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‘Showtunes and Jungle’: A Chat With Mark Leckey About Music and Art

Still from Green Screen Refrigerator

Still from Mark Leckey’s Green Screen Refrigerator.


“I like showtunes, and I listen to old jungle,” the British artist Mark Leckey told me a few Sundays ago. “Showtunes and jungle, that’s my thing at the moment.” We were sitting in the courtyard at MoMA PS1 in Queens, where later that day Leckey’s new collaboration with the German sound artist Florian Hecker, titled Hecker Leckey Sound Voice Chimera, would make its U.S. debut. Music has been a recurring theme in Leckey’s work—perhaps most famously in his seminal 1999 video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, which, using found video, ethereally threaded together a continuum of over two decades of British dance subculture—so it seemed fitting to talk music. (The artist currently has work on display at Gavin Brown’s Lenox Avenue space, by appointment only.)

“There’s this line I always like, ‘All art inspires to the condition of music,’ ” said Leckey, quoting Victorian essayist Walter Pater. (As it happens, Lecky’s personal style is rich with details that read a bit like a dandy-ish composite of the cultures he has examined over the years.) “The trouble with art,” he continued, “is there’s an anxiety around art, and its reception always has to be qualified in some way, but music doesn’t, and so I want what I make to have that same kind of effect. And just to get moved.”

As for the music premiering that afternoon, Hecker took audio from Leckey’s 2010 piece GreenScreenRefrigerator and threw it through software that he personally developed called Chimerization. This was then combined with Hecker’s own 2010 piece 3 Channel Chronics. “It’s Florian’s thing really,” Leckey said. “I think he just did it without telling me and then told me.” The end result is a microtonal rollercoaster presented in high-definition surround sound, a deeply abstracted remix exploiting the full spectrum of the crisp PA in PS1’s Volkswagen Dome. It was distorted and fragmented—pretty masterful, but also a bit of a sonic endurance test.

“Even if I didn’t like it, I’d like it,” Leckey said in regard to the piece (he liked it). “I like people doing that sort of thing, because that’s what I do. I steal other people’s stuff, so I can’t complain if someone steals mine. I wouldn’t want to, anyway. I kind of like the idea that things get circulated and remixed and all the rest of it.”

Also screened that day was the original video GreenScreenRefrigerator, which centers on a sleek Samsung fridge in front of a green infinity screen. “I had a green cloak on so I was hidden next to the fridge,” Leckey said. “I had a canister of coolant that you put through the fridge, and I was ingesting the coolant ‘cause it gets you high,” he continued. Leckey compared the coolant’s effect to that of “weak poppers.” (To those unfamiliar, poppers are slang for Amyl Nitrate, a chemical compound that, when huffed, produces a quick and intense high, among other effects. It has a storied history of recreational abuse.)

Leckey then ran his voice through the software plug-in Autotune—originally created as a way to pitch-correct out-of-tune vocalists but made famous by artists like Cher and T-Pain as a sort of vocoder—to an otherworldly effect. “So I got this robotic voice and the fridge is just talking about itself, talking about what it does, how it’s made, and then talks about its future,” the artist said. I asked Leckey if the video dovetailed with any objectophiliaic impulses. “Yes, very much. Very much much objectophiliaic,” he confirmed. “I’d consider myself a fetishist. I have a fetishistic nature. And that’s part of it, isn’t it?”

Although Leckey is loosely associated with the YBA movement in England—he was included in the monumental “New Contemporaries” show at the ICA London in 1990—his real breakthrough came in 1999 with Fiorucci. The collaged video is a definitive look into a history of stylish British kids taking drugs and dancing all night. It touches on movements like disco, Northern Soul (a subculture less known in the U.S., centered around the rediscovery of obscure and forgotten up-tempo American soul records), and rave. It stands among Rock My Religion (1984) by Dan Graham in a short list of art films that get to the true heart of music–based youth culture. (Both films are deeply spiritual. As someone who has spent time in various music communities, I can attest that counterculture can function as a surrogate religion.)

I asked Leckey if the kind of youth culture explored in Fiorucci still went on in the U.K. “It’s a tricky one, this, because I think it is over but, like I said, I’m 50, 51, so of course it’s over for me,” he said. “But I do think that the conditions that allowed those subcultures to exist have gone. They come out of a kind of material history that was about the way the record industry worked. And also the Internet breaks those conditions—it totally transforms those conditions.”

I suggested that the landscape has become deeply splintered. “Yeah, yeah, but then I’m interested in that splintering,” Leckey said. “Its just a different realm now.” I’ve had the thought that maybe in place of one massive youth movement there are now hundreds of little ones, facilitated by the Internet, but it’s difficult to even make a statement as definitive as that. “I think that the possibilities of this kind of limitless resource that you have now, it’s got to kind of engender something new,” he said, “and I think it is, it already is. New things are arising.”

Before we parted ways, I inquired about whether Leckey had seen the recently released British film Northern Soul, a movie that on the silver screen reenacted the kind of scenes that the artist explored during parts of Fiorucci. “It follows a timeless clichéd narrative that all those films have about troubled youth finding himself through music or fashion or whatever,” Leckey said. “As a film it’s kind of dull, but the scenes in Wigan Casino and that are really amazingly authentic. So its worth seeing. And it’s got an amazing soundtrack.”

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