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Indie Rock and Contemporary Art
a renewed relationship
by: Joe Coscarelli - January 7, 2010

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 appreciation.

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 YBAs.

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.' The horror.

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 institutions.

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

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 on them.'

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.'


"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... [these events] try to make those connections clearer and illuminate the porous, hybrid world we live in." - Pop Rally Organizers

Indie Rock and Contemporary Art


what it is

The Renewed Relationship Between Contemporary Art and Independent Rock Music