Performance Art

4 Multimedia and Postmodernism

What separates more contemporary trends in multimedia and performance art from Cage and Fluxus is pluralism and an engagement with the vernacular that is more characteristic of what we can call postmodernism. In part this difference stems from a greater suspicion of the future than that held by the futurists, and is closer in some ways to Dada nihilism; it is an approach that shares certain aspects with pop art sensibilities while also drawing on the vocabulary developed in avant-garde art in the first half of the twentieth century.

Christian Marclay is an artist who takes up the Fluxus concern with instruments. He seeks out the visual echoes of music in the fabric of society and the fetishized musical object. These are intimately entwined with notions of technology as objects; from vinyl records, album covers, magnetic tape, photography, and video to instruments of his own making that are impossible to play, such as Accordion (1999), an accordion with a surrealistically extended bellows, and Lip Lock (2000), a witty conjoining of a tuba and a pocket trumpet at their mouth pieces, resembling a hydra budding its offspring, but with no space for breath. He also performs in groups and plays music in the form of vinyl records, which are often scratched, broken, or otherwise altered.[18] The destruction of the commodity of music is a part of this process, as is its subversion in Marclay’s wonderfully parodic use of record sleeves. He has also been involved in the Cage-like circus works Berlin Mix (1993) and Graffiti Composition (1996–2002), the first of which mixed live musicians (180 in all) of various levels of skill and from diverse musical backgrounds, cultures, and genres in the Straßenbahndepot, an enormous industrial space. Unlike Cage (who allows things to happen and does not direct), this group of turntablists, church choirs, keyboard players, marching bands, and individual players from Turkey, Germany, Africa, and elsewhere were conducted by Marclay himself. All this took place against the political background of Berlin, in the wake of the fall of the Wall.

The opposite of Marclay’s concern with the instruments of music is the British artist Sam Taylor-Wood’s concern with the performer of music. In her work Prelude in Air (2006), she presents a film of a casually dressed cellist who is totally engaged with the Bach prelude he is playing but is performing the work without his instrument. The music and the man are palpably present; the instrument that links the two is absent. This absence and the sense of loss thus engendered have been amplified in her most recent work, Sigh (2008), which marries a recording of the BBC Concert Orchestra playing a specially commissioned piece by Anne Dudley, with film of the musicians acting out everything it takes to play, minus their actual instruments. In most contemporary work the modernist idea of media exclusivity has been replaced by mixed media. Sound, vision, the performer, and audience are often blurred together.

Marclay founded the group The Bachelors, Even with Kurt Henry on guitar; the group’s name indicates not only his debt to Duchamp, but also his interest in popular music of all kinds (in this case, the 1960s group The Bachelors).