It's all frightfully civilized in here. Tonight we're experiencing the latest crossover between the worlds of left-field art and the twenty-first century new wave, and in an actual art gallery, no less.
I'm not sure if this intermingling of the worlds of art and post-punk rock amounts to a case of natural bedfellows who just happen to have discovered each other, or whether the two areas of endeavour are being forced together like a contrived road accident that's been staged to collect the insurance money. But it's been happening for a while now, and shows no sign of going away. As something of an art-head myself, I think it's no bad thing.
Who started it? I blame Tesco Disco, the odd little club that inhabited a West End wine bar a few years back. That, as far as I know, was the first club to take the 'art' approach - to bill events as being 'curated' rather than promoted. The first club to unceremoniously fling art and rock 'n' roll together. You'd find yourself walking through an impromptu art gallery in order to get to the bands - and, believe me, negotiating a wall of Espira's meticulous meat-based visions would set off the evening's entertainment no end.
Tesco Disco is long gone, but other promoters have kept the new wave art mash-ups coming. Tonight we're about to experience one such collision: an evening of art-happenings ostensibly devoted to the theme of freedom, the latest event put on by - no, sorry, curated by - A Crisis In Taste.
Tonight, there's no raw meat on show. But, down in the theatre, we do have giant rabbits. So that's all right, then.
Sloppy Seconds are two gentlemen in severe shirt 'n' tie combos, who just happen to wear giant fluffly rabbit heads. One rabbit plays drums, the other gives a guitar a good seeing-to. Although what Sloppy Seconds do is tangentally related to rock 'n' roll - notwithstanding the rabbit heads, they look like half a rock band, after all - their racket never quite resolves itself into Proper Songs. More like sound for the joy of sound, wacky visuals for the hell of it. It's Dada, Dad.
Here in the repectful atmosphere and soft furnishings of the Whitechapel Art Gallery theatre, with a seated audience gazing in all seriousness at two blokes in comedy rabbit heads making noise, it's hard not to believe that we are part of an elaborate conceptual joke. Should we laugh at the comedy rabbits? Or are they laughing at us?
Eventually, the art reaches a climax: the guitarist downs his axe and repeatedly scrawls the word 'Is' on an improvised blackboard. An existential point? A comment on our existence in the awful, inevitable present? Maybe, and maybe not. That's the Sloppy Seconds art experience. It is what it is. Whatever it is.
Upstairs, in the neat and minimalist cafeteria, where crisps are sold in china bowls (nothing so vulgar as mere packets here), more noise is occurring. Death To The King (for it is he) stands behind a table upon which are arrayed the essential acoutrements of the modern noise-artist: a keyboard, some effects, and the inevitable laptop.
I have no idea what the laptop is for, since all I can hear is the thrum of keyboard chords fed through assorted effects, which have the effect of blurring the edges of the sound. The resulting wash and waves of electronic distort-o-noise are vaguely hypnotic, sometimes abrasive. But in truth this stuff is hardly radical these days - and the laptop simply seems superfluous. I even walk around to the business end of the table to sneak a peek at the screen, in case Death To The King is checking his Facebook, or something - which would, of course, amount to a genuinely subversive idea. No such luck. It's all serious virtual technology.
The results are pleasant, but there's the rub. There are many of these laptops 'n' effects artists around these days, and they all seem to make variations on the same inconclusive, fuzzy, pleasant, noise. I could probably do it myself - after all, it's not like you need to be a musician or anything. Hey, I've even got a laptop. Art falls on its arse here, I fear.
Fortunately, through the doors at the far end of the cafeteria, there's another space in which a bout of better art is happening, this time with no obvious connection to the crazy old world of rock 'n' roll. Well, except insofar as it reminds me of a few squat parties I've attended over the years. In a small, windowless room, strewn chaotically with soft toys, dismembered shop window mannequins, and other random detritus of modern life, a dishevelled man lurches and rants to himself as if the world is ganging up on him.
This, it seems, Gavin Bennett, performance artist and, in his character for tonight's performance, all-round scary bloke. He shouts at invisible enemies, picks fights with shadows, then falls to the floor, squirming around with the soft toys, sending debris clattering into the corridor. It's convincingly, disturbingly, like going home with the loony on the bus - and, standing in the room with the freak-outs flying past my head, I have to remind myself that this isn't real. He's acting. At least, I think he is.
Videos flicker on a screen high up on the wall - a random and rather wobbly East London traveleogue, of sorts. At times, a soundtrack of anti-rock noise erupts from a guitar amp. At these points Gavin Bennett ceases his rantings and squirmings, and devotes himself intently to the volume knob with swivel-eyed concentration, as if he can hear messages in the shriekings of Brownian noise. Then it's back to the shouting and scrabbling.
His rants, if I'm able to interpret his incoherent rage correctly, have to do with tonight's theme of freedom - it's 'Fucked!', we're informed. Given that this analysis comes from a character apparently trapped in a messy, windowless room - the doors are open, but he never crosses the thresholds - who also shows every sign of being trapped within his own head, it's hard to disagree. Effective stuff, not a little nerve-wracking, and not a laptop in sight.
Back in civilization - the reasassuringly respectable surroundings of the theatre downstairs - S.C.U.M are about to launch into what tonight's flyer bigs up as a 'site specific new work'.
I had visions of the band setting about the Whitechapel Art Gallery's fixtures and fittings with drumsticks, if not actually with drills and spanners - now that would be what I call site-specific. It's not quite like that, though. Nothing actually gets dismantled. S.C.U.M set up and play in more or less conventional fashion.
The sound swells dramatically through the PA. It must be said that S.C.U.M swell dramatically better than anyone. But, as the music continues, it becomes apparent that S.C.U.M's site specific new work isn't a whole lot different to their non-site specific old work.
The band sets up a sepulchral throb; the singer looms tall at the microphone and gesticulates imperiously. The whole thing settles down to a krautrock-style pulse, and as it happens S.C.U.M doing krautrock works rather well. But even so, this is S.C.U.M being S.C.U.M, rather than anything particularly bespoke, and as the band does not appear to use their surroundings to inform either the sound or the visuals I'm at a loss to know what's supposed to be so distinctive about tonight's performance. The back-projected images of little fluffy clouds hardly count, since many venues have screens and projectors. It's hardly a specific attribute of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. So, S.C.U.M do well by their own lights, but they don't quite do what it says on the tin.
And ain't that just the trouble with art. It's just so inconclusive at times, don't you think?