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Hypnotizing Punk Loops and Binary Art in Pittsburgh

It seems like every month Pittsburgh gets name-checked on one hot list or another.

Detail of Ryoji Ikeda, “data.matrix” (2016) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic, unless noted)

It seems like every month Pittsburgh gets name-checked on one hot list or another. I’m guilty of having put the city on a list myself once for Condé Nast Traveler. But too often two of the best spots, Wood Street Galleries and the new Cruel Noise Records (formerly Mind Cure), go unmentioned as reasons for the city’s high thermal ranking. Enough of that. When I visited the Iron City in December, I checked in on both places to see what they were offering up. As usual, that was a good plan. Wood Street delivered an old favorite, Ryoji Ikeda, and I’m thrilled to report that Cruel Noise has risen to meet the challenge of the very high bar set by its predecessor.

Wood Street Galleries

While the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Warhol Museum, and the Mattress Factory are the three art institutions in Pittsburgh that garner most of the attention, installation-focused nonprofit Wood Street Galleries has been putting on one killer show after another and getting much less notice for its troubles. In 2006 I was grabbing a breakfast sandwich on my way to the Warhol when I happened upon a Doug and Mike Starn show residing in two floors above the Wood Street light rail station. Let me say that again: I happened upon a Starn Brothers’ show. This is how it works at Wood Street. I almost never check to see who’s on their schedule when I’m going to be in town because I want to allow myself the surprise. While usually not as renowned as the Starns, the international set of artists I’ve seen on exhibit there over the last 10 years have consistently delivered the goods. Last year I was blown away by Hetain Patel’s videos and Nandini Valli Muthiah‘s photographs in the Focus on India show. The gallery has become a must-stop spot every time I’m in the city.

Ryoji Ikeda at Wood Street Galleries in Pittsburgh.

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Ryoji Ikeda, data.matrix

When I visited in December I was able to catch data.matrix, sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda’s second installation for Wood Street. It consisted of the binarily tidy number of 10 television monitors in a row against a wall and some surround-sound speakers. I was disappointed at first, thinking that it was a retrospective with a different project being shown on each monitor. That thought was happily obliterated when suddenly the speakers and all 10 monitors united in a digital chorus of hums and clicks, 0s and 1s. The digits and coordinates on the screens ascend, descend, and spin at speeds not quite out of the reach of human vision. The sounds emanating from the speakers are both brittle and warm, high and low. Ikeda has a way of turning all those flying digits into an overwhelming full-body mesmeric engine. All that data, running through and around us. We know we’re in there. To see it manifested like this is a thrill. We are ones. And zeros too.

Cruel Noise Records

The 7″ wall rack at Cruel Noise Records with Gene Simmons’ head on top

A 10-minute ride from downtown Pittsburgh, Polish Hill’s Cruel Noise Records occupies the same sacred space that once housed Mind Cure, a beloved and expertly stocked record shop, so there was some fear that Cruel Noise might not be able to measure up. I’m happy to say that that fear was entirely unwarranted. The new shop has picked up the old one’s mission with gusto and added a few twists of its own. While Cruel Noise keeps the pressure up with the high quality and wide array of genres that made Mind Cure such a standout, it puts its fist into your wallet with a more hardcore punk focus than Mind Cure. The bins are also filled with metal, noise, jazz, and plenty of generally strange things. The walls are covered with punk classic essentials and new releases that are built to fight, and all this wall action is balanced with evidence of owner John Villegas’ wonderfully unhealthy KISS obsession. Cassettes and records rule the roost (no CDs!), augmented by a tastefully tasteless selection of punk staples like shirts, buttons, and zines. In addition to running the shop and a label of the same name, Villegas DJs an absolutely crucial podcast about his punk and metal faves of the moment. It’s a good place to hear your future music collection. Did I mention that the shop does mail order? Buy or die.

I buyed.

Unknown artist, Crass Loops, Volumes 1 & 2

“What is this?!?!” I hopefully asked Villegas. The spine of the cassette case read “CRASS LOOPS” in the familiar font used by the British punk band Crass. Turns out, it was exactly what it said it was: Some enterprising mad genius made sound loops of short sections of Crass recordings. Crass was an anarcho-punk band and art collective who ruined things between the years of 1977 and 1984, so it’s a pretty fine action to destroy the destroyers. A beat or a riff is repeated, sometimes half a phrase of lyrics. Over and over for 40 minutes it rolls, hypnotizing in its repetitions. Crass was always about boring into and underneath the surface of things, and these tapes do just that in their own way. I was only able to obtain Volumes 1 and 2 that day, but there is a third out there, which, in a slightly Dadaesque turn, is apparently based on Discharge samples. Glory to the d-beat.

Cassette spines for ‘Crass Loops Volumes I & II‘ and Chiller’s ‘Demo 2016

Chiller, Demo 2016

Speaking of the d-beat, the other thing I picked up was Demo 2016 by Pittsburgh hardcore band Chiller. Scythe-like guitars lead the way with this Iron City crew. Chiller isn’t afraid of a good melody, but not so much that they ever let that get in the way of a good song. This album is just eight tracks in 10 minutes. Not enough time for fat. Just enough time for destruction.

Brown Angel, Shutout (image via Bandcamp)

Brown Angel, Shutout

Another Pittsburgh band I was happy to see in the bins was the noise-doom-metal unit Brown Angel. Their music sounds like what would happen if you sat on the edge of a pit where piles of bad heroin were being set afire and decided to practice your deep breathing. This new album, Shutout, was mastered by James Plotkin, who keeps the terror and dread as real for the listener as it obviously was for the band when they were recording it. Guitarist Adam MacGregor’s thick rotting slabs of riffs and sinewy leads tear at each other from awkward angles, equal parts Justin Broadrick and Fred Frith. As obtuse as his guitar playing can be, Macgregor’s desperate vocals are frighteningly direct. Mike Rensland’s bass and John Roman’s drums keep all the chaos anchored deep in the most horrific of basements. These are not nice times and this is not nice music. Shutout was one of the best albums of 2016,  partly because it knew what 2017 had in store for us.

These are just two of my under-the-radar faves in Pittsburgh, but trust me when I tell you there are plenty more. Hell, the same building that houses Cruel Noise holds two other gems: On the first floor, there’s the great punk coffee shop Lili Cafe, with killer joe and a simple but tasty menu (get the egg, cheese, and tomato sandwich), and on the floor above Cruel Noise is the utterly bonkers (in both selection and content) Copacetic Comics. Just down the road from that triple-threat of a building is the rock-and-roll dive bar Gooski’s. Back in the city, down the street from Wood Street Galleries is the adventurous art gallery SPACE and the small but mighty cartoon and comics museum Toonseum. Pittsburgh is famous for being at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, but you’ll find the most interesting action in the smaller streams that feed those three rivers.

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