When idiots talk about wanting to de-fund the arts, Jaap Blonk is the kind of artist that they’re angry about. He makes wacky sounds with his mouth and throat and gets paid for it, which could mean that he’s un-American, certainly that he’s elitist. To quote a comment on one of his YouTube videos, “what the hell does this provide to society? other than nothing?”
With feedback like that, you know Blonk is on to something. (His first name, by the way, is pronounced “yop” — the guy was apparently born into funny sounds.) As part of a rare US tour (he works in his native Holland), he performed last Friday at YBCA in “Soundtracks, Scores, Interactive Animations,” continuing SF Cinematheque’s 2012 season. Appearing in the intimate Screening Room, Blonk shook us black-clad attendees to our esoteric cores.
Blonk’s avant-garde performances channel the provocatively pioneering nonsense of Dadaism. His work is tremendously complex, but his brilliance makes it easy to think the opposite. I get the feeling that if he hadn’t gone into composing, he’d have been a billionaire scientist, making good on some simple way to harness the vibration of cell phone towers as a means of generating electricity, or whatever. (Actually, I can’t prove that he isn’t also a billionaire scientist, and that this isn’t just a noisy side gig.) Since his start in the late 1970s, he’s gained a cult following for performances of his own works and of historic texts by Tristan Tzara and Kurt Schwitters, art-world heavies whose contributions, by their very strangeness and difficulty, would otherwise languish in an archivist’s drawer.
At YBCA, we got a little of the past and a lot of the present. Blonk rarely shows his visual work, so this performance was something of a coup for Steve Polta, the Cinematheque’s director. Blonk materialized, looking like a tall elvin Gumby in expensive glasses, and sat at a laptop on a table near the stage’s edge. He opened his mouth, and the do-anything spirit of 1920s Paris spewed forth in a wordless yet hyper-vocal string of quasi-obscenities.
If this sounds like he’s just making shit up, well, it soon became obvious that he’s far beyond that. Among the program’s twelve works, he investigated the possible soundings of the letter “r,” following a crazy little flow-chart he drew and displayed. (“You may follow the arrows but you don’t have to,” which I think he meant as a joke.) He slowed down footage of his flapping face (like a video version of Jowlers) and the sound that came with it—that piece was called “Flababble.” He also fed his cuneiform-like illustrations into optical character recognition software and played the scar-tissue results. And in a computer program he wrote, his voice’s acrobatics determined the course of dots and stars and bloops on the projection screen.
All visuals came from his insanely tricked-out laptop, the screen of which he continually broadcast. So before and after the art happened, we got to see the art’s back-end: the quickness of Blonk’s jumps from some obscure composition program to some fiendish media player gizmo (dude’s got enough processing power to kill a horse), flashing back over to his dashboard program, loading the scripting program, and hey, it’s a full-on sound-n-light assault. Put another way, the show’s thrill partly involved the thrill of seeing someone being very good at something that is very hard to understand, let alone be good at.
Vocally too, Blonk’s technique is incredible. His voice never wavered, except maybe once in the really hard part, when he was basically just barking a single, pitch-perfect tone for two minutes. That text, the 1924 “Lautgedicht,” is a famous one by Man Ray. It resembles a poem, the words of which (but not the spaces!) Man Ray totally blacked out in ink. To quote Blonk’s notes, “Blonk performs it with a harsh voice sound inspired by this rude act of censoring.” Uh, yeah. You could almost hear his vocal chords bleeding. The length of the black line determined the length of his bark, with satisfying consistency. He contorted his eyebrow-laden face in a reliably consistent way too. Hearing someone perform this felt at first like a luxury (because rare, historical, etc.), then like a Marx Brothers sketch, then like a calamity, then like a triumph for everyone involved. The very final shriek Blonk bit off with a satisfied little breath. He earned the indulgence. By the way, for the whole show Blonk never drank any water or even coughed, which was weird and heroic.
Work like this makes for a sly study in opposites: intellectual and guttural, unholy and sublime, frantic and liberating, punk and canonical. I realized how little attention I usually pay at performances, and how instead I wait for the performer to impress me out of semi-passivity. How busy many other artists are, always attaching sense to their medium in a never-ending search for connecting, emoting, transforming, upholding the audience’s belief system. It starts to feel a little desperate.
Blonk, in resisting meaning so arduously (or is it effortlessly?), repurposes the voice into a placeholder for “material” of any sort. His performance is an avatar for all performances, subverting and celebrating the very act of being watched while doing something creative. That’s gutsy. It makes me think of an extraordinary passage in a poem by Man Ray, who wrote:
Jaap Blonk performed at the Screening Room at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on March 9, 2012.