surfaces

by Colin Tucker

Program Essay on a site-specific realization of James Saunders’s surfaces in & with the Buffalo Gear and Axle Plant, produced by Null Point at the Echo Art Fair, 2016

This performance takes place in and with the Buffalo Gear and Axle Plant, built in 1923 and designed by noted industrial architect Albert Kahn. Operated by General Motors and later American Axle, it closed suddenly in 2008, and sat empty until its current owners, OSC Manufacturing & Equipment services, purchased it in 2015.

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The present performance takes the building’s history and its present state of disrepair as points of departure. surfaces is a work by composer James Saunders that consists of 300 open-ended verbal prompts for the sonic activation of unspecified surfaces; this performance will focus on one large, multifarious surface: the factory building’s disintegrating concrete floors. In presenting surfaces in the Gear and Axle Plant, I hope to put the work and the site into a productive conversation, opening up dimensions of each other that might not emerge otherwise. Sonically, the work functions to render sonorous the sites’s crumbling material reality, while site offers a unique yet fruitful material environment for the work’s realization. Socially, the work activates non-instrumental interactions between human bodies and non-human materials, reclaiming the site from the logic of instrumentality prevalent throughout its socio-ecological history. While an ordinary realization of the piece foregrounds relationships between the performer’s body and sound-producing materials, this site-specific realization expands the work’s scale to bring these musical issues into conversation with Fordist and neoliberal economics, environmental crisis, and the military-industrial complex.

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The shadow of brazen instrumentality looms large over the Gear and Axle Plant, from its role in producing weaponry in WWII and the Korean War to American Axle’s sudden 2008 closure of the plant (laying off 2000 employees) in search of higher profitability in Mexico, from Albert Kahn’s aesthetic of unadorned functionality to the site’s extensive pollution (in the past it was designated a highly toxic Superfund site). The performance opens new perspectives on the building’s surfaces, bringing them into non-instrumental, open-ended interchange with the bodies of human performers. In this performance, neither sounding materials nor performers’ bodies function as means towards a pre-defined sonic end, as in certain musical performance practices. Nor are performers’ (laborers’) bodies means towards pre-defined material ends, as in industrial manufacturing. Instead, the performance’s sounds emerge from non-hierarchical interactions between bodies and materials, in a post-anthropocentric performance practice where bodies and materials trace each others’ particularities.

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The work not only embraces bodily and material particularities but actively positions them at the crux of the experience of listening and performing. Numerous actions are performed “as fast as possible” or “as slowly as possible,” challenging normative musical notions of controlled sound production, as well as broader bourgeois/white/male/ableist notions of bodily control on which they depend. This instead inscribes sounds with traces of unintentional, unpredictable nervous and muscular phenomena peculiar to each performer’s body. Likewise, the instructions such as “imperfections on a [surface] are marked such that they are connected by lines” (bracketed text in original) function to engrave sounds with evidence of material singularities such as cracks, bumps, and dips.

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The use of a notated score in surfaces further expands the project’s frame of interpretation. Historically, in Western art music, the score has been a medium par excellence of instrumental command, perhaps most strikingly in the orchestral music of the turn of the 20th century, where score enables composer to monologically dictate the activities of 100+ performers (not coincidentally, this aesthetic was contemporaneous with the emergence of Fordist capitalism). In contrast, surfaces’s verbal notations are catalysts for non-reproducible particularity rather than orders for reproducible generality: by emphasizing unpredictable limit situations of bodily motion, and by codifying sound-producing actions rather than their audible results, the notations steer human performers towards post-human, non-instrumental modes of embodiment.

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While this approach to notation is typical of much post-Fluxus music/sound, in the context of this site-specific project it takes on special significance. Conjoining the histories of musical score and corporate industrialism acknowledges their historical affinity while opening both to emancipatory futures. Thus the relationship of work to site is not that of container to contained; the work does not aestheticize the site, nor does the site roughen up the work. Rather, as work confronts site, their parallel histories of the container’s violent subjugation of the contained come to the fore as a point of departure for the construction of alternatives.

Audio excerpts of the realization: