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Monday, March 12, 2012

Jaap Blonk's Vocal/Visual Assault Is Strange, Difficult, Silly -- And Amazing

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2012 at 10:30 AM

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 posted on the YouTube video of Blonk's shown above, "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 U.S. tour (he works in his native Holland), he performed Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 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.

click to enlarge Jaap Blonk: What he does is complicated -- and he's good at what he does.
  • Jaap Blonk: What he does is complicated -- and he's good at what he does.

Friday 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, Cinematheque's director. Blonk materialized, looking like a tall elvin Gumby in expensive glasses, and sat at a laptop on a table near the edge of the stage. He opened his mouth, and the do-anything spirit of 1920s Paris spewed forth in a wordless yet hypervocal string of quasi-obscenities.

His compositional methods go beyond just making shit up. Among the program's 12 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.

Rick Santorum would hate this man.
  • Rick Santorum would hate this man.

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 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 (rare, historical, and so on), 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 a placeholder 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

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH

HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

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