DEBBIE DOWNER REFLECTING THE GROUP SHOW “BUSSI BA BA” /// ELEPHANT ART SPACE, LOS ANGELES
with: Noële Ody, Julia Hohenwarter, Julian Feritsch, Helmut Heiss, Liesl Raff
curated by Michelle Chong
It’s almost time to party. The people who run the gallery are putting cans of cheap beer in tubs and throwing ice over it, moving furniture around and turning on lights. The sun is still up. My turntables are outside on the patio, shaded by overhanging lemon trees in the corner of the backyard. The group of artists who are responsible for this opening night reception are milling around, in and out of the gallery, getting dressed and making gin and tonics. I’m stationed at a table specially constructed for my turntable and laptop set up—the table is made of PVC pipes and grid-like white plastic partitions. I have a t-shirt screen-printed by a friend of mine that has a similar grid pattern, so I put that on as the centerpiece of my outfit.
There’s one hour until the doors are open, but the space needs ambiance–something to match the long light of the late afternoon and the nervous energy of that moment before the viewing public breaks the spell of all the hard work that went into installing the show simply by looking at it. I’m still getting ready too, organizing my records and making last minute additions to my iTunes selections. I am armed with pop music from the late 70’s to now, and prepared to navigate the night with peaks and valleys of time period and genre. To warm up the speakers and the mood, I put on a playlist of classic country, blues, and R&B to ease everyone into the evening with the comforting sounds of familiarity and nostalgia. My plan is to take this night in a electronic synth pop direction, so as we get closer to opening, I segue from Buddy Holly and Nina Simone into obscure electronic soul songs off the Personal Space: Electronic Soul 1974-1984 compilation released on the Chocolate Industries label.
As I pointed out, I’m here to play pop songs, and there is a significant difference between DJs who spin EDM and DJs who play pop hits. Both DJs have the intention to get people moving, both use prerecorded music and connect songs with beat matching, and both are in a position of reading and responding to the crowd, while simultaneously using a combination of triggers, samples, songs and volume to control and direct the energy of the room.
People describe dancing to EDM as capable of producing a nearly religious experience. The BPM and repetition inherent to techno is meditative in a primal, blood pumping way. However, for the DJ spinning pop hits, there is a completely different element of connection with the crowd at play. The pop DJ uses the language of memories and distinctive associations to communicate with the strangers on the dance floor. Pop music is a language in itself—it condenses fashion, culture and time into digestible sound segments, inside of which individuals may ascribe loyalties, memories, identities, philosophies and more. Songs have been absorbed and memorized, and when the first strains of a recognizable hit come through the PA, a rush of identification through personal experience calls each listener to physically connect with this moment by dancing, yelling along with the lyrics, and essentially re-performing the song in tandem with the rest of the crowd.
The behavior of identification is multifaceted in a unique way. For example, Sally and Jenny both grew up listening to Prince, and they each know every lyric and break of Purple Rain, but when Sally is jumping up and down singing along, she is thinking about the first time she was exposed to this music through the film Purple Rain. Meanwhile, Jenny didn’t see the film until much later in life, and instead is thinking about the time in high school when she and her boyfriend made out to this album on a regular basis.
People respond to emotions that stem from highly personalized attachments they have to the music, but are also able to connect with each other in their identification with the song on a generational level. The only way to express their individual connection to the song is to participate in group identification. From the outside, all we see are two girls dancing and screaming their heads off to an overplayed pop song. In this way, the DJ—who is expressing her own identification with the song as both an individual and also as a receptacle of pop culture—speaks directly to individuals in the crowd, essentially controlling the crowd by manipulating the emotions of the individual.
For all this power bestowed upon the DJ, the DJ curiously has a minimal physical presence at the party. The songs and the crowd and the identification obscure the individual who is pushing the buttons behind the tables, as the crowd’s perceived ownership of the music cloaks the DJ in invisibility. In my real life, I’m more frequently a performer than a DJ, so it’s natural for me to take into consideration how the audience is relating to my presence as the person who’s controlling the sound environment. On this night, I was invited to do a performance for the opening. I also offered to DJ. I decide to test the connection between the worlds of performer and DJ by slipping seamlessly from playing dance music into singing my own songs over tracks prerecorded into Ableton Live. Wearing a headset mic, I remain stationed behind the turntables and my laptop, but instead of staying hidden behind the songs that everyone knew and were dancing to, I draw attention to myself through the sudden lack of recognizability in the music.
It’s just 12 minutes of diversion – approximately the length of three to four pop songs – and with that small amount of time, I transfer the power of the invisible DJ into the vulnerability of unrecognizable experimental performer, drawing ultimate attention to myself and the position I am in to make or break the party. My goal is not to break the party, however. I end my set with a cover of “Nuthin but a G Thang,” by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, to simultaneously emphasize and confuse the double role I am playing, and from there go right back to the dance party.
The people who are here tonight came for an art show, but they are dancing like they’re at a club or a party that is quickly running out of beer. The guests are surprised to be dancing at an art opening, but it’s that very element of surprise that elates them and makes them stay longer than they expected to. Instead of remaining passively in a critical viewing role, they have found themselves engaged and spoken to directly. Tonight’s music diminishes the isolation of looking at art contained inside white gallery walls, and forges a connection between people who identify with each other based on a collective interest in pop culture.
Text: Sarah Bernat