Performance

The Complicated Staging of Experimental Music in Art Spaces

Veteran musician Onyx Ashanti’s performance prompted larger questions of how personal, cultural works hold value in commodified spaces of leisure, excess and consumption.

Onyx Ashanti performs at Bar Laika by e-flux, Brooklyn (all images courtesy of Blank Forms, photo by Lena Shkoda)

Onyx Ashanti — inventor, programmer, and musician — offered New Yorkers three chances in July to experience what he calls a “continually evolving, malleable interface of prosthetic synthesizer controller,” known as Sonocyb. Presented by the non-profit arts organization Blank Forms, Ashanti performed first in a “guerilla street” fashion in East Village’s storied Tompkins Square Park. Following that, he led a workshop on his Sonocyb at Aeon Bookstore, moderated by Control Synthesizer’s Daren Ho. Organized in collaboration with Sanna Almajedi’s monthly Satellite series at Bar Laika by e-flux, Adrian Rew, a curatorial assistant at Blank Forms, staged Ashanti’s performance within a more casual art world setting, prompting larger questions of how personal, cultural works hold value in commodified spaces of leisure, excess, and consumption.

For Ashanti’s final performance, his practice was moved from the street to the salon. It was Blank Forms’ first event in association with e-flux, which added a layer of prestige to the show. Bar Laika’s Clinton Hill location and smooth, soft wood furnishing set against semi-white cube designs sits in an interesting intersection as an event space; in the past they’ve screened films by Metahaven, Hito Steyerl, and Pierre Hughye, and Almajedi’s Satellite programming has previously featured similarly multidisciplinary musicians such as Keith Fullerton Whitman, C. Spencer Yeh, and Bergsonist. An ornate, collectible program was handed out by the curators at the door, offering patrons a bit of context for Ashanti’s somewhat outsider position in the institutional art world, and citing his experiences in nightclub environments and collaborations with house music heroes like Marshall Jefferson and Soul II Soul

Onyx Ashanti performs at Bar Laika by e-flux (photo by Lena Shkoda)

Ashanti’s devotion to free movement in sound has led him to develop patterns in performance that directly engage with and disrupt the nature of art (and artists) as entertainment. In his performance, he used his own body to communicate sensations beyond those confined to spoken language. Further, Ashanti’s humorous and self-deprecating one-liners throughout the event pointed to his dedication to his practice as well as his control of a stage in a space that is usually neutral for paying customers. Space and visibility were concerns for the mostly white audience shuffling for a vantage point. The layout of the venue does not necessarily lend itself to musical performances, due to a notable disparity of options between patrons sitting (mostly for dinner, and far enough to make viewing difficult) or standing with the intention to observe the performance.

Draped nearly head to toe with small washer-shaped sensors, Ashanti’s gloves featured LED designs tied to the flow of chakras and converted into sonic emissions. Sensors on each knuckle are programmed to follow a ‘golden ratio’ that determines the modulation and auditory presentation of Ashanti’s pitches and waveforms. A continuous chain of embedded multiplicitous ratios likened to sand, wood, or seashells inscribe lived experience into granular multi-scale polyrhythms, which cascaded around the relatively tight stereo field of the restaurant as Ashanti harnessed and juggled his inner flows of circuitous energy. Coupled with delayed vocals, the inherent rhythms of his body and gestures become instruments for sonic reconstruction. The space between beats and grains of audio information is instrumentalized in a way that purports a spiritual and material dealing with time and its articles of present possibilities. Like in freeform jazz or soul, Ashanti works across frequency modulation in a way that is both generative and deconstructive, providing a holistic collection of pebble-like percussion in a sliding rhythmic sequence. 

Ironically, Ashanti’s visible mastery over tangible sound and bodily process were consumed by an affectless audience. A feeling of entitlement and neglect ran through the program as Ashanti was expected to not only display his long-gestating and now “legitimized” work, but to explain it within both colloquial and academic terms to an amused audience with little framing from the introducing curator, aside from the pamphlet. The addition of a DJ set by Brooklyn-based Black, queer, and femme event organizer Dee Diggs felt like a missed opportunity to have an emerging participant in contemporary nightlife present her work as a living successor of the cultural context Ashanti has contributed to. Following a rather uninspired- Q&A in which the audience drank up Ashanti’s eccentricities while barely probing the intricacies of his craft, Diggs presented a rustic sequence of non-linearly mixed emotive house music, which unfortunately served as an adequate post-recital coolant instead of inspiring further engagement with a modern form of audio sculpting. 

Onyx Ashanti performs at Bar Laika by e-flux (photo by Adrian Rew)

In the context of the recital format, performances like Ashanti’s become devoid of value due to the inability of institutions to properly contextualize and engage with the larger questions they raise. Such types of music and other spiritual works of performance are often presented in the form of an iconic, bankable eccentric to be marveled at, or within the context of artificial scarcity in physical formats like vinyl or cassette that need to be excavated and reissued within the hoard of known Western canonical works. Further, the recital format situates an artist as an optical subject for particular class and demographic of people who are patrons of institutionally issued culture, never producers of culture. Thus, uncomfortable situations like the presentation at Bar Laika become more common than the art world would like to take note of. A personalized ritual and practice works demonstratively in the context of the recital; artists become givers of information for a patron to sip, consider or discard at their discretion. 

Onyx Ashanti at Bar Laika by e-flux was presented on July 21, 2019. The performance was organized by Adrian Rew, Curatorial Assistant, Blank Forms, and co-presented with the Satellite music series and e-flux

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