Local activist is building a better band

by Daniel Bayer

Inside a nondescript industrial building somewhere on the south side of Greensboro’s downtown, amidst stacks of drums, woodworking tools and strange contraptions, Mark Dixon tinkers with his latest creation: a chair that can be played like a xylophone.

‘“I’m a musician and an artist, and I try to combine those two as much as I can,’” said Dixon, as he adjusts the wooden slats that, when struck like a xylophone’s keys, resonate through bamboo tubes. ‘“That means making musical instruments and inventing musical instruments, trying to have invention be a part of playing and making art as well.’”

Dixon’s workshop, which he calls the Collaboratory, is filled with such instruments. There’s the ‘“drum machine,’” a large rotating wheel that triggers electrical impulses, activating various mechanically driven drums and cymbals; a standup acoustic bass made from decoratively embossed aluminum; and a gramophone-like device that records sounds on used X-ray film.

‘“I’ve been doing art all my life,’” said Dixon, who was raised in Chapel Hill. ‘“I grew up in a house that was being reconstructed, so tools were my first toys, in a way. Music came much later. I had always wanted to be in a band, and never really was. In college I met this guy, we had some musical tastes in common. He wanted to do a band and I said I didn’t have any musical experience, and he said ‘No problem, just play bass.””

The result was the ska-jazz band Otis Reem, which Dixon played in for six years.

‘“It had its roots in ska at the beginning, and towards the end we started breaking out more, trying to use the jazz influences and reggae influences and experimental influences,’” said Dixon, who today plays drums in the activist-oriented, samba-based percussion ensemble Cakalak Thunder, which performs at anti-war rallies and social justice events.

‘“Cakalak Thunder is definitely an art and activism project, in a real clear sense,’” said Dixon, who belongs to the Greensboro Community Arts Collective. ‘“People talk about the ‘practice’ of art. I think it’s really important, even if a piece of art I’m doing isn’t particularly flying in the face of ‘the man,’ or supporting a movement of some sort in a real tangible way. It’s part of my practice to make myself able to contribute to the community. That’s why art is radical, almost inherently.’”

Outside of music, Dixon has adapted a highly flexible approach to his art and the materials he uses.

‘“I did a lot of metal sculpture in college,’” said Dixon, who attended Guilford College and later Carnegie-Mellon University. ‘“A lot of those skills have translated to the stuff I’ve done since.

‘“I have an idea and I use whatever material is available to me to get it done. I start with my idea and not with my material. I’m not a ceramic artist, but if ceramic is the only thing that would do for a piece I was trying to do, then I would use ceramic.

‘“I try to think about re-use, and definition of objects. I try to look at an object and not just accept its [intended use] as final. To me that’s a metaphor for anything that needs to be rebuilt in this world,’” said Dixon. ‘“We have the same ingredients, but how can they go together in a better way? That’s what art is and that’s what activism is.’”

His synthesis of materials probably reaches an apogee in the drum machine, which uses discarded computer hard drives, yards of wire and even a plastic cup to achieve its sound.

‘“It’s sort of a blown-up version of the old style music boxes,’” said Dixon. ‘“Another difference [with a music box] is that you can actually make the tune yourself by moving pegs around [on the wheel]. It’s the same format as the hundred-year-old machines.’”

But Dixon doesn’t feel that he’s preserving out-of-date technology so much as perfecting it.

‘“We treat technology like it’s a linear thing, like it starts from low and ends at high,’” said Dixon. ‘“It’s even in our language surrounding technology. I feel like there’s magical points in the development of technology. I just think that the music box, the calliope, all these amazing, mechanical musical instruments of years ago, they’re not as agile as the digital stuff, they’re not as portable, but they’re really beautiful and they set your imagination to work. You can’t plot technology on just a single vector, you’ve got to look at other factors. So in a way, my drum machine is state of the art in tactile construction of beats in a physical environment.’”

The same goes for his recording device, which is currently on its fifth prototype.

‘“Since I make all these musical instruments, I’m trying to make my own proprietary format for recording those instruments,’” said Dixon. ‘“I’m working on this machine that’s built to etch grooves into the surface of X-ray film, so it will be able to make records. I’ll be able to perform on stage with the musical instrument I’ve made, and while I’m performing this machine will be recording and I can just give those out to people to play on their home record player’… if people still have a record player,’” said Dixon, laughing. ‘“Come on people, they still sound better!’”

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