In his recent exhibition “Feedback,” Brett Williams constructed a perfectly contained, self-generating performance machine. The setup for the eponymous piece was spare and simple: suspended from the high, vaulted ceiling, four microphones dangled in front of an oscil- lating standing fan. Their wires plugged into an array of nearby receivers, which were in turn hooked up to an amplifier. As the fan oscillated, a plastic zip tie attached to its face strummed the microphones, causing them to bump listlessly into one another. The strumming, bumping and whirring sounds were picked up by the mics, processed in the receivers and projected through the amp, at which point they were picked up by the mics again. The installation essentially cannibalized its own effects in the production of new ones, creating a feedback loop of weird auditory layers that reverberated in the tight confines of the space, and beyond—the audio was also available as a live pirate radio broadcast during the exhibition’s run.
In its self-reflexivity, Feedback recalls Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha (1974), in which a Buddha statue contemplates its own live image on closed-circuit video. Feedback also bears affinities to Christian Marclay’s subversive employment of audio equipment to produce alternative visuals and sounds. There are distinct shades of Fluxus through-out Williams’s work, and he’s long been interested in the ontology of communi- cation media and the interrelationships between performance and broadcast, recording and playback, performer and audience. He has performed in local galleries and public spaces as the Shaman, a Dadaesque character who directs tirades of gibberish at his audience. At times, he’s taken on the role of a Foley artist (the technicians who create sound effects for film), though he plays his vinyl sound recordings purposefully out of sync with their video. While a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where he received his MFA in 1998), Williams developed a series of “Brett Commercials,” short films in which the artist constructed his name brand; more recently these have morphed into “Blings,” Williams’s self-promotional versions of old broadcast “bumpers,” or brief network announcements placed before or after a commercial break.
Feedback could be considered performance art, absent the artist. And for Williams, who plays no instrument, the work serves as a kind of musical prosthesis. It represents a strategic shift for an artist who often places himself at the center of his work. And it was successful, allowing us to focus on the space, formerly a cha- pel, filled with an entirely new kind of song.
Photo: View of Brett Williams’s installation Feedback, 2011, microphones, oscillating fan, amplifier and mixed mediums; at the Luminary Center for the Arts.