An Industrial American Dirge – Kenneth John Verdugo

An Industrial American Dirge was and is a multi-media installation originated by Kenneth John Verdugo. The installation, conceived as an aesthetic visual response to Jeffrey Gascon Bello’s compositions, incorporates found objects, instruments, and digital video. Select elements filling the room serve as visual references or as complements in support of video content; providing one the opportunity to experience the room via live performance or as a stand- alone installation. How this fits into the thematic concept of the PQ will be explained in depth.

Santawaska Key Lime Pie comprises the duo of Gascon (keyboards) and Verdugo (percussion). The performance introduces 4 of Gascon’s musical compositions (movements); therein serving as the inspiration or principle foundational structure for the exhibit –Verdugo’s point-of-entry.

Verdugo’s concept for the entirety of the installation was built upon the poetic device known as The Exquisite Corpse; also known as the exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis) or rotating corpse. The Exquisite Corpse is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun“) or by being allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed. In this case, Gascon provided the musical composition; to which Verdugo added the visual environment and accompaniment.

This technique of the Exquisite Corpse was invented by Surrealists and is similar to an old parlor game called Consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Surrealism principal founder André Breton reported that it started in fun, but became playful and eventually enriching. Breton said the diversion started about 1925….In a variant now known as picture consequences, instead of sentences, portions of a person were drawn….Later the game was adapted to drawing and collage. An Industrial American Dirge is in effect both a visual and audio collage, comprised of a collection of disparate images and sounds, formulated as narrative.

The first step towards orientation in viewing the work is to see it as a whole. The videos are at times very static. They are installed in relation to the installation itself – i.e. displayed in close proximity to other works in the space. Thus, at times the video has a direct relationship to the adjacent painting – presenting the same image simultaneously as its 2D counterpoint. The videos are in every way intended to appear as if they are paintings that periodically show some level of movement – as a vehicle offering up evolving narrative possibilities. Within the context of the installation, the paintings fill only one part of the narrative, whereas the sculptural elements within the installation fill another part, whereby the video link fills another missing gap. In other words, as a comprehensive unit, each part builds and exists for the whole. By illustration: if a unified painting can have no one mark removed, with no one element edited out (without risk of destroying the whole enterprise), such is the recipe or construct represented in this format. In many respects, the theoretical principles I often adhered to, those being that “every work should speak for itself,” or that “each work should be able to stand alone,” had been rejected in this process. In many respects, this notion comes directly out of theatre. Herein, each element was considered a player, within an ensemble made up of many parts, where no one part was the hero.

The performative nature of this installation builds upon the improvisational process models established in the seminal happenings of Allan Kaprow, in the critical work of Joseph Beuys or Yves Klein, in the ground-breaking inquiries of Gordon Matta-Clark, or the muscular interactive works of Chris Burden. My goal was to create an activated performative space that would agitate and create tension by making the viewer feel as if “something has just happened” and/or as if “something is going to happen.” By establishing a conspicuous staging area as the installation’s center piece (i.e. a cordoned-off area dedicated to instrumentation and a digital media station), the audience member could sense that they were in both a performance space and a viewing area. Whether we were present (in real-time as performers) or off-line (allowing the installation to stand alone), we were always present via the installation and video work. The video was set up in two formats – one for performance mode and another for installation mode. The performance mode did not include the musical tracks – that part was done live. In installation mode, all audio was included. By incorporating some video clips of the live performance, it worked in either mode. The overarching idea that an actual performance did or will happen was always part of the project. Audience members returned for both. What was most intriguing was the interactive nature of the space. Nearly every individual walking in would approach the tympani ping-pong instrument and then try to play it. The same thing occurred with the tennis-ball launching drum machine. Other elements were equally as inviting. As a result of their unsolicited attraction, and subsequent interaction with physical elements, many viewers were compelled to become players.

Being that Dirge was built in very much the same manner as a design for dance, music served as open-ended inspiration, as opposed to a definitive textual guide (typically employed in theatre). The musical composition was the trigger that spawned the visual and physical elements of the installation – specifically large drum machines that functioned as interactive thunder makers.

Within the performance, various rain and thunder-making instruments were employed, as well as audio soundscapes of rain that served as a recurring device within the audio narrative. Weather was always an underlying element – ultimately serving in the end as a binder or common thread.

The overall concept for the installation centered upon an emerging dysfunctional theme – a sad song – albeit a “dirge” for this particular American moment. Nothing could be more in front of us than the wars engaged in this current century. It is a compound problem. Although the war was fought for ideological reasons, there was an underlying Armageddon fixation that allowed its leaders to take us there; there was an underlying religious justification that allowed for a run to war. There are those on the right who place themselves under the umbrella of Christian values; but despite this position, their reliance on donors invested in big oil compels then to fight for the rights of the one percent. By fighting for a deregulation policy that only exacerbates the problem for the rest of us, they fail to take responsibility seriously. The age-old principle that “cleanliness is next to godliness” fails to strike a chord in those who legislate through denial.

They fail to understand or accept that their very own good book states “God will destroy those destroying the earth.” In opposition to this, their Armageddon end-of-days fatalism frees them to leave it to god alone; thereby ignoring the import of the language in their very own good book.

Meaning, if he (god) is going to bring it, they will not stand in his way; they will not subvert his will. In the end, this fatalism frees them to ignore 99% of the scientific community. Therein, religion can serve as a basis for leaving both the wrath and the clean-up to god. Conversely,

there are those on the other side of the spectrum who believe that it is man who is responsible for the planet; that he is here to serve both as his brother’s keeper and as the caretaker of this land.

The first movement is entitled The Church. In this first instance, Verdugo was confronted with the initial sound of what he perceived as horses trotting. So that was the start. How this would work with the title was the next big problem. However, upon looking at Amish lifestyles, it was apparent that the Amish (or Mennonites by comparison) live in a world largely out of step with the current technologies we take for granted. And so, in effect, that was how Verdugo linked the sound of horses to old technology, and served as a means to spin the narrative back to the church. The Amish lifestyle is essentially built upon strong faith within an agrarian paradigm – largely antithetical to our current way of living; most especially in terms of transport. The 8 men cited in the video were arrested for refusing to pay fines after not putting orange safety triangles on their buggies. Their mug shots coincide with a musical passage that feels ominous. The video shows the conflict that ensues when these two worlds collide (both figuratively and literally).

The second movement, Transfigurations follows through on the title’s suggested or evocative meaning. The piece is an eclectic collection of pieces from American culture here and abroad – serving as a critique on both American values and false expectations. In particular, America’s dependence on foreign oil doesn’t keep some from enjoying and relishing in the pleasures associated with large gas powered vehicles – certainly relevant at this moment as a factor in a new election cycle. This first part is the transitional component that links The Church with Transfigurations. The two pieces are a unit with shared content. Hell’s Kitchen is our reward.

The second half of Transfigurations moves away from foreign soil and provides a visual critique on domestic policy and mores. Some of us who chose to look back fondly at the Reagan era and hope for a better tomorrow may also be riddled with contradictions that cannot reflect the values of our modern society. For example, when we look back at the nuclear family of the 1950s, one might question if the Ideal we may have aspired to ever really existed beyond the confines of a television sitcom or the 1960 dream of Camelot. We have stained our Jeffersonian landscape with fire and blood, with intolerance and greed. As such, our antiquated view of the nuclear family is as outdated as the buggy whip. Nevertheless it is our buggy whip to fight and die for.

The third movement is entitled Primavera II. This piece is perhaps the most profound or somber piece – serious and turbulent – while also being uplifting. When Verdugo worked through the process, he first developed the piece by writing representative words and then by linking those words to visual referents. In the end, it was two simple but disparate visual references that developed. The first piece of the puzzle was Botticelli’s Primavera. The second piece included 9/11.   Verdugo cites, “I made it a point of telling Jeffrey that I didn’t want to go there. We do not need to keep reliving the horror or recalling the pain.” However, the musical composition resonated to such a degree that it was unavoidable. Kenneth’s solution was to shift focus to the uplifting character of the piece. In the end, the work serves up a reflection of the 9/11 Memorial. Linking Towers with a mirrored Primavera resulted in analogous references to spring or rebirth.

The declaration that we weathered a collective storm, to arrive at an outcome equaling “mission accomplished,” was a false assessment. The current reality of America, that being the degree of our involvement and/or our footing on the world stage, has proven far worse than one could have envisioned at the time of Bush vs. Gore. One simple decision by the high court changed history.

The resolute outcome: more than a decade later, we are still fighting the same wars, we are still dependent on the same resources, and the planet is compromised as a result of man. A turbulent political storm has brought us to the brink. These are the contextual signifiers and inspiration for An Industrial American Dirge.

– K. Verdugo