A complement to MOCA's “Under the Big Black Sun” exhibition, the Alternative Projections program “Strange Notes and Nervous Breakdowns: Punk and Media Art, 1974-1981″ essentially collects documents and artifacts from Los Angeles' analogue to New York's No Wave movement. The latter's ecosystem of no-budget filmmakers, artists and musicians gathered under the same vague, primitive aesthetic and impossibly cool fatalism became a crucible for the cross-disciplinary punk art and art-rock of Lydia Lunch, Richard Hell and Sonic Youth. The L.A. version was predictably both more diverse and more diffuse, and more directly in dialogue with commercial culture.
Presented by L.A. Filmforum, this show suggests that a key nexus of the disparate happenings was New Wave Theatre, the late-night local TV show hosted by Peter Ivers, whose sensibility could be summed up by the fact that he counted Harold Ramis, David Lynch and Devo among his best friends and collaborators, and whose 1982 murder-by-bludgeoning remains unsolved to this day.
NWT showcased emerging punk acts alongside experimental performance artists, as if they were playing the same game. The line between the two was exceedingly thin, as proven by the Johanna Went NWT spot included on the “Strange Notes” lineup, a musical performance–cum–extreme parody of the life cycle of a hysterical female, in which the artist, armed with fetus prop, fake blood and a wedding veil, caterwauls to guitar and drums until she's spent.
From Went's work to Richard Newton's 1978 Super 8 mm short I'm Going Out in the RAIN, to live performance footage of seminal L.A. art punkers the Screamers, the main trope of the show is repetition, particularly of vocal phrases or guttural noises, sometimes paired with a dark but playful quasi-horror vibe, ranging from elegiac spookiness to mondo viscera.
Another common thread is the use of early video. Still in its analog infancy, video of the era looked cheap, dirty and, in its fuzzy flatness, weirdly radical — the moving-image equivalent of a photocopied zine, the perfect complement to punk's post-Situationist graphic sensibility. That the medium was a natural fit for those drawn to punk (the spirit if not the actual music) is manifest in the show's centerpiece, the 30-minute video documentary Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here's the Bollocks. Shot in 1977 by directors Cynthia Gianelli and Paul Allen Newell, the film combines live footage with interviews and glimpses inside key inner sanctums (the Masque nightclub, Rodney Bingenheimer's studio at KROQ, a record store counter presided over by a smug tastemaking clerk). At one point, a female punk describes the music's “animalism, or I-don't-care attitude” — in other words, an unlikely but perfect combination of primal instinct and disillusioned apathy. It's a stumbled-upon summary of the governing aesthetic at work here. —Karina Longworth
STRANGE NOTES AND NERVOUS BREAKDOWNS: PUNK AND MEDIA ART, 1974-1981 | Thurs., Jan. 12, 7 p.m. | Ahmanson Theatre at MOCA Grand Avenue | alternativeprojections.com