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Nothin' but Working: Phill Niblock, a Retrospective opens at Musée de l'Elysée
From the series Streetcorners in the South Bronx, 1979 © Phill Niblock.
LAUSANNE.- Phill Niblock has produced, for over more than fifty years, a multidisciplinary work. His “Intermedia Art” features a combination of minimalist music, conceptual art, structural cinema, systematic or even political art, and strives to transform our perception and experience of time.

Upon a proposal by Circuit, the photographs, films, installations and all his recorded music are brought together for the first time in a retrospective exhibition dedicated to Phill Niblock’s entire artistic endeavour. This exhibition by Mathieu Copeland is presented simultaneously at the Contemporary Art Center Circuit and at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.

Admittedly one of the greatest experimental composers of our time, Phill Niblock initiates his career as a photographer and film director. Born in 1933 in Indianapolis, a jazz afficionado, he settles in New York in 1958. Niblock starts photography in 1960, specializing in portraits of jazz musicians such as Charles Mingus, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, whom he frequently follows to recording sessions and concerts. In the mid-60s, he shifts from photography to film, and encouraged by Elaine Summers, choreographer and founder of the Experimental Intermedia, he starts realising films for dancers and choreographers at the Judson Church Theatre, including Yvonne Rainer and Meredith Monk. From 1968 on, Niblock focuses on music and composes his first pieces, which - according to the artist - should be listened to at loud volume in order to explore their overtones.

Since the mid-60s, his analogue photographic work explores New York’s architecture and urban planning. The sequencing and layout of his images offer a mapping of the location and object photographed, such as the abandoned buildings of Welfare Island (today Roosevelt Island) in 1966, the areas fallen into disuse in the South Bronx in 1979, or the facades of SoHo Broadway district in 1988. Starting in 1966, Niblock engages in a reflection about the projection of moving images through a series of films and slideshows. Produced between 1966 and 1969, Six Films, a series of short films with sound realized with 16 mm film, heralds his experimental method through portraits of artists and musicians such as Sun Ra and Max Neuhaus.

Starting in 1968, the artist begins experimenting a combination of his visual productions with his musical scores in order to create architectural and environmental compositions with sound. Recreated by the artist at the Musée de l’Elysée for the first time since its last presentation in 1972, the Environments series extracts through images the reality of different surroundings, all the while generating a dense and intense temporary environment of projected images, music and movements throughout the museum’s space.

Exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center Circuit
Presented for the first time in its entirety, re-edited and remastered by the artist for the retrospective, the series of films The Movement of People Working portray human labour in its most elementary form. Filmed on 16mm colour film, and later on video, in locations including Peru, Mexico, Hungary, Hong Kong, the Arctic, Brazil, Lesotho, Portugal, Sumatra, China and Japan – with more than 25 hours of film footage, The Movement of People Working focuses on work as a choreography of movements and gestures, dignifying the mechanical yet natural repetition of labourers’ actions. Phill Niblock says of these that The Movement of People Working «came out of necessity because I was doing music performances with live dancers, and it was too cumbersome and expensive to tour with so many people. So I started doing those films that I could project when performing».

These films are accompanied by the whole corpus of Niblock’s slowly evolving, harmonically minimalist music, realised between 1968 and 2011. The sound level of these compositions offers a visceral experience of the long drones and inhabits the ringing, beating overtones. These scores, presented in the exhibition as photostats realized for his personal exhibition at London’s ICA in 1982, are the composer’s mixing instructions and are not used by the musician during the performance. While moving through space, he plays with the recorded material, sometimes creating tonalities that coincide with the recording or, on the contrary, that produce dissonances. The result is a constant movement of beat, rhythm and pulsation, as well as changing and continuous harmonics during his own motion through space. The layering of tones echoes the repetitions of the workers’ actions; the evolution of the films on each screen (changing throughout the day), combined with a program that randomly plays back different music pieces, results in a constant renewal of forms, continuously offering an exhibition of new juxtapositions of sound and image.

The Movement of People Working offers a strong social and political comment, as highlighted by the title and represented by the closeness with the workers. In this, the series of film echoes the work of several filmmakers including Jean Luc Godard or Chris Marker who as from 1967 gave workers the cameras and informed them of cinematic techniques so that they could actually make their own films. In a fascinating turn of events, rather than doing fictional or pure documentary film, some workers formed the Groupes Medvekine and decided to film themselves working.




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