Transverse Temporal Gyrus Animal Collective & Danny Perez at the Guggenheim

Forward thinking as they may be, one thing Animal Collective are not is intellectual. In their song structures, their lyrics (“you don’t have to go to college”), and in interviews, they have always been partisans for the intuitive over the learned, for the Grateful Dead over microtones, for the sensory over the theoretical. When they speak of their artistic process, they talk about the elements, of visual-auditory synesthesia, of “vibes” and “jams”; the kind of mushy granola talk that would be impossible to stomach if they weren’t so disarmingly sincere. Which is why it seemed uncharacteristic when they unveiled their plan to take over the Guggenheim Museum in New York with a piece loftily entitled Transverse Temporal Gyrus. “The jungle seems louder than most New York apartments but its symbiosis makes it subtler if not more pleasing to foreign ears… It brings to mind Jane Goodall hanging out with chimpanzees in Tanzania.” Wall text is rarely as smart as it thinks it is, but this set a new standard in pseudo-intellectualism. I guess if any band has earned the benefit of the doubt, it would be these guys. Still, I’m hardly the only one who has been wondering when these long-lasting avant-popsters are finally going to jump the shark.

Transverse Temporal Gyrus fits into the Guggenheim’s current Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum exhibit, which has seen the Guggenheim empty itself of all its objects and host confrontational performance pieces. So the Animal Collective guys (here, Avey Tare, Geologist, and Deakin with collaborator and ODDSAC director Danny Perez) were basically given free reign over the space, budget and time constraints notwithstanding. 36 speakers were incrementally positioned up the museum’s rotunda, and the sounds coming over the system seemed to float from the base of the ramp to the ceiling. Somewhat randomly after that talk of Jane Goodall and the jungle, the ground floor evoked a subterranean horror film: there were glowing orbs, stalagmites, and costumes out of Donnie Darko. The band stood eerily still for the duration of the three-hour performance as the pre-programmed loops played in a computer-generated and seemingly random pattern. Most of the sounds were unidentifiable; others sounded like they could have been samples taken from the group’s records; none of them stuck around long enough to grasp onto. Perez contributed some unremarkable live video mixing that splashed against the sides of the rotunda. From talking to a few other attendees, the consensus seemed to be that it was a great way to experience the Guggenheim’s unique space with fresh eyes and a good addition to the museum’s current show, but not such a great way to experience Animal Collective.

“Don’t be surprised if you come to see us and it’s not what you expect,” the group has always said, and the only problem with Transverse Temporal Gyrus was one of expectation. Viewed independently of all the fuss and especially the $30 pricetag, Transverse Temporal Gyrus was a playful and unprecedented, if somewhat awkward, merger of pop-pyschedelic spectacle and concept art. So maybe it was also a problem of scale: I’ve plunked down $8 to hear aleatory noise before and left with a headache, perfectly satisfied. The demand and the price associated with the piece made it impossible to follow the band’s advice to come and go at will; here we were now, all 1500 of us, entertain us. Given little to focus on, the crowd began to focus inward as a terrible self-awareness set in. Not knowing how to act, people alternately meditated, got drunk, took fashion-y photos of their friends, casually socialized, made out, or danced (despite their being no percussion or discernible rhythm). Occasionally a group of high schoolers wearing facepaint hooted and yelped, in mimicry of their animal-idol Avey Tare.

It wasn’t the greatest environment to “vibe out” and concentrate on the emotional impact of sound on our lives, that was for sure. And yet, it’s not as if I would ever wish for Animal Collective to go the opposite way, hire Johnny Marr as their new guitarist and open up on the Pavement reunion tour or something. The group’s trajectory continues to mystify and compel, and the very real possibility that they might fall on their face at any given turn is integral to the power of their art. If gathering a bunch of young New Yorkers in the Guggenheim while deconstructing the idea of what an indie band can and ought to be is part of their journey as a band, well that’s perfectly fine. But about those 30 bucks…

[Photo: aaronbflickr]

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