By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Back in the early ’80s, my dad returned from a trip to L.A. with a few artifacts he thought might interest me. His batting average in this regard was never great, but this time he had scored several strange cultural magazines, including a couple of recent issues of something called Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. Later I learned that this was the brainchild of the idiosyncratic architectural scholar (and co-founder of the early-’70s Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad trompe l’oeil muralist collective) Leonard Koren, but at the time, its peculiar mixture of chatty avant-garde cultural reportage alongside deadpan examinations of bathhouses, waterbeds and seltzer water (all wrapped in an impressive and influential post-punk graphic design) was pretty baffling.
Most unnerving was an account in the March-April 1981 issue, describing a performance-art piece by one John Duncan, who had bribed a Tijuana mortician to let him have sex with a female corpse, recording the act on audiotape. Afterward, he had gotten a vasectomy “so that the last potent seed I had,” he recounted, “was spent in a cadaver.” Blind Date immediately became a personal touchstone in sorting out what was possible in the name of Art.
Ten years later, when I wound up at UCLA grad school, I asked around about Duncan and his work and was shocked at the mostly blank stares with occasional frosty silences that constituted the response. Blind Date had proved to be one of the most violently polarizing works in L.A. art history, eventually sending Duncan into a self-imposed exile to Japan, Amsterdam and, finally, Italy, where he resides to this day. His critics had seemingly succeeded in erasing him from the equation, while elevating Chris Burden’s also-difficult oeuvre to canonical status.
Professor Paul McCarthy knew Duncan well, and he told me about Close Radio — his and Duncan’s collaboration curating a series of experimental artists’ radio programs on KPFK in the ’70s, the master tapes of which he had miraculously saved from bulk erasure and was then having laboriously transferred to DAT tape, while simultaneously trying to find them an institutional home. In the meantime, Duncan had developed a reputation in noise-music circles for his high-volume sonic baths of shortwave radio static, with which he occasionally returned to L.A.
Such was the case on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, when Duncan’s chakra-rattling frequencies activated a darkened, sweltering warehouse space in what remains of downtown’s Skid Row. Produced by Jail Gallery and experimental musician Leticia Castaneda, Duncan’s performance was old-school room clearing, leaving only a few die-hards like Mike Kelley, whose succinct “Fuckin A!” rose above the scattered but enthusiastic applause. Kelley had played keyboards and percussion in the opening act, Extended Organ — a sort of L.A. audio-art supergroup featuring L.A. Free Music Society alums Tom Recchion, Joe Potts, and Fredrik Nilsen (channeled in this case by Joseph Hammer) — who created a bed of sound for Paul McCarthy’s vocalizations, hollered into some large cardboard tubing that McCarthy would also intermittently assault with a circular saw.
Compelling as it was, the performance night was actually just a collateral benefit to the main reason for Duncan’s visit: the long-delayed public unveiling of the Close Radio archive, as a last-minute addition to the Getty Research Institute’s “Evidence of Movement.” A concise survey of the variety of means by which performance artists have documented their work, “Evidence” includes such landmark artifacts as the fake newspaper Dimanche in which Yves Klein first unveiled his signature Leap Into the Void; instructions and scores for performances by Carolee Schneemann, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer; artist’s books by John Baldessari and Alison Knowles; and bloodstained gauze from Hermann Nitsch’s gory Dionysian O.M. Theater (I had the pleasure of explaining that one to a Midwestern family — “I think I’ll stick to my Michelangelos,” said the nice lady); plus an assortment of videos, films, photographs, sculptural editions, catalogs, magazines, etc.
“Evidence” is a good little show — a précis of the underlying dilemma of more blockbustery performance exhibits like MOCA’s “Out of Actions” or Ralph Rugoff’s “Scene of the Crime” — but its modest didactic charms are completely overwhelmed by the staggering wealth of material in the Close archive. The gallery installation includes the layout of an unpublished Close Radio book, and copies of the couple of cassettes they issued, but the real treasure is floating in the ether: 111 sound recordings, accessible by telephone, cell phone or streaming audio online (a good portion of the files are also available for free immediate download, and 17 are being syndicated as podcasts over the course of the show).
These range from five minutes of Italian text artist Maurizio Nannucci reading names of colors to 74 minutes of hypnotic accordion-drone improv by Pauline Oliveros, with most clocking in at just under 15 minutes — the length of a typical Close Radio broadcast. In fact, the length is about all that you can describe as “typical” about a Close Radio broadcast, as the curators pretty much allowed their guests a free range of sonic possibilities, even occasionally surrendering control entirely with phone-in segments from the public (or a gaggle of hustlers at a pay phone outside the Gold Cup).