the constructed space and spectacle, where viewers are mesmerized by flashing lights and moving image.” But it is impossible not to read Therapy as a kind of starry-eyed love letter to B-boy culture wedded to a trip down nostalgia lane. Standing in front of the screen as the disco ball spins and casts light across the gallery, one may get the starry-headed feeling of dancing and of imagining dancing.

Perhaps the least effective work in the show is In the Wake of Sound, In the Break of Sound, Farrah Karapetian’s skeletal drum kit, further reinforced with a series of cameraless photos of said drum kit in action. Displayed on a low riser and reinforced with multiple images, the pieces make explicit how hard it is to memorialize and mythologize beloved family members’ own creative work—as this celebrates her father’s musical career. Alone, and more carefully mounted, In the Wake itself might’ve transcended the boundaries of its silhouette, and the ways in which the image of a drum kit have become a kind of shorthand for rock-’n’-roll, but combined with the photos, the effect turns to emotional flogging and hoarding. Understandable as parsing the emotions surrounding a parent … and that parent’s personal myth can be utterly overwhelming, but ineffective in this context.

Though uneven and crowded in places, overall Synthesize is a very engaging exhibit. It provides multiple points of entry and exit into the ideological realms of pop/contemporary culture, LGBTQIA culture and the ways in which technology ages. And it’s more funny than it is serious, always a welcome cloak for faceted ideas.

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