Saturday, December 31, 2005

Scene: Former SU Student Calls Syracuse Home

(Rile just moved away from Syracuse a few weeks ago. Below is a tribute to her work in this community).

Courtney Rile flutters past the vibrant abstract art hanging in her spacious university-area apartment. She diverges for only a moment to lead her Akita mix, Bella, out onto the balcony before pausing to say, “It’s like this weird, strange obsession that I can’t get rid of.”

Rile is referring to stacks of the Daily Orange student newspaper that that lay dormant throughout her home. Beginning in 2002, while a junior in the art video program at Syracuse University, she helped to compile the Daily Orange’s 100 year anniversary text. This required her to read hundreds of articles about Syracuse, and, as an artist, she took special notice of the cultural material.

The printouts may lie limply by, but the information contained in the uncountable syllables of pseudo newsprint come alive as they bubble over Rile’s parted lips. She spews forth so many facts about the history of Syracuse’s arts and culture scene that it is hard to imagine she only entered the community a few short years ago. It’s even harder to realize that she stayed.

Yes, Courtney Rile is a mover and a shaker. But unlike the majority of Syracuse’s young professionals, she hasn’t yet danced her way out of upstate New York. Rile, 22, is one of the few SU graduates who remain in the city after commencement and one the fewer who have made a conscious effort to learn about and improve her adopted city.

Hailing from Pennsylvania, Rile, is not inclined towards a sedimentary lifestyle. By the age of 15, she had known 11 different Pennsylvanian homes. By the time she enrolled in SU, she had already been through two other colleges, including short stints at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and Montgomery County Community College, where she received her Associate in Arts degree.

“It takes the utmost concentration to stay in one place,” Rile said.

In her short time here Rile’s closeness to the scene has garnered attention from a number of influential arts community members, including Syracuse University Professor Johanna Keller.

“She impressed me very much as someone who is intensely involved in the Syracuse arts scene and has a fabulous view about how the arts could develop,” Keller said.

As well as being an editor for the DO anniversary assignment, throughout her two year study at SU, Rile curated and work-studied at Light Work Community Darkrooms, curated at the local Spark Contemporary Art Space Gallery, completed numerous original artistic works, had a video in the inaugural Syracuse International Film and Video Festival and developed an independent study that resulted in the ongoing “Paradox Project.”

Now past its conceptualization and initiation stages, the Paradox Project is an intensive research undertaking that sets out to evaluate the condition of the Syracuse arts scene. The idea came partially from Rile’s involvement with the DO anniversary book and also from her desire to identify problems within the landscape of Syracuse culture.

One part of the project, a survey directed towards artists, appreciators and organizations, prompted Rile to work directly with employees of the Cultural Resources Council, including Kendra Lawton.

“When I first met her I was impressed by her enthusiasm and her sort of dedication to the community and her ideas for what she wanted to do and what she thought she could do to help both artists and the different organizations here,” said Lawton.

Lawton hopes the completed surveys will give the CRC a sorely needed data base that will identify the needs and wants of their constituents.

It was also through the Paradox Project that Rile began her tenure with a local arts organization, The Institution of a Now Culture or ThINC. This not-for-profit group helped Rile by providing encouragement for her ambitious venture.

When she graduated in May 2004 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Rile began grant writing for ThINC and in Spring 2005 she became project coordinator for the Clement Greenberg In Syracuse: Then and Now exhibition in ThINC’s sponsored Company Gallery.

Former Executive Director and founding member of ThINC, Jacob Roberts, worked closely with Rile during her direct involvement with the organization. He describes his initial reaction when he met her at a Light Work exhibition.

“I could immediately feel that she was different. She had a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy. And she was already outside of this, ‘I’m a student and I’m going to be in a student bubble.’ She was a woman of the world,” Roberts said.

Both Rile and Roberts have since moved beyond ThINC, but they continue to have strong ties to each other and the establishment. Rile premiered her most recent ThINC work during Roberts’ birthday party at the newly opened Ohm Lounge on August 8.

The 25 minute documentary/promotional video for ThINC spanned the 5-year history of the organization, equipped with grainy visuals, eclectic sounds, moving imagery and insider commentary.

The video first is especially significant because Ohm is in the process of expanding its services to offer video art. Guess who the owner picked to curate the video installations? None other than Courtney Rile.

The offering, called Videohm, will feature a specific genre of video art--non-narrative, moving imagery pieces--that will fit the general ambiance of the hip bar environment.

Ohm owner and former ThINC board member, Rich Pekala, said the creation of Videohm was not originally in the scope of their plan when they bought the Franklin Street location last summer, although the building did come equipped with two 40-inch flat screen plasma television sets.

When Rile approached them with the idea soon after they began development, Pekala immediately jumped on the bandwagon. As a friend of Rile’s, Pekala had viewed her original video, “Beat the Paint,” at the Syracuse International Film Festival in Spring 2004. “After seeing her film I knew she was the right person for the job,” Pekala said.

Videohm is just the most recent or Rile’s resume toppers. Her father, James Rile, says that he expects his daughter’s ambition and involvement in programs like Videohm to help her in the future.

“I still don’t know if she’ll make a living as an art major, but if anyone can do it, she can because she’s self motivated,” said her father.

The question of whether Rile will continue a career in the arts in Syracuse is yet to be answered. However, judging from her many endeavors, Rile is making a move beyond just studying Syracuse history; she is becoming a part of the story.

Sean Altrui’s Candle Horn Churchyard

Upon entering the Candle Horn Churchyard, you are confronted with moderately-paced meandering saxophone lines whose sweet sentiments persuade you to take further steps into the jungle of sound. The droning beat and long-toned bass lines also placate the listener and lure you into the depths of Bauhaus-like vocals and sparse electric guitar. This sweet and sour contrast is a river running through the foundation of Sean Altrui’s 2001 solo effort, though the front cover illustrations of fleshy plan life shows no obvious signs of hydration. While the music in many instances contains major chord progressions in the experimental rock vein, the vocals often push against this optimism, much like early, obscure Pink Floyd records (though not nearly as complex). There are even well orchestrated background speeches, whistles and sirens that are also rather Floyd-esque. Throughout the CD, trickles of slow rising synthesizer echo their compliments as if behind a veil of cascading vines and clean and processed guitars take obstinate roles against powerful, provoking lyrics that speak of depression and war among other topics. At times percussion takes up the call of the jungle that is the Churchyard, transporting you to a far away pagan land that carries with it an air of anxiety. Overall the disc is a well-produced, ambitious work that is a refreshing combination of the retro and modern world and a testament to the paradox that contrasting elements are necessary to definition.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What Kind of People ....

When I watch the typical MTV hip-hop video, I’m often offended by the rude and misogynistic rituals, the poor quality of the craft and the entertainment masking as talent. But what most offends me above and beyond the above mentioned is the people who make this trash.

For example: The Black Eyed Peas recent hit “My Hump” (don’t get me started). It was created by grown adults, who, playing in one sense, were also very serious about making money off this song by targeting the pre-pubescent crowd. What kind of a person says, “Sure, put my name on that. I want my image connected to that song and video?”

I don’t know about you guys, but I take it very seriously when my name is attached to something. You got to wonder about that money demon: it’s enough to make people get up from their seat of sense and dignity for a position on the throne of money-grubbing ignorance.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Emotion Killed the Stage Musician

Many are the live musicians who say technology killed their profession. In the 1970s disco moved in and spinning records became as common on dance floors as funk bands and pop divas. In consequence, typical instrument-driven groups were driven to the sidelines over the next few decades. It saved the club owners money to pay one MC who had a lot less gear to load and comrades to pay. Besides, patrons were increasingly searching for entertainment instead of talent. All music experienced a be-bop like transformation, where only select appreciators cared about the caliber of stage sound; and, well, people just wanted to dance.

The technology that created this deejay boom in the '70s has gone through countless transformations. Technologically-driven music has progressed far beyond placing a disc upon and needle and letting it ride. Hip-hop music, the gem of today's industry, relies almost exclusively on pre-programmed beats, while numerous genres, like techno and house, emerged as viable outlets through the last two decades.

While these genres lent themselves just as easily to the dance floor as disco era classics, other forms of electronic music also became forerunners on the modern music scene. Electronica, synthpop and industrial musics, just to name a few, shined the spotlight on craft instead of the dance floor.

Aspiring musicians lapped up these new sounds, but advances in technology are not enough to explain the boom in electronic music. (People have easy access to traditional polka melodies, but there aren't tons of young people rushing out to buy accordions). There must be something else attracting people to computer screens, synthesizers and processors.

I'd like to think this impetus comes from the lack of emotional connection in today's youth. Now this statement may make sound like a grandma "in my day" statement, but I'm only 23 years-old, so I am speaking from experience. Technically a product of "generation X," which is defined by its apathetic attitude and attachment to material goods, I am also a stubborn fan of live shows, performed by live musicians.

I'm not busting on electronic music, it can be just as stimulating as a live set if created and executed by the right person. What I suggest is that the rise of technology in music, while it has contributed to home recording and distribution efforts, has also been a deterrent to those out and about on the live music scene.

However, electronic music will not be taking a back seat to live performance anytime soon. It's such a perfect fit for a generation who wishes nothing more than to shield its vulnerabilities. I went to two live shows in the Syracuse area on December 22. One band was an Irish rock band, playing an Irish bar, the second, a neo-Classic rock band playing to a room full of college kids.

The players received due applause at the end of each song that was also shaped by the occasional whoop and call from an overly intoxicated youth; however, during the sets barely anyone paid attention. This is a pretty typcial night out in CNY. Now I'm not a musician, but I know if I worked tirelessly throughout my life to build the talent and balls to get myself onstage, I would want people to take notice.

With electronic music, there is little risk. Most electronic music is made for dancing, so it is more about the body than the mind. As long as arms, legs and booties are flailing, there are no hurt feelings exposed. (The genres that are made for listening rather than dancing are usually treated as live performances and can be classified with the ignored guitarist).

Another way in which electronic music tends to liberate the creator from emotion is by not having to rely on multiple partners. Some musicians are able to go the solo route, the singer/songwriter type or the virtuoso violinist, but more than likely, to create a full sound they are forced to collaborate. Electronic musicians only need to rely on their own judgment; computer programs don't normally tell you a riff is wack.

Lastly, while spinning a turntable and playing a synth has some physical connection, sitting in front of computer is not exactly a kinetic experience. Many instrument-geared musicians say playing is a way to exercise their demons or unleash their emotions. With no physical connection to the instrument that helps them make their craft except to push the "play" button, electronic musicians are able to keep a distance from that which they produce. Some people believe electronic music is inherently emotionless; this may be because its creator feels the same way.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Opeth: Ghost Reveries

Opeth Ghost Reveries (Roadrunner)

Now 15 years into their career with seven near masterpieces under their belt, Opeth has dared to create the perfect album. The eight song CD comes closer to being a symphonic work than a typical black metal album, but still manages to keep its hard edge and metal identity. Much like a classical composer, the band uses contrast and divergent textures to achieve their objectives, while employing a seamless development that transforms mere sections into movements. Much of the CD can be summed up by analyzing the opening tune: it begins with a the ringing out of opaque chords before jolting forward with a characteristic Opeth heaviness, equipt with vocals that sound like they are coming from the belly of devil himself. This is positioned next toTool-esque percussion and a clean-tone, slightly r ‘n’ b tinged vocal line, which is something novel to the band. The remaining sections juxtapose the light, clean melodious minstrel qualities against rhythmically heavy, harmonically complex discordance. Adding new instrumentation to their sound with Per Wiberg on keys has given guitarist/vocalist/main composer Michael Akerfeldt another weapon in his already burgeoning arsenal, best illustrated by the eerie synthesized sting introduction of "Beneath the Mire." Ghost Reveries is sure to become a metal classic.

Ulver: Blood Inside

Ulver: Blood Inside (The End)

Before splicing and heavy sampling became the norm in electronic music, Ulver, the black metal bastards of Norway, had their cut and paste style perfected and distributed to a limited market. Blood Inside continues on with the Peridition City (Trick) tradition, where undulating and pulsating digital mumbo jumbo combine with distant, heavily tweaked vocals and cryptic neo-folk elements that nonetheless serve as a packaged if not a cohesive whole. The only real indication of their past flirtation with black metal may be the eerie tone and characteristic lyrical markers referring to dead bodies, the devil and mythology, which point to their darkened forest of Norway past. Like many Ulver "songs" these nine tracks are loose structurally and make little sense apart from the album in entirety. While it takes an avid fan to enjoy a record so jam packed with avante concepts and musical outreaches, those fans will be rewarded with the majesty of experimentation. Most modern music claims to marry genres to create novel prototypes, however only a few select bands like Ulver truly represent this trend–they have been and still are ahead of the game in that respect. If you are not emotionally or mental sound it is recommended that you stay away from this album. Caution: Ulver is unprecedented and unpredictable; Blood Inside may induce fear of the unknown.

Tori: The Beekeeper

Tori Amos: The Beekeeper (Epic)
From 1992 to 1999 Tori Amos crossed the societal lines of sensuality and confrontation as well as the musical boundaries–she was too edgy for the pop or adult contemporary labels and her sound did not quite merit the rock or experimental categories because of instrumentation and song structure–with powerful and stylistic gems (Little Earthquakes through To Venus and Back). Since then Amos has put forth three mediocre records, including her latest release, The Beekeeper, which, instead of ripping open the hearts and minds of her faithful fans, has hived a spot on Musak’s playlist.

It is almost sad the way Amos attempts to execute her usual conventions like vocal bends and obscure vocals (which fall short as an obvious attempt at depth) because the album is so heavily produced to conform to candy-coated, pleasant ensemble pop. What happened to the eerie and cryptic messages translated into original and intimate sentiments filtered through fervid piano parts and unforgiving vocal musings? Beekeeper sounds to much like her last release, Scarlet’s Walk (Epic), which was also a disappointing display of middle-aged content. Though The Beekeeper is beautifully packaged, with plenty of suggestive and artistic shots of Amos, fans should consider demanding that she fire her husband, Mark Hawley, from the mixing and recording of her next album, reflect on the US ideal of separation of powers, and apply that to the division of marriage and music. Tori, we’ve lost the faith.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Technology-Driven Visual Art in Upstate N.Y.

Not much has changed attitudinally since the 1960s. Visual artists who utilize electronic mediums are still hitting walls in the quest to define and legitimize their work in the world of “high art.” The obstructions and objections to new media continue from inside and outside of the art world and involve questions of aesthetics, relativity, verification and categorization.

Although the central debate regarding electronic mediums is an extension of the eternal expression “what is art,” the situation of new media artists is unique for two reasons: 1) advances in technology significantly correlate with the creation and quality of their craft. 2) “The history of video art is a special case because it exists within living memory.” (Art Journal, Winter 95, Vol. 54, Issue 4).

While the question of legitimacy remains in many community art circles in the States, it was answered early on in upstate N.Y. In the late 1960s a handful of artists began experimenting with such new mediums as digital photography and video art as a response to commercialized media. The response to their efforts in mid-sized upstate cities was a majority “yea.”

Several factors contributed to the friendly upstate environment during the development of electronic media. One such early important influence was the influx of state aid for artistic endeavors, including new media.

The birth of new media coincided with the establishment of the New York State Council for the Arts, circa 1965. NYSCA’s purpose was and is to fund a wide variety of culturally relevant, free-form and community enriching art. NYSCA often funded new media projects throughout the state, helping institutions like the Ralph Hocking Experimental Television Center in Binghamton to emerge as an outlet for developing art.

Government assistance also promulgated video art and other forms of digital imagery on public access stations throughout the U.S. This gave artists and the first emerging fans the ability to show their work in a public arena. Many have quoted these public access art shows as paving the way for stations like MTV.

Funding for electronic art was an especially pertinent issue during this infantile stage because often the equipment used, like primitive video cameras and televisions, was high-priced and not available to the general public. Grants from NYSCA and later the National Endowment for the Arts allowed a level of accessibility that might not have otherwise occurred.

That was the case with Mary Ross, a Binghamton resident and pioneer of digital imaging. Ross was originally interested in traditional photography, but after a few visits to the Experimental Television Center in 1976, she became intrigued by the innovation of digital imaging. Today she is a professional in the field, often producing multi-media shows with avante musician and husband, Eric Ross.

Experimental visual artists found promoters at institutions like Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art, which established one of the first nationally recognized new media programs in 1971, while under the direction of James Harithas. Soon after, Harithas, a backer of progressive art, anointed Syracuse University graduate, David Ross, the world’s first video curator for the Everson.

Despite much public scrutiny in the community because of his display choices, Ross continued to supported new media and helped to publicize electronic art and its practitioners. One such artist, Syracuse University graduate Bill Viola, premiered at the Everson museum in 1973, with an aptly titled installation, “New Video Work.”

Viola is now one of the most recognizable names in the international video art scene, while Harithas moved on to become the director at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston and is currently the director of the Art Car Museum. Ross served as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and later as the director of the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art.

These figures along with the Everson institution served as a catalyst for the acceptance of new media and helped established Syracuse as a new media capital. The Everson continues to be marginally involved in displaying and archiving electronic media, but more importantly it has spawned copy-cat galleries throughout the city of Syracuse.

One institution, the Spark Gallery, is an internationally known, student run center for video artist from around the world. Spark is loosely affiliated with Syracuse University and students curate a video display once a month that features work from all over the world.

In Buffalo places like the Carnegie Art Center and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery continue to be channels for visual artists. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery concluded its most recent biennial “In Western New York” exhibition in June. The showing, which displayed art from artists upstate N.Y. and parts of Canada, included electronic media artists John Knecht and Tammy Renee Brackett, among others.

New outlets for visual artists who use the technology medium are emerging currently as well. Curator and video artist Courtney Rile is helping to create a video art gallery in a novel downtown Syracuse venue called Ohm. This so called “Videohm” project will feature non-narrative work by international, national and local video artists.

On the education front upstate colleges have set up programs and studios for electronic media studies. Rochester University was one of the first to catch on to the modern trend; in 1973 their faculty created the Visual Studios Workshop and set up corresponding concentrations and training centers for technological mediums.

Currently there are programs set up in many schools around the upstate area including and standout syllabus offered Troy, N.Y. The Rensselar Polytechnic Institute’s iEar curriculum focuses on a “multidisciplinary approach to the arts with a focus on the use of electronic media.” Gradating students take home a Bachelor’s of Science in electronic media and arts and communication.

On the other hand, today’s artists are facing new challenges because of funding cuts, scattering of friendly centers and the emergence of publicly accessed technology. Now that the equipment is available to the general public anyone can claim to be an amateur video artist or digital photographer. It is becoming harder and harder to define a genre that never really established clear principles in the first place. It is equally as hard to market it, but that isn’t keeping dedicated proponents from trying to reach a mediated place in the vast legend that is visual art.


Pop Politics: Gwen Stefani in Verona, NY

Finding a family friendly experience that parents and children alike can enjoy is an activity far reaching in American history. The urgency of finding mutually stimulating events is underlined by today’s political climate, which stresses family values and deems other segments of the citizenry amoral and overly sexual. When these two sides meet, however, the divisions seem to melt away and what remains is a perverse and troubled American people.

The Gwen Stefani concert in the Turning Stone Casino’s Event Center on December 14 was a perfect example of the blurring of family values and American pop music culture. The latter is characterized as the base, MTV-type display that the family-centric abhor, and indeed the scene in the Events Center played out like a video club scene rather than a camp fire sing-along. The opening act, Ciara, spit out a few notes over highly processed, pre-recorded music, while bumping and grinding with her male and female dancing counterparts. Gaps made by wardrobe changes were filled with radio hits like the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Hump,” while conversation with the audience explicitly used party slang: “My right side is crunk. Is my left side crunk?” said Ciara to rile the crowd.

Undoubtedly no parent wants their nine-year-old daughter to use her hump or get crunk anywhere at anytime; however, the audience was filled to the brim with young girls, parents and some questionable older male singles. During an exceptionally drawn out, hour long intermission between Ciara and Stefani, two elementary-aged girls ran down to the side of the stage and began flailing their bodies around to some modern records the DJ was spinning. This pleased the crowd as they cheered and encouraged the girls, causing a few more young ladies to join them. Obviously the girls were emulating what they saw onstage and the acceptability came not only from the audience’s encouragement, but by the American public as a whole. Ciara and her image are up for four Grammy’s this year.

Stefani finally reached the stage around 10 p.m., rising from below onto a platform, dressed in a provocative queen’s outfit. The costume changes mirrored Ciara’s performance; there were many variations on a theme, none of which involved covering more than the necessary body parts. Her songs routinely involved sexual innuendos like “crash into me real hard,” and references to material wealth like “if I was rich girl.” These are not necessarily the values that family oriented people wish to instill in their children, but they are perfectly in line with the cultural values of today’s younger generations. Stefani regarded future generations, which also happens to be her biggest fan base: “{Imagine} what it’s like to be me and have all these girls support me for all these years.” She even invited a few girls onstage during the encore.

To her credit Stefani brought a real band on tour with her, and, though strained, she sang all her own vocals. It is still a shame that Stefani gave up a lucrative career in a decent band, No Doubt, to play a bigger role in the mire that is pop music culture. It is capable of sucking us all in and our belief system is little defense for the pull of celebrity.