New York City's most revered art collective centered around
a man by the name of Andy Warhol. Set in a drug-infused laboratory -- his 1960s
dream studio The Factory -- and culminating in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable
multimedia events, Warhol and his ilk transformed the subcultural landscape
in ways still difficult to comprehend. But if Warhol was the general of this
amphetamine army, his front line soldiers were The Velvet Underground and Nico.
'Andy would show his movies on us,' Lou Reed explained
in 'Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk' by Legs McNeil
and Gillian McCain. 'We wore black so you could see the movie. But we were
all wearing black anyway.'
These were the salad days of the 'bohemian avant-garde
hero artists,' and The Velvet Underground provided the soundtrack. Sure,
they gave rise to punk rock and ushered alternative culture eventually all the
way to the mainstream, but they also made up one-half of one of New York City's
all-time happiest marriages: that of art and music, in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish from that day forward, 'til death do them part. This
outsider union brought the city's dirtiest urchins together with harmony that
has since been lost, but not for a lack of trying. Though these glory days are
gone, the legacy persists in concert series throughout some of the city's finest
museums and art spaces, countless artist collaborations and most of all, a mutual
The art and independent music scenes are appropriately inbred
and infinitely mutualistic, in the terms of symbiosis. That is, each survives
longer because of the other. The cultural circumstances that allow this relationship
to endure are based in breakdown -- the demolition of boundaries -- but also
in the necessity of cooperation. We see it in art spaces large and small, and
with musicians tough and timid. From the operatic grandeur of Sigur Rós
to the crude computerization of Dan Deacon and the Wham City faithful from
the coy sexuality of Ryan McGinley to the playboy antics of Damien Hirst and
The connections range from the superficial -- quick collaborative
one-offs -- to the lifelong: a McGinley photograph graces the cover of last
year's Sigur Rós album Hirst did the art for The Hours' new record
Phoenix's new music video for 'Lisztomania' features the French boys
on the steps of the Franz Liszt museum in Bayreuth, Germany Bjork married sculptor
and filmmaker Matthew Barney. And this summer, The Deli partnered with Rooftop
Films to bring independent features and short films to picturesque outdoor venues
with each event featuring performances by emerging musicians like Cymbals Eat
Guitars and The Antlers.
Put simply, 'creative people tend to congregate,'
says Ethan Swan, who curates the Get Weird series at Manhattan's New Museum.
Today, many museums and spaces have designated people or departments to bridging
the now-small gap between art and music. When asked what he considers before
forging a bond between a museum and a musician, Swan points to the museum's
mission statement: 'New Art New Ideas.'
If The Velvet Underground and Warhol did anything, it was put
cracks in some old ideas, some of which can be traced back to 1949 and a February
issue of 'Harper's' which featured an article by Russel Lynes titled
'Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow.' Two months later a chart appeared
in 'Life' magazine which classified American tastes from highbrow
to lowbrow. The idea was that taste was more the basis for American prestige
than the previous markers of wealth or the family you came from. Certain artists
-- classical painters or musicians -- could occupy the upper stratum. Noisy
guitar rock, had it existed, would doubtlessly lie low on the totem.
But, of course, times change. Bringing us up to date was a
1999 article in the 'The New Yorker,' entitled 'Nobrow Culture.'
Ostensibly, the article was to tell us why 'it's become so hard to know
what you like,' and in it, John Seabrook details the collision between
mainstream branding, or consumerism, and what was formerly thought of as unobstructed
and pure high art. Nobrow, then, is 'the space between the familiar categories
of high and low culture.' In Seabrook's chaotic, nonhierarchical world
'artists show at K mart' and 'museums are filled with TV screens.'
But while highbrow and lowbrow used to be American code words
for class structure -- where the elite separated themselves through taste from
'commercial culture' -- today, lines are blurred everywhere. A similar
breakdown has occurred between artist culture and marketing culture, hence the
near-death of the 'sell out.' We have this erosion to thank for Of
Montreal in our Outback commercials or Bob Dylan hocking Victoria Secret, Cadillacs,
satellite radio or whatever he's selling us these days.
The decomposition of cultural miscegenation taboos has made
it not only possible for revered institutions like The Whitney Museum of American
Art to welcome dirty Baltimore hipsters into its walls, but necessary. Here's
Seabrook again: 'In Nobrow, the challenge that elite institutions such
as the major museums face is how to bring commercial culture into the fold.'
And in the decade since those words were written, the boundaries have again
widened. Commercial culture has always rotated around the young, with both money
and influence coalescing around the fresh-faced. And where can we find youth
culture at its purest but with independent music. Savvy are those museum-types,
though. So where are we finding independent music with greater and greater frequency?
In the blessed halls and multi-million dollar spaces of our city's finest art
In late March, the Department of Eagles -- an duo including
Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen -- premiered their new music video for 'No
One Does It Like You' at the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.
The next day, 'The New York Times' wrote, 'The Museum of Modern
Art is home to classic works by Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso — and,
for at least one night, a music video by an indie band from Brooklyn.'
The bouncy, otherworldly clip was directed by Patrick Daughters and Marcel Dzama
(who also designed the costumes and sets) and its world premiere presentation
was sold out. The event was part of an event series at MoMA and P.S.1 called
Pop Rally, and also featured live performance by the band, as well as a Q&A
with a MoMA assistant curator. Just imagine if Andy Warhol could have made YouTube-ready
videos for Nico and her boys.
As PopRally organizers Margaret Raimondi and Eliza Ryan explained,
it was in 2006 that MoMA director Glenn Lowry and his senior staff put together
a committee of junior staffers and asked them to 'conceive of some ideal
programming for our age group.' Their goals, they say, are to 'provide
a new perspective on exhibitions,' but reaching out to a new, younger audience
never hurts either. 'Institutions are always trying to get young people
in their doors and be perceived as 'with it' in different ways,' says Adrienne
Garbini, Director of Operations at SculptureCenter in Long Island City. 'It's
not new that these spaces would want to be having these kinds of shows.'
'Success for us is generation new excitement,' say
the PopRally directors, who are lucky enough to have nearly every event sell
out in advance. Avoiding standalone concerts or DJs in favor of unique presentations,
PopRally seems obsessed with transforming all available spaces, even using the
entire MoMA atrium for an installation by Assume Vivid Astro Focus, an international
collective of visual artists, which also featured music by Black Meteoric Star,
the project of experimental musician Gavin Russom.
Just one of these events can utilize so many varied talents
and personalities that the artistic return is beyond belief. For an event titled
'Doug Aitken Happening,' the artist presented his film exhibition
'Sleepwalkers' on MoMA's exterior walls, while Cat Power and street
drummers Ryan Donowho and Hirsham Bharoocha performed. Writer and taxi driver
Melissa Plat told stories and Chicago artist Mat Daly created a stunning poster.
Upcoming photographers and videographers capture each event, which is then showcased
on the group's website at www.moma.org/poprally.
Ethan Swan's series at New Museum, Get Weird, features a similar
brand of collaboration and experimentation. Initially conceived and curated
by former FADER editor Alex Wagner, Get Weird was designed to utilize the stunning
and spacious New Museum building in a way that their old space on Broadway could
not support. Swan pointed out the enduring link between musicians and exhibitions
at the New Museum including Brian Eno (Stay Tuned, 1981) and Fela Kuti (Black
President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, 2003). This summer's 'The
Generational: Younger Than Jesus' show features the work of Brendan Fowler,
or BARR, and Emily Roysdon, who plays in the Brooklyn-based collective MEN,
also featuring Le Tigre's JD Samson. In early June, both BARR and MEN performed
a sold out show for the Get Weird series which tied into 'The Generational'
exhibition. The show also featured Ginger Brooks Takahashi, who was in last
year's New Museum exhibition '6 Degrees.'
February's Grouper and High Places concert marked a high point
in the series, though, says Swan. 'They are two of my favorite current
artists, both working in a variety of contexts -- from DIY warehouse spaces
to formal club environments to art openings -- and they both created unique
performances specific to this space, integrating video projections and engaging
the audience in different ways,' he says.
This pushing of boundaries seems to be essential to success
in the live realm and a willingness to adapt is seen in nearly all of the acts
chosen for events like PopRally or Get Weird. As Swan explains, he craves artists
who are 'entering a dialogue with current and historical music, and examining
what’s taken for granted and what can be changed' as opposed to someone
'that is making music degree zero.'
These bands that cross seamlessly into the art world, then,
are lent 'a sort of legitimacy that doesn’t undermine their credibility
at the same time,' says Swan. 'If the same band were to play a TV
show or an auto show or some other established venue, there’s more of
a threat of it affecting their public perception.' But museums and art
spaces still carry a whiff of that highbrow perception, despite the breakdown
of a lot of those ideals. 'It doesn’t necessarily suggest a broader
appeal, but it does carry some signal that there’s something special about
the artist,' says Swan. And when they perform, he says, many more artists
come to watch. According to Swan, it's both nice to illuminate these complex
webs of artist connections and 'add new voices to this dialogue by bringing
in artists from outside these communities, knowing that a spotlight will be
Maybe the PopRally organizers put it best: 'We are acutely
aware that artists don't work in a cultural vacuum. They work in a living, breathing
environment, influenced by music, design and the world around them.' The
events, they say, 'try to make those connections clearer and illuminate
the porous, hybrid world we live in.'