Art Doesn’t Matter
The impetus to curate an event and title it ART DOESN’T MATTER was, for me, twofold.
The first intimation, inchoate but totally beautiful, of the consciousness necessary to such an undertaking was in the distinct pleasure of seeing multimedia artist Craig Fahner perform Pizza Beats at Ideal Art Space for Calgary’s Sled Island music festival in the summer of 2008. Fahner uses a machine of his own invention – a turntable modified to play twelve-inch pizza – to conduct a scientific experiment in which he determines Which Pizza Operation Has the Funkiest Beats. After the performance, I was able to literally manipulate the beats – scratching, if you will – by pressing my fingers into warm, wet tomato sauce and pepperoni grease, pulling back, and releasing. Situations of tender joy and radiant glory such as these make one feel acutely the violence inherent in the inadequacy of language to comprehensively express the richness of the experience. There was only one thing I could say, and only one way I could think to say it. That is, with a pizza in my right hand and a beer in my left: “Craig! I love Art!”
I’ve made similar exclamations at any number of events, particularly Art Matters events of the past, the most obvious of which would be: “Did you know? Art matters.”
As I write this, I realize that the irony is contextual. Two particularly telling moments might be drafted to illustrate this duplicity. Take, firstly, a group of dedicated individuals who have managed to make Art Matters what it is: two weeks of student art in professional galleries, giving any number of special opportunities to student artists, curators, producers, volunteers, and attendees. Importantly, it allows artists to present their work beyond necessarily the Concordia community and within Montreal generally. It takes seriously the opportunities that it provides because it believes that it has a responsibility to both the student population and to the Montreal community to disseminate and promote new art. With funding for the arts appearing as irrelevant as it does moribund in the eyes of the current conservative government, festivals such as Art Matters provide an important alternative voice for support of the arts. Their mandate states that “Art Matters makes it known that art matters.”
Alternatively, it’s Nuit Blanche of 2008 and I’ve just managed to more or less shower myself with beer from the neck down from underneath a rabbit fur coat. Swallowing what is left of my pride and of my alcohol, I arrive at the Art Matters party at the Belgo Building circa two a.m. smelling like a wet dog in a bottle depot, somewhat tipsy (pretty tipsy), and am confronted with the expectation of viewing and/or experiencing art in a way that is significant or worthwhile. I reach over to a friend and say, “hey, did you know? Art matters.” This is the sad, bitter irony by which most of what I do becomes meaningless, and the second instance in which my relationship to the work of bodies such as Art Matters was confirmed.
Hence ART DOESN’T MATTER. The original idea, conceived jointly with co-curator (conspirator?) Miriam Arbus, was that of a pizza party that would incorporate Fahner’s Pizza Beats. With the addition of other artists, the event evolved into a subtler, more complex creature, one that included illustration, sculpture, music, a variety of performance and sound art, but one that was nonetheless mediated by this one central idea. We did spend most of our budget on pizza.
What follows is a rendering of ART DOESN’T MATTER from the artists’ perspectives. Interviews with the artists were conducted separately in the week leading up to the show, in their homes, in a cafe, in a bar, in a teachers’ lounge. The profiles all contain evidence of the massive talent and hard work these artists have directed to the festival, as well as the promise of more in the future. In their individual ways, these artists raise the question: does art matter? And, though expressed in a multitude of ways and to varying degrees, they answer in chorus: we don’t give a shit. It is with tender pleasure that I may now introduce to you the artists of ART DOESN’T MATTER.
ARTIST INTERVIEW: CRAIG FAHNER
Maybe you could start by telling us a bit about your background as an artist.
Okay. Here’s what happened: once upon a time, I was involved with rock and roll, and I was involved with living in the suburbs of Calgary, Alberta. I think that had a profound effect on my desire to be an artist rather than be what had been planned for me, which was an engineer, or some Calgary-type person.
I think that’s where the rock and roll thing comes in, and the fact that I felt this very romantic thing towards rock and roll being the way out of the suburbs and the way out of that sort of thing. I think that rock and roll coalesces really well also with the most romantic things about art, especially in the twentieth century, especially considering the things which are most interesting to me in terms of twentieth century art history, which involve people like John Cage and, to a lesser extent, people like Andy Warhol, and their idea of taking things which are largely commodified or are a part of everyday experiences and contextualizing them as art.
Do you think that that is a romanticizing process, the process of de-contextualizing or re-contextualizing in an artistic context, and is that what you’re doing in Pizza Beats?
I think one could re-contextualize anything. I think the sort of everyday experience of people who are working a shitty job or people who are doing things because they are told to do these things in a certain way …
Like Gabe [Koury, an artist involved in ART DOESN’T MATTER], who works in a pizzeria.
Exactly. Consider Gabe, who works in a pizzeria, who is told to make a pizza in a certain way. That is part of his experience, just as the person who, say, builds furniture for a living is told to make furniture in a certain way. Or the person who prints the newspaper is told to print the newspaper in a certain way. These are things that are fixed determinacies. But, if we re-contextualize them in the terms of art, they become indeterminaciesin that they are devoid of any intention artistically, but they are rich in intention with the sort of mundane experience of people who don’t even want to be there in the first place. So I think that Pizza Beats is an exercise in absurdist indeterminacy in that the entire composition, the entire soundscape, isn’t determined by me at all. I’m just facilitating it. It’s actually being determined by a person who has no idea they’re being involved whatsoever, a person who is just doing their job like they do every single day, and they hate it so much, but they’re still doing it. I guess what I’m doing is facilitating some sort of transfiguration into something that is completely out of their intention whatsoever.
In that case, how do you feel about the work being presented under the banner ART DOESN’T MATTER?
Well, I would probably mention that what I’m doing is turning pizza into music. What does that conjure, really? Immediately? What does that make people think? And I feel like that already happens in a number of ways, that pizza gets turned into music, but not necessarily pizza being turned into music, but more so sort of things that are so important to western culture, sort of packaged food, and simulacra forms of food, being transformed into cultural forms. That’s what I’m playing off of, and that’s why I feel like it’s an extension of illumination of that sort of phenomena.
Or like a literalization?
Exactly. The way that I wanted to intervene on the situation was: so there might be a commercial jingle written for McDonald’s, just in the way that there might be a pop song written exclusively to make money. Perhaps the way I’m intervening on this situation is more akin to the fact that people make music because of whatever. They just want to have fun and that’s sort of the absurdism of it. The absurdism is that I’m taking something out of the context of being someone’s everyday job that they really hate into something that is intrinsically fun and maybe not as rigid as some instructions you would have from Domino’s Pizza Incorporated. Maybe every Domino’s Pizza is the same, but maybe by transforming it into something unique, or something involved in musical collaboration, I am making this person’s career or this person’s livelihood into something that is substantial in that it is creating something that is entirely unique, or entirely momentary.
How do you feel about Pizza Beats being included in ART DOESN’T MATTER?
Art doesn’t matter, but does the pizza-making man’s job matter as well? As far as what’s important to Pizza Beats is that I’m really interested in the idea of amplification, in the sense that Pizza Beats is amplifying something that, to a certain person, somewhere in the world, who has a job they think is really shitty, is being amplified to be something else that may be really exciting and important to someone else. I feel that when you are able to reconstitute certain things such as technology, which is entirely what I’m interested in, when you’re able to reconstitute technology so that instead of making things smaller, more efficient, more reductionist, in terms of what everyone else wants to do with techonology, which is create this direct link between the mind and technology, and ignore the body completely, and use the body only as an interface for technology. I think when an artist is able to reconstitute technology, they are able to expand the body into space in ways that would never ever happen in terms of corporate technology, to recontextualize things that are so delicate and so overlooked in terms of a world that is so concerned with things that are very extreme and very active and art gives the opportunity to amplify things that are very delicate and very small and just completely overlooked and amplify them into very monumental things. Especially using technology, just because I think technology is actually used in such a confined way, in terms of most peoples’ understanding, if you consider something like facebook. It’s a limit system. It’s giving you a social arena that is limited completely. That’s ignoring an enormous potential for actions and events that could happen, which can and cannot involve technology, but I feel like in the parts of technology that are completely ignored, there’s a lot of potential there that has no commercial potential, but has potential in terms of impact and in terms of communication, just basic communication, that can be expanded upon greatly. Especially considering technologies that people consider as obsolete, if we re-contextualize them and give them new powers, we can sort of create a magic, something that people don’t expect will happen. It’s so ironic because people who have grown up in our generation expect anything in an ocularcentric sense, like, if you were to go to the movies, not so much that we can see it happening, but that we can see it happening within a frame and within a sort of simulation. We can expect that to happen and in that sense it’s boring and we don’t even care. The fact that fifty years ago, something as insane as dinosaurs walking the earth and there being a park that you could go to and see dinosaurs walking the earth, and taking huge shits, and Jeff Goldbloom making a really hilarious joke about this really huge pile of shit that was made by a dinosaur, that would have like terrified people and been a huge controversy if it had happened even twenty years before it happened. I feel strongly that progression happens at such a rate that we can’t philosophically justify anything because the entire scientific and cerebral world is going to keep wanting to advance as far as possible. Philosophy had said dualism is bad and that the mind and the body aren’t separate, they are together, but technology keeps on reinforcing that the mind is the most powerful, and the body is just a way to interact with the mind, and that’s what all technologies do. I mean consider the keyboard on a computer, that’s a way to interface your mind with technology and it’s completely reductionist of an entire body. Everything that technology assumes is so philosophically regressive and that we understand that the body is so important and that there’s no distinction, there’s no split, as was old thinking – this is such old thinking, but technology constantly reinforces that. I guess that’s what makes me want to be an artist, is that’s the one opportunity within technology that you can actually reconstitute these things and instead of reducing the body into these really small packages, you can expand the body into these magnificent spaces.
ARTIST INTERVIEW: VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH (JACKSON DARBY, MAX EVANS AND CHRIS WHITLEY)
Maybe we could start by you guys telling us a bit about your musical background.
Chris: I was studying classical violin, and I still am. Also, kind of dabbling in improvised music. Max and I played in an ensemble in high school that played a lot of improvised music and that’s where we sort of discovered that, and are building on it now.
Max: Me as well, my background was in classical music and classical training, but definitely was also really into new contemporary classical music. Then, I met Chris and some other people while in high school and we developed this interest in improvised music, and definitely formed some strong opinions about it.
Jackson: I don’t have a traditional background. I’ve made experimental hip-hop music and had an experimental hip-hop band, which Max played in, for a while. Now, I’m into mostly instrumental, experimental hip-hop stuff.
Something you deal with, in this project, is combining a more traditional background in music with a more contemporary one. Do you find that difficult?
Max: It could be difficult, definitely, but I think we click personalities. At the beginning, it was definitely rough, because the sounds are really different to balance out. I think the fact that we’re not purely electronic and acoustic helps. The vinyl sampling that we do works as a nice sort of mediator between the two spectrums.
Chris: And we do our best to maintain an organic sound. We don’t use sounds that are clearly digital or synthetic. Initially, that was when we had the most difficulties reconciling the two because we hadn’t heard a lot of things that did.
Jackson: And we were just sort of in a place where we had so much that we could do with our technology and we were just trying to figure out a place for it all.
Could you tell us a bit about what you’ll be doing for the event at Art Matters?
Jackson: It’s what we would do for any show. It’s mostly composed works, loosely composed I guess, accompanied by live projections.
Chris: I think something that might make it a little bit different from other concerts that we’ve done is, for us, we’re really aware of our audience, and because we’re going to be playing in a more performance-art situation, I think that we’ll be free to go out there a little bit more.
Max: Because we want to be like, reasonably successful in what we do.
Chris: And we have this problem, too, that anytime anyone asks us what kind of music we make, it sounds immediately alienating, like Jackson and I were at a party and people asked us the kind of music we make, and I’m like “experimental electronic and classical music?” [Laughs]. They were like “oh,” and literally walked away. They had nothing to say.
What role does improvisation play in the music that you make?
Jackson: Now, when we do live shows, it’s not really improvised, but a lot of our compositions come out of improvisation.
Max: It’s funny, because we started at a place that was pure improvisation and we were all so comfortable with that sort of idea, which is quite the opposite of where a lot of people start. So now we fell like we’re totally composed but in many respects, we’re not at all.
Chris: I’d say it’s like fifty-fifty. Conceptually a lot of the sounds and electronics that we have I suppose are planned and created, but all of our music is based on improvisation.
You cite a number of twentieth-century composers, such as John Cage, as being influential to your work. Considering that you are about to perform under the banner ART DOESN’T MATTER, do you feel that your work is somewhat in the tradition of those artists whose work is to a certain extent irreverent or satirizing the practice and presentation of art?
Chris: I think that John Cage or a lot of those composers would influence our views on art in general, because a lot of the concepts he talks about, or the ones that come up in his work, or other people, minimalist composers and that kind of idea, I don’t think we’re trying to necessarily satirize anything really, it’s just that we constantly have those ideas in our mind.
Max: I think the way that we feel about the music we made is pretty genuine; the way we feel about our band or the kind of music that we make can get pretty sarcastic. The names of the tracks on our LP are pretty ridiculous, and nobody even calls us out on it. Nobody ever asks, “Where the hell did you get this shit from?”
Chris: And we make fun of ourselves all the time.
Jackson: Having said that, some people have pointed out our outrageous band name.
What kind of reactions have you gotten to it?
Jackson: Usually, at first, people just say, “oh, that’s … cool,” and you just have to laugh at yourself so that they don’t think that you’re that pretentious to call yourself that and take it that seriously.
Where does it come from? Other than, obviously, the bible.
Jackson: It’s a Roger Fenton photo called Valley of the Shadow of Death in the eighteen hundreds which was the first, or, supposedly one of the first, photos to document war that wasn’t depicting heroism or something untruthful about what was happening. It’s a desolate landscape filled with cannonballs.
What about the track titles that you were talking about? What are those?
Jackson: While we were mixing the album, we didn’t really have an overall concept in mind and it just kind of dawned on us while we were putting together the tracks and the sequence of the songs…
Black Spruce Boreal Forest on the River Alaska! [Laughs]. That one’s really beautiful.
Chris: Yeah, that one’s really good.
Artist Interview: Jean-Marc Périn, Paul Frigon, Philippe Léonard
Can you tell us a bit about what you’ll be doing for this performance?
Jean-Marc: We really want our bodies to take part in the performance. It’s going to be something about… well the fish, the matter of the fish, but also about our own bodies playing with the fish and with the sound in the mics. So it’s intricate.
What inspired you to draw the connection between the fishing industry and the film industry?
Is that a bad question?
Paul: No, no. It’s a good question. Should we say the truth? Or…
Philippe: Yeah, we should say the truth.
Paul: The truth is not that interesting.
Philippe: We had this funny idea of making something about fish. At first we didn’t know exactly how we were going to use fish but we just thought it was funny so we tried to make connections with something we already do, like we process our film ourselves the old-fashioned way of doing films and we found that there were connections with old-time fishing, the fishing industry today and cinematography. So we got this idea and we just elaborated it on paper to see what would happen.
Paul: All the connections are there. At first, it seems irrelevant, but once we started thinking about it, it seems obvious. You can make links, that’s a thing that you do at art school, you make links between things that are irrelevant. [Laughs].
It’s a beautiful metaphor.
Philippe: Thank you.
Have you had any projects in the past that have been similar to this?
Paul: We made a film under the name Usine and it was about people and artists that inhabit spaces and use urban spaces as a place to create. I had this very romantic idea of abandoned places.
Philippe: I think we’ve done similar things before, but not all in the same project. It’s the first time we’re going to incorporate performance, live projections, and live music.
Paul: As for what we do usually, we’re not really musicians, but Phil is a musician, Jean-Marc does some, but I’m totally not a musician. I’m a total beginner and I have no idea what I’m doing when I’m playing with music. We do mostly film and photography. We do some live projections for shows and for festivals.
So you guys have been working together for a pretty long time?
Philippe: A couple of years. We met in cegep four years ago. Four years of filmmaking! [Laughs]. We made a tutorial film about how to process your own film, and it was pretty funny…
Paul: We really did this, for a time. At one point, I had my kitchen converted into a dark room, and we processed film in there. We would drink and process film and have these kind of geeky parties.
How do you feel about your work being presented under the banner Art Doesn’t Matter?
Jean-Marc: Personally, I’m really into this point of view. First of all, our project falls under that sort of category. It’s for fun, really. It matters, but how? And why? These are the questions we want to ask.
Paul: I was totally elated when I saw that you picked our project because it was sort of a joke. But it was serious, too, in the way we drew out those relationships, but we never expected anyone to take this and say, “Oh, actually do this.”
There’s an underlying theme, I think, with all of the artists who are collaborating for this show, that there’s a certain tension between taking the work seriously to a certain extent and then not taking it seriously at all.
Jean-Marc: I guess people have a lot of energy or want to express themselves, they just don’t know how or maybe they don’t have the confidence to do that. So I think it’s a great opportunity to make an evening of performances or art that evades categorization.