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ICAConcerto For Voice And Machinery
Institute Of Contemporary Arts, London
Tuesday February 20 2007

 

 

First, a little history. Back in 1984, the ICA commissioned found-object art-industrialists Einstürzende Naubauten to perform a conceptual piece entitled Concerto For Voice And Machinery - the idea being to mix up music with sounds generated by tools and machines. Frankly, I'm not sure why the ICA found it necessary to commission Einstürzende Naubauten to do more or less the same thing they were doing at their regular gigs anyway. Perhaps that was the reason the band decided to throw their original brief out of the window, along with any notions of making music. That night, in front of a delighted if somewhat nervous audience, members of Neubauten accompanied by assorted friends (Fad Gadget and Genesis P-Orridge among them) staged a full-scale demolition derby. Armed with an array of construction hardware, Neubauten tried to drill through the stage, allegedly in a bid to find secret tunnels to Buckingham Palace. The proceedings were abruptly halted by outraged ICA staff amid much chaos and argy-bargy, and a legend was born. Neubauten themselves have been dining out on the story ever since. As their music has steadily migrated towards the conventional alternative rock zone, the tale of The Night We Smashed Up The ICA has allowed the band to retain something of a radical edge.

ICATonight, and for no apparent reason, the ICA stage what they're calling a 're-enactment' of the event. At 23 years on from the original event, it's surely not a significant anniversary - unless you're one of those people who reckon the number 23 is, like, mystical, man. At any rate, the chaos and mayhem of 1984 is being carefully reproduced tonight, with a cast of actors playing the main protagonists of 23 years ago. None of the original performers are present, but the stage is authentically tricked out with cement mixers, drills, circular saws...and a piano. Not that anyone's about to tickle the ivories, you understand. It's all about to get far noisier than that.

'Performance starts at 8.00pm sharp' warn the stern notices in the foyer. So, in good time, a crowd of curious onlookers gathers in the ICA theatre, ready to experience a bit of organised chaos. Eight o'clock comes and goes, and the stage remains defiantly empty. Minutes tick by, and heckling begins. 'Show us some ART!' cries a cynical voice. 'What are you doing, putting your make-up on?' shouts another. Eventually, a bunch of reprobates in overalls and tail coats stride on stage, take up their tools, and the noise begins.

Well, it's certainly loud. Not Motorhead-loud, you understand, but there's certainly a bit of industrial thunder in the air. Drills chomp away at concrete blocks; cement mixers churn and crash as bottles are hurled into their revolving drums. Bits of metal are bashed, circular saws buzz. Occasionally, someone shouts ICAunintelligibly into a microphone. There's no coherent rhythm to any of the noise, and no attempt being made to generate any. It's a freeform racket, and actually quite exhilarating in its way. But the audience just stands there, not alarmed in any way, not even reacting much - because, unlike the first time, everyone knows this is supposed to happen. Suddenly, a geezer down the front seems to get fired up. He sets up a frantic pogo, turning to address the crowd: 'What we should do is smash the whole place up! Because the people who run this place are cunts!' Another member of the audience tries to remostrate with him, but it's too late. He's on a roll. And he's getting others to join in. The front row seems to come alive, seething and surging, grabbing at the plywood panels at the front of the stage. As the actors on stage continue their pounding and thumping, the front row decides to add their own destruction to the mix. The plywood paneld are wrenched off and smashed up; bits of stage fly through the air. The stage isn't the only thing that's getting the deconstruction treatment. The piano is ritually slaughtered in a flurry of sledgehammer blows, but it's only one piece of smashing and bashing in what is now a full-on frenzy. Performers suddenly leap off stage, drills in hand, and attack the auditorium floor, while a forbidding figure in a black boiler suit shouts incomprehensibly through a megaphone. It's all kicked off after all.
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But, just like the first time, it doesn't last. An outraged ICA official runs on stage, and amid much shouting and gesticulating, damps it all down. The performers, sullenly and with very bad grace, leave the stage. The audience members who've joined in are harder to placate: the fired-up geezer who started it all leaps up and stages a tug of war with the ICA official's broom. But eventually, it's over. Peace descends on a venue that now looks like...well, a demolition site.

And I'm standing there, thinking, hmmm. Now, how much of that was for real, and how much was staged? The answer, of course, is that it was all staged. The audience participation - right from those first few heckles - was all done by actors planted in the crowd. The smashing-up of the stage was pre-planned - it was hard not to notice the way the plywood panels were wrenched off just a little too easily to be convincing. Even specific moments like the shouting man with the megaphone, and the tug of war with the broom, were meticulously recreated from eye-witness accounts of what happened back in '84. And the outraged ICA official? An actor whose intervention was precisely timed.

ICAThat was exactly how it was supposed to be, of course. This event was billed from the start as a recreation - carefully researched, carefully rehearsed, and reproduced as accurately as any theatrical performance. That in itself was impressive, and as sheer spectacle the show worked rather well. But I can't help feeling that there wasn't much point to the proceedings, beyond the desire to do something wacky and nostalgic. I mean, tribute bands like the Bootleg Beatles and the Counterfeit Stones meticulously recreate their heroes' period performances with equal attention to detail, and nobody claims what they do is art. So how come a recreated period performance by Einstürzende Naubauten qualifies for art status? Was tonight's spectacle a genuine art experience, or was it just an entertaining, but essentially meaningless, show? As I leave the hallowed portals of the ICA, I can't help thinking I've just done something I swore I would never do. I've been to see a tribute band.

 

Essential links:

Info page on the ICA website

Find more photos from this groovy art happening here.

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  Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston, Red N version by Mark Rimmell.