Media Centre

All images Sam Roberts 2010

Lights and Music

You will point yourself in the direction of your dreams. You will find the strength in the sound and make your transition. 1

I’ve been thinking about Sam Songailo’s paintings for a while now. His work has had me wondering for years, but it was the title of his show at Max Dawn Gallery, Paintings about Techno, that offered me an ‘entry’ into the work. The reference to techno music set of a whole chain of associations and, as often happens when we encounter art, my personal experience became inextricable from my engagement with it. I’m going to take this as a starting point and create a bit of a dot-to-dot of how I think around Sam’s work. This will involve sketching out some of the diverse things that surround Sam’s practice in the labyrinth of my head. They’re not at all meant to describe what Sam is doing or what his work is about. Rather, they offer a way to start thinking about his work in relation to broader and ongoing developments in pop culture and the history of art. Techno is a form of electronic dance music that originated in Detroit during the late 1980s. Formally, the genre was inspired by a broad range of influences including euro-electro (think Kraftwerk), P-funk (Parliament-Funkadelic) and new wave (Devo, The B52s). Techno is more funk than disco, but has close associations with Chicago’s seminal house music sound. Together with Balearic beats (originating in Ibiza in the late eighties), Detroit techno and Chicago house spawned the many-headed monster that is contemporary dance music. Living as they did in a decaying Detroit well past its industrial prime, the originators of techno were also influenced by futuristic and fictional themes related to life in late-capitalist American society.2 Pioneering techno producer Juan Atkins has cited Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave as a specific influence on the philosophy that developed around techno.3 Indeed, Atkins borrowed the name techno from Toffler’s term techno-rebels to describe the new sound that he was instrumental in creating. Combined with the psychedelic and mythical influences of P-funk, these influences align techno with the aesthetic known as afrofuturism.4 This futuristic tone is reinforced in the exclusive use of electronic (or machine-made) sound and a philosophical preoccupation with the transference of spirit from the body to the machine. The latter has been identified as an expression of technological spirituality.5 I remain slightly uneasy with this aspect of techno, however its embrace of technology as a source of pleasure and transcendence has been identified as refuting theories that espouse the alienating effect of mechanisation on the modern consciousness.6

So what’s all this got to do with white boys in Adelaide? Blame it on the Crystal City theory, but in one of those bizarre twists that every now and then raises Adelaide to international prominence, the early 1990s saw it became the “techno capital”of Australia.7 Maybe it was the aura of urban desolation and industrial decline? Maybe it was the influx of high quality LCD? Whatever, DJs like Housemaster C (HMC) and Angelo channelled the beats to clubbers hungry for the new sound of the underground. Inundated as we are today with commercial dance music, it’s hard to comprehend the impact of techno music on the small and dedicated community that crystallised around clubs like Control, The Metro and Underworld in those years. The kind of collective and individual joy that accompanied those events and their contemporaries is something rarely experienced in our day-to-day lives. The influence of psychedelics combined with lights and music on perception and understanding are profound and hard to reconcile with everyday experience. It has been said that, “interconnectedness, a sense of belonging, is at the heart of religious experience.”8 It’s no wonder that electronic music events are often associated with an almost spiritual or religious ecstasy. Indeed, both the techno and house music cultures propagate and encourage esoteric philosophies promoting themselves as alternative and often revolutionary spiritual and social movements.9 When I saw Paintings about Techno, a door opened into Sam’s work. It took on dimensions beyond the carefully constructed surface of colour and line. Sam’s paintings shifted from safe and contained and flat on the wall, to pulsating and rhythmic entities in my mind’s eye. They unfolded, expanding shards of light and colour radiating into my neck, my chest, my arms and legs. I was on a dance floor, enveloped in the brilliant white of strobe on smoke and radiant streams of colour from disco lights. Sonic waves radiated from speakers, reverberating through space, attuning everything and everyone to one vibrating, resonant unity. Paint became light, colour became sound, and pattern became temple. The fact is I knew these spaces; I’d been on these trips.

The futuristic and Utopian tendencies of techno philosophy have interesting precursors in the writings of early twentieth century abstractionists. This is a particularly intriguing period in the history of painting. The passionate manifestos of the early abstractionists are striking in their assured and reckless embrace of technological and artistic change. The Futurist, Suprematist and Rayonist movements, despite their now unfashionable politics, provide us with some of art history’s most impassioned pleas for the recognition of the critical importance of new art to society. There are also clear parallels between the rapid pace of industrial, economic and social change in the West during that period and current global shifts precipitated by environmental, technological and economic changes. It s interesting to consider Sam’s practice in relation to some of these writers, not to suggest that his work mirrors or continues theirs, but simply to locate his practice in a continuum of practices concerned with similar formal and conceptual issues.

In 1913, the Russian Kasimir Malevich painted the purest and most radical abstract picture yet seen, a black square on a white background. Closely aligned to futurist thought, Malevich celebrated the industrialised city’s ” metallic culture, the culture of the new humanized nature.”10 His aim was not to portray the city or its industry, but to take inspiration from what he called “futuromachinology” and transform it into “dynamic form”.11 In addition to this, he propounded the expression of “pure feeling” which became the ultimate and sole concern of the movement he founded, Suprematism. Malevich wrote, “feeling, after all, is always and everywhere the one and only source of every creation”12 The representation of familiar objects, objectivity, became senseless in the face of this all consuming drive to represent the non-objective quality of ‘feeling’, something beyond the grasp of the conscious mind. Malevich’s painting aimed to reach a “desert” where nothing else could be perceived. Only the spirit of non-objective sensation that pervades everything, and underlies all objectivity, would remain.

I consider feeling (or sensation) to be an integral part of Sam’s work and central to communicating with his audience. Songailo is a painter, right? It’s hard to ignore all that earnestly crafted and awkwardly coloured work he’s been churning out for years. We love it of course, but something’s changing. In discussions about his recent shift from paint on canvas to digital animation and this installation for Media Centre, Sam has made it clear that his intent is to intensify the viewer s experience. I read this as an invitation, or perhaps a demand, to feel. This work is pretty hard to ignore, something important is in the offing. What this is isn’t entirely clear, but I’ll wager it has something to do with your future and how we’re going to get the fuck out of this mess.

Matt Huppatz

May 2010

1 Underground Resistance. Lyrics.  Inspiration/Transition. 12 . Underground Resistance Productions. 2002. Mad Mike Music, UR-3000.

2 Rietveld, H.C., This is Our House: House Music, Cultural Spaces and Technologies, Ashgate Publishing, Aldershot, 1998: 125

3 Sicko, D., Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999: 28.

4 Afrofuturism is an emergent literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrofuturism

5 Reynolds, S., Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, Routledge, New York, 1999: 51.

6 McLeod, K., “Space oddities: aliens, futurism and meaning in popular music”, Popular Music (2003) Volume 22/3, Cambridge University Press, pp. 337-355.

7 Warning: this could be one of those self-perpetuating Adelaide myths centred on bolstering a faltering sense of self and a paranoid inferiority complex.

8 Fritjof Capra, Belonging to the Universe 1991

9 For example, legendary techno record label Underground Resistance continues to propose a sonic revolution by which techno beats will shatter the dominant  mediocre audio and visual programming currently deadening the minds of the Earth s inhabitants and inhibiting connections between races. See the Creed of Underground Resistance: http://www.undergroundresistance.com/main/content/view/12/26/

10 Kasimir Malevich,  Introduction to the Theory of the Additional Element in Painting , trans. Howard Dearstyne from The Non-Objective World, Theobold, Chicago, 1959: 61-65.

11 Ibid.

12 Kasimir Malevich,  Suprematism, The Non-Objective World, Paul Theobold and Company, Chicago, 1959: 74

Media Centre installation at CACSA project space, Adelaide, South Australia. 2010

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