It’s hard to explain the cultural power of house music in the late 1980s and early 1990s for those who weren’t there. It was a time when the rhythmic ecstasy of beats resonated around the world. House music may have started in Chicago in the early 1980s, but by the 1990s cities like Detroit and New York had taken up the torch to create local scenes that morphed the 4/4 beat into something exciting and new. New York’s contributions to the genre were more melodic and infused with optimistic beats, unlike Detroit’s harder, more industrial sound. House also had strong African American and queer followings, and house clubs were often more inclusive and diverse than most dance parties. That sense of hope, particularly in North America where the raging culture wars felt like a step back, did more than sustain us, it was energizing.
Early 1990s New York house music had a distinctive feel, it was joyous, sophisticated, and visceral. That sensation was something I recognized at Mark Fell’s recent exhibition at Southfirst gallery, Vertex at Infinity, with his audio work “I Refuse to be Complicit in Your Pathology” (2014).
A four-channel sound installation, Fell has deconstructed the elements of New York house from the early 1990s into distinctive parts which he then loaded onto four colorful iPod shuffles that are each plugged into a speaker. The composition of the four parts are organized like an invisible wall or large painting. Walking through the ‘corners’ you feel the sounds buzz through your bones, in your ears, and throughout your system.
There are rough edges to Fell’s composition, which never repeats as each iPod shuffle plays randomly. Yet even in the beauty of chance, there is a familiarity in the sounds that anticipate each other as they pull together and slowly rip apart at various moments.
Fell’s prints, arranged around the gallery, echo the sounds by swishing through space and collapsing onto themselves in spasms of color. The sounds resist order, the images resist clarity. In retrospect, the parallels between house music and abstract art appear more obvious today than they did then.
Mark Fell’s Vertex at Infinity continue at Southfirst gallery (60 N6th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) until Sunday, May 18. In order to give you a taste of the work itself, I have recorded a small snippet of the Fell sound work and posted it below.