Invisible performance explores relationship between machines and humans

by Jordan Green


The quartet of human mediums and assemblage of futuristic yet archaic machines known as Invisible received a rousing standing ovation for their performance of The New Obsolete in the atrium of the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro on July 20.

The sprawling piece performed on a set of instruments that takes four hours to set up and two to break down is a meditation on exactly that relationship — humans to machines — and it’s sometimes hard to tell who has the upper hand. It’s by turns a soulful meditation, a goof and an overwhelming display of multimedia mayhem.

Mark Dixon, a tinkerer with anarchist political leanings, rolled out his first performance with an invented instrument in 2005 during a weeklong run of his drum machine with celebrated guests such as Eugene Chadbourne at the now-defunct Gate City Noise. The band Invisible, featuring the Selectric piano, followed a year or two later.

That essentially set the template: programmed instruments constructed largely from salvaged materials whose parts are exploded into a vast network of mechanical sequencers rather than contained in small, black boxes. Bart Trotman added his insatiable appetite for audio-visual materials, found answeringmachine messages and other scavenged innovations. Jonathan Henderson, who is playing with six or seven bands at any given time — including lately Midtown Dickens and Diali Cissokho & Kairaba! — loaned his musical dexterity to the proceedings.

Invisible played its first gig with the Selectric piano in a poorly lit industrial warehouse off of Washington Street that was more of an illicit performance space than proper venue.

Since 2008, the group has been barnstorming upscale museums and galleries across the Carolinas. Complimentary pre-show Stella Artois and wine, a fruit-and-cheese bar and young parents packing toddlers on their sides among the hipsters and museum patrons conferred a measure of arrival last week on a renegade group that more or less exploded the definition of music and art. Any doubt about the legitimacy of the enterprise could be dispelled by the fact that The New Obsolete is supported by a grant from the NC Arts Council.

Dixon’s drum machine has been retired, at least temporarily. Two additional homemade, programmed instruments round out The New Obsolete. One, called “Elsewhere’s roof,” replicates the sound of buckets catching water from a leak at the Elsewhere art space during the group’s 2010 residency. Five separate tubes drip water at frequencies determined by tightening or loosening valves, with the impact relayed to a keyboard, drum or striker. A second instrument, the Pulse Ox, takes the heartbeat of a person and transfers it to a drum.

The two instruments essentially take natural phenomena and break them down into mechanized processes. Invisible in general and The New Obsolete in particular explore the uneasy relationship between humans and technology by showing how machines leave their imprint on our collective psyche and also how we might humanize machines to make them suit our purposes.

“Like any brand-new musical instrument, you have to do stuff to it and let it do things back to you,” Dixon remarked before the performance. “It’s like learning to talk: You make noises. And then you say, ‘I’m going to make that noise again.’” The real star among the invented instruments is the Selectric piano, as played by Jodi Staley. Each typewriter key is connected to a key of the piano and the music is composed by writing words, phrases or short sentences. Amazingly, at times Staley’s Selectric piano, Henderson’s guitar, Dixon’s bass and Trotman’s drumming were in harmonic and percussive sync. Phrases typed by Staley such as, “Watch birds swarm a skyscraper,” projected on the wall provided a poetic complement to the instrumental music. Or, better yet, a silent vocal accompaniment.


The set of The New Obsolete is on display in the atrium of the Weatherspoon Art Museum, located at the corner of Spring Garden and Tate streets in Greensboro, through Thursday, when Invisible gives a final performance of the piece at 6 p.m.