John Bock, Concerto Grosso ‘Lecker Puste’, by Andreas Schlaegel (p. 54, Métamatic Reloaded)
©2013 Museum Tinguely, Basel, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, authors [and translators], artists, and photographers
John Bock gave this performance the part-title Concerto Grosso, Italian for the ‘big concert.’ Given the event’s scale, this could almost have seemed an absurd joke, for compared with the artist’s earlier major productions—such as the rock opera-like Malträtierte Fregatte (Maltreated Frigate, 2006) at the Berlin State Opera, or the installation FischGrätenMelkStand (2011) at the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin (Temporary Art Hall Berlin), in which numerous artists were involved as collaborators and in which elaborate technology, backdrops and costumes were mobilized—this performance in a quartet looks rather contained, almost like a reversion to his simply structured first presentation performances, which managed almost entirely without objects and assistants.
The artist is concerned rather with the concerto grosso as a form of musical composition in which the orchestra is divided into a small group of instruments that are played solo or together, and a second, larger group of instruments.
In Concerto Grosso ‘Lecker Puste’ this form of interplay may be transposed to the way in which Bock arranges the various collaborators’ different contributions. Accordingly, the ensemble seems not so much based on a strict classical composition but rather on the performance of a jazz band, which, interpreting and improvising, works on various themes in a previously defined sequence without fully disintegrating in the whole. John Bock has allocated himself the role of the visual soloist, whose presentations are acoustically, musically, and choreographically expanded by his three co-players, the improvisation musician Audrey Chen(1) on cello and as singer, the Foley artist Leslie Bloome,(2) and the dancer Colin Stilwell.(3)
Initially, Bock leaves his ensemble in this studio theater plenty of room to do this, particularly because he also completely dispenses with the medium that is usually so important for his work: speech, which, emphatically performed and bristling with neologisms, takes on an important explanatory role in many of his performance and filmic works. Equally, he holds himself back as a performer; he does not appear in a role elaborated created through lavish costumes, but stages himself with restraint, in a white shirt and black trousers, almost of equal rank with his co-players.
With orderly seating and with the players arranged in a row in front of it, the museum premises of the Watermill Center, Watermill, New York, an interdisciplinary performance art laboratory founded by theater artist Robert Wilson, heighten the impression of a cozy classical concert. Next to the visual apparatus, which is operated by John Bock, whose actions are recorded by an assistant and transmitted live on a screen, sits Audrey Chen on a chair, equipped of course with her cello, which like her voice is discreetly amplified. One of her feet is placed in one of the knitted, colorfully striped blobs that maintain contact with Bock’s construction through tentacle-like links. Next to her is Leslie Bloome’s workstation with its barely calculable arsenal of the most diverse noise-making objects. A pail filled with soapy water, a red boxing glove, several bundles of fresh vegetables, and many more items sit on a table here—further items are kept on hand in an old suitcase—and together produce a chaotic mirror-image of Bock’s comparatively structured installation, only producing any meaning at all when in action in front of the microphone.
The dancer Colin Stilwell circles around these three like a satellite. He wears the same clothes as Bock, only in reverse order, his underwear over shirt and trousers, as though he were the same person turned inside out. With his silent, contemplative movements, his autistic-looking fumbling with his clothes, his character creates a type of parallel space. This not so much clashes with the humorously entertaining concerto as unfolds next to it, as an isolated, serious, introverted counterpart to the trio light-heartedly communicating in sound and visuals.
The performance is initially dominated merely by the sprawling dimensions of the visual apparatus John Bock created for the performance. It’s made up of heterogeneous components, which are arranged on a precarious construction of metal rods welded together, which combined create the effect of a grotesque tree of mutant standard lamps. Indeed, in the center of the tricky structure, which alternates between a drawing transferred to the third dimension and an assemblage sculpture, is a lampshade, along with numerous everyday objects such as eggshells, a brown paper bag, plastic bottles, and cobbled-together, partly mobile components made out of wood and textiles. They have their specific use at different points of this concerto grosso and could, in line with this compositional concept, be considered as a group of solo instruments. The whole thing moves, tips, and wobbles; liquids run through tubes, collect in a bowl or drop down, only to be smeared on to parts of the construction again. Even though this ensemble is anything but static, and changes in the course of the performance, in the interplay of parts it results in something like a diagram(4) that manages without explanatory words. Not without noises, though.
The presentation is divided into a series of individual movements, which sometimes unexpectedly transition into one another. It begins subtly, with Bock slowly opening and closing hinged wooden boards painted white. As an accompaniment, Bloome coaxes out of a big old hinge a creepy, long drawn-out squeaking, which he synchronizes perfectly with the artist’s hand movements. Bock moves abruptly now and then, as if trying to take the capability of the Foley artist(5) to its limits, or at least put it to the test. Bloome is visibly pleased to be able to demonstrate his otherwise invisible virtuosity in front of an audience. The charm of this presentation originates in the tongue-in-cheek dialogue between Bock and Bloome, which is characterized by speed, improvisation, and absurdist imagination. For example, when Bock slaps white paste on the abovementioned wooden boards, catches it as it oozes out when he closes the boards, and then smears it back on, Bloome makes smacking noises with a wet rag. These noises paraphrase Bock’s actions so synchronously that seen and heard conflate effortlessly. The images of Bock’s actions projected on to the screen in close-up, and thus visually amplified in parallel to the electrical amplification of Bloome’s noises, are as suggestive in their effect as the noises are convincing in theirs, so that reality appears to be produced only through both of them together.
The music contributed by Audrey Chen begins with deep cello notes that evoke a subliminally disquieting atmosphere, almost as in a horror movie, and with a hollow rasp that she produces with her voice. In equal parts her music has a dissonant and polarizing effect; it suggests at the same time, through squeaking and rasping, possibilities of the narrative and, with the help of its acoustic and visual parts, produces the eerie mood of a haunted house. Bock’s antics with objects and Bloome’s noises continue to interlock until they are almost no longer divisible. When, in the process, the artist manipulates wooden flaps that recall optical signaling equipment or flags, opening and closing them as though trying to convey a message, and, despite lavishly applied shaving foam and Vaseline, only a disquieting, hollow squeaking and rasping is heard, this almost looks like resignation in the face of art’s capabilities to convey anything at all (reality, for example).
The artist wipes his hands on his trousers, lights a cigarette, and then blows the smoke through a straw into the apparatus; the smoke fills a crumpled plastic bottle that is held in a wire housing, like a smoke bomb or a crystal ball for paupers. Then he gets to work on a pair of striped socks mounted on small wheels, which he turns with a crank. At this, the noise-maker clops a swift gallop with coconut halves, Chen commences a shrill cello staccato, underscored by a high-pitched squawk, and the performance gets moving. Having set in motion a pair of galloping socks, the artist next spins a flywheel near a plastic fork and then sets a little plastic spoon, suspended between two parts of a takeout coffee cup, swinging suggestively back and forth between the parts. Now the dancer steps into action: he appears in a trench coat, opens it, pulls it over his head and reveals inside-out clothing, underpants over trousers, a shirt put on inside-out, everything put on awry. Bock is now applying himself to a type of light machine,(6) a bouquet of colorful light bulbs reminiscent of the Russian satellite Sputnik, which, while concentrating hard, he switches on and off as if operating a real instrument and producing genuine light music. The empty clicking of the switches is added by Bloome, while out of her synthesizer Chen coaxes a white noise which she punctuates with sparse cello notes.
Then, lifting the paper bag, Bock unveils a latex mask, the face of an old, bald-headed man, with eyes in which only the whites can be seen. He executes a few quick kung-fu moves, to which Bloome makes a bamboo stick whizz through the air, in a rhythm that the artist picks up and carries ad absurdum with one or two saucy hip swings and other dance movements. While Chen claps on the strings of the cello with the bow, Bock starts hitting the head, and Bloome, with perfect timing, smacks his palm on a red boxing glove. The hitherto merry game tilts into the macabre when Bock repeatedly jabs an empty bottle into the mouth of the latex man, then sticks his hand in and—against a frighteningly realistic acoustic backdrop from Bloome—tears out the man’s teeth. Oblivious of all this, Stilwell tugs at his socks in the meantime. John Bock takes a portion of green jello and hits one of the lit light bulbs of the light machine against it—the rhythmic, moist slapping of this ‘pudding bulb’ is effected by Bloome with wet hands—stops and stuffs the slimy stuff into the latex man’s mouth. Stilwell has meanwhile removed his socks and is using them to tie his shoe underneath his foot; Chen continues to produce noises and electronic crackling sounds with her synthesizer.
Bock now picks up red jello and repeats the procedure. Then he switches on a type of self-built gramophone with a big cone that is at the center of the apparatus, the needle being a tortellini cutter and the record a rotating mountain landscape that looks carved out of a cake. In accompaniment, Bloome has creaking music ring out from a real record player, Chen accompanies this with twitchily repetitive acoustic cascades on the cello and dramatic, percussive wheezing, faint screeching, and suppressed screams. Bock dusts the ‘record’ with plenty of flour and blows it into a regular snowdrift on the rotating mountain range, until his own face is also floured white. In closing, he picks an oblong piece of metal encased in red play dough out of the apparatus, breaks it and kneads it into a long drawn-out anthropomorphic figure with a long tail, which he finally affixes to the apparatus. While he’s doing this, Bloome breaks several bunches of celery, a sound that imitates the breaking of bones astonishingly convincingly.
Next, Bock turns back to the rubber head, cuts off its nose with a pair of scissors and pokes about in the opening with a bent wire until ketchup blood runs out of the opening—a homage to the actions of Paul McCarthy, who is known for not scanting on ketchup (and other foodstuffs with suggestive uses, like peanut butter or hotdogs) during his actions. Bock pulls the slack rubber nose over his own and parades up and down in front of the audience with a turned-up double nose until—like the unlucky Kovalyov in Nikolai Gogol’s absurd tale The Nose (1836)—he loses it. He picks it up, uses it to pluck a few notes on Chen’s cello and then licks a few splashes of ketchup off the strings, while the cellist maltreats her instrument with almost brutal blows of the bow.
The nose has thus outlived its usefulness; now the artist is filling the plastic bottles that are attached to the top of the apparatus with red and black liquids which, underscored by Bloome with gurgling and splashing of soapy water and rags, spiral around the apparatus in tubes, pour out into a black sock and out of the sock, more or less filtered, and shoot in a jet into a transparent plastic bowl on the floor. Stilwell has now removed his shirt and is fidgeting in the background in black trousers and underpants pulled over them, while Chen makes smashing, whizzing, and gurgling noises with her mouth and works the cello strings with a single chopstick, before clamping the chopstick between the strings and striking them, which induces a short double note with a rasping effect. The artist steps behind the apparatus and, using blue-white-red toothpaste, paints a sort of logo or rounded cross on a small, transparent pane attached here, only to delete it energetically and then carry on working on the pane with cotton buds, accompanied by a shrilly squeaking(7) sound effect by Bloome. Chen has removed the chopstick from the cello strings and found a majestically borne melody which she half sings, half hums, in the process accompanying herself on the cello with single, rhythmically deployed chords.
The artist has now picked up his own chopsticks and starts on the latex head again. He stabs out its eyes, which consist of raw eggs, so that out of the sockets gushes egg matter, dripping to the floor. To close, he thrusts the chopsticks deep into the eye sockets, where they suddenly look like the gaze out of the eyes themselves. Chen’s song has changed into a lament. Bock walks off, the video image on the screen lingering on the mutilated latex head.
When the artist returns, he’s pushing a garden shredder on to the stage; he plugs it in and its ear-splitting noise announces the imminent end of the action. The co-players walk off and Bock begins to break up the cello: first the bow, then the tuning knobs, of which one flies back out of the machine’s funnel, then the artist inserts the whole instrument. The shredder tears up the neck and when the body looks like disappearing into the machine, Bock switches it off. His walk-off is quite that of a star: he briefly calls out the single word of the evening, “Thanks!”, waves, and is gone.
(1) Audrey Chen is an American musician from Chicago who now lives in Berlin. She has played cello and sung since early childhood, having enjoyed a classical education at the music conservatory in Baltimore in both media. With the aim of discovering her individual aesthetic, she began independently developing her own sound research ten years ago. To do this, for some time she has been using a primitive, analog synthesizer, built by a friend, in order to generate almost random-seeming sprinklings of sound, such as irregular rustlings or murmurings. The major part of her music, however, is freely improvised and follows a highly personal approach; both in song and with the cello, she works with combinations and superimpositions of classical and broadened playing techniques. As a result, she arrives at a unique, often grating, ecstatic musical language, which she performs both as a solo musician and with others, for example in duet with the legendary British vocal acrobat and improvisation artist Phil Minton.
(2) This New Yorker is an old hand in his profession. He has already collaborated on several hundred movies and television productions.
(3)Colin Stilwell is a dancer who since 2011 has been a regular member of the ensemble of the American choreographer Doug Varone. As a dancer he has already collaborated on the performance that accompanied John Bock’s exhibition Kugelhupf (2010) at the Anton Kern Gallery in New York.
(4) Every science is dependent upon the variables it raises, and upon the succession in which it generates problems. At the same time, the preferred instrument for connecting matter and sign is the diagram: here the two are connected. The diagram opens up not just arbitrary, hypothetical possibilities, but also real ones. John Bock’s elementary diagrams depict, in emphatically worldly constructions and desolate combinatorics, his direct, emotional, and somewhat frivolous science, which in his performances is subjected to quasi-religious explanatory models, which often fail in turn. Thus Bock’s diagram apparatuses lend provisional facts a clear, if speculative, form, but do this only temporarily, however, before they immediately collapse back into themselves or are undermined by the vividness of their elements. Not least, their failure appears to take account of the deterritorialization effects that thwart the complex layers and convolutions of the ‘mechanosphere’ (Deleuze/Guattari), which understands all biological, social, or economic systems as a collection of machines and reduces them to their functioning.
(5) Noise-makers are called Foley artists in international movie jargon. The name-giver and style-definer in the nascent talking-picture era was the former Californian storekeeper Jack Foley (1891–1967), who managed to persuade Hollywood’s studio bosses to record a separate soundtrack for noises in the making of films. Many of his methods and tricks are still used today, such as the clapping of coconut shells on a wooden board to imitate the galloping of a horse. Sound effects like these, produced for movies, radio plays, and video games, are precisely added to the prepared images. Mostly they’re unobtrusive background noises, traffic sounds, the rustling of protagonists’ clothes or their steps, which, as a result of often being subliminal to beholders, emphasize the realistic effect of a scene. However, spectacular moments, too, such as impacts, shattering glass, explosions, and screeching tires, are part of the noise-maker’s arsenal, when they try to achieve exactly the opposite with them and amplify the particularly spectacular and unique. Such spectacular moments enhance the effectiveness of the portrayal of reality and place the emphasis exactly where it belongs.
(6) In addition to the engagement with Jean Tinguely, Bock was also influenced during this work by Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893–1965), who as a student at the Bauhaus used manually manipulated color machines to project multilayered, dynamic geometric shapes on to a transparent screen. To do so, he used up to eight projectors of varying intensity, which were operated by up to four co-players. Today, his colored-light games are held to be early examples of intermediary experiments; they were scored like music, rehearsed like a play and performed in parallel to early abstract films. Hirschfeld-Mack also composed musical accompaniments, in order to carry rhythmic and musical relations in the time-based image into one continuous movement.
(7) I am aware that I mention squeaking for the fourth time here. Every single squeak was generated by Bloome in a different way: this one here is like the sound of wet fingers drawn across a pane of glass.