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WINTER 1996/97


By John Weber, Curator of Education & Public Programs/SFMOMA





Marion Gray

When you work in a big building all day and don't make it out the door until sometime between 6:30 and 10:00 p.m., there's not much time for visiting galleries even if your job nominally includes it. Throw in a few working Saturdays each month and you're really out of luck. My solution to scratching that off-hours arts itch: performance and theater! It happens at night. You can just sit there and take in the show without the necessity of polite conversation with people you barely know. And best of all, there's great work happening in the Bay Area.

A while back at Blasthaus I came across a performance by Pamela Z, who really is a blast. She's "a composer, performance musician, extended vocalist, audio artist, and sound designer living and working in San Francisco" all this courtesy of her Web page, which the digitally enabled can check out at I caught Pamela Z again at The Lab, where she headlined, Z Program 40, a show done for her 40th birthday.

The thing that strikes me most about Pamela Z is how her work combines opposites of high and low tech into a synthesis that echoes life at the post-industrial, post-postmodern, post-everything end of the 20th century. On the one hand, she uses simple elements -- like found sound, texts, her own (excellent) voice and noises generated on stage by hitting a stick or a water bottle or whatever. On the other, she's literally wired up to all sorts of high-tech gizmos and widgets that record and transform fundamentally straightforward sounds into textured layers that she weaves together on the fly, in real time.

Pamela Z waves an arm, and a sound or a word emerges from an amplified sound system. She stamps her foot and you hear something else. When she starts waving her arms, stamping her feel shaking her head, and singing all a once, it's amazing. Like a minimalist, she creates a piece out of a small set of sounds, sampled or created live and joined by a series of overlapping, intersecting loops. But from a simple beginning she builds up layer upon layer of sound until she's created a bewildering, memorizing, highly organized cacophony that taps deeply into the infosaturated, dataoverloaded, hyperventilated psyches of urban life. The result is both intellectually satisfying and powerful at the gut level. And yes, I know "organized cacophony" is oxymoronic, but if you heard the music you'd understand.

A lot of people, me included, are waiting for artists to do something really interesting with computers. But from what I've seen, what's happening so far in the visual arts can't hold a digital candle to what the musicians are doing. For the most part, the visual artists are still stuck on the small screen (a big problem), while the sound people are really filling the space. So my plan is to keep going to concerts and performances by folks like Donald Swearingen, Carl Stone, Laetitia Sonami, the Qube Chix, and wait for Pamela Z's new CD this fall.

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