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Who You Staring At?: Visual Culture of the No Wave Scene in the 1970s and 1980s at the Centre Pompidou Paris

View of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hélène Mauri 


By LARA PAN, May 2023

One of the smallest but most interesting exhibitions marking 2023 is Who You Staring At?: Visual Culture of the No Wave Scene in the 1970s and 1980s, now at the Centre Pompidou Paris (Level 4) until June 19th. It is wonderfully curated by Nicolas Ballet, a media art historian and curator at the new media department there. The title of Ballet’s show borrows its title from Who You Staring At?, a 1982 Giorno Poetry Systems LP with John Giorno and Glenn Branca.   

View of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hélène Mauri

For me, it all started with an email invitation from my old friend, artist Joseph Nechvatal, who informed me of his Pompidou talk XS: The Opera Opus: An Operatic Transvaluation of No Wave Aesthetics with Ballet and the incredible musician Rhys Chatham with whom Nechvatal created the performance series XS: The Opera Opus between 1984 and 1986. In part, Who You Staring At? explores the various sources of creation that led to the development of this multidisciplinary peak to the New York-centric No Wave scene, that spanned from the late-1970’s through the early-1980s.

View of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hélène Mauri

The show’s title poses a central question transcribing No Wave artists’ confrontational attitude and determination to deconstruct the conventional gaze. This confrontation is presented in the exhibition Who You Staring At? as an ensemble of multidisciplinary practices where music, dance, opera, film, and visual art intersect. Especially in today’s landscape, where we are living in a culture of yes men who have lost the spirit of rebellion, it is important to mark and celebrate the No Wave period. Indeed, No Wave can now be considered one of the most creative periods of the late-20th century. The inventiveness and radical imagination of the 70’s and 80’s has continually influenced a major part of contemporary art and contemporary art history and will do so for generations to come. It’s important to recall the history of the No Wave movement to keep the legacy alive and celebrate its interdisciplinary artistic approach.

View of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hélène Mauri

“No wave was a new artistic scene that appeared in the low-rent areas of Lower Manhattan, in New York in 1978. The failure of the hippy cultural and economic model at the very end of the 1960s, then the commercial transformations of new wave and disco, pushed the leading players in the movement to break with the established music industry and contemporary art circles.

Coming from a variety of artistic fields, no wave bands appropriated the instruments of the rock scene, to better turn them against it in order to subvert its icons. Out-of-tune guitars, deconstructed rhythms and raucous vocals enriched a range of radical visual productions, revealing an alternative cultural project blending many media: posters, cassettes and audio records, film and video. Saturated and dissonant sounds were translated into abrasive images that were altered by subverting reprographic techniques (Xerox art), as used in punk and industrial music networks as early as the mid-1970s.” 

Opening of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

I am wishing that this exhibition will have the possibility to travel to different countries and continue inspiring younger generations. I was fortunate to get this small interview with Nicolas Ballet, curator of the exhibition.

LP: Nicolas, what a wonderful idea to come up with this concept and to dedicate this exhibition to the No Wave movement. You reunited some influential works and rare documentation materials. Tell me more about your research for the exhibition and how you encountered Rhys and Joseph.

Thank you, it was wonderful to be able to propose this project at the Centre Pompidou. No wave is a fascinating scene that brought together many artists from different backgrounds in one place over a very short period of time. I explored this movement during my doctoral research at the French National Institute for Art History (INHA) and at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Although my thesis was devoted to the visual and sonic contributions of industrial music in the 1970s and 1980s, I also examined the works of a few no wave artists who were interested in noise electronic sounds during that period. This is the case of Joseph Nechvatal, who created experimental tapes in the 1980s with very interesting artworks: his cassette Reckless (1984), edited by the American musician Al Margolis with his label Sound of Pig, reproduced for example a drawing made by the English occultist Austin Osman Spare. In addition to the noisy sounds he was composing at the time, Joseph had already begun to think about the growing influence of mass media on consumers’ daily lives: an aspect that was visible in his drawings, in which he transformed sound noise into graphic noise through a profusion of visual elements that participate in altering all figurative forms. This work about information overload fits perfectly with the concepts of industrial music, first coined by the British band Throbbing Gristle through immersive noisy worlds. Joseph Nechvatal also worked on the question of immersive noise with his no wave opera entitled XS that he conceived with Rhys Chatham. So I wanted to meet Joseph in 2015 in Paris to talk about his work and the Tellus label he had created with Claudia Gould and Carol Parkinson. It was only a few years later that I met Rhys Chatham and suggested to him and Joseph that we present the XS opera as part of the exhibition.

Performance by Rhys Chatham for the opening of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

When I began working at the Centre Pompidou for the New Media department in 2021, I found that this collection held many alternative sound works, especially through the compilations that John Giorno had released with the Giorno Poetry Systems label he founded in 1972. Thanks to these compilations, which are preserved in the New Media collection, I was able to access songs by Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, Richard Hell, Michael Gira, Sonic Youth and other artists who played an important role in the development of the no wave scene (a selection of these tracks are accessible in the exhibition). There was also the John Giorno and Glenn Branca’s album, Who You Staring At?, which was a real revelation, especially because of the title which I thought was perfect for the exhibition: a title that transcribes both the confrontational spirit of the no wave movement, but also a desire to deconstruct the conventional gaze and more traditional artistic practices through dance, opera, music and the visual arts. That’s how I started to identify other pieces in the Centre Pompidou’s collections, in order to explore collaborations between punk musicians and visual artists: the collaboration between Dan Graham and Glenn Branca, for example, or the work that brought together the members of Sonic Youth and the American artist Raymond Pettibon. Other artists also had activities as both visual artist and musician: this is the case of Barbara Ess, who played in different no wave bands (Y Pants, The Static, Disband, Daily Life) and who also developed her practice as a photographer. The Centre Pompidou preserves the works of these artists, so this was a good opportunity to bring them together while also showing archival documents from this period from the Bibliothèque Kandinsky, the Centre Pompidou’s research library: fanzines, books, flyers and programs of no wave events. It was also an opportunity to make acquisition proposals to complete the Centre Pompidou’s collections and to promote the works of important alternative artists who are not well represented in the BM Museum: thanks to this project, the New Media department was able to acquire a digital version of the Super 8 film Letters to Dad (1979), directed by no wave filmmakers Scott B and Beth B (who herself already had a 1989 video at the Centre Pompidou, entitled Belladonna).

Performance by Mark Cunningham for the finissage of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

If this exhibition at the Centre Pompidou aims to highlight the works of alternative artists and to make the public discover or rediscover bodies of work, it was also important to explore this topic in a place that corresponds to the aesthetic of the no wave genre: The Film Gallery. This space, located in a neighborhood next to the Centre Pompidou, was a perfect place to show Beth B’s work in a completely different setting through a complementary exhibition, “Who You Staring At? B-SIDE!”, in order to perceive the works in a different way, in two worlds that seem to be opposed and yet complement each other: the Centre Pompidou and The Film Gallery. A screening of the documentary Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over (2019) by Beth B at the cinema L’Archipel also completed the Pompidou’s program on the no wave movement.

So this project explores a very strong alternative culture, weaving links between numerous artists and different paths, which are revealed here through collaborative works that participate in a de- professionalization of the artist’s profession. This problematic, carried by a counter-cultural spirit, brings the question of the evolution of the term counter-culture: can we talk about counter- culture today? Can transgression in art be formulated today in the same way as the artistic transgression of the 1970s and 1980s? So many questions that allow us to study the evolution of the alternative scenes, from this period to nowadays.

Opening of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

LP: I noticed two great video works in the exhibition. One is a video by Raymond Pettibon, The Whole World is Watching: Weatherman ‘69, and the other is by Dan Graham, Performance and Stage-Set Utilizing Two-Way Mirror and Video Time Delay. I never asked you, have you ever had the chance to meet Dan or Raymond in person? 

I never had the chance to meet Dan Graham, nor Raymond Pettibon in person. It’s a shame, because Dan Graham’s work is so exceptional and I would have had many questions to ask him about his works that I have the chance to explore with my students at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. And I would be honored to meet Raymond Pettibon in order to know his position towards the art world today: because even if this exhibition examines an unexpected high and low dialogue between different artistic expressions, the language of alternative cultures, which play with self-exclusion phenomena, is not necessarily the same as the contemporary art field, which tends to create a dissension between two worlds. The historical counter-cultures should however be more represented in the museum world.

Opening of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

LP: Let’s talk about XS: Opera Opus. I was present at the talk with you, Rhys and Joseph, but I want to have your insight into the creative process of this work. How was your collaboration with Joseph and Rhys?

It was great! When I told Joseph about this project, it was maybe two or three months before the opening of the exhibition. We both laughed out loud when I told him the opening date, because we didn’t have much time to put this show together. He helped me tremendously with a great idea to show his XS opera with Rhys. Since Joseph and Rhys didn’t have any film footage of the opera, they decided to make an audio slide show with photographs of some versions of XS, scanned drawings by Joseph, and a musical composition by Rhys. Joseph also lent original works and archival documents to put the opera in context for the exhibition. I also met with Rhys in his studio to conduct an interview with him from the beginning of his career. It was great to be able to work with them: they were very generous and very motivated by this exhibition. Rhys gave a great performance for the opening of the exhibition in the permanent collections of the Museum on February 1, 2023. We are incredibly lucky to have these great artists as residents in Paris for years now.

Opening of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

LP: If you want to tell some anecdotes related to your research for this exhibition,  I’m sure there are plenty of them- I will be interested to hear some. 

In the course of my research, I discovered that Kathy Acker, who has greatly contributed to the enrichment of no wave literature, had given a reading at the Centre Pompidou in 1982 as part of an event entitled “La Revue Parlée”, with two other poets, Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin. By consulting the archives of the Centre Pompidou, I was able to find the sound recording of this reading, as well as the original program of this evening in which one could find a very (too) short biography of the American poetess. Some of her early books were mentioned in the program, including Kathy Goes to Haiti, or one of her texts translated into French in an issue of the French magazine In’hui. In order to display them in a showcase, I rushed to buy the first editions of these books. And to make sure that these sources were the same that Kathy Acker read during her talk at the Centre Pompidou, I did some research based on the sound recording. But I realized that the excerpts from the book she was reading on this occasion was in fact Great Expectations, which was not mentioned in the program. This book had just been published in 1982 by the Californian publishing house RE/Search, directed by the editor V. Vale. So I contacted Vale, whom I had already met in Paris in 2016 and who very kindly sent me a copy of the first edition of Great Expectations to display in the exhibition. Just goes to show, you should always check your sources! It would have been a shame not to show the book that is at the center of this 40-minute reading. Another anecdote, this time about the cover of Who You Staring At? As mentioned above, this album by Glenn Branca and John Giorno is kept in the New Media collection of the Centre Pompidou. So I thought I could have easily retrieved the cover to display it, since it was supposed to be kept in the Museum’s collections. Except that the record had already been on display for months in a room of the Museum’s permanent collections. It was therefore impossible to borrow this copy for the exhibition, which was very annoying since the record is central, because of its title and the concept that accompanied it for this project. So I bought a copy of Who You Staring At? a week before the show, crossing my fingers that it would arrive in time! In fact, I even bought two copies of the record to make sure that at least one of the two items arrived on time. And of course, I received both records on the same day… but before the opening! So I have a copy of the Branca and Giorno album proudly displayed below my desk now. 

Opening of the exhibition “Who You Staring At? Visual culture of the no wave scene in the 1970s and 1980s”, Mnam – Centre Pompidou © Photo by Hervé Veronese

LP: And for the end, what is the next project you are working on?  

In addition to the publication of my thesis on the visual culture of industrial music (1969-1995), which will be published this year in French by Les presses du réel, then in English in a second phase, I am currently preparing a project on different works made by radical feminist artists, which will include Annie Sprinkle, Karen Finley, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Carolee Schneeman, among other great artists, in collaboration with filmmaker Beth B. This project is once again dedicated to artists who are not well represented, but who have made their mark on their time by paving the way for new generations of activist artists who still raise very important social issues today. Most of these artists are still active today and continue to enrich the debates around women’s rights, the liberation of speech and the deconstruction of gender stereotypes. And also another project, with the Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang who will come to the Centre Pompidou to present the French premiere of her feature film UKI, in September. WM

Lara Pan

Lara Pan is an independent curator,writer and researcher based in New York. Her research focuses on the intersection between art, science, technology and paranormal phenomena.

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