Curator: Joanna Fiduccia
Conlon Nancarrow Studie n°36 (détail) Rouleau pour piano mécanique Courtesy Wolfgang Heisig
In the 1940s, American composer Conlon Nancarrow began experimenting with the superimposition of different tempos, generating compositions so rhythmically complex that no human being could execute them. Undeterred by this apparent limitation, Nancarrow resolved to compose for player-pianos. His piano scrolls mark out rigid tempos determined by basic algorithms, yet the resulting music sounds anything but strict and logical. Rather than disciplining his melodies, Nancarrow unravels them, producing maddening and extravagant music from the mechanical innards of the player-piano.
The works in the exhibition Coquilles mécaniques share this principle: Through ostensibly simple protocols or procedures, they unexpectedly trigger states of excess. In doing so, they invoke the irrepressible forces of sensuality, memory or imagination that can paradoxically lodge in systems of regimentation or hyper-rationalization. Calling upon means as straightforward as a steady tempo, these works reveal possibilities for the production of abundance through scarcity on the one hand, and freedom through order on the other. The production of these extreme and seemingly irreconcilable states is timely, if not urgent, today.
The exhibition’s title, "Coquilles mécaniques," describes its bookends: Nancarrow's player-pianos (or pianos mécaniques), and seashells (or coquilles, a word that doubles in French for a typographical error), which are the subject of a short essay by Paul Valéry on the limits of human understanding. These small marvels, patiently secreted by mollusks, protein by protein — like the piano scrolls punched out by Nancarrow, note by note — expose the gap between knowing how something is made and understanding its effect on us. The unity of knowing and understanding typically establishes the ground for most practical and scientific forms of knowledge. But certain things—like Nancarrow's compositions, seashells, or the artworks in Coquilles mécaniques—resist this notion. They are luminous failures to master things in the world, and excessive productions where we expect the rhythms of discipline.
Joanna Fiduccia (Washington, D.C., 1984) is a critic, independent curator, and editor-at-large of Kaleidoscope magazine. Her recent curatorial projects include "No Swan So Fine" at Michael Benevento in Los Angeles and "The Zero Budget Biennial," co-curated with Chris Sharp, which traveled to Paris, Milan, London and Berlin in 2009–2010. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, ArtReview, Spike Art Quarterly, East of Borneo, and Kaleidoscope, among other publications, as well as in catalogues for Nick Oberthaler, Lucy Skaer and Nina Beier. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is pursuing her doctorate in modern French and American Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.