TURNING THE WATER BLACK: CUTTING UP WITH GEOFFREY FARMER

By Edward S. Robinson 

Images Courtesy Of Nottingham Contemporary

The exhibition catalogue to Geoffrey Farmer’s Let’s Make the Water Turn Black informs us that ‘echoing a 1968 composition by Frank Zappa of the same name… Let’s Make the Water Turn Black presents an improvised chronology of the six decades of the American musician’s life’ and that ‘Farmer sees the vast sculptural structure as a single instrument.’ It’s intriguing, but what does it mean?

IMG_3905First things first: this structure that should be viewed as a single instrument is vast, with some 70 separate sculpture works occupying two rooms in the spacious and well-appointed Nottingham Contemporary. The soundtrack is composed from field recordings relating to places Zappa recorded and played his music. Farmer uses a ‘cut up’ approach to the soundtrack that draws on the methodology William S. Burroughs applied to writing during the 1960s that also relates to Zappa’s own compositional techniques. It also references musique concrete, kinetic art, and the counter-culture music scene in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The computer algorithms that control the work reflect the idiosyncratic compositional forms Zappa used, making each day unique and unpredictable.

It’s in the capacity of cut-up obsessive, Burroughsian fanatic and interrogator of avant-garde and postmodern theory that I approach Farmer’s extremely ambitious multimedia exploration, and from this perspective that I’ve come to understand the different ways in which a single text can be addressed from infinite different angles. To clarify: by ‘text,’ I mean in the broadest sense, rather than simply necessarily words on a page – and would argue that everything is essentially ‘text.’ I also have a keen interest in the history (and historification) of the cut-up and its evolution, going back to the surrealist poetry of Tristan Tzara, via the works of William Burroughs and tracing an evolutionary continuum to the present. It’s in this context that I’ve come to Geoffrey Farmer’s work.

IMG_3914Geoffrey Farmer was in fact turned on to American literature by novelist Kathy Acker, who was herself immensely influenced by Burroughs, citing him as her first major influence, and one that endured throughout her career. In her writing, Acker not only employed a range of cut-up methodologies, and engaged with the theoretical issues surrounding cut-ups and the use of other texts to create a ‘new’ text, not least of all those questioning notions of authorship, ownership and originality. Acker also introduced Geoffrey to French theory, psychoanalytical theory. This prompted the artist to move away from painting toward the search for found objects and the creation of works that used these objects in the construction of narrative, while exploring the problems of narrative.

‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,’ which takes its title from a song by Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention, approaches narrative from a number of different angles, and although it is, in many respects, an installation work with sound and light that’s ‘about’ Frank Zappa, it does not attempt to narrate Zappa’s biography and is, according to the artist, above all, a history of sound recordings. As such, Zappa’s life provides a framework, a context for the narrative of a different, concurrent history, that of the recording of sound through the use of sounds from the span of Zappa’s life. If the narrative is actually about sound, told through sound – found sound, pre-existing sound – then ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ is a soundwork first and foremost, accompanied by visuals and lights. It’s a subtle, but perhaps quite an important distinction when approaching this show.

While the time-frame for ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ explicitly corresponds with Zappa’s life, from 1940 to 1993, it also takes in the audio of the 1880s that would subsequently influence Zappa. Therefore, as much as it’s a history of a musician, a history of the places he went, played and recorded, a history of sound recording and of culture, it’s also a history of influence. Zappa’s work was not constrained by genre, and often unconstrained by overt structure, and while associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, comprised rock, jazz, orchestral and musique concrète works, having been influenced in his early years by modern classical works and engaging with currents of the avant-garde. Drawing on a broad range of cultural and stylistic sources, as well as myriad cultural reference points, including television shows and advertising jingles, Zappa’s own output can easily be seen as a vast cut-up intertext, a work of proto-postmodernism.

IMG_3902Like Burroughs, Zappa was staunchly anti-authoritarian and stood at odds with the flower-power ethos of the 60s hippie-movement, and was a leading exponent of the freak scene, rather than the hippie movement. If the hippies – and the likes of Beat author Allen Ginsberg – represented the counterculture, Burroughs and those like Zappa who aligned with him represented a real alternative – with the emphasis on the real and indeed, the hyperreal (not to mention, on occasion, the Surreal), addressing issues such as free speech through satire and challenging the establishment and the system without simply ‘dropping out’ of it. We’re Only In It For the Money, the third album by Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention released in 1968 (following 1967’s Absolutely Free and Zappa’s solo debut, Lumpy Gravy, also 1967), satirised both left and right politics, hypocrisy and conformity of American society,, and well, more or less whatever there was going. As Zappa put it, “[W]e’re satirists, and we are out to satirize everything.” It’s this sense of ‘anything and everything goes’ that not only makes Zappa’s work to rich and varied, but that feeds into the principles of the cut-up, the idea of drawing on any and all sources of material and splicing it together to create something new, and it’s this that feeds into Geoffrey Farmer’s exhibition.

An Observer article from 1967 reported Zappa’s on-stage dialogue at a (then) recent concert at the Royal Albert Hall, saying “Americans are ugly. This music is designed for them.” The article continues:

Coming from the mouth of an American, and said to a scented audience of jangling flower-power beautiful people, how do you react to a statement like that? Laugh? And if so, at whom? The Mothers’ music is most frequently played on LSD trips. “Good for sales,” said Zappa. Yet no one is more anti-drug than he, no one more derisive of the wastefulness of the contemporary “scene”.

In this context, ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ – the exhibition, rather than the song – can be seen to have something of a weird, trippy aspect. It is disorientating. It is vibrant, vivid, strange, and walking through the exhibition is to walk through a surreal, other-worldly landscape.

Turning our attention specifically to the landscape, as formed by the sculptures: what do they mean?  What are they? The sculptures, or assemblages – or at least some of them – are references, however oblique, to the multiple themes of the work as a whole, either to Zappa and his band members, to LA, to moments in history, to Zappa’s own wide-ranging influences. This in turn echoes Zappa’s own tendency to draw from countless sources, and to reference and appropriate from a broad cross-section of culture, from classical to contemporary music and popular culture. For example, the cover art to We’re Only in it for the Money, the album which features the track ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,’ is a parodic recreation of The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers album cover. Yet in Farmer’s exhibition, the manifestations of these references are intentionally vague, and rather than overtly signposting the work and making clear statements with single, unambivalent meanings, instead allude to and otherwise suggest myriad entrances and openings, and equally, interpretations, the mode of referencing being inferred rather than explicit.

IMG_4006In musical terms, ‘We’re Only In It For the Money’ contains numerous sound experiments, based on overlays and various different tape manipulations that create a strange and disorientating mélange of sounds and voices, layered and juxtaposed. A number of the tracks share much common ground not only with Burroughs’ cut-up texts, but Burroughs’ own sound experiments, conducted in the late 1950s and early 1960s (although not commercially released until the 1980s and 1990s). The construction of Farmer’s sound-collage and its location in a multimedia context renders it a cut-up piece on a rather grand scale, both conceptually and physically. Conceptually, because it functions on a number of levels that run parallel to one another and intersect in various ways; physically because rather than simply looking at, reading or listening to this cut-up, the audience finds themselves actually standing in it, walking through it, existing within it and as such are contained within in. In this way, I would argue that Geoffrey Farmer is continuing the lineage of cut-ups that can be traced back through Tzara, Dada and the Surrealists, through Burroughs and Zappa and Kathy Acker and more than that, this particular work assimilates all of these forebears in various ways.

Burroughs believed that collage was the greatest artistic innovation of the last hundred years, and since then, visual art has continued to evolve through the idea of the simple, static installation, pictures on walls, to the sound installation, the object d’art, the multimedia, and on to the interactive ‘active’ installation. ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ is very much an example of this ‘evolved’ type of work, the culmination of decades of artistic progression. Animated by computer, its population of characters move in response to the ‘live’ Zappa-inspired soundtrack, with countless references (however oblique) to Zappa, his life and times and the places that have various degrees of pertinence in his personal and musical history. The piece is therefore not self-contained. While it does engage with debate about creative methods, and can thus be considered in some respects to be a work of art about art, it is not insular, self-reflective. It exists beyond itself and engages with not just contemporary culture and theory, but involves the audience in its drawing on six decades of art, culture and theory, in a way that has been developing for a number of decades, in terms of the way art engages its audience interactively.

It may seem fairly banal to observe that the effect of a multimedia work is very different from a single-media work, be it visual in two or three dimensions, be it static or mobile, or be it film or sound media. Yet each of these different stimuli touch different parts of the audience’s receptors, and touch different facets of our perception. Our actual experience is the combination of all of these elements, plus our own internal processes.

As Burroughs said, “Cut-ups make explicit a psycho-sensory process that is going on all the time anyway,” and explained, “somebody is reading a newspaper, and his eye follows the column in the proper Aristotelian manner… but subliminally he is reading the columns on either side and is aware of the person sitting next to him.” He continued, “every time you walk down the street, your stream of consciousness is cut by random factors… take a walk down a city street… you have seen half a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments.”

So, how does this exhibition make us aware of what we know but don’t know that we know?

IMG_3595The answer certainly doesn’t lie in a latent a priori knowledge of the work of Frank Zappa. Essentially, it brings to the fore the simultaneity of real life, the multi-dimensionality of real life, the multisensory nature of experience. Farmer describes this work as a ‘sculpture play,’ and as such, it is not something that is static, something passive, but something that is active. While the audience does not participate in an overt sense, there is certainly a different level of engagement that comes from an actual performance, something that moves, and has physical presence that is absent from the cinema or other recorded media.

One of the core aspects of ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ is the way it represents time, by creating its own. The audience doesn’t walk through the exhibition from beginning to end and witness a chronological telling of Zappa’s biography, 1940-1993 in a single passage. The time-frame and chronology contained within the exhibition alters on a daily basis. And so we have a juxtaposition of time: compressed down from real-time, but still not so compressed as to be comfortably squeezed into the duration of, say, a biographical documentary – which this clearly is not of course. As such, the exhibition ‘warps’ time, while reflecting a key point at which cut-ups and postmodernism intersect, namely the way in which we can experience history and future simultaneously, listening to recordings from the 1880s, 1940 and 1980 and 1990s all at the same time or in non-sequential succession, here in 2013.

Importantly, just as Burroughs described his life’s work as one single book that was growing, expanding and evolving, so ‘Let’s Make the Water Turn Black’ is remade, reconstructed and altered with elements added and subtracted each time it is shown, so changes at each location, and is also different in terms of its actual ‘performance’ each and every day. As such, the collaging layers continue to develop, to evolve. Moreover, it is not a collection, an exhibition of multiple individual or separate works under a banner title; it is one single piece that creates a journey, in which we, as the audience, experience.

This can also be seen to relate back to the comments Zappa himself made about the material from his 1967 solo album Lumpy Gravy which would subsequently spawn no fewer than four albums, of which We’re Only in it For the Money was one, when he stated, “It’s all one album. All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order it still would make one piece of music you can listen to. Then I could take that razor blade and cut it apart and reassemble it a different way, and it still would make sense. I could do this twenty ways. The material is definitely related.”

The sound collage is equally a history of sound recordings, and references John Cage, and more than it is ‘about’ Frank Zappa, it’s about Los Angeles, it’s about sound and popular culture, it’s about appropriation, the rechannelling and subversion of everyday narratives for different ends. Burroughs posited the question, ‘what does any writer do but choose, edit and arrange words on the page?’ which was something that Kathy Acker took as one of her leading methodologies, rewriting and rearranging the narratives of well-known texts including Don Quixote and Great Expectations, altering and subverting Treasure Island in her novel Pussy, King of the Pirates. Zappa described himself as ‘an arranger,’ and Farmer too considers himself to be ‘an arranger.’ What this reveals is a nexus of influence. Zappa was influenced by Burroughs’ 1959 breakthrough novel, Naked Lunch, for its satirical anti-authoritarianism before being influenced by any of his technical practices.

IMG_3591Another way in which Farmer’s installation corresponds with Burroughs’ cut-up approach and responds to the question  ‘what does any writer do but choose, edit and arrange words on the page?’ lies in the sculptures themselves, and their construction. Made from parts salvaged from a prop store, these materials are not custom-made for the purpose they currently find themselves. They have been appropriated, lifted, found materials drawn from different times and places, taken from their original context and recontextualised. Yes, the sculptures are original works, but at the same time, they are not original compositions. This use of ‘found’ objects again relates back to the way the cut-ups reconfigure, recontextualise pre-existing text. It also goes back further to a key moment in the development of the avant-garde, specifically Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ –  the urinal relocated to the at gallery as an installation piece. Taking an existing text – be it text in the literal sense, or an object, or a piece of music, whatever – and placing it in an unfamiliar or alternative context changes its meaning, and our understanding of the piece and its function. Take, by way of another example, the surrealist object – Dali’s ‘lobster telephone’ – created by the juxtaposition of incongruous objects already in existence and altering their context and relationship to one another.

In this way, Let’s Make the Water Turn Black is a holistic experience – and experience is indeed what the exhibition is. The audience finds itself in the middle of an ever-evolving, constantly mutating work that touches all the senses, and taps into the subconscious, challenging the psyche. The incongruous juxtapositions and random factors, the sliding intersections of sound and sight, will inevitably evoke different responses in different individuals. As such, Farmer succeeds in fulfilling Burroughs’ objective of breaking down preordained associations of language by fragmenting and delineating sight, sound and time. And because of the random factors involved in the soundtracking and animations, no two attendees of Farmer’s exhibition will have identical experiences, before we even consider differences in terms of their own individual perception. One could tour the exhibition twice in a single day, and / or on consecutive days, or weeks apart, and it would be different each time. One of the primary functions of the cut-up is to dismantle continuity and linearity, and while it’s inevitable that audiences will comprehend its text in a linear form. But in walking through this work, it is the audience themselves creating that linearity by constructing their own narrative in order to make sense of the experience. Each narrative may share common ground, but will each be individual and unique versions. The water may be turning black – or it may simply be your perception of it.

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