Ejection Seat Collective
On Cultural Space as Conscripted Collaborator
The purpose of this writing is to informally theorize and expand upon the experience of the cinematic by means of extending concepts I recently discovered during a collaboration with Denver’s Ejection Seat Collective realized and conceived in response to the Larimer Lounge, a commercial music venue and bar. Although the performance was not initially conceived of as a cinematic experience it resulted in a documentary video piece which contains potential for cinematic experience gleaned from a multimedia environment by using the modular concept of the performance and applying it to the cinematic environment. This is done primarily by sacrificing the purity and sanctity of modern art and bringing it into contact with what I will call ‘pop-cultural architecture.’ This significantly changes the performance by allowing it to respond to different environments, technology, architecture, performers and most importantly audiences.
Modern art demands much of its audience, which is one of many reasons why its audience is so narrow. This fact can be looked at optimistically, as an indication of high standards in the art world, or pessimistically, as an indication of irrelevance where these standards, imposed by art institutions and academia, create a narcissistic audience that wants validation of its own worldview in the blank mirror of contemporary art. While I would maintain that both of these scenarios (among others) are true simultaneously, this argument will situate itself in the latter simply because it creates an opportunity to make art outside of the institutional critique of academicism and potentially create more popular contact with art thereby expanding its impact. It is possible, if not likely, that the art gallery and museum could become the substitute religion for which it has positioned itself in the western cultural milieu, but the importance of aesthetic experience is too important to be left to chance.
The context of the experiment evolved organically; a band I played in had no drummer and would be forced to cancel an upcoming show. I asked my bandmates if they’d like to instead work on a collaborative piece with Ejection Seat as a substitute work. This would employ a subversive tactic by substituting Ejection Seat’s performance for what the Larimer Lounge and its booking agent thought would be our band. We had reasonable expectation that it would work because of the exploitative nature of the music industry as it is manifest in bars and clubs where musicians are paid poorly if at all and are booked without contractual or other protection. This practice effectively exploits an oversaturated ‘amateur’ market of bands without fair compensation as volunteers with no clearly outlined benefits. The other edge of the sword was that there‘d be no repercussions for our substitution as we were booked on assumption alone.
Both the collective and my bandmates were excited by the possibilities. It represented an opportunity for the collective’s visual and performance inclined artists to respond to a space outside the traditionally neutered white walls of a gallery. Conversely, instead of performing as a traditional underground pop band my bandmates were being asked to contribute to a performance that expanded notions of music through improvisation and experimentation and shifted focus towards its performative aspects outside of the conception of a ‘band playing a show.’
To a large extent my goal was a subversion of the assumptions aimed at two separate and marginalized creative communities; the underground rock n’ roll or ‘indie’ band and the avant-garde artist. Both communities face continual attempts at commodify¬ing their work that in neither case is in any way a commodity. Thus my band, Ejection Seat and my own divergent creative practices had common ground in cultural and capitalist assumptions about the value of our work.
Questions arose which were and remain relevant because they’re aimed at cultural assumptions; one would never assume that a hiree in training at a business wouldn’t be paid for training. Are we obligated to commodify our band by playing when booked, especially when only nebulous obligations (an implicit promise of exposure, free advertising, a few free beers and guest list spots) have been made towards us? Should artists continue to pursue creativity and aesthetics in isolated art institutions safely cloistered from popular audiences and economic viability? Why are either of these scenarios pursued in lieu of others? Why haven’t other models been considered or created? What might these models be?
A host of other questions remained but these seemed prescient at least to our local situation at the Larimer Lounge and it was now clear to me through defining the problem that one could find all of these assumptions thoroughly embodied in the ‘pop-cultural architecture’ of the music club itself. By this terminology I’m referring not to any specific aspect of the music venue and bar but rather to all of its accumulated characteristics both material and immaterial. This includes the booking agent, admission price, bartenders, which drugs were used, the audience, sound guy, other bands, architecture of the building, audio equipment, lighting, urinals in the bathroom, flyers on the wall, etc. ad infinitum. The microphones were positioned in front as a cultural arrow of expectation that a singer would sing, a band would take the stage and place their instruments by their respective mics to be mixed down by the sound guy. The audience would pay to get in and engage in drinking from the well placed bar, watch the band from in front of the stage, clap between songs and go piss in their gender assigned bathrooms, all in a rehearsed, decidedly capitalist ritual of entertainment.
The premise was no longer a band performing with this ‘pop-cultural architecture’ in tact, influencing the creative decisions of all involved (including audience, sound guy, etc.) nor avant-garde performance artists in the white-walled gallery. We would take the Larimer Lounge for what it was; a large collaborative sculpture that embodied cultural hegemony against unrestricted creative expression in social and economic terms. The notion instilled a slightly transgressive but empowering freedom and opened up a fecund creative ground of ideas.
I decided to further the critique by proposing a ‘band’ where members were replaced by single performative modules. My bandmates and Ejection Seat would submit proposals and accepted ones would become a module of the band. The ones not involved in the band could act as planted audience members and perform as a group off-stage. The only stated goal was for each performer to realize ‘authentic creative expression in the specific pop-cultural confines of the Larimer Lounge.’
The fecundity of the idea became most apparent when brainstorming for the project yielded myriad options for performing that seemed poetic, evocative and relevant to our critique. Stefan Herrera suggested repeatedly spilling beer from the cheap plastic pint glasses used by the club to prevent the audience from breaking glass ones, David D’Agostino decided to print declassified NSA documents on flyer sized paper to be made into paper airplanes for throwing during the performance, Luke Leavitt suggested that members bark ‘art’ like seals in surrealist mimicry of applause, Mango Katz and Laura ‘Babsie’ Gardner proposed a strange Dionysiac ritual aimed at music’s oppressive cult of celebrity by cryptically worshipping Amanda Bynes’ menstruation. Non-artists and musicians participating had equally potent creative vision for the collaboration. Although disparate, each module presented its own subversion of the pop-cultural architecture of the music venue as one module of a ‘band’ with expanded creative goals. To present visual cohesion in the ‘band’ I suggested we wear mostly white and paint our visible skin white with no particular associations in mind. This performance would be documented by a hired videographer on DV tape. Here we had in mind the traditional idea of documenting work in the way that many performance artists have had videographers testify to an event.
Summarily this is the outline and conceptual basis from which we gave an experimental performance on June 30th 2013 at the Larimer Lounge as an opening ‘band’ for Shannon and the Clams (from Oakland, CA) and Fingers of the Sun (Denver, CO). The actual performance changed significantly from its conception through improvisation and uncontrollable factors. It was perhaps more musical than we initially desired and achieved in rehearsal because of the sound mixer’s intervention in amplifying the most ‘musical’ parts of our soundscape. Despite this most participants felt that it was successful in creating an authentic creativity and it solicited strong reactions from various audience members, the sound man and Tom Murphy, a music critic for Voice Nation’s Westword periodical. Ironically, Mr. Murphy’s review along with other elements of pop-cultural architecture reduced the performance to a novel experimental band, albeit an interesting one by his account (he refers to us in the article as The Matildas, my band for which we substituted the Ejection Seat Collective). However in other ways the experience opened up new avenues of aesthetic experimentation informed by culturally hegemonic spaces for myself and other participants.
Although far from describing the totality of the performance, the documentary video remains an interesting artifact as a sort of freeform response to the performance from the point of view of a specialized audience member (it should be noted that a trope of this argument is that the audience is as performative in pop-cultural architecture as the performers are themselves). To the extent that it may be called cinematic, it is a cinema informed by the space in which it was realized and created out of obligation not to aesthetics but cultural space.
It is interesting to me that the videographer found nothing salvageable in the footage that he felt was usable in creating a video, which is to say only that it differed from his personal aesthetics. Although the footage is closest to documentary in nature (as a strange form of concert footage, perhaps) the piece departs from any traditional forms in that the videographer himself was conscripted into the performance as part of the pop-cultural architecture in much the same way as the sound guy was. Whether or not they would undertake the collaboration on their own (as the videographer’s comments suggest he seemingly would not) both were obliged to as part of the milieu of the Larimer Lounge. Both were hi-jacked into creative additions to our performance as part of the cultural assumptions we were reacting against. Thus the video arises as a testa-ment to a dialectic between the performance and the pop-cultural architectonics themselves where the power structure is temporarily reversed in favor of the artists and musicians with their conscripted collaborators and captive audience.
If there is anything in this experiment that is applicable to an expanded conception of cinema some¬times known as experimental cinema it is the conceptual model of subverting the architectonics of cultural space in favor of the marginalized artist. This is maybe most easily understood as a form of the Situationist International’s détournement where cultural space is recouped instead of advertising slogans. Cinema, in its much proclaimed ‘death,’ (which may be more accurately described as a fragmentation of audience) at the technological hands of computers, cell phones and tablets is in a no less marginal state. As an artist and filmmaker the questions begin to ask themselves: What is the cultural space and corresponding cultural assumptions that, begging for rupture, create a negative space for cinema? What aspects of cinema can be removed from its womb-like black box (akin to the gallery’s neutering white walls) and translated more effectively into other cultural spaces? Who are the conscripted collaborators that will enrich its experience? Which collaborators can free it from the burden of auteurism? What audiences can be blindsided by its virtue?
While some of these questions may be answered in part or whole outside of my own experience and knowledge, on a macrocosmic level they remain relevant. It’s time for art and cinema to venture out of their white walls, black boxes and ivory towers and attempt to find wider audiences through subversion if necessary. Although this is one small attempt, I am sharing it in hopes of dialogue, refinement, shared experience, collaboration and rhizomatous growth.
Trevor ‘TVY’ Jahner
Thanks to Ejection Seat Collective and especially Robin Edwards, Ben Donehower and David D’Agostino.
Photo by Tom Murphy