Spectatorship, Part 1 | Kim Gordon


Kim Gordon
Courtesy of Art Forum Magazine
Summer-Fall 2015

In the spring of 1981 the rock group Public Image Ltd. (PiL) played at the Ritz in New York. That club’s movie-scale video screen, which functioned as a barrier and was used to create or motivate the crowd’s reaction, was the center of the performance. PiL’s three members were projected on the screen, both as shadows (they were lit from behind for the video cameras) and as a video picture. A giant image of John Lydon’s face, laughing, appeared, larger than the Wizard of Oz. He began singing, and then the live image was changed to a pre-recorded tape of a demented commercial rock video. Furious at the ghostlike, ritualistic silhouettes of the group behind the screen—instead of, as usual, directly in front of them—the crowd constantly interrupted the music. They barraged the screen with bottles, finally tearing it down. The group hadn’t intended to cause a riot; in their words, they were trying something new. They did not want to mechanistically continue in the learned role of rock entertainers. As PiL’s Keith Levene remarked in an interview in ZigZag magazine in August 1981, “You’re more honest putting on a video or sending a video round to do 30 dates, rather than sending a band around to do it … You’re standing up there and saying ‘after you’ve bought my album for so many pounds and heard how great we are you can now stand in front of us and see how great we are…” PiL has since returned to conventional rock performance.

It is almost necessary for a working rock band on the club circuit to have a booking agent and/or manager. If a club owner deals directly with the band involved, and not with a business peer, then less money is likely to be offered. The large rock clubs in Manhattan all have basically the same policy of dealing with bands. Some of these are real showcases and some are just facades. Mailings are sent out for special evenings; these nights are not actually special, but they do give the appearance of being playgrounds for the art world, thus luring the non-art world to a supposedly chic event for which they will pay. (As in past movements of the avant-garde, these clubs appropriate the “law of assemblage” in the sense that the “real world” and the “art world” become layered.) In order to maintain an elite aura the clubs also offer their space for “art night” parties or video and film parties which are invitational only. By constantly renovating, opening up new floors, and redecorating, each club vies for the position of “favored art club,” as a yet newer alternative to the art world’s alternative spaces. It seems to be what the art world wants. And on the flip side, the video/music nights at the official “alternative spaces” are designed to replicate the lounge atmosphere of the clubs, with monitors and cushions dispersed informally throughout the rooms. This symbiotic relationship has almost become a formula for a certain kind of success in both the art and the club worlds.

The club atmosphere does as little for the art that’s “crossing over” as it does for the bands, and tends to subordinate the art to the place itself. Even a vision as personal as Jim Fouratt’s when he did the booking at another New York club, Danceteria, can quickly turn into exploitive packaging. The support he gave American bands (with a concentration on local, New York City bands), instead of following the safer policy of booking touring English bands, actually did create an alternative club situation for a short while. His notion of art in clubs—as exemplified by this attitude toward the music—did not merely treat art as interior decoration, but allowed the art to maintain a certain integrity. The main attraction in the lounge-style clubs is a sort of skyscraper-style sexual voyeurism set up by projections, on different floors, of different eras and stylized “lifestyles.”

Whereas in the club scene of the past there have been what were called “Fuck                                                                                                                                                                              



Kim Gordon is an artist, founding and former member of Sonic Youth, current member of Body/Head and the author of Girl in a Band.


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