Did you know that self-described “Gypsy punk cabaret” band Gogol Bordello was in the 2002 Whitney Biennial? It’s true. So was noise band and art collective Forcefield, from the Fort Thunder artists’ space in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as their predecessors, the Detroit-based group Destroy All Monsters. The 2004 edition included Antony and the Johnsons, which was then the band of musician and visual artist Anohni. Also on the 2004 bill: Tracy + the Plastics (the Olympia, Washington, electropop video-art band of multi-persona leader Wynne Greenwood), musician Jim O’Rourke (then a member of Sonic Youth), and assume vivid astro focus (artist Eli Sudbrack’s bandlike umbrella for artistic collaboration). As the first decade of the new millennium ticked on, the biennial also presented outsider folk hero Daniel Johnston, grime-psych group Gang Gang Dance, and interactive electronic act Lucky Dragons.
But it wasn’t just the Whitney Biennial that went bandshit crazy in the early 2000s. Japanther, the low-fi, spazzed-out, pop-punk poster band for Brooklyn DIY, was not only in the 2006 Whitney Biennial but also the second edition of Performa in 2007 and the Time-Based Art Festival at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in 2010. German synth demigods Kraftwerk performed at the 2005 Venice Biennale. BARR, artist Brendan Fowler’s one-man-band participated in the 2009 New Museum Triennial. Extreme Animals, a “trap metal” offshoot of art collective Paper Rad, toured house shows between gigs at the Museum of the Moving Image, Deitch Projects, and the Museum of Modern Art’s PopRally series—youth-oriented parties launched in 2006 that have also featured appearances by No Age, Cat Power, and Sigur Rós. Klaus Biesenbach became a curator at PS1 in 1996, and his love of parties and pop culture surely fueled MoMA’s enthusiasm for music. He launched Warm Up, the summer “curatorial” concert series at MoMA PS1, in 2001.
At the time, this didn’t seem extraordinary. After all, visual artists and musicians have long intermingled with and influenced one another. Warhol and the Velvet Underground worked together in the 1960s. Former art students formed the Talking Heads in the salad days of New York punk. Industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle were also performance artists. “Looking at Music,” a three-part exhibition organized by Barbara London at MoMA in 2008–11, documented overlapping experiments in music and video from 1965 to 2001. By the 2000s, artist-led bands seemed natural. There were meta-pop electronic groups like Fischerspooner, YACHT, and The Blow, the abrasive noise punk of A.R.E. Weapons, Black Dice, and Lightning Bolt—the list goes on. Some of them might have retched at being associated with the art world, even if they played gigs in galleries, whereas others framed their band as a work of conceptual art.
“Japanther was a sculptural duo,” former member Ian Vanek told me via email in March. “We made our own instruments, and had a unique outlook on what sound art could be. We stated from early on that we were not a ‘band.’ We were an art project.”
For artist Anna Huff—who released synthpop albums and fronted the experimental theater collective Cloud Eye Control as her musical avatar Anna Oxygen—the question of “conceptual artwork or band?” frames a distinction without a difference. “The boundaries were loose,” she explained in an email. “The ‘Anna’ shape was, and still is, always morphing.”
One advantage to the band as artistic material was that it didn’t require the commercial art market to validate its form. California artist Daniel J Glendening was a student at UC Davis in the early 2000s and lived at a local underground venue called the Pirate House. BARR, Anna Oxygen, and Japanther all played shows in his living room, but he and his roommates certainly didn’t consider themselves curators.
“At the time, I’m not sure I was even aware that an art practice could take the form of a band or solo music performer,” Glendening said in an email. “Japanther, for example, was a punk/noise band to us. Their position as an extension of an art practice wasn’t known to me until much later.”
What now feels particularly extraordinary about the early 2000s is how much interest the contemporary art gatekeepers—the institutions and their curators—suddenly showed in art-music subcultures that had existed for years. There’s no convenient, singular reason for the manifestation of this curatorial trend. Several simultaneous factors came into play: genuine curiosity, subcultural opportunism, political posturing, economic convenience, and the increased access to information online.
Following 9/11, nationalism was miasmic. Institutional interest in the punk ethos exemplified by many artist-led bands may have been a programmatic reaction to that. Contemporaneously, performance art festivals were springing up—the Time-Based Arts Festival in Portland, the Fusebox Festival in Austin, and Under the Radar in New York. Festival founders were eager to bridge the cultural gap between younger art audiences who would show up to see Gossip and the distinguished patrons who historically fund the “performing arts.” The Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, which represents schools like Rhode Island School of Design and Pratt Institute, reported an overall enrollment growth of 26 percent during the first decade of the 2000s.
“We had a magical confluence of space and proximity in the early 2000s,” Vanek pointed out. By the 2010s, “space” in Brooklyn would be real estate gold. But Japanther formed when affordable warehouse studios allowed for experimental collaboration at excessive volume.
Huff, who lived in the Pacific Northwest, quickly realized how the virtual space of the internet accelerated another kind of proximity, collapsing distances between Anna Oxygen and potential audiences. “Scenes and connections prior to that time were very geographically based,” she recounted, “and perhaps even more grounded, literally, to a sense of place.”
And yet curators no longer had to be on the ground attending DIY shows in Brooklyn, Davis, Olympia, or Baltimore. They could just visit bands’ pages on MySpace. The social network provided instant access to each band’s catalogue and aesthetic, along with listening metrics that objectively confirmed how popular (or niche) they were. Additionally, artist-led bands appealed to programmers because they were portable. Many relied on tape loops, backing tracks, and drum machines instead of numerous members with bulky instruments. Japanther was a power duo. The Blow, Lightning Bolt, Extreme Animals, and Lucky Dragons remain two-pieces today. BARR, Tracy + the Plastics, and Anna Oxygen were effectively solo acts augmented by minor tech. These bands had acclimated to the spartan touring lifestyle, frequently performing in exchange for food and a place to crash. A few hundred bucks to fuck around in a museum for an hour probably sounded pretty good, whether they took contemporary art seriously or not.
“We always saw these performances as ‘behind enemy lines’ scenarios,” Vanek explained. “We never had any delusions of being ‘accepted’ by gatekeepers, collectors, or galleries. With this knowledge, we managed to remain authentic among sycophants.”
In a 2005 article for The Stranger titled “Rock as Real Estate,” ex-Nation of Ulysses and Make-Up frontman Ian Svenonius—on tour at the time with Anna Oxygen—argued that the mid-’00s turn away from garage rock to electroclash and freak folk wasn’t “the result of a new awareness of old traditions,” but rather “one of market forces . . . based on the absence of space.” Svenonius, only half-jokingly, blames the abandonment of the acoustic drum set on “gonzo real estate speculation” resulting from “radically low” interest rates set by Alan Greenspan at the Fed. “These new types of micro-groups are an advertisement for a new way of living, a new serfdom to be tolerated as the class divide becomes intolerably large and . . . home ownership and personal solvency [become] more absurd and unrealistic,” he wrote.
For a rocker, Svenonius possessed an eerie economic clairvoyance. The real estate bubble burst in 2008, taking the US economy down with it. All those students swelling the headcounts at private art schools graduated into a historic recession, saddled with unprecedented amounts of student debt. It’s no surprise that many of them found DIY authenticity and punk collectivism irrelevant. If 9/11 killed irony, the 2008 crisis killed sincerity. One need look no further than the cynical embrace of corporate aesthetics in Post-Internet art of the early 2010s to see that a micro-generational divide had been made clear. Why start a band when you could be a brand?
The art band trend fizzled, as curatorial trends do. The 2010s saw new fashions in live programming: stand-up comedy, poetry, panel discussions, and dance. After-parties featured DJs, not bands. Of course, plenty of younger artists are currently making music—Eartheater, Yung Jake, Rafia, Colin Self—but they don’t present themselves as bands. Furthermore, museums and galleries started reckoning more seriously with their histories of representation, and realized that scheduling bands comprised of mostly white people was a fairly weak way to “diversify” programming. Why did institutions decide the 2010s were time to finally synthesize these critiques? I’d wager it was a mixture of genuine curiosity, subcultural opportunism, political posturing, economic convenience, and the increased access to information online.
Before absconding to Los Angeles, Biesenbach put the nail in the music-as-contemporary-art coffin with his universally panned Björk retrospective at MoMA in 2015. But in fashion, the twenty-year rule reminds us of the cyclical nature of taste. It’s wild to consider, but we’re nearly twenty years out from Gogol Bordello’s gig at the Whitney Biennial. Are we due for an artist-led band revival?
In terms of art-heavy Gen Z bands, the pummeling electro-hardcore of Machine Girl and the chiptune’d maximalism of 100 gecs make them heirs apparent to Lightning Bolt and Extreme Animals. But Machine Girl and 100 gecs came of age after the mortgage crisis, after US student debt hit a trillion dollars (on its way to the current $1.6 trillion), after climate change was understood as existential, and long after the transformation of the record industry. Right now, such music groups are living through another economic collapse brought on by COVID-19. Gen X and Millennial-cusp art bands worked within institutions cautiously, hoping to maintain a certain authenticity. Their Gen Z successors might avoid institutions altogether out of sheer practicality. They’ve already built their own audiences using the countless contemporary analogs to MySpace. The revival, at least for institutions, might have to wait.