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Back to the Future 

With synth pop and agitprop, Memory Systems imagines a post-futuristic world

Wednesday, May 1 2002
Back in the '80s, the future promised relief from recession, Star Wars (the movie and the missile defense), synth pop, break dancing, Madonna, and a Bush in the White House. Now that the present is that future, we find that everything that wasn't supposed to still be here is, only it's all slightly different. Like watching the enhanced anniversary edition of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, our recollection of the past seems to have been subtly altered. As San Francisco experimental synth pop outfit Memory Systems puts it, "Memory isn't what it used to be."

This slogan is at the root of what Phoenix Perry -- Memory Systems' singer, visual artist, and co-producer -- calls "post-futurism," defined as "not the study of the future, but what the future should have been." She came up with the idea while curating an art exhibit in 2000 called "Air Portugal II" at S.F.'s Pond Gallery, in which she saw a unifying theme to the various works. Most of the art juxtaposed old and new technology, such as projecting the television news through a microscope and using a plant's electrical impulses to determine the sequence of video images displayed on a computer.

Around the time of "Air Portugal II," Perry went to a show by early electronic musician Morton Subotnick and met Brian Jackson, Memory Systems' future co-producer and synthesizer specialist. Recognizing a shared taste for '80s keyboard bands and a fascination with the way the future seemed to be stagnating, the pair came up with a flurry of projects for bringing people together around these concepts. Unfortunately, after planning to institute a community Web site at, both artists developed repetitive stress disorder from computer jobs and couldn't devote the number of typing hours required. (A friend currently updates the site, which serves as an info source for the club night "Synth.") The couple then decided to focus their energies on one of the quintessential artifacts of the post-futurist present: the synthesizer. Considered hypermodern in the '50s yet still capable of suggesting a sci-fi aesthetic today, the instrument became the theme of "Synth," Perry and Jackson's floating electro/new wave/abstract techno party, and the centerpiece of Memory Systems, both of which began around February 2001.

Although Perry and Jackson clearly revel in the trendy '80s renaissance -- booking campy Euro-disco tribute act Hong Kong Counterfeit and Finnish robot funksters Mr. Velcro Fastener among others for "Synth" -- they maintain a critical distance from the genre, in an effort to play with its tropes. They formulated a business model, for instance, to capitalize on this brave but not so new world, with its atrophied confidence in a different tomorrow. "The idea is that we don't live in our future, we live in The Future," Perry explains from the pair's shared Haight-Ashbury apartment, "the future that's white and sterile and where everything's backed up on database. Everybody's thoughts and memories and ideas are able to be traded and stored -- now you can buy certain experiences and dreams. So the idea for Memory Systems is that we're selling these memories, and they can be tailored to your desires."

"Don't let repressed memories stop you from enjoying your present," Jackson adds in mock voice-over. "For example, we can change your memories of getting bullied so you can remember being the man your dad told you to be."

Memory Systems offers such products in the following formats: audio (its nostalgic renditions of the Top 40 keyboard sound of the Reagan years), visual (corresponding video clips from some vaguely futuristic cityscape), and conceptual (faux advertising mottoes interspersed in the videos). During live performances, the group weaves together music, video art by Perry and her collaborator Jenny Young, and projected messages like "Changing the face of identity since 2001," "Making Scientology obsolete," and "Memory Systems -- it takes the fear out of living." At first blush, the presentation appears to be very much in line with the retro '80s kitsch -- Perry and Young wear long red gloves and fitted, military-style black dresses, and Jackson wields a goofy Buck Rogers- looking bass -- but the sloganeering and existential film narratives suggest that the irony runs deeper.

"We're definitively trying to make you uncomfortable with some of the ideas we present," Perry says. "Like with the new video we're filming, Brian's carrying a briefcase that has some unstated value in this futuristic society, and he's being chased endlessly, but you're not sure why. There's no real direction or point to the story; it's as if the information that you're supposed to be getting has become empty. Then at the end, the case finally comes open, and it's full of blank paper. All he can do in the movie is run, but he doesn't know even why he's doing it."

In another video, two women attempt to embrace but are thwarted by their motorcycle helmets. Like the chase scene and the term "post-futurism" itself, there's a certain absurdity built into the clip's imagery, as well as a quasi-political subtext. "All these forces have been set into motion over the decades, and everyone's doing these things because that's what we do in the postindustrial world," Jackson explains. "Go to your job, go home, do things to numb yourself so you can go back to your job. I'm sure there are probably some people who get fulfillment from that, but I don't think most people do."

Unlike the armchair social critics of postmodernism, who are long on observations but short on solutions, Perry and Jackson intend to effect change through their art. In fact, much of the Memory Systems package comes off like a sendup of the staid, noncommittal electronic music formula. The group's explicitly stated agenda, its attention-catching look, and its ambitious multimedia show all seem like the antithesis of a DJ in a sweat shirt hunched over the decks in the back of a club. Not surprisingly, Perry and Jackson don't have much connection to the mainstream dance scene. Neither went through a clubbing phase, and the main reason they started "Synth" was to offer a respite from the straight-lipped, four-on-the-floor world of house music. Even Jackson's use of a bass in performance is mostly theatrical -- it actually just triggers a synthesizer -- since the prop is meant to evoke the kind of live performance entity that the isolated, machine-fiddling producer was supposed to replace.

But a cynic might argue here that the type of electronic music Memory Systems purveys is closer to the contemporary ideal of form over content than a statement against it. Indeed, the group's songs are either entirely instrumental or include what Perry calls "intentionally Bubblegum" lyrics. The pair did have one tune that overtly explored some of their ideas, but they decided to ax it because it sounded like a Dead Kennedys homage.

"We settled on a less heavy-handed route with the music," Jackson says. "We decided that it would be too limiting to present a message that strongly. So the music is there to be enjoyed on its own, but for people who notice that there's something else going on, they can research into some of the ideas we're putting out there. It's more the approach of offering a piece of candy that's been attached to a string that we can then reel them in with."

On Memory Systems' six-song debut, Making Your Mind a Better Place to Be, recently released on the group's own Form Records, the bait is sugar-rush-gratifying indeed. Jackson counterbalances the emotive synthesizer tones and forlorn keyboard moan of the Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell, and Laurie Anderson with hiccuping drum machines that burp along to the infectious grooves of contemporary electro. For her part, Perry intertwines her voice with the mesh of keyboard lines, dissolving her unintelligible words into wisps of atmospheric melody.

"We're really into sweet, poppy, fun music," she says. "We don't want to overload anyone with critical theory or become another Negativland."

So maybe Memory Systems proves that video did kill the radio star. Perhaps content can no longer stand alone in our sound-byte-saturated age. Memory Systems has strategically situated itself at the nexus of high concept and quick fix, from which it's able to dabble in innocuous pop tunes and visual agitprop at the same time -- the old one-two punch perfected by groups like the Velvet Underground.

"Meaning can come in many forms, not just verbal and not just through lyrics," Jackson observes. "In the way that good abstract art can still say something to you, how it can affect you metaphysically -- that's what we want to achieve with Memory Systems. Even if someone walks away with just a feeling of something deeper, we've succeeded."

About The Author

Darren Keast


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