This review of Cevdet Erek’s exhibition Alt Üst at Spike Island, Bristol, was published in Art Monthly issue 375, April 2014
In the wave of adulation accompanying Kraftwerk’s budget-sapping ‘retrospective’ concerts at MoMA and Tate Modern last year, a crucial detail was missed. Journalistically cast as canny performance artists or the godfathers of dance music, nobody made the connection between Kraftwerk’s work and what US queer theorist Elizabeth Freeman has termed chrononormativity: ‘the interlocking temporal schemes necessary … for the mundane workings of domestic life’. Not an obvious link, but the connection is certainly there. While Kraftwerk may have paved the way for everything from British synth-pop to hip-hop and Chicago house, they also simultaneously locked synthesised music, in its popular form, to a rigid temporal grid. Theirs was a template of 4/4 time in which sequenced electronic instruments, known as ‘slaves’ in tech-parlance, would be driven by a ‘master’ synthesizer, which would itself be propelled by an internal clock. Freeman’s concept, inspired by Michel Foucault, sees time as a man-made construction that superimposes an artificial grid of seconds, minutes and hours on existence. This grid makes it easier for our lives to be regulated and measured, and for our bodies to become docile productive units driven by managerial, time-vigilant masters or the diffuse entrepreneurial imperatives of neoliberal capitalism. Simply put, the clock is the beating heart of biopower. Through this lens Kraftwerk’s clock-sequenced compositions, and thus all regular 4/4-time dance music, could be looked at as another oppressive chrononormative device, psychically encoding the idea of repetitious and artificial time as a natural and somatic fact for listeners. Now, finally, a deft critical exploration of this overlooked affinity seems to be at the centre of Istanbul-based Cevdet Erek’s ambitious and powerfully disorienting solo-show ‘Alt Üst’, which is Turkish for ‘Below Above’.
On entry, Erek, trained in architecture and sound design, has dispersed sound works in such a way that the pulsing, clicking rhythm they collectively produce is instantly rendered as a navigable, structural concern. Depending on the direction taken through the space, configurations of percussive, high and low frequency sequences shift in and out of aural focus as either isolated details or the constituent parts of a rhythmic whole.
Week, 2012, a stack of four speakers relaying a continuous electronic vocal loop intoning days of the week, stands towards the back of the space. It has the look of an arch monument, a warehouse rave PA or a Tannoy system. Here time is rendered as that familiar cycle of workweek repetition. To the left of Week is Studio, 2007, the only video work in the exhibition. In muted, low-fi footage projected on to a large surface Erek is seen drumming his fingernails against a tabletop, attempting to tap out a previously recorded electronic beat. The spectacle of human hands enlarged to inhuman scale renders the image a monstrous, anxiety-inducing display, but cleverly the soundtrack is piped to another part of the gallery. In fact a number of flat speakers are mounted on the walls of Spike Island’s huge interior: three works respectively titled Grid 1, Grid 2 and Grid 3, all 2014, emit accented variations on a pattern of 16ths from directional loudspeakers that relay sound only within a specific spatial field. This effectively superimposes a lattice of rhythms across the gallery, a kind of invisible version of Edweard Muybridge’s chronophotographic grid that is only discovered when moved through and made audible by spectator-speaker proximity.
The success of ‘Alt Üst’ is that it indicates a way out of the apolitical minimalist, or hi-fi maximalist, trappings of much top-tier sonic art – of which the exhibition histories of Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda are exemplary – through a possible route of socio-cultural critical engagement. By highlighting the regulated nature of programmed electronic dance music, Erek reveals its potential complicity with technologies of power that seek to adjust, in Foucault’s words, ‘the body to temporal imperatives’ so that it too may become materially or, in our modern information age, immaterially productive. But ‘Alt Üst’ is also a thrillingly sensorial experience that puts the Royal Academy’s spectacularly banal and ridiculously overpriced current exhibition ‘Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined’ to shame. This is emphatically shown in the exhibition centerpiece, Alt Üst, 2014, a massive plywood and scaffold construction dividing the gallery into two spaces: a darkened lower floor containing a booming five-channel, 4/4 rhythm sound loop and a single scrolling LED light, and a blindingly white, empty upper floor whose surface vibrates to the muffled pulses from below. Both are ambiguous spaces: the heavenly whitescape here is also an oppressive monochrome void; the murky underworld is also a sanctuary of darkness. There is something, too, about the artificiality of these spaces that brings to mind Jonathan Crary’s recent anxieties outlined in his book 24/7. The fact that technology and pharmacology have enabled us to simulate and hence overcome day and night cycles means that it is possible to foresee ‘a time without time’, where night can become day and sleep, now overcome, can be ‘taken over as work time, consumption time or marketing time’.
‘Alt Üst’, then, is a sure-footed display by Erek, a confident interlocking structure of time as rhythm and rhythm as regulatory device that turns Spike Island’s impressive interior into the setting for an exploded architecture of sound.