Ken Butler's Hybrid Visions
Characterized by his obsessive desire to re-order the world around him, Butler’s multi-disciplinary creations can be difficult to describe as they bridge visual art, design, performance, and life itself in unusual ways. Ever the urban bricoleur, the artist is a resourceful improviser committed to exploring and re-imagining our relationships to the objects around us.
Ken Butler’s hybrid musical instrument sculptures, collage/drawings, performances, and audio-visual installations explore the interaction and transformation of common and uncommon objects, sounds, and altered images as function and form collide in the intersections of art and music.
Created primarily from urban detritus, the hybrid instruments express a poetic spirit of re-invention and hyper-utility as hidden meanings and associations momentarily create a striking and re-animated cultural identity for common objects. String instruments become body, tool, weapon, toy, symbol, machine, phallus, creature, sculpture, icon, and voice. Pianos and keyboards become cybernetic and symbolic architecture. Anxious objects speak in tongues.
Bridging fine art, craft, technology, and music, the hybrids exist as ergonomic functional musical instruments as well as sculpture; they are constructed from readily available consumer objects designed to perform a different function, and when amplified are shaped with cutting-edge sound processing allowing artful musical sounds and expression. Please note that not all the works are intended to produce sounds.
The guitar most specifically can be viewed as a potent social (and even religious) symbolic icon linked to much of the psychic upheaval in our culture; it still dominates rebellious experimental music and is a potent androgynous image for the female form, male phallus, and hand-held weapon. Sex and death, and a formula for a post-apocalyptic reconstruction.
The playable hybrid instruments are amplified with small piezo transducers (contact microphones) attached to the instruments near (or as) the bridge. It is because of these mics that resonating chambers are not necessary, although the resulting sound is directly influenced by the acoustic properties of the material of the body/neck. A pre-amp box, guitar amplifier, and various sound processing effects are used to manipulate the sounds. The entire body of the instrument becomes touch-sensitive enabling the player to pluck, tap, stroke, or bow the various parts to create a variety of percussive sounds as well as those produced by the vibration of the strings. As far as the music itself is concerned, most of the material was derived from the "feeling" of the initial sound of each piece when it was first plugged in. Within certain simple structures, the music and the playing methods are improvised (as is the creation of the instruments themselves).
An interest in systems of control and the animation of light and objects stems from the artists experimental film-making work from the mid-seventies - essentially putting into motion two- and three-dimensional photo collage works by pixallation. A desire to be free from the fixed speed of a finished film led to the use of multiple slide projectors eventually controlled by one of the hybrids to enable synchronous improvisatory sounds and images. This led to the construction in 1983 of a two-octave keyboard controller with a 60-foot cord to a remote 24-outlet electrical box. Operated by this keyboard, the installation works are essentially an "audio-visual piano" that creates a room-sized kinetic sound and projection environment as the viewer triggers a diverse group of devices including radios, tape recorders with loops, mechanical objects, slide projectors, light and kinetic shadow projections, and self-playing hybrid instruments. The largest version of this work, "Object Opera", was presented at Thread Waxing Space in NYC in June of 1995. The piece incorporated numerous hybrid instruments that were activated by small fan motors with “weed-eater” fish-line strummers or auto-strum devices made from LPs rimmed with guitar picks (with specific rhythm patterns) powered by gear motors, along with hundreds of other sound, light, and motion devices.
Collages and other flatworks, made principally from altered photos of the artist’s hybrid musical instrument sculptures, further re-configure and amplify the head-neck-body ergo-iconography of string instruments, pushing it into the realm of abstraction and color-field painting. The hands-on physicality of these works echoes the improvisational sensibilities of making live music and creates a reliquary of silent sound shapes that reflect this transition from found object to body to instrument to abstract icon and architecture. Proportion, balance, harmony, texture, scale, tension, release, dynamics, and resonance aptly apply to numerous art forms.
In addition to the collages and assemlages, a series of complex and detailed pencil drawings from 2004-05 illustrate envisioned and often elaborate audio-visual sculptures and installations that further extend the formal dialogue of art forms and the transformative deconstruction of musical instruments into surreal realms of high and low technology and invention. Bicycles, pianos, projectors, musical chairs, exotic racing cars, and dinosaurs are subjected to transformation and re-construction.
The works that encompass "Lost & Sound" reference the formal dialogue of the transformative deconstruction of the string instrument body with the new technical electronic soundscape. Found object/instrument forms combine with arrangements of hardware and machine parts to create a reliquary of silent sound shapes that reflect this transition and pay homage to Cubist still life. The iconic, symbolic, and ergonomic guitar/violin/cello/bass body, a mainstay of musical/visual form and function for hundreds of years, is now being replaced with the inevitable playback device/black box as sound samples replicate the physical vibrating object. A spirit of re-invention and hyper-utility attempts to revealthe hidden meanings and associations of common objects, momentarily creating a striking and re-animated cultural identity. What is a musical instrument?
A newer body of work, “Vibrating Body”, are diverse assemblage on large panels. Echoing the artist's hybrid instruments and collages, these works further abstract and transform the human-figure-instrument-body iconography he is known for and push it further into the realm of pseudo-mechanical bio-structure and abstraction. In addition, these works also imply a sacred altar-like meditative space and reference the cycle of deformation and re-formation inherent in his other work. Constructed primarily from consumer detritus, social discards, and other urban flotsam and jetsam, these works become inter-woven cyphers of the new resonant technological “body” of modern existence, with it’s ever-complex “control systems” to regulate desire, at times referencing traumatic memories and turbulent meanings in the artists life.
Contemporary urban life is a bewildering collage of multiple images, ideas, sounds, and objects in a constant state of flux as information overload becomes the touchstone of our age. As we move from the mechanical to the electronic, this churning mass chews up and spits out material with re-assigned priorities and updates. The resulting detritus is a living corpse - a random and chaotic body of juxtaposed and deconstructed items and associations. From this storehouse of forsaken objects and hardware I, the urban bricoleur, further dismantle and reassemble the consumer society into functional assemblages in the form of musical instrument/objects, then coax them to sing for their supper.
The Performance: Voices of Anxious Objects
The artist-musician performs mesmerizing world textures and driving melodic gypsy grooves with passion and purpose on an amazing arsenal of amplified hybrid string instruments made from household objects and tools. Duchampian Dada meets Hybrid Hindu Hendrix as function and form collide in an environment of hyper-active hardware.
Musical influences include Indian Raga, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern folk and classical music, Tango, Flamenco, and Roma Gypsy music mixed with a noisy "downtown" improv aesthetic all held together by a strong dose of African-American jazz, rock, funk, and blues.
Virtually indescribable and unclassifiable, Butler mixes high and low technology and audio-visual antics to create an ancient/future music that forms a provoking cultural portrait of human / machine adaptation and transformation.
Assemblages of hammers, hockey sticks, tennis rackets, golf clubs, and brooms become (when amplified) violin, guitar, and cello-like instruments with multiple playing surfaces and a diverse range of percussive (and assorted odd) sounds as well as those produced by the strings. A performance may also include interactive hybrid audio-visual keyboards powered by motorized strummers which control lights, slide animation, motion, and video projections.
K-Board (55 keys), 1983, 30 x 39 x 13 (on stand). The K-Board was fashioned from a 55-key organ keyboard under the keys of which I attached micro switches which control 55 AC electrical plugs in front of the keys. Each key turns on whatever is plugged into the corresponding outlet. I put a single string (I like the idea of getting as much as possible out of just one monochord) directly under the keys lengthwise which is "fretted" or stopped by a small rubber foot on each key. An auto-strum wheel with picks strums the amplified string generating a continuous rhythm, and keys play bass-like microtonal melodies along with light images when pressed.
Octavator (one octave), 1985, 34 x 39 x 10 (on stand). The Octavator uses one octave of keys with micro switches connected via telephone wires directly to the lamp inputs of six Carousel slide projectors that are aimed to the same area of the screen. Four keys trigger sequences of four slides that can be played live in any order. A master key advances all four slide projectors for the next group of four animated slides. The body of the Octavator is made from an aluminum crutch, a pneumatic door-closing mechanism, a shoe-size guide, ruler, and miscellaneous hardware in addition to the keyboard, It has four strings, two of which are fretted by the keyboard and/or plucking and bowing and is amplified with contact mics.
Urban Grand Piano, 1998, 72 x 48 x 89 (with top open). The interactive keyboard is a grand piano sized multi-media assemblage constructed of reconfigured objects, machine parts, and other audio-visual items of wood, metal, and plastic that makes music and projects images at the stroke of a key. Each key triggers a different sound, light, and/or movement activating such things as slide projectors, radios, neon tubes, lights, tape recorders, and motors strumming strings and other resonant objects and devices. The keyboard requires the viewer/participant to improvise the creation of a multi-media composition as function and form collide in a collage environment of hyper-active hardware; a one-person opera of objects and images.
Rural Baby Grand, 2002, 60 x 48 x 70 (with top open). Constructed humbly from branches, twigs, screens, a cane, a crutch, and bits of discarded electronics, in an “Adirondack” style, the piano exudes a transparent poetic folk art quality as it mixes “high” and “low” art forms. The triangular body refers more to the harpsichord than the modern grand with its sweeping wing lid and larger scale. Except for the hint of sound potential provided by a few tongue depressors as keys, the piano is silent.
Styro-tone Grand Piano: a Rhythm Reliquary, 2005, 62 x 42 x 73 (with top open). Made from street-found Styrofoam containers and other detritus, the sculpture plays with the idea of reliquaries (sacred objects) presented in a kind of natural history museum environment, referencing a cabinet of curiosities. Constructions of horseshoe shell crabs, insects, violin parts, and other found objects reflect the iconography of string instruments. The lightness of the material makes it very portable, and although playable as a percussion instrument (amplified with multiple transducers), it is predominantly a visual piece with only one string and no keyboard.
Projection Grand: An Incandescent Keyboard, 2002, 36 x 33 x 99. The piano/keyboard is an interactive audio-visual grand-piano-sized assemblage sculpture constructed of reconfigured objects, projectors, lamps, and miscellaneous electrical parts that mechanically projects dazzling complex light patterns at the stroke of its keys. When "played" by the viewer-participant, the two-octave keyboard projects overlapping moving images of complex white light and shadow on a wall and surfaces of a darkened exhibition area, activating the entire space with light, motion, and minimal sound all emanating from the keyboard itself. Sound is produced by a single tape recorder with a quiet drone to provide a canvas for the clicks and grinds of the lights and motors themselves as they are activated. Each of the 24 keys triggers a different projection and/or movement activating such things as slide projectors, spot lamps, clear light bulbs, and motors rotating lenses, mirrors, and other optical objects. The keyboard requires the viewer/participant to improvise on the spot the creation of a multi-media composition of light and sound as function and form collide in a collage environment of hyper-active hardware.
Egg Crate Grand: A Soundproof Piano, 2004, 57 x 50 x 90 (with top open). The grand piano-sized assemblage is constructed solely from egg crates found on the street by the Broken Egg restaurant in Ann Arbor near where the artist lived while teaching at the University of Michigan in 2003-04. Here the shape of the piano as an evocative sculptural form is referenced, in addition to the grassroots use of egg cartons as soundproofing in home recording studios of years past. It becomes a silent, highly absorbent, soundproof piano - the perfect instrument for a performance of John Cage’s “silent” work 4’33”.
Zen Fan Grand, 2006, 68 x 48 x 76 (with top open). To create the simplest possible “piano” structure (with fanned top and removable legs), I cut wood strips into 2”, 4”. 6”, 8”, 1’, 18”, 2’, and 1/2 ft. increments up to 6’ lengths. They were arranged in the most obvious manner to provide rigidity, with no additional cutting, using a hot-glue gun and brad stapler. The key configuration is the simplest method I could come up with using the pieces and rubber bands to make a playable (and removable) keyboard. The “notes” are essentially the same “clink”, but have very subtle differences, especially when amplified. These sounds are the antithesis of a standard piano, and emphasize the percussive aspect of the instrument.