Energies in the Arts

Energies in the Arts
by Douglas Kahn, Editor

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
480 pp., illus, 96 b/w, 22 col. Trade, $50.00
ISBN: 978-0-26203938-3.

Reviewed by
Michael Mosher
December 2019

Douglas Kahn is the artist who first caught my ear with "Ronald Reagan Speaks for Himself," a hilarious 1980 cut up of then-Presidential candidate Reagan's interview with Bill Moyers which, in Kahn's hands, presented the aged actor as either a Dadaist gangster, a doddering old fool, or something in between (as he proved to be). It appeared in a cassette anthology from Sub Pop, the Seattle Punk record label, and later on an Ev-a-Tone Soundsheet inserted in copies of the arty comics digest RAW. Like Jesse Drew's "Manifestoon" (Marx's Communist Manifesto illustrated with bits of mainstream '30s-'60s animated cartoons) or Craig Baldwin's "Tribulation 99" (US Latin American policy the result of space aliens!), Kahn's assemblage was created laboriously, with X-Acto knife and glue or tape, before digital production tools were readily available. In all these examples, serious political content is made witty by harnessing bourgeois electronic energies already out there, waiting to be harvested. Think Nikola Tesla performing cultural ju-jitsu in order to Occupy Wall Street, I guess.

Kahn the academic, Professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has published three volumes with The MIT Press. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts carried forth his own investigation of unconventional sound as creative art. It was followed by Earth Sound, Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude, then he co-edited another volume examining radio transmission of innovative arts.

In Energies in the Arts, the topic is broadly explored by its multiple contributors. Stephen Muecke explores the traditional Australian story of a foundational sound that awakened the world and the songlines crisscrossing the continent that remain. Steven Connor posits the perpetual motion machine as an undying ideal or model as cyclical creative energy. Photography is appreciated as the trace of light energy momentarily frozen and Balla's visualized sound. Duchamp and Boccioni artworks relate to the electrical experiments (and its apparatuses) of their time, much like works by Takis and Nam June Paik later in the 20th century. Takis returns in a study by Melissa Warak for his use of electrical condensers and other evocative, readily accessible components for early-1960s sculptures that looked modern and celebratory, as the artist took inspiration from Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight.

Carolyn Jones' contemplation of entropy cites Jackson Pollock, Hans Haacke's cloud boxes (has this interrogator of social systems tackled recent climate crisis?), an uncharacteristic Robert Smithson Pop-Duchampian piece, and evocative science fiction illustrations. Other chapters discuss tono-rhythmology and artists Joan Brasil, Milpirri, and Mario de Vega.

At the 2012 ISEA conference, Kahn presented "The Natural History of Media," critiquing historical media theory in which the earth has been written out, though the earth has been in and out of circuit with telecommunications systems since the nineteenth century. This volume Kahn examines the energy field performances of Peter Blamey, whose "Five Fertile Exchanges" (2018) that the artist termed "experiential physics".

The documentation of human gestures and activities installed by Leroi-Gourhan at the Place du Trocadero in 1937 appeared near modern artworks celebrating electricity and flight and anthropological exhibits such as gamelan instruments in an exhibition attended and noted by Georges Bataille. Museums are wonderfully artificial conceptualizations, subjective curations of the known world in an (often futile) attempt to make coherence and sense of it. My own 1988 MFA thesis show was an autobiographical installation in the form of a science museum.

Michael Taussig's "Mooning Texas" is a fun finale to Energies in the Arts. Like a skilled circus juggler, Taussig brings together Joseph Beuys' "Honey Pump and Fat Machine," frightened responses to the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 and Jean Genet and Hugo Ball (now there's a jail cell conversation) plus the lingering effects of Taussig's own lecture impetuously delivered with a bag over his head. As with Kahn's rewired Reagan speech 40 years ago, the last spark of energy in his Energies in the Arts is transgressive Punk. And that's good.