DJ Spooky at the Institute of Contemporary Art, January 26, 2008
In any experiment, failure isn’t the greatest risk — cruelty is. DJ Spooky had plenty of both to offer at last week’s “Subliminal Strings” presentation at the ICA. He is, after all, the ultimate overachiever.
As a composer, writer, DJ, conceptual artist, and multimedia hero, Spooky has built his brand by jacking all trades and mastering none. When ICA director of programs David Henry concluded his glowing introduction with the remark that Spooky, despite his CV, was “still just a kid,” you could tell he meant it as a compliment — but it felt more like a disclaimer.
Spooky identified his first piece as “a work in progress” composed from video footage and recordings he’d made of ice and water on his recent trip to Antarctica. Although it sounded interesting, the result was like having to sit through Auntie Enya’s vacation footage. Longitudinal coordinates zoomed past, maps of the continent spun into focus — it looked like the final project from an internship at PBS’s 3-2-1 Contact. Meanwhile, Spooky feigned activity (and cultivated desperately needed mystique) by tweaking EQ knobs. As the status bar inched across the bottom of the media-player window (itself an amateurish A/V faux pas), it was hard not to envy the glaciers’ ability to vanish undetected.
The rest of the performance found Spooky (behind a pair of CD turntables and a laptop) ostensibly collaborating with a live trio of violin, cello, and bass. As they plucked out abstract figures and droned cerebral moans, Spooky would burst in with dissonant woodwind samples, pitch-bent textures, and woefully dated drum loops. It was endless, drab, meandering, and somewhat insulting. Meanwhile, Guy Debord’s 40-minute film Society of the Spectacle — an old Situationist tract against totalitarianism and the passive acceptance of mass media — arbitrarily looped in the background. As heads nodded off or found distraction watching party boats pass by on the harbor, we were left to wonder whether we were in the presence of a true artist or a cruel ironist.
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