Gérald Kurdian on “The Magic of Spectacular Theater”
Gérald Kurdian is skeptical of the visual art world he once planned to enter “on two levels,” he explained. “On the economic level, I had trouble understanding how something as abstract as an art object–a contemporary art object–could be framed commercially. Which I have no problem to understand for a record. Because culturally we are shaping our songs, they shape them for a 74 minute record. The second thing was I was that I was really not interested in making objects. I mean, I love object–I have a total fetish, I really adore objects. But I trouble putting another object in the world. I had the sensation that the domain of objects is so full–China is producing so many objects every day–there was something ecological, not on the environmental level, but ecological in saying I don’t see why I should add this pot or this box or this thing. I like ephemeral things, and also hijacking existing objects.”
This sort of skepticism to means of production and modes of framing is probably that thing that, above all, links the artists brought together by FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival. Like many of these artists, Kurdian is creating bluntly transdisciplinary work, by which I mean that it’s a lot easier to explain what “transdisciplinary” means when you’re referencing a guy who studied visual art, and sort of stumbled into contemporary dance, while transforming himself into a pop musician questioning the basic premises of pop music. Oh, and his show at this year’s CTL, which plays for two days, Sept. 18 & 19 at Abrons Arts Center and is called The Magic of Spectacular Theater, adds stage magic, in similarly deconstructed form, into the mix.
The Paris-based Kurdian began his career exploring visual art while a student at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy, before moving through the world of contemporary dance by taking part in a program at the Centre Chorégraphique National de Montpellier in 2007-8, when choreographer Xavier Le Roy, that year’s “associated artist,” established a sort of pyramid scheme of artistic collaboration by inviting a small group of artists to the program, who each in turn invited their own small group of artists, and so on, casting a wide net and drawing people in from diverse practices and backgrounds.
But for a number of years, Kurdian has been involved in music, releasing his first album as This is the Hello Monster! in 2010. Described as “avant folk” by the label-obsessed music press, Kurdian’s music both indulges and resists the simple pleasures of pop music through interrupting standard expectations. Musically, you could describe his work as existing on the spectrum somewhere between Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons, but not coming from any sort of musical background, Kurdian struggles with the idea of naming his influences.
“As a musician, I didn’t study music, I came in like, in French we say ‘comme un cheveu sur la soupe,'” he told me, standing outside the theater at Abrons last week. “‘Like a hair on the soup.’ I came in the musician totally like a hair on the soup.”
While he acknowledges a certain influence among him and the other artists he was coming up with from the Moldy Peaches (“This sort of eerie punk scene, people who would not be nervous punks, but just telling about how life can fall apart with very simple musical means”), Kurdian’s primary interest lies less in style or the imitation of an aesthetic than in the process of creating not only the music itself, but the entire construction of pop musician identity.
He quickly flipped through a list of artists whose approaches had influenced his thinking about music, from Steve Reich to Brian Eno to Phillip Glass, and pointed to Einstein on the Beach as having a profound impact on him while he was still studying art. What their work shared was an exploration of their own relationship to music, and that exploration animates his own work.
“Within the show, I’m presenting research,” he explained of The Magic of Spectacular Theater. The show purposefully falls somewhere between a theatrical event and a concert, consciously toying with your expectations, just as Kurdian does a performer, even when performing a traditional concert in a club context.
“I’m still thinking about that, to see difference between the relationship the audience has with the performer in an institutional theater, and to see the relationship the audience has to the performer in the private, industrial scene,” he said. “Which is very different. I‘m not the same person, I don’t behave the same way, people don’t project themselves on me the same way. In one field, people expect me to be very articulate, and complex. In the other I should be the most loose and crazy and the more absurd I can be the better, and if I can look strange it’s even better!”
Hence the introduction of magic to the conceptual mix. “It’s a bit tricky because really it’s magic in the broad sense. Like, what is mesmerizing, what is fascinating?” he said, adding: “When I talk about magic, it’s also that–what is the fantasy that surrounds music, as a practice? What is a singer, what does it mean to go onstage? I always felt the situation was totally absurd. It’s one guy, and 200 or 300 or so on people watching this guy. It’s totally absurd. So that’s what I hear when I think ‘music.'”
This sort of construction is explored scenographically in the piece through Kurdian as the performer and operator interacting with a video projection of consumer grade computer and online technology. (Facebook was mentioned and Google Street View was being played with as I arrived.) Part of what Kurdian wants to explore is the idea of the virtual body, in the sense that technology and media permit us a sort of creation of identity which he intends to explore by contrasting himself as artist with his identity as a pop musician, constructing and deconstructing those identities through digital means and magic.
“What is still interesting me in contemporary art is the way to create objects,” he told me. “That’s why I chose spectacle, or shows, because it’s the perfect opportunity to share the fabrication of the object.”
“And,” he added, “an object can simply exist in your mind.”