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A few months ago, shortly after Michael Jackson died, I was clicking through YouTube to listen to some of his old classics, including some of his music from the Jackson 5 days.
Scattered amidst the usual YouTube bootlegs and video tributes was a beautiful cover of “I Want You Back” done by KT Tunstall. She opens the song with a simple, “I think you might know it.”
The audience, of course, goes wild. Everyone knows the song, and both they and Tunstall rock out to the familiar beat. The specific YouTube video I found had already had more than a million views, and the comments are filled with praise, both for her and Michael Jackson.
A good cover song helps a young band connect with the crowd, and a great cover song elevates both the new rendition and the original. Johnny Cash made waves a few years ago for his cover of Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt,” and Tori Amos dedicated an entire album to covering the songs of male performers singing about women.
As an artist who hangs out a good deal with musicians, I’ve always been jealous of jam session culture. Most visual and conceptual artists I know prefer to work alone, and they only show their work after months of painstaking labor. On the other hand, most musicians I know are constantly humming their tunes, singing with each other, singing each other’s work.
In that sense, then, musicians are regularly covering songs. They are always singing, always jamming. And it’s in that sense that I find cover songs so wonderful. To me, they are not simply tributes to another musician. They are not derivative works (the words and notes are more or less the same), or imitations (each cover song reflects the style of the musician), or remixes (the cover performer isn’t trying to change the song per se).
In other words, cover songs are a lot of fun.
- During the week of October 26 through 30, I wanted to try something: a cover of a famous performance art piece done forty years ago.
In October 1969, artist Vito Acconci performed “Following Piece” (1969). A study in the public spaces we occupy and assumptions around privacy, Acconci followed random people in Manhattan during the month and reported on their activities until they entered a private area such as an apartment or car.
Here’s what Media Art Net had to say about it:
Following Piece is one of Acconci’s early works. The underlying idea was to select a person from the passers-by who were by chance walking by and to follow the person until he or she disappeared into a private place where Acconci could not enter. The act of following could last a few minutes, if the person then got into a car, or four or five hours, if the person went to a cinema or restaurant. Acconci carried out this performance everyday for a month. And he typed up an account of each pursuit, sending it each time to a different member of the art community.
It got me thinking. Just as “I Want You Back,” written and performed by a disco group of boys from Gary, Indiana, has a different tenor when done by a female rocker from Scotland, I wondered how “Following Piece” might be performed in this age of social media and mobile phones.
Twitter and Facebook have become new forms of public space, as people share personal details about their lives and encourage others to follow them. These messages are archived both on server farms and on any personal computer that receives them. In the physical world, the addition of still and video cameras to mobile phone has made it easy to record the activities of others without their knowledge. And easy access to live web cams and Google Streetview has given desktop junkies the power to observe others with a few clicks.
So why not do a cover? I invited members of @Platea, the social media art collective I perform with, to join me in “Following Piece 2.0.” Each of us covered the performance in our own way on Twitter, using the tools of social media and the Internet. We organized the tweets using the hashtag #fp20, to resemble the “reports” Acconci made at the end of each following.
The ten performances varied widely. On the one hand was a physical following done much like Acconci, but captured digitally. Nina Meledandri, for instance, followed a woman from the subway and along the streets of Manhattan and broadcast her notes and phone captures using both Twitter and Tumblr.
On the other hand was a digital following done purely with a computer, using the public space of the Internet as an updated version of the streets of Manhattan. Jonny Gray reported on the public tweets of those living near him, and in my own performance, I used Google Streetview to follow individuals, with a simple click and drag until they vanished from view.
Anyone following #fp20 would see a Twitter bizzaro world resembling Acconci’s original reports. The tweets seemed to resemble a regular scan of Twitter, with mundane updates and random goings-on, but those clued into the purpose of the hashtag understood they were reports of someone else’s activities, whether online or offline.
In a cover song, I find the work of the original artist to be just as important as the performance of the new artist, even as the latter is using different tools and rhythms to express the same beat. KT Tunstall’s rendition of “I Want You Back” belongs as much to the Jackson 5 as it does to Tunstall.
In this sense, then “Following Piece 2.0” brought up the same issues as Acconci’s original work, as we explored the blurry boundaries of public and private space. Even in the world of social media, where having a high follower count and earning retweets reflects one’s popularity as a tweeter, many performers expressed a mild discomfort with following others online without their knowledge.
And yet, though performed in the digital sphere using publicly available information, the voyeuristic tenor increased, as the followings went real time and reached hundreds, if not thousands, of computers and servers. The performances belonged as much to the turn-of-the-decade Internet as they did to turn-of-the-decade Manhattan.
“Following Piece 2.0” was, in its own way, a jam session, a free-spirited mishmash of familiar beats and tunes. As fine art begins to explore the cultural paradigm shifts brought about by mobile technology and the social Internet, I hope artists borrow more regularly from open source, Creative Commons culture as we develop and share our work. Social and digital media in particular, a breeding ground for retweets, screen grabs, and viral marketing, present an ideal venue for new ways to challenge rigid concepts of originality in fine art.
Of course, the distinction between “covering” a Picasso and simply repainting it can seem more like a matter of semantics than art criticism. But if we can accept the basic idea of a fine art cover, borrowed from the traditions of music, we would also have to accept that many covers in art would be the equivalent of run-of-the-mill videos shot on webcam by a practicing guitarist. A mediocre cover just makes us miss the original work. The best covers, on the other hand, make us love the new version as much as the original.
Importantly, as artists approach a world that is becoming more global and technologically-complex, cover art can help us more deeply understand and respond to artists creating in different cultural and historical contexts and developing work in different media. A physical performance can go digital; a work from Chicago can see new life in Guangzhou; an oil painting from 1910 can become a photograph in 2010. Far from being derivative, covering a piece of art can help energize the work in novel ways that engage our audiences and challenge our own artistic practice.
And to be honest, if nothing else, there’s one very good lesson I learned from the performance. I had a blast doing “Following Piece 2.0” and watching how others performed the piece.
In other words, cover art, like cover music, is just darn fun.