Issue #178
Any Port In A Storm November 11, 2011

Ezra Masch
2011
Music of the Spheres (Performance documentation, October 12, 2011)
Courtesy of the artist
Photo Credit: James Scheuren

View Gallery

Ezra Masch

Visual Arts Center, Austin

Closed: October 22
by Andy Campbell

Ezra Masch’s Music of the Spheres (2010), an electronic organ linked up to a metal girding dotted with brightly-gelled clip lamps, is astonishing in its almost-palpable vibratory potential. Unplayed, the organ sits, with its wires, amplifiers and power strips teasing a viewer to switch it “on”—to activate the sculpture—and start playing. It was with great expectation I went to see the instrument played by the artist himself on October 12. Maybe I should have stayed home. 

Striding into the performance space fifty minutes late (about a fifth of the 100-150 people gathered there had already left by the time the artist deigned to arrive), Masch began on a self-aggrandizing note—a small band of instrumentalists/percussionists tricked out in Masch’s distinctive celestial geometric patterning, and silver-painted flower girls tossed petals in advance of the artist. These folks served as his entourage before, during and after his performance. Masch was dressed in an outfit that was reminiscent of Louis XIV (Sun-king and often the sign par excellence of extravagance), resplendent in a powdered poodle-bouffant. His face was painted, strangely, like a Dia de los Muertos skeleton. After the diva-histrionics, Masch finally sat down to play.

When the colored lamps lit up, animated by Masch’s touch and the electronic sounds of the organ, there was a great intake of breath. Those first few phrases displayed the hue and harmonic range of the instrument, descending and ascending with the lights marching right to left in stacked diagonal blinks—the spectrum sweep. And then Masch opened his mouth and began to sing…

Well, really he began to initiate a call-and-response pattern that sounded suspiciously like a stereotypical black church revival scene. Can the artist get an “Amen?” And the doe-eyed undergrads said “Amen!” Those of us in the back, who hadn’t left, remained silent. I was embarrassed.

I admit, I was thinking about something else the day I saw Masch’s performance. I had arrived from work where I had shown the video component of Adrian Piper’s Cornered in my Issues of Contemporary Art class at Texas State University. The discussion, as is usually the case when showing Piper’s work, was lively and engaged, with members of the class staking out various positions, calling Piper’s video everything from brave and informative to condescending and racist. In her video Piper presents a series of conundrums regarding the stability of race-identities, around which systems of Western power/law are constructed. Hers is an interrogative video, forcing a white viewer to come to terms with entrenched racist ideology, moving these racisms from the realm of potentially-unconscious to the politically-aware. Piper has written thoughtfully on the “grey experience,” instead of the black experience or the white experience. Cornered is flanked by two birth certificates of her father, one that lists him as an octoroon and one that lists him as white. Piper’s video-image is placed in the middle of these two divergent identities, standing behind an overturned table, legs-out. Race, then, is not just the sum total of checkboxes accumulated, but overlapping spilling signifiers (ancestry, phenotype, entrenched social conventions and more). She musses hegemonic order by suggesting that if most Americans have varying levels of black ancestry, and if historical precedent was that any person with any amount of black ancestry was deemed non-white, then most white Americans are, in fact, black.

You might think that Piper’s discussion of the paradoxical fixity and absurdity of racial identities would green-light Masch’s sloppy appropriation of church-revivalist call-and-response, when in fact, it did just the opposite. It threw into sharp focus the unwitting tactics of a young artist pulling an assemblage of references that ultimately disregarded the hodge-podge of historical/racial/cultural contexts they came from. Furthermore, whereas Piper’s is a sobering and thoughtful experience, Masch’s was an extravagant and hedonistic one, formulated as a party more than a performance.

At its heart, Ezra Masch’s performance confused self-aggrandizing behavior and cosmic importance. They’re not the same. Some would counter this assertion, claiming that Masch’s muse, the space-age Jazzist Sun Ra, confused these two. But there’s another level to Sun Ra’s gold and silver costumes and constant declarations that he and his arkestra were from Saturn, that farthest away of elsewheres. Better to be from Saturn than to be a turn-of-the-century young black man in Birmingham. Sun Ra’s “antics” are in part a dictat on dislocation, a way of making more illegible a social and musical world that rendered racialized identities (white and black) as too-legible. Sun Ra’s name change from Herman Blount to Le Sony’r Ra indexes, in part, this strategy of resistance, an active effort to make the present stranger. Meanwhile, Masch’s call-out seemed to only be concerned with the costumery and the pageantry, a strikingly superficial take on Sun-Ra.

Masch treated the black church call-and-response form in a similar matter, as a costume to inhabit rather than a practice to investigate and pull meaning from. Call-and-response is built into many religious and spiritual practices from yoga to Judaism (the latter being the one I’m most familiar with). The tone of Masch’s call-and-response marked it as specifically ecstatic-Christian. Most troubling was the elision of the historical difference between Sun Ra’s space-jazz and black church call-and-response. Even Sun Ra uses call-and-response in songs like Rocket #9, but his vocalizations are timed (almost rotely) with the music, not in a manner reminiscent of “witnessing” or other ecstatic-Christian forms. Masch’s performance was also punctuated by little awkward speeches by the artist—one in which he extolled what was unseen and unheard. I wish he had heeded his own advice more, being a gifted musician, when Masch would close his mouth and play. Music of the Spheres had the opportunity to outshine its human competition, resulting in some awe-inspiring moments.

In a series of performances called From In The Near Future, artist Sharon Hayes appropriates historical examples of dissent and transposes them onto her body. In one iteration the artist walks the streets of Manhattan holding up a sign that reads “I AM A Man,” a sign initially created and used in a strike staged by black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. Here, as in Masch’s art, is an artist working through an historic reference point—and one that collides with her perceived race. It’s an appropriation to be sure, but hers amplifies the historical specificity of the reference without confusing it for a costume. “I AM A MAN” could just as easily be a slogan for contemporary movements for transgender visibility, as much as it points to the artist’s own dislocated embodiment (away from blackness, away from a community of protestors). It is an image that is confusing but not confused, a tactical maneuvering through history. For a musical instrument so full of potential, an historical figure so full of meaning, a performance form so full of ambivalence, Masch does all a disservice by rendering them as the playthings of an artist who would rather party than be thoughtful about the presentation of his archive.

Less color, more grey.

Andy Campbell is a Senior Lecturer at Texas State University and is currently writing about gay and lesbian leather communities in the 1970s.

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