By Jamie Isbell.
A large black curtain slowly parts and reveals three grey screens. Then a dense and inconsistent ripple of excitement erupts from a shuffling and enthusiastically rowdy crowd flooding the Roundhouse in North London on this evening of June 1st, 2011. It takes a few minutes of chants and eager cries before the dim outline of a figure walks a few feet on stage and behind a stack of dark blocks. The reception is intense and climactic, but the first flickering images that hit the screens are calming and silencing. Below these screens and hidden from the beams of the projectors is Cunningham. Nothing but a tower of machines and a floating Apple logo in front of him. The silhouette of a man who makes strange films. You try to focus on what his involvement means amongst this strange chaos, but instead become drawn towards the central screen and the rising hum of subway noises. The repetitive sound carries in a dark, gently-lit image of Cunningham’s most recent subject – the late master and stoic godfather of poetic jazz, Gil Scott-Heron. This dark blended video piece – which crosses images of a twilit New York subway journey with Scott-Heron’s ‘New York Is Killing Me’ – closed Cunningham’s visually-brutal live show at the Royal Festival Hall last Spring, but this time the night starts with a pertinent and touching farewell.
The show then shifted to a young girl, asleep in her bed, being controlled and manipulated by some phantom force amongst the stars. The disfigurement of her facial features were explicit, and the rhythm of her body movements to the screeches and whines of the audio were disturbingly funny. However, the show’s highlight, a re-sliced edit of Cunningham’s video installation work Flex, packed the mightiest punch. Put simply, a grotesquely enjoyable ten-minutes in which a man and woman brawl through flesh and fury. Every thump and smack replaced with a charged beat or static pop – a Ginger Baker drum solo meets Raging Bull, with large portions of erotic brutality interjecting your periphery. To the left and right of the central screen, tinted images and flickering imprints of foreplay, intercourse and inverted sexual imagery. Without explanation, or resistance, you smile from the sourness of the images and grin in the glow of something disturbing, yet satisfying.
Later came the ferocious study of a sweaty and furiously-hyper woman. Dancing with ecstasy-like carelessness, yet remaining defiant in her on-screen rage. One minute she is head-banging, trance-like, to the music; the next she is ejecting heaps of intestinal matter from her vagina. Cunningham’s most salient work, ‘Rubber Johnny’, made an appearance too. Utilizing an arsenal of green lasers, and mashing the imagery of a wheelchair-bound outcast with the acceleration of a drug binge. This revamp of his most seminal work had the crowd in roars of hysterics. To close was one of Cunningham’s more recent projects. An intense and invasive insight into the beating heart of musical extrovert, Grace Jones. This shady collection of exaggerated exhales, and mournful cries from Jones all rumbled beneath a dominant drumbeat that controlled the thump of her heart. Then, after a gradual disintegration of audio it all stops, the audience explode, and the faint outline of a man with shoulder length hair raises an arm of thanks and leaves the stage.
Riddled with strobing echoes of laser-like sounds and thumping exchanges of bass, the show was, if anything, a demonstration of Cunningham’s prowess with audio. He is, after all, one of the only people who has managed to find imagery and pace that can match the velocity and intelligence of music by artists such as Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher) and Richard James (Aphex Twin). The visuals felt like blisters; initial shock, soothing silence, then the rush of blood and expletives rising to the surface. Whether it was the flecks of images that jumped between the three giant screens, or the lasers that scanned the crowd and illuminated the smokey air like a CT scan, it was a true cohesion of sound and image. From this you might be fooled into thinking that there is something astonishingly fresh taking place in Cunningham’s world. A giant step away from tradition. Well, not quite. In fact there was something mildly disappointing at the centre of this live performance. Late last year Cunningham postponed the Roundhouse performance by three months so that he could display three brand new projects within this live framework. It appeared that, unlike last year’s performance in London, he was focused on partially dislocating himself from past imagery and setting out a new roster for his style. But, fundamentally the two London shows seemed all too familiar; no sign of brand new work and near enough the same formula of grand theatrics.
The result of Cunningham’s show being dressed up with the pretense of something huge – something brand new – is that the iconic, supercharged visuals struggle against the show’s ‘live’ facade. On the one hand you have a ferocious, sensory-slashing collection of bold and bright trickery; a one man show of deviantly perverse video molestation. But on the other you feel, after the video-art auteur pointlessly stands on stage for an hour then shyly escapes backstage, that his physical presence, his fort of machinery, and his three month delay would produce something more custom-built for the live arena. When Cunningham took to the stage at the Ether Festival last year there was a sense of necessity. He included new segments and cutting room floor splices of past projects and unseen work. His collaboration with Grace Jones was cut with more engaging pace, and of course his curtain-closing collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron was debuted. The package felt new. It took an evening at the theatre, and broke it open.
The sound and imagery of Cunningham’s Roundhouse performance was precise and felt as richly his own as it should. For an enthusiast of Cunningham’s work the live show is his finest moments remastered. A reengineered retrospective of his finesse with the otherworldly, and a crisp display of his infamous genius. However, for the more critical, it is a glorified opportunity to watch his show reel. Although the hour of visual pummeling leaves you smiling, there is a point where you feel like he is holding back. There screams an urgency for Cunningham to ditch his precious successes and flex his dexterity in an arena his fans know he can reinvent. Chris Cunningham Live is superbly visceral, and rhythmically insane, but it is not the radical step into the unknown that once made him fascinating.
Jamie Isbell is the 2010 winner of the Frank Capra Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Film Criticism. His winning essay, ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and the Cognitive US-Mexico Border’, was published in Film International 52, vol. 9, no. 4, 2011.