What is a DJ? Maybe you can get to an answer by understanding where the DJ is — that pivot point, that hub around which we as dancers oscillate, in the orbit of the music the DJ arranges and organizes. Understanding this, you can see the DJ as a carnival barker, or a sensitive and knowing soundscape designer, or a shaman opening unseen doors to threshold experiences where you just might die a little — that is to say, lose the manic grip on your ego, lose yourself like a raindrop in the thunderstorm.
The language of the disco, of places like the Paradise Garage that flourished in the late 1970s and through the ’80s, is the language associated with spiritual occurrences, the language of ecstasy, of religious experience. Elia Alba, in The Beat Goes On at the SVA Chelsea Gallery — whose installation is the first you encounter walking through the gallery — uses this idiom, describing Paradise Garage as a place of sanctuary. This is why it was called “Saturday mass,” by the people who fell into its groove.
In Alba’s room — the three other artists included in the show all have separate spaces for their installations — her wall text refers to the experience of Paradise Garage as moving everyone in the room toward “transcendence” and “joy,” but also “holiness.” Her installation includes all the technical accoutrements that can bring about the transmutation: a podium and DJ booth, musical speakers, a checkered floor, a video wall, a disco ball in the center like a lodestone, so when you fling yourself out into the furthest reaches of psychic space, you can always find your way back home. Alba seems to be saying that the mechanics of collective joy require that central figure, in this case, Paradise Garage’s medicine man, DJ Larry Levan. The artist installed flanking black and white images of people wearing masks of Levan’s face, sometimes in provocatively sexual poses, sometimes seemingly socializing. Perhaps these people are meant to represent avatars of Levan, (who died in 1992), but it’s unclear because the masks are also separately placed on mannequin heads in a large vitrine near the entrance.
DJ Spooky (aka Paul D. Miller) contributes an installation that has his characteristic setup of popular culture items that are made strange and almost inscrutable by a staging that refers to or relies on complex technology. Here there are odd black-and-white diagrams on the walls and a gold record sits in the center of the space, one bright light shining down on it, and the stylus poised to play at its start. As far as I can tell, one can’t play the gold record; it’s meant to stand in for the album sent out into deep space in 1977 with the Voyager 1 satellite. The original, Sounds of Earth, contained audio and images taken from all over the world, selected by a team chaired by Carl Sagan, the renowned astronomer and astrophysicist. This object was intended to function as a time capsule, laden with encoded images and sounds, math equations and brain waves. There were 116 images encoded in analog format with the remainder of the record devoted to audio selections. Miller gleaned bits and pieces of this audio from open source material such as SoundCloud and placed them in the iPads positioned at either end of the space in order for visitors to make their own mixes of the available sounds — constructing their own sonic portraits of Earth. Miller demonstrates that, much as the spinning record is tied to our rituals of ecstatic self-disgorgement, it can also operate as a tool for future communication with an other.
The other works in The Beat Goes On, by Tameka Jenean Norris (the stage name of artist Meka Jean) and Kevin Beasley, riff on this theme of the club as a place of performance and sanctuary. On a wall-mounted screen, Norris inhabits the character of Meka Jean to enact and illustrate some tropes for contemporary hip-hop and R&B inflected music production that are easily recognizable: that millennial, YouTube video vehicle comprised of lots of costume changes with jump cuts in between, but production values that make it look as if the artist isn’t trying too hard (because, as Kanye West said, “when you try hard, that’s when you die hard”). Beasley’s room is soft and sensual where Norris’s is brassy and loud. He’s created a womb for the rebirth of the soul. Everything is dark and plush, including the carpeted floor, and lit with black light. The one table with two microphones and a mixing deck seems to suggest that this place can also be a space of co-production — not just self-production.
When I visited the gallery in the middle of the day, there was very little sound audible. In Miller’s and Jean’s installations, the music was mostly available via headphones. Alba had music at a conversational volume in her space and I encountered Beasley’s work at a moment when the equipment lay dormant. Each room had its own discrete energy, so while its was not jarring passing from one space to the next, I did have distinct impressions from each one. A common theme emerged as a way to think about these almost mystical dance floor, remixing, and music production experiences, one of being and becoming someone else. It is difficult to escape religious metaphors (Alba’s work consciously traffics in them) because these practices and discourses have been part of our traditions for so long. But the exhibition, through its focus on sound production, suggests that we can use the trope of resonance: the process described by physics that explains how bodies vibrating at the same frequency amplify the acoustic output. The bodies build on each other, all the bodies in their found paradise, rhythmically finding the same beat, mounting and grooving and intensifying until they break into blossom.