I have been to The Infinite Mix twice in the past two months and each time I spent weeks raving about it to colleagues and friends. One of them, upon hearing that it consisted of video installations, instantly shook his head in disapproval- he explained that video art alienated him, that the works were usually discouragingly ‘messy’ and he always felt confounded rather than positively stimulated. But when I mentioned that The Vinyl Factory was involved and all works integrated music into their structure, the man was converted.
If there ever was an opportunity for a primal, instinctive bodily response to sound vibrations and melodic rhythms, the latest exhibition at The Store is undoubtedly it. Ten impactful audio-visual works that you can usually hear before you see them – each exhibition space (‘studio’) is entered through a pitch-black corridor that deactivates your vision and only lets you feel the work’s echoing beat. Nothing heightens the senses more than these reduced conditions; less is instantly more.
Someone like John Giorno would know a thing or two about this phenomenon. The charismatic American Beat poet appears in an immersive multi-screen installation of another artist and his long-term lover, Ugo Rondinone. Giorno performs a poem, set to a recurring guitar melody, that he wrote on the occasion of his 70th birthday and intended as a gift to all who had somehow shaped his life. His verses are clear and penetrative (and sarcastic, serious and amusing) but above all, meant and felt. As he thanks people for everything from an applause to ‘being vacuum cleaners sucking everything into [their] dirt bag’, twenty screens mercilessly surround the viewers from all sides; Giorno recites emphatically, stomps his feet, gestures with his hands and tenses all facial muscles. His body language and his poetry – compelling images and vehement sounds – hold you in a state similar to a trance; I could see visitors lying in abandon on the floor, mellowed to Giorno’s velvety, convincing voice. All the while he was almost in (physical) pain to convey to us the blessings of nothing, of a ‘primordial, substance-less world’ that allows for a ‘face of the naked mind.’ The piece finishes with Giorno lighting a cigarette, cracking a f**k-it smile and disappearing from the stage.
Either by coincidence or by meticulous curatorial planning, another work picks up where Rondinone’s installation left off. Rachel Rose, the youngest participating artist and 2015 Frieze Artist Award winner, conjured up a visually mesmerizing video in which it would be possible to experience the primordial, fetal sensibility that Giorno yearned for. Her work stems from the astronaut David Wolf’s confessional account of his altered bodily perception while in space and upon returning to Earth. Starting ominously – ‘When I first came back to Earth, after 128 days in space, I thought I had ruined my life’ – we are ultimately led to experience Wolf’s floating disembodiedness alternating with increased gravitational pull he felt when the space mission finished (he would collide with door frames; even his ears felt heavy!). Rose ingeniously montaged prismatic views of a neutral buoyancy lab’s pool with hypnotic swirls of blending milk, ink, foam and oil and shots of garishly-lit concerts; they are visualisations of Wolf’s heightened sensory reactions and, on another level, of human weightless presence in the liquid of a mother’s womb, in the vastness of the universe.
Rose’s Everything and More (2015) could be utterly untethered if not for the artist’s decision to project the work on a scrim situated in a window space of an otherwise dark studio – the video is manipulated to slightly fade at times so that a silhouette of London rooftops appears underneath the image. Anchoring the work in the real world, Rose further explores the nuances of proximity, distance and site-specificity and enables visitors to inhabit several different registers at once.
The Store, a Berlin-based retailer that fuses food, fashion, art, music and furniture, has in London moved to a Frederick Gibberd-designed Brutalist building which has provided artists with unusual installation spots – apart from the window used by Rose for her reverie, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has squeezed her infernal, opera-singing Maria Callais’ hologram into a corridor in the subterranean damp basement while to see Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife (2015), the visitors have to descend much lower, using a graffitied staircase, until they spill out into a walled projection space in the car park. In The Infinite Mix, spatial elements are treated equally importantly as the visual and sonic ones. They are all handled as found material, investigated, cut up and spliced up into a new format; artists pay attention to the original functions and meanings of those mediums but end up re-shuffling them to challenge the status quo of human perception and cognizance.
Kahlil Joseph’s work stands out in that respect. His role as an artist is secondary to his full-time job as a successful music video director and producer (think Beyonce’s Lemonade or Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes). More importantly, the content of his piece m.A.A.d (2014) – a mutation of documentary material, music video and cinematic essay – elevates and dignifies the re-assembling principle operational in other artists’ installations.
One cannot understand why his work is described as ‘hypnotic art’ or ‘emotional film-making’ until they, too, sit down before his two-screen installation in the belly of the Store’s brutalist building. As m.A.A.d (2014) unfolds, the streets, kitchens and barber shops of Compton, California pulsate alongside a collage of Kendrick Lamar’s rap (sampled from his eponymous album good kid, m.A.A.d city). Sequences of dance shots and car rides are often slowed down, a common trope of music videos; dubious labour, gun violence, religious belief and alienation seep from Lamar’s lyrics like from an apt documentary (Lamar was raised in Compton, see PS below). Joseph’s non-narrative, associative approach aims to give these characters and their neighbourhood cinematic elegance and combustive energy that transcends the directness of everyday reality. He has studied Tarkovsky and worked with Terence Malick in the past- he doesn’t opt for shortcuts.
About fifteen years ago, Nicolas Bourriaud wrote in Postproduction (2001) that artists had begun adopting the methods of DJs and programmers, enabling them to sample other people’s work (almost every work in the show mixed in pre-existing songs, freely borrowing from the catalogue of cultural production) and recycle it for their own purposes. Artists turned into ‘semionauts’ that generate new pathways through the forms and signs. Like poets and musicians, they don’t write out full sentences but string up fragments and look for possible relationships and metaphoric images in new configurations. And that’s also the reason why this exhibition works so well- the used popular songs (retrieved from jazz, hip-hop, country, pop, blues, R&B, Jamaican house) lend their essentially poetic structure to the video works, muddling up the conventionally clear‑cut visual and sonic categories and the expectations that come with them: you can see and/or hear a visual poem or contemplate a cinematic essay here. The point is to defamiliarize the familiar and introduce more room to wriggle (or dance or sway, often literally) in order to facilitate endless new examples of performance and performativity, including an individual expression.
What I found throughout the exhibition is an extraordinary pull and push dynamic- on the one hand, the video installations reactivated my sensors and overloaded me with stimuli shooting through my body to the last nerve endings and on the other, they acted as soothing, meditative composites that temporarily released me from reality. In this protean display, there is scope to be alert and then surrendered, even to tread between the two opposing positions in one work alone. This demonstrates that there is no essential process of treating image and sound and the myriad of their potential (re)constructions is the way to mirror the ‘confounding’ and ‘messy’ experiences of the mind and of the times.
The Infinite Mix presents intricately assembled pieces, their physical impact and conceptual idea locking together to generate an expanded space for humour, surprise, dream, make-belief and social and cultural commentary. However, it lies with the viewers themselves to be the DJs of their own exhibition experience.
The Infinite Mix by Hayward Gallery and The Vinyl Factory runs until 4th December at 180 The Strand, London.
PS- Read an interview with Kendrick Lamar, the rap singer whose songs sparked m.A.A.d. and who himself was raised and shaped by Compton:
PS1 – Watch John Giorno’s perform ‘Thanx 4 Nothing’ although with a very different atmosphere than the one at The Infinite Mix: