NASHVILLE—On view during August’s First Saturday Art Crawl, Coop Gallery—located in the historic downtown Arcade building in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee—opened Nam June Psyche: The Archive, featuring photography, recordings, and video from the 2010-2011 music-making experiment by Valerie George, with the assistance of her tour collaborator, Anthony Hlavaty, and one unusual bandmember: George’s 1983 Mercedes wagon named Sadie [Coop Gallery, August 3-31, 2013].
As a traveling performance and a literal vehicle for artistic innovation and agency, Nam June Psyche seeks to capture both the actions and context of contemporary American DIY noisemakers as an instrument for sound, influence, and effect. In this context, George (under the moniker Nam June Psyche) sees herself as an “archivist for those who are brave enough to operate outside of the parameters of popular music and culture,” and thereby records interactions and collaborations with other artists through unexpected opportunities and environmental discoveries. The fundamental basis for the Nam June Psyche project is the Car Kit: Sadie, the 1983 Mercedes Benz Wagon, ran on bio-diesel fuel and was outfitted to be a self-sufficient recording studio, specifically and custom-modified for George’s remote operations [the Mercedes was wrecked in 2011]. Among the many components of the Car Kit were amplifiers, speakers, a four channel PA system hardwired into two car batteries, an array of microphones and hydrophones, instruments, pedals, mixers, a laptop, and—as the Car Kit was also intended to be an instrument in and of itself—a drum kit modified for the roof rack of the vehicle. The resulting combination is a design intended to deliberately take advantage of both planned and ephemeral opportunities, lending itself to spontaneity and endless invention throughout the course of the journey.
Highlights from Nam June Psyche’s journey are now included in The Archive—as the project now exists—documented in a series of photographic prints, videos, and five boxed music albums with accompanying zines. Though George included the album sets at Coop Gallery for the purposes of exhibition, interested listeners can download the albums for free on the Nam June Pysche website, continuing the spirit of resource-sharing that drove the initial project. Using the Car Kit’s equipment, George and Hlavaty recorded organic sounds specific to the location they found themselves in, and then transformed the field recordings into an experimental sound track to perform live for the camera. Though the albums provide ample documentation of the resulting music, it’s clear after talking to George—who attended the Coop opening—that the real experience was being there. At these locations, where George and others created the work—from venues and DIY spaces throughout New York, Tennessee, California, and Washington, and performing at major festivals such as the annual punk THE FEST in Gainesville, Florida, and SXSW in Austin, Texas—George was enthusiastic over the welcome in the punk communities she discovered. As the Archive continues to tour, landing exhibition venues from Art Basel Miami to Worksound in Oregon, meeting new people is an expansion of the original experience that she enjoys.
And in Nashville, Coop Gallery presents this archive well. George creates a grid along one wall to display photographs documenting the landscape, the Car Kit setup, etc., which provides a clear sense of both the constraints and freedoms of working from the road, as well as a nod to the volume of sites visited throughout NJP’s journey. Projected video documentation of several interactions dominates the far gallery wall, and captures the visuals behind the sound, noise, and music from collaborations along the way.
Shot with an impeccable and professional eye, the experimental video and photos feel largely polished: the video feels like an edited music video, making all the right choices; the photography would feel at home in any culture magazine with its wide-angle vistas, intensity of expression, and slightly retro color. In some ways, the clean look contrasts the DIY approach of the trip, but overall the effect frames the work rather than distances it. Too often the raw nature of DIY—while an authentic and sometimes necessary way to expose the process and its makers—has difficulty translating to the gallery setting. Exhibitions of resulting processes can either feel unfinished or flatly-presented without documentation to flesh them out, or, worse, inflate claims of context and importance that the work may or may not support. Instead of the gallery presentation reading as an assumed posture, the final feel of Nam June Pysche: The Archive is balanced and well-curated. The exhibition choices allow the work to stand alone while simultaneously creating an approachable archive context. For a city like Nashville, where many artists embrace a do-it-yourself approach, it’s refreshing to see DIY being taken and presented seriously.
Most interesting are two photographic prints documenting the experience of the Car Kit itself: with the lens looking through the windshield, the comparatively candid images highlight the small contact mics placed on the outside of the Car as the landscape rushes past. Headsets mounted near the photographs play the recorded sounds associated with the scenes: wind howling past the car; the rain; the fuzzy recording of the driver singing along to the radio. In contrast to the video and photographic productions along the other walls, these installed combinations successfully utilize recorded audio to fill in the gaps between tour stops, thereby creating an atmosphere that is strangely soothing, familiar, and domestic. These beautifully multifaceted moments bring the experience home—an important reminder that in any long-term practice, it’s the logged hours between milestones that make the final project vibrant.
M Kelley is a “maker, do-er, thinker, writer” based out of Nashville, Tennessee, with a BFA from Western Kentucky University. An advocate for dialogue in contemporary art, Kelley is an active contributor to a variety of diverse publications and arts initiatives. Kelley curates for the project space 40AU, the collective HAUS Rotations, and Gallery One. Hir social practice, as both artist and curator, revolves around providing educational and developmental opportunities to artists and audiences alike; a fascination with the complexities of communication and narrative; and inviting others into collaboration, curiosity, and cross-pollination.
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