Performance at the Empty Bottle, Chicago, April 1999
Just to get this out of the way so I don’t have to keep it to myself for the next couple of hundred words: the Tape-beatles are a singularity, and this performance was one of the most fascinating and engaging works of art I’ve ever seen or heard. Thanks for indulging me: now you’ll know where I’m coming from and we can avoid any pretensions of critical objectivity.
The Tape-beatles might be considered a product of the art movements of the 20th century. They borrow the new meanings and absurd juxtapositions of Surrealism, Dada, cut-up poetry and collage. They employ the shock value and social concerns of the early days of performance art. They use poetic montages of found footage with the dexterity and sense of discovery of Stan Brakhage and the American underground filmmakers of the 1960s. They take apart the abstract expressionists’ vision of America as a place of unlimited freedom and unbridled expression, and remind us that it’s simply not that easy. What they do appears to be cutting-edge multi-media art but it doesn’t share the tech-artists love affair with hard drives and video projectors.
Taking the stage for the Tape-beatles means that Lloyd Dunn and John Heck of Iowa City stand on a small platform in the middle of the audience, armed with four 16mm film projectors and a tape deck. They select carefully labeled loops of film from small boxes, and load up their obsolete technology to begin the creation of a visual and sonic collage on four screens. The 20th century goes by in an instant as the found footage clatters through the projector gates: glaring representatives of the military sit behind desks, cities blow up, crowds riot, and the virtues of new products from past ages are extolled. What happens on ‘stage’ during this particular Tape-beatles show seems, at first glance, to be one of those fast-moving image collages we’re accustomed to seeing in dance clubs. Even the sounds are similar: running underneath it all is a tape-collage soundtrack layered on an underpinning of hard techno beats. But there is a difference; this barrage of imagery and sound is being manipulated manually, in real time, and with very delicate materials. No samplers, sequencers, or computers: just two people, their hands a few simple machines, and a gargantuan vocabulary of images plucked from all the possibilities of the world. What the Tape-beatles create may be attuned to the dizzying visual culture of our time, but the approach is the combination of sensibility, practiced craft, and concern for society that has been at the core of art since it made its debut around a neolithic camp fire. It’s the kind of thing that makes you reconsider the real value of your television.
Projector no. 10: Chicago Cultural Guide, June 1999
John and Lloyd meet up with former Tape-beatle Paul Neff (center) at the Empty Bottle.