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From old timey avant-garde to new American underground, it’s all good
Talking with Evan Lipson and Rick Weaver, the organizers of the Dilating Nexus performance series, I realized I had been slowly figuring out the secret of the avant-garde over the last year or two. With them, the light bulb finally went on all the way.
Like everyone does now, I grew up inside the belly of the commercial art beast, surrounded mostly by music, movies, art and stories that make lots of money because they’re media products designed to be crowd pleasing. I have loved my share of commercial crap over the years, and I still have guilty pleasures.
But I spend more and more time listening to music without melody, watching movies without plot, listening to poets that jump and shout, and looking at abstract images. Not because I always love what the artists are doing, but because they’re working outside of commercial cliches that have begun to feel oppressive. Yet there’s been this lingering commercial hangover that says weird art is failing to have meaning—even when I know it’s deliberately resisting conventional ways of meaning.
After a year producing one-off shows of challenging performance and music, Lipson and Weaver began Dilating Nexus, a series of five monthly shows from April through August. Both are performers in their own right but are presenting these shows, rather than performing. They are co-producing the series with the Shaking Ray Levi Society, which has been presenting challenging and unusual work in Chattanooga for 28 years, and maybe bringing some new blood.
“I think there’s a different slice of the American underground and perhaps...a newer generation that had emerged that hadn’t really been presented here or performed here before,” says Lipson.
“To me it seems like it’s either punk or academia in Chattanooga, and these fall somewhere in between the traditional warm comfortable shows like a rock show and academia where you’re getting into more thought-out execution or things like an installation,” adds Weaver.
Up next on May 31 at 7 p.m. at Barking Legs is “The Lupton City Snake Show,” a mostly musical variety show that sounds like it grows from avant-garde roots but blossoms into improvisational folk music. Local performers include Red Ochre King, Bob Stagner and Tom Landis. Travelers coming through are Pony Payroll Bones and Cherry Blossoms, a Nashville duo that improvises around a written repertoire they’ve had down for years and gets more abstract as the show goes along.
The June show is “Random Gear Festival,” a looser improvisational scheme in which a list of performers draws the gear they will play at random. Gear used at previous shows has included a “Zen garden setup”—a garden with pebbles, a roll-up piano, a bowling ball and a smoke machine—and a traditional rock set up of drums, organ and guitar that wound up being played by a soloist.
According to Lipson, the inherent humor of the premise can overshadow the challenge for musical improvisers. Many of them have spent years practicing on a single instrument, but with this arrangement, “You’re suddenly thrown into a moment where you have nothing but your instincts.”
In July comes “Breathing Artifacts,” a video-based show that will include AV performance, live show tapings, video screenings and video installations. One performer will be Chad Evans from St. Louis, whose work Weaver describes as “subconscious performance art,” which is taped live and then edited down into “this sort of children’s show gone wrong.”
Lipson describes these video pieces as the next stage in the evolution of artists who were raised on movies and music videos. Rather than starting with little movies and aspiring to “graduate” to a Hollywood blockbuster, these artists are working in a completely non-commercial way. With less chance than ever of a large audience, these works are being made out of playfulness.
“Because there is no economic market, it’s free of the marketplace dynamic completely,” says Lipson. “Every move is sort of a lateral move. There’s something very genuine in these expressions, very bare, very naked, and certainly pretty unusual.”
That’s it, there’s the secret: As weird as this kind of work may be, it’s stunningly genuine. It’s people pouring their heart into their film music, poetry, whatever—doing it their way and way outside the lines. What these two guys are doing is equally modest and revolutionary in its own way.
“A lot of what we want to do, the dream would be to have a music event that’s a tiki bar,” says Weaver. “Where you can really relax and get into this passive state of receiving information. There’s nothing sterile about it. It’s not too far gone, too arty.”
“These are designed to be entertaining events—we like the good times,” adds Lipson. “These events are really an offering rather than a command coming down from Sinai with the tablets or something.”
And no CGI. Promise.
The final Dilating Nexus show in August is “Soul In A Box” using the work of the late Dennis Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levis as sonic and visual inspiration. For more information on all shows, visit shakingray.com/nexus