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).
There’s a live in-studio performance by the beloved L.A. post-punk band Monitor (as yet unissued on CD), Suzanne Lacy reading police-blotter reports of recent sexual assaults on women in L.A., near-psychotic verbal riffing by Jim “Hippies Are Living Proof That a Nigger’ll Fuck a Dog” Roche, a prescient hourlong lecture by media-democracy visionary Gene Youngblood, an “opera” for car horns and windshield wipers performed by Ant Farm in the Sydney Opera House parking lot, an artist posing as a veterinarian and dispensing spurious advice, and eight minutes of “dead air” (silence — the greatest sin in conventional broadcast wisdom) by Barton Patrick Bolin. There’s exquisite new music from Jim Fox and the Improvisers Orchestra, Musica Veneris Nocturna, and Bruce Fier, as well as more-difficult listening from the LAFMS, Hermann Nitsch, and Duncan, who performs a Reichian breathing exercise live on air naked!
The survival of the master tapes was a small miracle — during a panel discussion at the Getty featuring Duncan, McCarthy, sometime collaborator Nancy Buchanan and curator Glenn Phillips, Otis poetry guru and late-’70s KPFK cultural-affairs director Paul Vangelisti recounted the ongoing internecine struggles at the countercultural broadcast stronghold.
“There was a group at the radio station — myself among them — that believed that what was progressive artistically was progressive politically. The other group, which was a different kind of group on the left, didn’t necessarily believe that, and that was the basis of constant bickering, and a few times I had to say, ‘If they go, I go.’ ”
The final straw was Chris Burden’s second, hourlong performance, Send Me Your Money, during which he relentlessly repeated a request for the public to “imagine that I asked everyone listening to send me money — to send it directly to me. It would be such a small sacrifice for all of you, and it could really do something for me, if you could just send it directly to me, Chris Burden, 823 Ocean Front Walk, Venice, California 90291.” A blatant violation of then-current FCC regulations for nonprofit media, it gave the anti-Close faction the excuse they needed.
“When we were kicked off the station that day,” recalled McCarthy, “we were going out the door and I said, ‘Well, what about the tapes?’ and the person who was the head of KPFK said, ‘Take ’em — we don’t want ’em!’ and I kind of shuffled these cardboard boxes to my studio. I offered them to MOCA, MOMA, Long Beach Museum, and no one wanted these tapes. And it went that way for 25 years.”
But, hey, all’s well that ends well, right? While John Duncan’s 2001 tussle with the Swedes over a revoked residency (again provoked by Blind Date!) shifted some art-world sympathies in his favor, what could be a more public retraction of his pariah status than being feted at the Getty? And the GRI — which also ended up with the Long Beach Museum’s legendary neglected video archive — is probably the best home for this material. After the Internet. After actual publicly broadcast radio waves.
EVIDENCE OF MOVEMENT | Getty Research Institute, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles | Through October 7
CLOSE RADIO | www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/evidence_movement/audio/index.html