James Ferraro: The New Age Tapes Years

With hundreds of hours of recorded music under about 50 different names, James Ferraro can be hard to pin down.

With a catalog as prolific as James Ferraro’s, spanning dozens of musical works spread across a number of aliases, it’s hard to imagine it being cohesive. In some respects, it isn’t. From the glistening drones of the cult-inspired Heaven’s Gate to the snot-nosed freak-pop of Night Dolls with Hairspray, ascribing a thematic core to Ferraro’s music might seem counter-intuitive, yet throughout his expansive discography there remain central constructive similarities that denote the artist’s unmistakable brand. Coincidentally, “brand” may be a useful word to begin considering these similarities. However disparate his genre sourcing, Ferraro’s work is consistent in its warped use of commercial musical tropes that offers an absurdist reflection of modern life. This week, I will be concentrating on his earlier, lofi releases on his New Age Tapes record label that highlight Ferraro’s penchant for repurposing commercial pop culture.

  1. Clear

A 40 minute sprawl of analog (sounding?) synthesizers, the sonic landscape found on Clear is about as blissful as one can find in Ferraro’s catalog. The unending waves of hypnotic melody ebb and flow, muffled under the warm tape hiss of a tape recorder. Though clearly influenced by New Age music, the piece works to transcend such a crude genre classification by using an indeterminate progression typically reserved for ambient or noise music. By eschewing the structural norms of New Age music, Clear pervert’s the genre’s conceits, drawing attention to the particularities of each sound and laying bare the true alien nature of previously familiar aesthetics. This effect is amplified over time in the piece as its layering intensifies, each instrument losing its integrity under the lofi crackle that threatens to engulf the soundscape. Guitars, drums, and choirs eventually weave through the disorienting composition, yet rather than comforting the listener, the instruments only heighten the uncanny environment by repeating measures vaguely resembling commercial jingles. Clear refers to the state of nirvana in Scientology, a fitting title for a piece that evokes transcendence through artifice.

  1. Edward Flex Presents: Do You Believe in Hawaii?

Roid-raged grunts, seagull calls, and the familiar New Age synths found on Clear are all given equal representation in Do You Believe in Hawaii?, a jacked-up 80s fever dream of equal parts testosterone and flamboyance. Commercial guitar riffs and pitch-shifted beefcakes chug and grunt respectively, populating the sound-world with plasticity and artifice. Recorded on tape, the analog hum of this piece, in conjunction with its various references to 80s pop tropes, suggests an appeal to nostalgia, but not in any familiar way. The aesthetics in Do You Believe in Hawaii? heighten the past not by idealization, but by mutation. Under Ferraro’s lens, bodybuilders become grotesque monsters, the essential product of modern consumer culture’s obsession with the achievement of a transhuman ideal. By connecting the image of the bodybuilder with the low-art, consumerist excess of the 80s, Ferraro highlights consumer culture’s pervasive effect on bodies, portraying masculine “perfection” as a deformity rather than an aspiration.

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Towards an Art for the Contemporary

There has been much deliberation as of late on the manner in which art should respond to its contextual imperatives. These conditions include, but are not limited to, matters of distribution, manufacture, socio-economic matrixes, technological communications, and their intermingling relationships that impact every facet of the present art world.

In the view of art theorist Suhail Malik, in order for art to contend with its essential contextual conditions it must “exit from contemporary art.” He supports this notion through first defining the logic of contemporary art, and then arguing that the preponderance of its essential axioms are in conflict with those of a formally defined art. However, to begin this discussion, the axioms of contemporary art must be clearly defined. To do so, he discusses the incompatibility between contemporary art’s appeal to universality by its claim to any art created in the “now” (the contemporary), and its inherent characteristics and specificities that form a “soft identity” removed from the former construction. “If contemporary art can be characterized,” he argues, “it is more at the level of a form of proposal, or a moment of address.” Contemporary art seeks to address the question of the conditions of contemporaneity as a unifying interrogation, but shares no “common answer.” It is, for Malik, a “meta-genre of non-identification,” or indeterminacy, that mistakenly conflates the lack of unity of the present with a responsibility for art to respond to these conditions by negating determinability. Despite the non-unifying totality of the present, each element of the contemporary can be scaled and defined and as such, a formal logic can be applied without defying some sacred code to which art is beholden. In fact, to Malik, a responsibility of art to commit to indeterminacy is in itself a repudiation of its defining characteristics because art, as a constructed concept, cannot faithfully devote itself to its negation, a lack of identification. In this way, contemporary art is also poorly suited for contending with the contemporary, for “it confuses the determinability question of what is presented with the absence of identity of the present.” In other words, there are determinable elements which define contemporaneity, and each element collectively constructs its non-unification.

The tenants of non-classification to which contemporary art adheres act as causal agents for the tendency of many artists to reject the institutional realities in which their art necessarily exists. What emerges from this is a committed escapism from the contemporary, causing disengagement from the contextual realities engrained within an individual piece, or a collection of pieces. However much an artist seeks to evade these imperatives, contemporary conditions of a piece’s distribution and consumption remain inexorable from the content. This is not to say that contemporary art rejects context as a generality, for there are myriad examples of artists adapting their pieces to be more suited for an art gallery space. In the video works of Ryan Trecartin for instance, scenes tend to appear as overwhelmingly erratic, hypersensory depictions that shirk the subtleties of traditional narrative. This method is highly adaptive for the gallery environment, as it contends with the viewing patterns of passers-by in an exhibition who might enter in the middle of the video, or stay for a few minutes and then move on. By keeping a consistent aesthetic coherency throughout the duration of the video, those viewers can leave with a more holistic sense of the piece’s essence without necessarily observing its entirety from beginning to end. In this way the artist is successful in conveying their message clearly given the immediate spatial and temporal contexts of the piece.

But what of the conditions of institutional contexts? Surely the corporate structures that dictate artistic distribution would be fertile ground for exploration in those very pieces. Though immersively engaging with corporatism is still fairly untrodden ground in the contemporary art world, some artists have succeeded in committing to these realities within their own work. A notable exemplar of this engagement is artist Tabor Robak, and his multi-screen video installations that combine the visual aesthetics of modern videogames, advertisements and social networking platforms. In conjunction with this aesthetic amalgam is a veneer of extreme gloss and visual excess in Robak’s work: blinding lens flare, 1080p displays of obsessively detailed 3d models, menus and notifications appearing and transitioning, all at a dizzyingly accelerated frame rate. The effects of this persistent use of superficiality are varied, but occur simultaneously in the viewer, producing an uneasy emotional ambiguity.

In Robak’s single-screen video 20XX, a shining, futuristic cityscape is rendered in high definition, with sleek lighting and hyperrealistic raindrops sliding across the simulated camera which at once act as agents for visual distortion and as transitional devices to trigger the subsequent scene. The world in this piece is visually stunning, depicting an idyllic, urban utopia containing countless skyscrapers drenched in a neon glow, fireworks bursting into the saturated sky, and a wide swath of visual effects that indicate the digital complexity of the virtual environment. However, it is with this immediate evocation of elation that the piece supplants extreme anxiety: the city is too clear, too pristine. The superficial effects of the environment are as delighting as they are monstrous, at once a symbol of digital accelerationism and a beacon for the vacuousness of modern consumer culture. The piece is alien, yet familiar, for the symbols contain identifiable techno-utopian aesthetics, yet deny their integrity by over-accentuating these heretofore attractive elements while diminishing others (narrative, pathos), resulting in a hyperreal environment that stresses the uneasiness of existing technology’s role in both consumer culture and utopian ideals. To add to the unease, throughout the piece, video game brand names increase frequency over time, appearing as billboards littered across the cityscape. By specifically referencing video game companies in the piece, Robak highlights the virtuality of contemporaneity as it pertains to consumerism. Video games offer virtual modes of existence which can immerse a player completely, yet there also exists a manipulative component in which developers succumb to superficial means of engagement in order to appeal to a wider audience for economic purposes. Perhaps the emotional conflict produced in Robak’s work can best be summed up by the artist himself: “There’s this shiny exterior, and there’s this sad little nugget.”

Endless avenues are available for artists to interact with systemic conditions, but to disengage is tantamount to neglecting contemporaneity. Indeterminacy as the unifying artistic mode only permits those concepts in which a consensus of non-identification has been established. By directly immersing art in the aesthetic or procedural values of these systems, perhaps the dialogue on the norms and practices of the art world can be shifted towards a rejection of the consensus, towards an art truly fit for the contemporary.