C. Spencer Yeh sees the world from a slightly different angle. The latest example of the 34-year-old Cincinnati-based multimedia artist’s unique vision is on display via Standard Definition, an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center that’s anything but standard.
Occupying a slender hallway on the CAC’s second floor, Yeh’s first solo museum exhibition features three works, all of which are fueled by his longtime preoccupation with sound and image and the various ways the perception of each can change in different contexts.
The first piece consists of a pair of videos projected in a continuous loop, with three cordless headphones available for viewers to listen to the accompanying audio.
The brief “Baby Birds,” which is shot inside Yeh’s mouth, focuses on his uvula as it quivers via a series of vocal utterances. The second video, “Buck and Judy,” originally created as a music video for Avant Pop band Deerhoof’s song of the same name, is a playful, color-splashed computer-animated tale that evokes everything from ’80s video games like Ms. Pac Man to the blocky, elemental feel of LEGOs to, ever so vaguely, The Empire Strikes Back.
The second, and in some ways most striking, of Standard Definition’s three works is called “IMVIS: Infinite Modular Vocal Interaction System (Eliza Study No. 3),” which occupies the middle portion of the hallway. It features three randomly looped, 6-foot-tall images of Yeh’s head projected on bare walls as he delivers his signature vocal technique. Eyes closed and head twitching to and fro, his mouth emits a variety of sounds that bring to mind everything from a baby blubbering its lips to the gasps and gurgles of someone speaking an unknown language. The piece’s immersive experience is at once clinical and weird, intimate and otherworldly.
The third and final work, “Au Passage,” is cordoned off in a dimly lit space at the back end of the hallway where only a white circular couch resides. Unlike the other video-incorporated works, its lone media entity is a manipulated audio recording taken from a live show Yeh did with New York artist Amy Granat at Paris Café in 2007. Presented through a series of surround-sound speakers that envelop the listener, the resulting clamor recalls the white noise of an urban setting, as if a construction site has merged with the guitar emissions of a club show down the street.
The cumulative impact of Standard Definitions’ loosely connected multimedia works forces one to experience the world through Yeh’s unique, sometimes alienating perspective — an approach the artist has investigated more prominently in his vast and various musical projects over the last dozen-plus years.
Yeh’s best-known musical entity is Burning Star Core, whose moody, cinematic soundscapes can be described as everything from avant-garde Free Jazz to experimental Noise Rock to the sound of the world caving in on itself.
Over the course of numerous recordings in and out of Burning Star Core, Yeh has carved out one of the more distinctive careers on the recent underground landscape, playing shows in spaces of every size and stripe (from DIY dungeons to world-class museums) across the globe.
Yeh revels in the provocative, improvisational nature of a musical genre that has little interest in conventional boundaries.
It’s an M.O. that's led to collaborations with such like-minded musical purveyors as the
aforementioned Deerhoof, Comets on Fire, Hair Police, Sonic Youth and
Wolf Eyes, to name just a few. (He's also been nominated for Cincinnati Entertainment Awards several times, including in 2009.)
“A friend of mine once posited, and I definitely agree, that the whole ideal of the improviser is to be given any number of elements — maybe not even instruments — and they would hopefully be able to figure out something compelling musically and artistically to create out of it,” Yeh says over coffee at Iris Book Café as the first big snowstorm of the season rages outside the window. “So if your primary instrument was percussion, or if someone gave you a bunch of trashcan lids and a Volkswagen, hopefully you’d be able to come up with something much more engaging than, like, goofy, Stomp-type shit.
“Or say you’re known as a saxophonist, and someone gave you a fire hydrant, a couple snakes and a bag of apples, hopefully you’d be able to create something compelling from that.”
A couple snakes?
“Yeah, just a couple. You don’t want it to be a snake-dominated piece,” he says, laughing.
In conversation, Yeh is an impressive, free-flowing dot-connector who is equally at home discussing philosophically dense ideas as he is the relative merits of Lady Gaga.
Elaborate metaphors about pop cultural figures — like one about the confident vulnerability of Anne Murray’s singing voice — flow as easily as a dissection of the various types of Noise artists that populate the current underground music scene.
At one point he answers a question about his immigrant upbringing — Yeh was born in Taiwan but his family eventually settled in Cincinnati when he was in the third grade — with to-the-point candor: “I’d rather not get into that.”
Yet it’s not long before he’s back to his stream-of-consciousness ways, recalling the various things that informed his artistic worldview — like the time his dad rented Stuart Gordon’s cult horror staple From Beyond for him or the time his mom made him a cassette, song titles carefully handwritten on the packaging, with The Carpenters on Side A and Johnny Cash on Side B.
“On public television there was this program called Alive from Off Center, which focused on a lot of video and performance art,” Yeh says, his broad face smiling at the childhood memory. “That was a really great show.
I used to watch that when I was really young and not really having a sense of what was going on. There’d be stuff like Laurie Anderson and some weird performances and strange animation.”
His fascination with various forms of fantastical movies, animation and performance art led him to study film at Chicago’s Northwestern University.
“I originally went to school thinking I wanted to get involved in film production, but then I quickly realized I didn’t want to get up at 6 a.m. and climb ladders,” he says. “So then I thought maybe post-production, which I focused a little bit on (and which he’s used to great effect in his various musical recordings), but I ended up focusing on experimental film history and film history and criticism in general.”
So what was it about experimental films that piqued his interest? And how has that interest impacted his music and burgeoning art career?
“At the time I think it was just the sheer grotesque-ness or strangeness,” he says. “But it was also weird the way a lot of these films that I saw very early on, like Eraserhead and things like that, used mise en scene, the way they played with time and space.
“I felt that was really influential to me early on. There was something about the styles of editing, kind of developing a personal feel for rhythm and manipulation of space. And a lot of those early films I was watching were really crude, they weren’t overtly narrative driven.”
Our two-hour conversation now winding down, Yeh drops one more intriguing tidbit that seems to confirm his belief that a vital artistic underground ultimately enriches and informs mainstream culture.
“Some people react viscerally and violently to certain frequencies or certain sounds, and they consider it disturbing,” he says. “But what Elvis was singing about, or the way he shook his butt, was just as violently disturbing to people who received that information a number of decades ago. So who knows? Maybe ‘abrasive’ or ‘annoying’ sounds today will be experienced differently once people become more acclimated to them.”
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