"This Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc. is an easy way out . . . In Neo-Dada they have taken my readymades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottlerack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty." — Marcel Duchamp in a letter to Hans Richter.
Skip ahead if you want, but before I describe Friday night's Steel Lounge Underground at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH), an event featuring a great line up of DJs, including Suraj K, DJ Baby Jae, and Esteban Torres, composer and singer Omari Tau, and visual artist Pablo Gimenez-Zapiola, I want to talk about the current exhibit at CAMH. Not the extensive program of avant-garde films running in the downstairs gallery, a program that has included films by one of my artistic heroes, Joseph Cornell, but the "readymades" on the first level which make up a current exhibit entitled: "It is what it is. Or is it?"
What It Is
Marcel Duchamp, whose name is dropped repeatedly in all copy I've seen describing the exhibit, is another hero of mine. The CAMH website quite rightly declares: "Marcel Duchamp's readymades are an unmistakably radical gesture in the history of modern art."
CAMH says the current exhibit "attempts to recuperate a sense of the radicality of Duchamp’s gesture and to update dialogues around the notion of the readymade, thinking of them less as static objects than as active processes of articulating thought." Which is artspeak for, "Duchamp was the originator, but we're going to try and convince you that his work needs a reboot, and that this crap on the floor and walls, a pile of light bulbs, some flag poles, and a maze made out of vinyl record album covers, is much more stimulating!"
" I did a perfect mix the first time, which was kind of unheard of," Torres says. "My friends were like, 'How'd you do that?' "
When I checked out this exhibit, I found myself staring the longest at the aforementioned record covers, each one ripped off by the artist William Cordova from an "unnamed Ivy League institution" to protest that university's "refusal to return a collection of Inca artifacts taken from Peru" during an excavation.
Was I moved by this backstory? No. Did I feel kind of silly starting at a bunch of records on the floor? Yep. But I like records, and this was the only readymade I found visually engaging in the whole exhibit.
As a kid, if you grew up with vinyl, didn't you stack up your records in funny ways once in awhile, maybe using the gatefold covers to build a fort? And when you got older, if you worked at a college radio station, surely you got sticky fingers and ripped off a few sides here and there at the end of each semester (I confess! I stole a copy of a recording of Erik Satie's Socrate).
Then again, maybe Cordova is succeeding here in inspiring within me this sense of nostalgia. More importantly, this Friday, if people are supposed to dance, will CAMH move all this stuff off the floor to make some room?
What It Is (Remix)
So speaking of dancing, infusing the dead space of "It is what it is . . ." Friday night with some much needed lifeblood is a cross section of sound and visual artists familiar to Houston's underground culture.
Esteban Torres, one of three DJs on Friday's bill, is the host of the Soular Grooves show on KPFT 90.1 FM and co-creator and co-founder of Praia Urbana, Houston's own all day electronic music festival. Torres' musical journey stretches back to his childhood, when he picked up the saxophone, an instrument his mother played, simply because he liked its sound.
"If I was only doing one thing," Tau says simply. "I'd be bored."
In 1997, he found himself in Berlin immersed in that city's dance culture, and one evening created, in a truly serendipitous fashion, an impromptu mix on equipment belonging to friends. "I did a perfect mix the first time, which was kind of unheard of," Torres says. "My friends were like, 'How'd you do that?' " Torres was hooked.
So electronic dance music (EDM) has blown up! Deadmau5 is on the cover of Rolling Stone! What's it like to see your culture representing on the Grammy awards?
"I do welcome the attention," Torres says. "But what I also really want for people, Americans mainly, to understand the difference between commercial electronic music and the underground House music sound. In Europe, the average person who goes to events knows the difference between the commercial side of electronic music and the underground side of it.
"Whereas here in the U.S., most people aren't even really aware this is a difference. You're always going to have the two audiences."
Popular music is always going to bubble up from the underground. Torres concurs, "The Bee Gees took disco to the commercial level!"
Also part of this Friday's Steel Lounge Underground program, composer and vocalist Omari Tau will perform a "voice heavy" set of originals, drawing on his love of classic and contemporary soul music and classical music. (He may even perform his own arrangement of Gabriel Fauré's "Mandoline.")
Tau, who studied choral conducting and composition, and has a Masters in Music in Vocal Performance from Houston's Moores School of Music, has composed choral works and chamber operas, as well as a repertoire of songs that would sound perfect on a mixtape alongside tunes by Marvin Gaye and D'Angelo. He calls Houston his "artistic home," and the city's musical community has inspired the direction of his recent songwriting.
But the nine years he spent as a member of the touring company of Julie Taymor's musical The Lion King, and commissions from Lone Star Lyric Theater and Houston Grand Opera's Opera To Go, points to the breadth of Tau's artistry and the scope of his musical passions.
"If I was only doing one thing," Tau says simply. "I'd be bored."
Friday's program also includes slide projections by Argentine-born and now Houston resident Pablo Gimenez-Zapiola, who I've written about in the past for this column.
Known for his slide projection performances that cast images and words on passing trains, and are often accompanied with live music by local experimental musicians, Carlos Pozo, Gimenez-Zapiola has been receiving a good deal of well-deserved attention for his work. He is currently an exhibiting artist at the Houston Center for Photography's Annual Juried Membership Exhibition and is part of an exhibition at the Newspace Center For Photography in Portland.
Gimenez-Zapiola has prepared some slide projection pieces especially for this Friday's Steel Lounge event. You can check out a recent sample of his work, with accompanying music by Pozo, on Vimeo.
When and Where It Is (Coda)
CAMH presents Steel Lounge Underground from 8 p.m. to midnight Friday. Presented with Derek Jones and Josh Zulu. There is no charge for admission. There will be a cash bar and Bernie's Burger Bus will be on hand.