It’s become such a cliché by now that, almost by definition, anyone who claims to be thinking “outside the box” is probably not. There’s something inherently boxy about the phrase itself as well, with its logical boxes of inside/outside and original/unoriginal. In her essay “The Originality of the Avant Garde,” art critic Rosalind Krauss notes the perpetual recurrence in the visual arts of the figure of the grid, appearing in the art of Malevich, Mondrian, Picasso, Schwitters, Johns, Andre, LeWit, and Hesse, to name but a few. For a century, avant-gardists seeking to “Make it new!” or otherwise destroy, rediscover, or revitalize art have returned to the grid to build their provocations.
One example: Kasmir Malevich’s 1915 painting “Black Square,” a mystical Suprematist work that boldly obliterated the image in favor of an all-encompassing square, one of the earliest completely abstract paintings, was initially conceived as a black-and-white grid-like backdrop for the astonishing 1913 Futurist play “Victory Over the Sun.” For Malevich, the Black Square was the “zero of form,” and likewise Krauss observes that the grid repeatedly served for avant-gardists as a return to “the beginning, the origins of Art,” a ground upon which to build the pictorial object, if desired, or to play out any formal experiments the artist can dream up. The grid promises total, abstract autonomy, an objective plane beyond the rootedness of representation and language. We can imagine the lines of the grid stretching past the edges of the canvas on for infinity. The grid’s big.
But here’s the problem with the grid: “Without doubt the most formulaic construction that could possibly be mapped on a plane surface,” the grid is actually “extremely restrictive in the actual exercise of freedom.” Over a century into its existence, the avant-garde is still obsessed with originality, still trying to find a way through the grid. Critics habitually oppose the squared-off intervals of quantized rhythm and Auto-Tune with the seemingly more human and personal efforts of an artist like Burial, with his painterly brushstrokes of drum samples, arranged one at a time in Sound Forge, or his unpredictably processed and detuned vocal samples.
Into this debate strides Innode, the new project led by Nemeth of Radian and Lokai. With Innode, Nemeth has generated a number of rigid programmed electronic templates or “grids” that can be either triggered by “human rhythm” or provide a “platform” “physical human engagement.” Percussionists Steven Hess (Locrian, Pan•American) and Berhard Breuer (Electro Guzzi) are brought in to “shift” these grids though their contributions on separate tracks. As the most post-rock of the early-2000s glitch luminaries, Nemeth often incorporated live drumming, sometimes sampled and digitally arranged, sometimes strikingly straightforward, but this new project is explicitly pitched as an experiment in “human/nonhuman interaction.” The results of the experiment are mixed. The original form of the programmed grids is unclear to the listener, so it’s hard to hear how the grids have been shifted or transformed at all. What the listener is often left with are some conventional glitch tracks with a filigree of acoustic percussion.
However, there’s a postmodern insight at the heart of this project, one that many avant-garde artists have failed to reach over entire careers. Grids are so formally simplified that to make one grid is to become qualified to make any and all grids. “Structurally, logically, axiomatically, the grid can only be repeated,” writes Krauss. Gridshifter is conceptually most promising when it endeavors to upset the grid not by adding an expressive human, but by multiplying grids and laying grids one upon another, a sort of process-based approach to replicating the inexactness of human rhythm, by generating it out of the complex overlapping patterns created when you lay grid upon grid.
Unfortunately, I’d expect a few more sharp corners and odd angles out of these experiments. At least a banged elbow or two. The contributions of Steven Hess keep a healthy sonic distance from the electronic sounds. In “Gridshifter 05,” “Triggerext,” and “Skatterakt,” he utilizes a pitched percussion drumset of objects that resonate with a shimmering gleam that makes them stand way the hell out from the synthetic sounds — raw waveforms, tones subjected to granular editing, shallow clicks. In “FS Revisited,” Hess grooves along to programmed bass and sheets of distortion. It sounds like a Radian track, distorted voices all in familiar post-rock places, and the track builds and fades without creating much of a sense that this meeting of human and computer was much of an event. Hess is a sensitive and experienced improviser — in his long career, Hess has improvised alongside field recordings of a bridge — but here he never sounds like anything other than what he is: a human playing along with a computer.
Bernard Breuer’s contributions on the first two tracks take a different approach. Breuer insinuates himself into the grid by playing as precisely and machinelike as possible. In “Dedespersion I,” when Berhard Breuer’s kickdrums enter the song, they arrive with a strikingly physical punch, smashing ugly dents into the polished bass tones. However, Breuer works rigorously to erase that acoustic fingerprint from his drumming: He sticks to his bass drum and floor tom, patiently struck in time with the more swiftly moving clicks and cuts. Rob Young, in the pages of The Wire, called Bernard Breuer “a quantized human” for his work with Elektro Guzzi, and as you listen, you can hear as Breuer becomes almost indistinguishable from the rest of the track. Nemeth gradually subtracts other elements from the arrangement, until there is just a shimmering electronic haze and the same methodical acoustic rhythm. It’s hard to believe that this is a human playing along with a computer, because it’s difficult to hear the difference.
On “Dedespersion II,” Breuer continues his intense interface with the programmed sounds of Nemeth’s grids. Here he utilizes rattling scrap metal and what sounds like a flexed metal cable to echo and imitate two of the synthesized elements of the track. It’s an inventive and whimsical touch, like granular synthesis as performed by Michel Gondry. Later in the track, he trades off upbeats and downbeats with a clicking mid-range glitch sound. His metallic clang just barely distinguishable from its synthesized counterpart, Breuer enmeshes himself into the track in an almost-seditious feat of audio camouflage.
One time in grad school, I was giving a presentation on Zaum, the sound poetry of the Russian Futurists, and I referenced Malevich’s Black Square. What seemed to most fascinate the younger undergraduates about the work was not Malevich’s bold rejection of artistic traditions of representation and expressionism, but the challenge of drawing a square without the aid of a computer. “It’s a painting,” one asked. “How did he get it so exact?” “There’s ways to do it,” chimed in another student. They were fascinated by the opportunity for a bumpy human to endeavor to be more square, more machine-like, through the use of distinctively human tools. After a hundred years of grids, the artist who isn’t trying to be original — who is instead sweating to achieve a machine-like precision that is actually no sweat in the age of mechanical reproduction— is the one who is actually most original at this moment.