Slave to the rhythm

Simon Maidment and Mark Feary talk with Danius Kesminas

Published in cac interviu, issue 9-10 / 2008 spring – summer.

Danius Kesminas is an Australian-Lithuanian artist who regularly uses musical forms as a process for engaging his concerns, including the visual arts industry, critiquing its reverence, seriousness and earnestness. To this end, the musicality within Kesminas’ practice is a tactic for collaboration into uncharted territories, rather than an endpoint in itself. His practice, often intentionally provocative, gives rise to discussion around authorship and cultural mythologies.

We held an informal discussion with Kesminas at West Space (4 April 2008), a contemporary art organisation in Melbourne we are both involved with, to tease out some of his strategies. Among the projects we discussed was Slave Pianos, a group consisting of two contemporary artists (of which Kesminas is one) and two composers/musicians, who create ambitious events combining installation, music and performance. Their subject matter is usually art figures and movements in recent (20th Century) art history. Kesminas also initiated an art project and band in Yogyakata with 7 Indonesian musicians in 2006. Their name Punkasila references both the cultural movement of Punk, and Pancasila, the official philosophical doctrine of the Indonesian state, as espoused by President Soekarno in 1945. This art-performance-installation-band is a high energy, anarchic hybrid that manifests in a unique blend of traditional Indonesian crafts, homemade military band outfits, machine gun guitars, and post-disaster rock with lyrics that give voice to the cacophony of acronyms constituting the Indonesian body politic. Kesminas is also a founder of the art/music group The Histrionics, which melds the musicality of a banal pub-rock covers band with refashioned lyrics critiquing the cannons of twentieth century art history.

Mark Feary and Simon Maidment, 2008

Simon Maidment: By way of introduction to your practice Danius, I’d like to begin with the provocations and interventions that you’ve undertaken, often with artists or the art world as their focus or subject. It seems to me these provocations have evolved a good deal, and are taking a particular form recently in the international collaborations you’ve initiated in Indonesia, China and Cambodia. To give some context for that development though, perhaps you’d like to start by giving us an example of a local intervention that you’ve done here in Australia.

Danius Kesminas: Well, one of those was the whole Domenico de Clario episode. [de Clario is a Melbourne-based contemporary artist] It was about 1998 when Maudie Palmer curated an exhibition called ‘Remanence’ at the old Magistrates’ Court, with Dom, Marina Ambramovic, Daniel Buren, Cai Guo-Qiang, Dennis Oppenheim, Imants Tillers and others for the Melbourne

Festival. Dom’s show was a grand piano and accoutrements in one of the courtrooms with tiered seating, and he would perform between 12 noon – 7pm, daily for 2 weeks. Well, Michael Stevenson [a New Zealand born artist, also a member of Slave Pianos] and I, we were onto it, we thought let’s secretly record it, and make pirate copies, bootleg it! It was so easy to do, because guess what, Dom’s blindfolded! He can’t see anything! We were on shifts, I’m on one day and Michael’s on the next day. A big part of Dom’s practice is endurance, but get this, he’s not there at 12… I’m there at 12, Michael’s there at 12, there’s no Dom! Well he walks in with his café latte about 1:30, and I’m having to [jumps under table] get down hiding under the seats! [laughs] Anyway, we recorded 7 different days onto cassette and packaged it as ‘Domenico de Clario; Live at the Former Magistrates’ Court’, and made an elaborately produced box set, like we’ve done with Slave Pianos, and we made it available for sale at Readings Book Store in Carlton! And we put this ridiculous price on, like $100, so you know no one’s going to buy it, but it’s on display! Anyway, I just let it go, went overseas to do some project, and the next thing you know, my old man’s ringing up, saying, ‘Danius, there’s a letter here from a solicitor’. So I’m being sued…

Mark Feary: And you can’t read it because it was written by a blindfolded solicitor.

DK: It was a shock, because you’d expect someone to call and say ‘What are you doing dickhead? Knock it off’. The letter demanded the return of the tapes and an order to sign a statutory declaration. So I drafted a response using references from ‘Peripheral Vision’ by Charles Green [Australian art theorist and critic], which has a large section on de Clario. I took the text, substituted my name for Dom, and just twisted it a little bit, to explain what I was doing – because that’s partly what Dom’s about, appropriational strategies – and I sent it to his lawyer, saying actually, what I’m doing is an artwork! But I didn’t say where I’d derived the text.

MF: And then you got another letter, from Charles Green’s solicitor…

DK: [laughs] Well, I was saying, I’m just doing what Dom does. It’s ridiculous, if you actually apply that stuff, and test it, he wants to sue you… Anyway, they demanded the return of the master tapes, and I really didn’t want to, but I had to do something. So I unscrewed the casings of the cassettes, took out the magnetic tape – seriously, there was miles of tape – and just shoved it into a padded bag, just the tape, all tangled and completely unusable, and kept the cases… because that’s my property, I’ll keep the casings and you can have the tape. Can you imagine the lawyers opening this package? They’d be going ‘what the fuck is this? Oh Dom, this must be yours!’ Didn’t hear a peep…

MF: Have you seen Dom again?

DK: Yeah, there’s a postscript to the story, because later he moved to Western Australia, heading up one of the art schools there. And we did a gig there, The Histrionics, at PICA [the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art], and he was in the audience… And he was friendly, he obviously thought, ’oh shit, maybe I should… just be… your friend?!’

MF: Thinking ‘that way this will never happen to me again’!

DK: And I’m thinking, good, whatever, I’m your friend too, it’s not about being your enemy! I don’t know, all that world is just so stupidly wound up.

MF: Precious?

DK: Yeah, precious in a way, and that’s exactly what The Histrionics are particularly allergic to, preciousness, to pretentiousness, to all that kind of posturing. That’s why I love going to Indo [Indonesia – where Kesminas formed a band called Punkasila in Yogyakarta], you know because… well there just isn’t any of that. Pure economics prevent, preclude, any of that indulgence, and the stakes are a great deal higher, the very notion of making art is pretty fucking profound. It’s not some privileged indulgence. You go over there and all my little Dom de Clario stunts, all my Histrionics gags, well, they don’t mean anything. They don’t! You just feel like a dickhead, it’s a kind of crisis, you’ve got to rethink everything. And in the end all my work is about engagement, it’s about communication. Well, when you go over there, it just doesn’t hold water, to them it’s meaningless.

SM: Because it has been a trend with both The Histrionics and Slave Pianos that you use those music forms, whether it’s rock or the composed orchestral, operatic works, as a foil to interrogate art and art history…

DK: I’m glad you both appreciate the connection between those projects, because many people are completely confused by the fact that they’re utilising different musical genres, so they think they’re not related, but they are and obviously so. The Histrionics is often misunderstood as being a negative project. There is an element of parody there, but there’s a great deal which is homage, bloody oath! How else could you be so obsessed about doing all this stuff! [waves at the Slave Pianos transcriptions and Histrionics lyric sheets with their pages of footnotes]

MF: Well, that’s what we were discussing this morning, how not just with The Histrionics, but with the other projects as well, there’s that homage, while at the same time there’s an attempt to kind of break down the influence that work has over you…

DK: Yeah, it’s not about killing the father, but it’s not about being an orphan either! [laughs] That seems self-evident… you know what it is? It’s ‘value adding’… [laughs]

SM: And you’ve turned your attention to a whole range of artists through the Slave Pianos project, tell us more about that undertaking.

DK: The whole Slave Pianos thing started in establishing a vast, but always expanding, archive of visual artists’ sound works. There’s always been this trajectory with artists making music. Some of this material is really obscure, I mean, basically it all is, a lot of it is on vinyl and cassette, so finding this stuff can be difficult, you’ve really got to dig deep, forensically. Except we’re not really fans, we don’t listen to it recreationally! [laughs] That’s for sure, it’s not for recreational purposes! So we take this sound, or noise, or even just the audio track of a video piece, and we transcribe it as musical notation, and prepare it for an automated piano performance.

SM: So anyone can ‘learn to be the artist’, become the artist through the learning the sheet music, like all those guitar magazines!

DK: Exactly.

SM: Tell us about what’s involved in the transcription of a piece.

DK: The process was devised by the two musicians in Slave Pianos, Neil Kelly and Rohan Drape. Rohan’s written a computer program to import any sound source and generate musical notation. He then tweaks it to make it musically coherent. It’s just notes, but he’ll shape it while listening back to the original. So it’s always faithful to the source.

Why the piano? Number one, it’s a play on Peter Tyndall’s ‘Slave Guitars’. And the piano, because there’s a vast history of artists using the piano right back through the century. I mean the violin is a far older instrument, and the guitar probably is too, but the piano, is like a crucible of… seriousness.

MF: It’s such a class-based symbol of refinement, rather than the guitar, which is associated far more with a rebellion against those kinds of systems.

DK: That’s the point, what we are doing with Slave Pianos is playing with the avant garde, and returning it to the conservatorium. It’s a supremely radical gesture, right, but couched in this really kind of conservative academic process. That’s what really disturbs some artists.

SM: How did Punkasila come about?

DK: Well, I got an Asialink [Australian cultural funding organisation] four month studio residency in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. By the way, there’s no actual studio! [laughs] And our notion of contemporary art doesn’t really exist! There’s a lot of activity there, fucking hell, it’s flourishing! But it’s not about the art world, it’s the opposite to the preciousness we were talking about before. And these guys are doing stuff in a way that’s not about ambition, or career, it’s just pure. I’ve never seen anything like it, I was blown away. For the first few weeks, I was just soaking up the depth of the culture, the people, the food, all that. And I wanted to respond, to make something, to do something. But every stupid idea I’d come up with, I’d just look out the window and go well [snorts] I’m just a fool, I give up, because look at that, that’s just amazing. Like I say, it was sort of a crisis, it wasn’t that I was depressed, I was inspired but it was just a questioning of well, all my tricks are meaningless here? So I had this translator guy, and he would take me out every night to see bands, because there’s a really vibrant music scene over there. I was thinking ‘how good are these guys! Imagine what you could do with them!’. Also I didn’t know anything about Indonesia, pretty much still don’t, but I was reading a book by Damien Kingsbury, ‘The Politics of Indonesia’, really intensively, and checking this other stuff out in parallel. As I’m reading I’m constantly referring back to the index, because every page is just imbedded with acronyms, and it’s like 400 odd pages. And by the time I’d gotten to page 399, I’ve gone ‘eureka!’ – acronyms, a project about acronyms. Well, how do I do that? Then I thought about these artist guys playing in bands… Basically I just approached the dudes and said hey, let’s form a band, and I handpicked everyone, I said I want Hahan from that band, I want Rudy Atjeh from that band, I want Iyok from that group, Janu from that band. It was like an Indonesian super group! It was all friendly, they all knew one another, and support each other, and their default setting, like mine, is just to say ‘yes – we’ll do that, I’m into that’. I’m like twenty years older than them, and I’m white, non-muslim and the co-lead singer – that’s hilarious! [laughs] And then I said, look, this is the concept – acronym wars! And they’re going ‘well, that’s a good concept, whatever that is… What’s the music?’. Ah, that’s a good point… So we went into the studio, and I just stole a bunch of stuff to first get it going, I pulled out a Black Sabbath riff, a Lobby Lloyd riff, which is like [sarcastically] ‘I’m educating them in Oz Rock’ [laughs]. And they’re going ‘What?’ but once they cracked the code, they were like ‘we can write this’ and off they went, it was great. And so then I was like – let’s

make batik [traditional Indonesian screenprinting] camouflage costumes, let’s make machine gun guitars! Well, when they got the idea, they went crazy on it!

SM: Tell us a little bit about the reaction to the project.

DK: Well when Asialink found out of what we were doing, they wrote me a letter saying, ‘you’re outta here!’. Not quite, but they were concerned. Then Geoff Thompson, who’s an Australian journalist based in Jakarta working for the Foreign Correspondent program on ABC Television, also got wind of it. Because we did cause quite a stir… I’m making it out to be a bed of roses, but in actual fact, we could not get the CD pressed in Indonesia, no way. All the song titles are Indonesian acronyms, and they’re all military, political, bureaucratic and cultural institutions. Well the pressing plants have just gone ‘ooh we don’t want to know anything about this!’, I’m saying ‘no, no, no, wait, you don’t understand’. Nope, they wouldn’t do it, I could not get it pressed in Indonesia. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is real currency, it is still kind of volatile. And even on the Foreign Correspondent TV dispatch on Punkasila, Wimo, the keyboard player, says ‘if we play this music in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong people, we would be killed… but you know… we don’t do that!’.

MF: Did it feel like that though?

DK: No, no, because I trusted the boys and they know the limits. I’m there encouraging and provoking them, and whatever, but never to the extent where I put these guys under any pressure or danger.

SM: It strikes me that both Punkasila and The Happy Endings [a Shanghai based all-girl noise band formed by Kesminas], gives voice to these concerns that the people in these places can’t themselves be seen to give voice to…

DK: Yes! I take the heat and suddenly they’re empowered, because right now in Indonesia it’s a post-reformasi [post-reformation], post-Soeharto environment, and there is a new moment of optimism. But the military is still very influential – you don’t want to get involved with them. When we started playing gigs, people thought it was hilarious, they’d call out to me, ‘bule!’ which means ‘handsome person’ but it can also mean ‘foreign fuckwit’. [laughs] My assistant once labelled me ‘manic white trash lost in the third world with a bunch of ideas’.

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