Many years ago something happened that made me question the nature of music, and ultimately all "art" for that matter. I was at a friend's house playing a record (Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music), when his mom complained about the noise. She asked, "what's that sound?" "It's music," we replied. Moments later, my friend echoed his mother's sentiment: "If we can call this music, what is music anyway?" By which he meant, what should and should not be considered music--how can we tell music from un-music? Given that Reed's MMM is what you might call abstract, experimental, or avant-garde -- it's literally just 64 minutes of uninterrupted guitar feedback -- it was a perfectly reasonable question to ask.
Somehow, immediately, an answer struck me: "If someone calls something music, then that's what it is--music. That's all it takes." To my mind, it's a sufficient measuring stick by which to answer the question. A sensible way to account for boundary-defying visionaries like John Cage, Brian Eno, or even Edgard Varese, figures whose music challenges the very concept of creative process, often intentionally favoring chance and accident over control and intent. But, of course, the bigger question here is: what constitutes "art" in general? In truth, ever since Marcel Duchamp -- hitherto disinterested in strictly visual mediums--slapped a urinal in a studio and called it art, it's a question we've had to take much more seriously (Duchamp's answer, too, seems to be: if someone considers an item to be art, then it's art). Now, nearly 100 years later, an entire new generation of artists are learning how to answer the question for themselves.
One such group is the Flinching Eye Collective. Consisting of seven multi-medium artists, FEC is a roaming performance project that seeks to subvert traditional artistic conventions by exploring the connectedness of sound, video and environment. Straddling the fringes of low and high art, FEC's interactive exhibitions provide a complete immersive experience, incorporating elements of improvisation, indeterminacy and philosophical playfulness to fascinating effect. In other words, expect the unexpected (playing drum-kits with live microphones, applying power-tools to running turntables--things like that). In this way, each one of their performances is a true original, a single-use, realtime stick of art. Luckily, with FEC's upcoming three-leg Texas tour, we'll get to experience this art for ourselves. Occasioned by Flinching Eye Collective's performance in Exposition Park this Friday, we spoke with two of their members: Max Berstein and Ryan Ruehlen.
What can the audience expect? Ryan: They can expect, in a very short window of time, a lot of different kinds of experiences. The show moves through ideas very quickly in a very intense way. A lot of the work has to do with our reaction to different kinds of technology--digital technology, physical technology.
What different sorts of mediums are involved in your performances? Max: Everything from kitchen appliances, to noise art, to projection mapping, to, um, toys! Toys definitely come into the performances quite frequently. Handmade electronics also. Ryan: Again, a lot of these things are responses to technology--rebuilding them, reworking them.
What's the primary motivation behind FEC? Max: At the core of where this group started [in 2011] was a dissatisfaction with how media, time-based work, performance and sound were presented in art spaces. Ryan: A big part of what motivates us is the idea of collaboration. For us collaboration is an absolutely necessary part of what makes us tick. I think collaboration is a form that will be remembered as vital part of being an artist in the twenty-first century.
What do you see as FEC's position in the contemporary arts landscape? Ryan: There are more and more shows now, like us, that are integrating different sorts of media -- computer tech, digital tech, live projection, with performers and sound -- and I think what describes the spirit of the times of younger artists right now is this compulsion to not be satisfied with a single medium. I think we are part of that larger cultural movement within art.
Voluble, but carefully-measured in their speech, the two artists exude an undeniable excitement about their craft. On creative manners, they're clearly as impassioned as they are literate, and their knowledge of artistic context pays dividends. Pulling from a pool of disparate sources (Max: "I draw a lot from philosophy, cinema and even NPR"), Flinching Eye Collective is something of a history lesson in the avant garde. The acoustic inventiveness of Alvin Lucier, the conceptual awareness of Marcel Duchamp, and the everything-else genius of John Cage are all present. Which is to say, they're doing their due diligence to work through the conceptual and aesthetic questions posed to them.
In the liner notes of Metal Machine Music, Reed writes, "I'm sorry, but not especially, if it turns you off." Read: this music isn't for everyone. Likewise, the Flinching Eye Collective's art isn't for everyone. They're out to challenge expectations, to move the bar of progress up a few notches. However, what they do is not difficult art, per se. It might try your patience, but it's not hard to wrap your head around. At its heart, FEC is childlike, delighting in the sort of raw fascination that we're all born with, but slowly shed as we enter adulthood. And that's why FEC is important. Their art gets back to the root of all creative impulse, back to that place and time where we enjoyed music as just sound, and visual art as images and shapes. No question, what FEC do is serious work full of serious artistic inquiry and intellectual/sensual intrigue, but, because their art is also injected with a certain degree of humor and naïve exploration, it displays an admirable and infectious sense of play too. A sense of play they no doubt hope to share with their audiences.
Duchamp once said: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."
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With that quote in mind, I asked: "What's the interactive element of your performances?"
"There's moments where members of the audience are asked to help a piece come to fruition; without their engagement the piece can not be executed," Ryan explains. "They help us complete our ideas."
Great minds think alike.
The Flinching Eye Collective performs this Friday (8:00 p.m.) at CentralTrak's Expo Park gallery (800 Exposition Ave, 75226). Admission is FREE