‘Music is the creation of meaning out of the noise of the world’ – Kaizen, 2001
What does Sonic Youth mean in the 20th Century art and culture? More than just a band, Sonic Youth is an art collective that pays close attention to its artistic, musical and cultural context. It has been the pioneer in combining music with other artistic forms. Members of the band constantly reflect their musical creations to other forms of artistic innovation.
Before Sonic Youth, there were other bands that are closely involved with the art world. For instance, Velvet Underground’s manager was Andy Warhol: ‘Since I don’t believe in painting anymore I thought it would be a nice way of combining music and art and films all together’. The pop artist had the idea of projecting images on stage when the band was playing. Velvet’s performance is an elaborate multimedia show, where music, art and film are combined to create a total environment. Another example is UK band Pink Floyd. All members of the band attended the Cambridge Art School before founding the band. In 1967, they created Interstellar Overdrive: a psychedelic musical piece. The music was fully improvised and the piece could last between 10 to 25 minutes. These characteristics make it very similar to Hallan Kaprow’s Happenings, improvised performances that are not rehearsed.
Artists and musicians used to meet and exhibit or perform in the so-called art-lofts of that time. The art and music scenes were the same. ‘There was this whole crowd of people that moved to New York in the late 70s and formed bands,’ says Lee Renaldo, voice and guitar in Sonic Youth. ‘People came as visual artists and gradually everybody gravitated back to music with a more conceptual aesthetic, with the idea that you could take the elements of this art form that you loved growing up – rock music – and use that medium to make art’ (Kaizen, p. 24).
Sonic Youth goes a step further. Members of the band not only take reference from visual art, they also produce, collect and later exhibit artworks. They started to work together in New York in 1981. Tod Jorgensen and Arleen Schloss were young artists who moved to New York in the late 70s. They turned a Soho loft into a club, named A’s – ‘A’ stated for both Atleen and Anarchy. They hosted performances by artists and bands (Basquiat’s band SAMO also played there). Jorgensen’s favourite band was a group named The Coachmen, whose guitarist was Thurston Moore. Moore later became the guitarist of Sonic Youth.
After the Coachman split up, Moore started to play with other musicians, including Kim Gordon. When she finished art school in California at the end of the 1980s, Gordon moved to New York and worked at a gallery. She settled in an apartment downstairs of Dan Graham, a conceptual artist who remained friends with Gordon. Before becoming the voice and guitar of Sonic Youth, Gordon started writing for magazines, including Artforum. She also made her own art under the label Design Office. Under this name, she created installations in various spaces, including the White Column Gallery. Around the same time, Moore organised the Noise Fest in 1981 at White Column Gallery, a polemic action against people who thought all music was just noise and nothing more. For the occasion, Moore and Gordon created the band Sonic Youth, and included Lee Ranaldo.
At the beginning of their musical career, as Kaizen observes, Sonic Youth investigated unexplored territories, using tools as screwdrivers and drumsticks combined with radical guitar tunings and configurations (Kaizen, p. 24). For their visual materials, the band worked with appropriation of mass culture symbols, and used the Xeroxing technique (original name for photocopying) to represent the noise of the rebellious young generation. Photocopying is the artistic production that represents the essence of Sonic Youth: quick, cheap, not refined, condensed with images, catchy, capable of grasping an idea and transpose it to paper with low expenses in a short period of time. They used this printing technique for album covers and gig flyers. The flyers created for their gigs were made to look rough, produced by repeated Xeroxing that caused the image to look undefined and degraded, illustrated by Kaizen. (Kaizen, p. 23).
For the cover of the album Confusion is Sex (1983), the band used a drawing of Gordon on the front, and a collage of Ranaldo on the back. The design was repeatedly Xeroxed until the images deteriorated. After this album, they started to collaborate with influential artists for the design of the covers. The album EVOL, was named after a video of Tony Oursler, a friend of Kim Gordon from her California art school days. A photographer and filmmaker, Richard Kern designed the cover. Kern took pictures of the band members as if they were victims of the serial killer Charles Manson, then used these for the video Death Valley ’69 (1985). Gerhard Richter, famous German painter, designed the cover for the single Death Valley ’69 (1984), and also for the album Daydream Nation (1988). Other famous artists involved in designing album covers for Sonic Youth included Raymond Pettibon (Goo, 1990), Mike Kelley (Dirty, 1992), Richard Prince (Sonic Nurse, 2004) and John Fahey (The Eternal, 2009). Many of these artists were friends, or friends of friends of the Sonic Youth members. They all shared the same kind of culture, or refusal to adhere to a certain culture.
In 1992, Mike Kelley was asked to design the album cover for Dirty: pictures showing stuffed puppets representing Sonic Youth’s audience. In a special edition of the album, Kelley put another image hiding behind the CD, showing performance artists Sherri Rose and Bob Flanagan performing obscene acts with stuffed toys. This was Sonic Youth’s reply to Nirvana’s grunge revolution. The collaboration with artists is often perceived as a way for artists to earn some money. But, this can also be perceived as artistic participation in the creative process.
Sonic Youth album cover and insert panel, print on paper
12 x 12cm
Courtesy and copyright Sonic Youth
Through the years, the band continued to operate across different creative disciplines, pursuing a blending of experimental music and art. Its members, not only produced artworks, projects and collected art, they also established collateral networks within the art and the music world. In 2008, they collaborated with independent curator Roland Groenenboom for the exhibition Sonic Youth etc.: Sensational Fix. It was not a retrospective but rather a survey of collaborations between the band and artists, filmmakers and designers (Shwarzbart, 2009). At the beginning of the expositive space, works by John Cage and Maciunas were exhibited. These artworks showcased Sonic Youth’s music in its improvise and experimental sense. Dan Graham is one of the artists that believed the most in this cross-disciplinary nature of creativity. He sets up a separated section within the exhibition where he presented video and recordings of gigs, from his archive and the archive of the band. The arrangement and selection of the works aims to set the band in dialogue, enable us to hunt for fresh meanings in a cultural universe anew. The result of this relationship is found in disc covers, posters, films and artworks all exhibited in the show.
Sonic Youth were pioneers in combining music and art whole-heartedly. During the 1990s, more and more bands and DJs started work across music and art. The Mint Chicks is a band from New Zealand (now living and working in Portland in the US) that uses art in their musical projects. They label their music as ‘troublegum,’ a neologism that define unconventional sound between punk and rock. This also applies to the design they created for album covers and their video-clips.
While Sonic Youth is very engaged in the theoretical side of art, the Mint Chicks refuse to work with art in this context. ‘I feel like the (art) work seems more relevant when it’s used for something,’ says Ruban Nielson, guitarist and composer of the band. Their creativity is also expressed in the way they release their new album Bad Buzz, 2010. The album is released digitally as mp3s and in a USB stick designed by Nielson. He studied fine art at the Elam School in Auckland. He then worked as assistant for the painter Stephen Bambury. When he started to make enough money with the Mint Chicks, art became a way for him to escape from the collaborative nature of music to something more solitary (Nielson, R., pers. comm. 23rd Sept 2010).
His art is visible in album covers and video-clips on the blog of the band. With the album, Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! (2006), Nielson won the award for best album cover in New Zealand in 2007. The style of his images is linear and graphic. It resembles magazines design. He creates sick and hallucinated environments that well suits the music of The Chicks. The video-clips have the same sort of aesthetic. In the clip Don’t Sell Out your Brain (censored version, 2009), he created animation using the same style of the covers. He does step further, resume aspects of the grunge culture that also informed the early works of the Sonic Youth. Nevertheless, Nielson’s works belongs to another generation. While creating disturbing images, his style is polished and refined. This may be influenced by diffusion of magazine and the proliferation of the Internet. The Mint Chicks is not interested in being fashionable. Rather, they use visual images that reflect their own generation.
As artists often do, Nielson also collects art. He said: ‘I like going to shows when I can and if I see something cool I’ll buy it if I can afford it’. He is not very interested in the theoretical aspect of art. ‘I just don’t think associate art with critical theory anymore’, Nielson further stated; ‘I think you can learn and think a lot more about art if I keep my mouth shut. I don’t think there’s any way of connecting one object to an interesting idea any more than another object, and I do think of art in terms of objects and perceptions, but that perception of objects doesn’t end when I leave a gallery.’ He is interested in illustration artists, the ones that he can see at exhibition he goes to. ‘I buy art like some people buy clothes. Just as an impulse, I buy because I just feel like I want to take something home and see if I like it over a period of time’ (Nielson, R., pers. comm. 23rd Sept 2010). He buys art based on what he likes at the moment, without any sort of theoretical influences. Lately he has been interested in the art of Theo Ellsworth and Skinner, whose art resemble Nielson’s art. Apart from the Mint Chick, he is working independently on some images that take inspiration from street-art, mass culture and graphic design.
18 x 18 cm
Courtesy and copyright of the artist
Karmann Ghia is one of the last works of Ruben. In this image, he incorporates an urban environment with Sci-fi and comic style. At first glance, the background seams like a photo, but instead Ruban makes graphic interventions that converge to create an unreal atmosphere. In The Short Bus, the landscape is openly unreal: mountains and river (a reference to his homeland New Zealand) are defined by sharp lines and painted with shiny and unnatural colours that created a flattened image. He then placed the school bus with monstrous creatures. Nielson’s opinion is that ‘you can learn and think a lot more about art if I keep my mouth shut’ (Nielson, per comm. 2010). The Mint Chicks seek Sonic Youth as inspiration, expressing the will of their generation to take distance from the over-theorisation characterising part of the art world.
Kaizen, W.N., ‘Noise, Control, Noise. Sonic Youth’s Audio Visual’, in Art Papers Magazine, March-April 2001.
Browne, D., Goodbye 20th Century: Sonic Youth and the Rise of the Alternative Nation, Piatkus Books, London, 2008.
The Mint Chicks (website): <http://www.themintchicks.com/>
Wahrol, A., interview in video, Seven Ages of Rock: White light, White Heat. Art Rock: the Velvet Underground, BBC, on VH1 Classic (website), retrieved on 15th September, 2010, From: <http://www.vh1classic.com/>
Official Website of Sonic Youth (website): <http://www.sonicyouth.com/>
Shwarzbart, J., ‘Sonic Youth etc. : Sensational Fix’, in Art Review, No. 34, (September 2009), p. 136.
Rees, S., ‘Art > Music: Rock, Pop, Techno. An exhibition with narrow bandwidth’, in Art & Australia,