UJ3RK5 – Live From The Commodore Ballroom (2016)
There are encounters in life which are definitive – that change you – that you never return from. Sometime during the late 90’s, I stumbled across the work of Rodney Graham. Though artists like Bruce Nauman, Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, and Jim Shaw had already shown me the value of humor in art, theirs was a dark, cynical, grindingly prescient humor – as funny as it was harrowing and serious. Graham’s work tread another path – far more difficult and scary. It embraced slapstick and absurd ritual as complex metaphor. It was silly and risked looking stupid, ultimately playing a role in liberating those parts of myself. His films, installations, and music brought the strategies sketched by Chaplin and Keaton, to a towering intellectual scale. Though rarely offered the depth of consideration given to peers like Jeff Wall – who also has a role in this tale, he is among his generation’s greatest creative thinkers.
Rodney Graham – Vexation Island (1997)
We know that Punk saved Rock and Roll. Few realize that it saved the art world, too – though not always in the ways you’d expect, and certainly not in a straight line. It’s been recast, rendered approachable and fashionable – declawed and harvested for its integrity – stitched into every corner of the culture industry, so much so, that it’s hard to remember the original spark. We live in a world where you can buy Black Flag tee-shirts and Misfits socks at the mall, where Raymond Pettibon shows with David Zwirner, and seemingly every museum in the world has elevated and fetishized artifacts from the scene.
The origins of Punk are complex, and difficult to observe – buckled under the pressure of shifting and altered views of history. Misunderstanding marks its earliest days. Depending on how you approach it, against who is credited with planting the seed – whether Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, Suicide, the Ramones, or the Sex Pistols, there are distinctly different insights into how it began. Equally, because the movement’s most important elements were democracy and inclusiveness, its legacies are marked by an inevitable difference of opinion and experience. There is no single view. Typically, Punk has been understood as a working class revolt – a rejection of the decadence and elitism which plagued Rock & Roll for the first half of the 1970’s. It is seen as a return to the spirit of that music’s original fire. Though to a certain extent, within certain factions, that image subsequently came to be true, the movement’s origins were further from the unmediated voices of the streets and disaffected youth, than it led you to believe. What Punk became – its larger cultural force, drew partially on misinterpretation – perpetrated by those who swelled its ranks. What it grew into was very different from how it began. Bubbling below Punk, was the same carefully considered intellectual architecture that had sparked nearly every creative paradigm shift, across the many decades before. Like The Velvet Underground – the brainchild of Andy Warhol, within the beginnings of Punk, are ideas from the world of fine art.
As tempting as it is to venture into the quagmire of who did what first, and for the record – with its inception in 1970, I credit Suicide as the first pure gesture of what Punk subsequently became, it is the movement’s reach and influence which is crucial, rather than the what or when. Though Suicide, The New York Dolls, and the Ramones all played crucial roles, it was arguably Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols who planted the seeds which flowered into the movement that we all know. Neither was exactly what they seemed. Both were pop cultural constructs – who, unlike most that followed, reached their audience through the major label industry. Smith, a poet come musical prophet, with strong ties to the New York art world, was nearly as much a product of Warhol’s ideas of democratizing art, as the Velvets had been. The Sex Pistols, birthed in the mind of Malcolm McLaren – an equally Warholian gesture, though one more linked to the sensationalism of Pop, were conceived as a conceptual project, rather than the seed for a cultural revolution.
Once unleashed, these early gestures of Punk – their artifice ignored or unseen, mutated. Their subsequents grew into one of the most important cultural rebellions of the 20th century. This is perhaps the greatest, most unexpected, and least recognized aspect of Punk. It’s image gave way to a reality, rather than the other way around. It was a simulacra – opening a porous conversation between music and the visual arts, with unfathomable scope.
For nearly as long as they’ve shared the cultural landscape, the visual arts have been feeding Rock & Roll. More than any other source, it was from art schools that the most engaging bands sprang – carrying a constantly evolving world of ideas. From The Beatles, Syd Barrett, David Bowie and Brian Eno, to Laurie Anderson and The Talking Heads, with countless numbers beyond and between, the list is too long to count.
Examining it one dimensionally, the visual arts make the influence of Punk easy to spot. This is why so many museum exhibitions have focused on the subject. Beginning in the mid 1970’s, and extending well into the 90’s, the paradigm shifts are clear – laden heavy with signifiers, and supported by a near endless body of cross-disciplinary cultural artifacts. Through the explicit gestures of Neo-Expressionism, and within the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, Stephen Willats, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Nan Goldin, Richard Prince, Dan Graham, John Baldessari, Jenny Holzer, among countless others, the spirit and energy of Punk crisscrossed the Atlantic in visual form. Though this discourse, with the work which grew from it, is of incalculable importance, it does not entirely open a lens to the credit due.
If you had to distill it down to single thing – Punk was a permission. It broke the barriers of who was allowed to make art – be that in music, writing, graphic design, or any other form, as well as a restructuring of what the audience’s relationship was seen to be, and in some cases, who it actually was. It was an invitation to participate and make up the terms. This is why its influence was so pervasive, continues to be, and gave way to such a diverse output. It offered ownership, without applying strict definition. Just as Punk recast the classifications and self-imposed laws of music, opening new potentials of materiality – what it was allowed to be made from, so too was its effect on the visual arts. For the first time since jazz was the dominant form, rather than art penetrating the world of popular music, that music infiltrated art.
Particularly during the late 70’s and early 80’s, many visual artists – in response to barriers broken by punk, began to expand the components included in their practices. Building on tracks laid by the conceptual artists of the 60’s and 70’s, particularly Bruce Nauman, as well as members of Fluxus – who (after Duchamp) were among the first to broadly incorporate a rang of media into a single practice, coupled with certain aspects of Warhol’s advocacy for a broader understanding of what could be seen as art, they began a radical new approach to the incorporation of sound.
Though Rock & Roll had little influence on the fine arts, prior to the inception of punk, sound and music had long played a role. Jazz and avant-garde Classical Music are widely recognized for having inspired countless artists within 20th century High Modernist movements, while as early as Dada and the Futurists, many began approaching the mediums as their own. Particularly through Fluxus, as the century progressed, sound and music increasingly played a forward role in the context of visual art, but there were crucial distinctions. In nearly all of these cases, the products were explicitly avant-garde, and had a reasonable strict practice of categorization and division applied to them. Even in instances where traditional instruments are employed – as in Bruce Nauman’s Soundtrack From First Violin Film, sound based works made by visual artists are generally classified as sound art, while composers working within a fine art context – as in the case of La Monte Young, are still recognized as making music. Even Yoko Ono, who’s practice spanned both worlds, is cited as working within two contexts, rather than the diversity of her work being acknowledged as a single effort. There is her work within Fluxus, and the albums she made. They are not recognized as being the part of same gesture. More than any other single force, punk broke this divisionist thinking – doing so in fascinating, and often under-recognized ways. Though fine artists had long formed bands, beginning in the 1970’s and 80’s – with legacies which still continue today, artists like Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, and Jack Goldstein, among dozens of others, began to make efforts in music – often explicitly Punk, which challenged the line between where music ended and art began, and then doubled back again. Their sounds were most often positioned with a larger body of work – or as gestures in boundary blurring. One such case is the incarnation of UJ3RK5.
Jeff Wall – Double Self-Portrait (1979)
UJ3RK5 was a short-lived band from Vancouver, Canada. It was comprised of the artists Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, as well as Kitty Byrne, Colin Griffiths, Danice McLeod, Frank Ramirez and David Wisdom. At the point of its inception during the late 70’s, both Wallace and Wall had made significant developments in their own practices, already beginning to build the bodies of work for which they would become recognized. Graham was on a slower path, but it was ultimately the call of the art world which led the band to dissolve. In 1980, they released their only LP on the small independent imprint Quintessence, which emerged again slightly later on Polydor. By accounts, their efforts were met with minor successes, before the members went their separate ways.
Ian Wallace – An Attack on Literature II (1975)
Because of the subsequent fame of three of its members, it is hard to entirely know how to approach UJ3RK5. Had they faded from view entirely, history might view the project differently. Maybe it was just a rock band that landed on a major label. Maybe it was a conceptual art project – sparked by broader cultural implications of Punk. In the words of Jeff Wall, they were “recreated from art” – implying the direction of their own thinking. Their single self-titled LP has long been coveted by fans of Punk, No Wave, New Wave, and Post-Punk, as well as by collectors of artist records. Over the course of that time, legend has swirled around one of their last shows, an explosive moment opening for The Gang of Four – circumstances which make Primary Information’s expansion of their catalog, with Live From The Commodore Ballroom – the recording from that show, a welcome and important addition.
Of all the musical artifacts made by fine artists, UJ3RK5’s efforts are among the hardest to place. Most historical instances of this practice are reasonably antagonistic or irreverent – often very difficult to listen to for sustained periods. They use the permissions of Punk to further the breaking of creative constraint or categorization – extending its signifiers to their most extreme reach. UJ3RK5 is different. Their output is incredibly listenable – crafted in a way that might lead you to believe that the members conceptualized their actions as being part of an exit from world of art – embracing popular music, and thus a similar movement to that of the Talking Heads, or other artist come musicians. Beyond the sound, the break is difficult to find. Wallace, Wall and Graham all continued to work within the art world for the duration of the band’s life, returning their full attention to it after. Wall’s reference to the band being “recreated from art”, makes the division all that much more blurry, which is again further complicated by the fact that some of the band’s content made explicit reference to the world of fine art – as in the case of the Dan Graham inspired song Eisenhower and the Hippies. This is why UJ3RK5 may be one of the greatest artifacts of the bond between art and Punk. They embraced its spirit, sidestepped the signifiers, made up their own terms, and defied strict definition. It is impossible to know where the art ends and the music begins.
From their inception, the publisher Primary Information – founded by my old friend Miriam Katzeff and the equally talented James Hoff, has been resurfacing incredible documents from the historically neglected relationship between art and sound. They published Dan Graham’s incredible writings on Rock and Roll, and brought us a cassette which features Glenn Branca’s band The Static sharing the same stage as Graham. They reissued an amazing double 45 by Dieter Roth and Richard Hamilton, with a slew of other digital artifacts by Roth, as well reprinting deeply import writings by Max Neuhaus, John Cage, and Philip Corner. The list goes on and on – from old to new.
Rodney Graham – Theme From The Phonokinetoscope (2001)
Live From The Commodore Ballroom is one of Primary Information’s most ambitious and interesting efforts to date. On one hand, it’s a rowdy slice of a largely forgotten band – one which stands up with many of the best efforts of New Wave and Post-Punk in its own right. For many this is all it needs to be. It’s great music. On the other, it’s an effort in conceptualism which is difficult to define – as much a product of punk as it is the art world, and as such, as important for what it indicates and points us toward, as it is for its autonomous qualities. Perhaps most importantly, it is a crucial artifact in understanding the arc of Rodney Graham’s long career. All three of its famous members went on to have great impact on the art world. None entirely left the world of music behind – Jeff Wall contributing images for album covers for Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop, while Ian Wallace quietly continued his efforts separately from his larger body of work – most recently with Mark Fell. When placed within the career of Rodney Graham, the implications of UJ3RK5 are far greater. The band was his brainchild – growing from an earlier duo he had with Frank Ramirez. Following his full return to the art world, music continued to play a forward role. Over the course of his career, Graham has taken the initial permissions supplied by Punk, and maximized their scope. Though rarely apparent in explicit terms, it runs through everything he has produced – films, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and beyond, but most importantly through music itself. From a seed planted by Punk, Graham has grown one of the most fascinating and singular creative efforts of the last fifty years. Within the strange bubbles it produces, he unfolds as one of the great unsung voices of Pop – equally one of few to position that music as a fine art. His voice threads through his incredible films, his installations, and across the albums he has produced – a great Trojan horse, always challenging how we understand sound, the idea of culture, against the source of its growth. Through the lens of UJ3RK5, this is far easier to trace, access, and observe.
From countless angles, Live From The Commodore Ballroom is an invaluable historical document, and an astounding piece of work – writhing with energy and ideas. Whether as a window into the larger influences of Punk on the fine arts, or as a free standing moment of music, we have a great deal to thank Primary Information for. If you are in the States, you can get it from them direct. In Europe it’s available via SoundOhm. Check it out below!