B-Sides and Rarities

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In 2006, Sonic Youth brought out a record titled The Destroyed Room, which featured eleven songs that until then had only appeared on vinyl, or had been otherwise extremely hard to find. Around the same time, one could see on the band’s website a photograph of a destroyed room: it showed a bed turned on its side, its mattress gashed diagonally, with the filling spilling out into the room. An avalanche of clothes slid into view on the left-hand side of the image. The room’s back wall was broken up, revealing the orange insulation inside. Because of the colors of the image as well as its composition, one gathered that one was not really dealing with a destroyed room here, but with a carefully composed work of art.

Sonic Youth fans familiar with the work of Jeff Wall (there was a retrospective at the MOMA in New York in 2007) would recognize the image on the band’s site: Wall made it in 1978. It is a photograph of a scene he constructed in his studio. The chaotic destruction of the image is thus not so much chaotic destruction, but a careful construction of chaotic destruction. It testifies not so much to chaos and destruction, but to the careful ways in which Wall constructs his images. Take, for example, his more recent photograph In Front of a Nightclub. Although the nightclub that is featured in the image actually exists, what is represented in the photograph is Wall’s reconstructed version of the nightclub’s façade; the people in the photograph are not the club’s regular clientele, but actors and art students. Here also, the night that we witness is actually carefully constructed—a night that is night in an entirely different way.

What is at stake for Wall in these images? Wall was often criticized because his work did not follow the Godard-like conventions that were dominant during the 1960s. He was fed up with the jump cuts of the nouvelle vague: instead, he aimed for another kind of art, one that would bring the exteriority of the cut within the work of art as the internal/ external tension of an emergency, a crisis, or an exception. Wall does not make art that destroys itself. Instead, he brings destruction within the image in an entirely different way: not through the destruction of the jump cut, but by representing destruction in a highly normalized way. It is, therefore, the very absence of the jump cut’s destruction that undermines the artificiality of the work of art—and without actually destroying it. One gets instead a profoundly tense, metastable image that breaks with the avant-garde’s law-making law breaking. Isn’t this precisely what Sonic Youth achieves with noise in their carefully constructed compositions?

References: Sonic Youth, The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities (Geffen, 2006); Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room, 1978; Jeff Wall, In Front of a Nightclub, 2006; “Interview: Arielle Pelenc in Correspondence with Jeff Wall”. In: Duve, Thierry de, Arielle Pelenc, Boris Groys, and Jean-François Chevrier. Jeff Wall. London: Phaidon, 2002. Image: Willem Weismann, Cosy Catastrophe, 180 x 225 cm, 2010.

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