Sing Alongs Volume 1

Exhibition by Sam Clague

Sing Alongs Volume 1 | Sam Clague | Pyramid Club, Pōneke

23.09.22 | written by Max Fleury

The Pyramid Club is located upstairs in an easily ignorable tilt slab building. The gym next door shares its shabby toilets with the gallery. No white cubes here. This is the setting for Sam Clague's latest: Sing Alongs Volume 1. The main components of Sing Alongs are two showreels of music videos: one projected onto the wall of the cold concrete stairwell, and the other housed in a small room which looks like a spray painting booth.

Along the back wall of the spray booth-like room are CDs, LPs, and tapes (permanent fixtures in the gallery) by experimental musicians associated with The Pyramid Club; a venue that has centred art-adjacent experimental musicians and sound artists since opening in 2014. On the other side of the room is a television which displays, on loop, two of the four videos that comprise Sing Alongs. The room, with its paint-covered walls, is strewn with carefully arranged detritus: a globe among packing materials; paper, cardboard boxes, styrofoam. Talking with Clague, I learn that the space used to be an artist studio. The paint marks left behind serve as a starting point for Clague’s collages duct-taped to the wall.

Sam Clague, Sing Alongs Volume 1, 2022. Installation view. Projector showing The Ocean And Me, 2022.

Sam Clague, Sing Alongs Volume 1, 2022. Detail.
At the opening, I sit beside a stranger as we watch Clague’s bricolage music videos. In them, Clague has spliced a vast array of low-res found footage and set it to his own deep fried IDM not-quite-music, not-quite-art sound compositions. Light is blocked out using rubbish bags; they catch the wind, duct tape coming away from the concrete. The audience, sitting on mismatched stools, listens to the dance beats pumping along, watching the flatscreen in silence—unmoving, our hips idle. After realising we’re into the second cycle of the two-song reel, we stand and slowly shuffle out of the room.

Watching the videos blind, there is a sense that there is something sinister hiding in the mix. Pitch-shifted and compressed voice samples mutter about. Sometimes intelligible words can be deciphered:

To tackle these challenges
We work together
As we continue to work together

The voice chants along to a pixelated video of firemen doing training exercises with a dog. The provenance of this sample is unclear, the high-pitched voice sounds neither male nor female and its original context has been extinguished. There’s something disingenuous and generic about the motivational message. I read its use as sarcastic. What is the artist trying to reveal?

Sam Clague, Sing Alongs Volume 1, 2022. Detail.
After the opening, Clague sends me a Google Doc describing the narrative of each of the four videos. I learn that this work is called Dog In the River, and the voice is sampled from Nancy Pelosi delivering a speech on the climate crisis. For Clague, this is demonstrative of political elites’ inane and insincere rhetoric: to tackle these challenges… and so on. The reality is that the dire straights of climate change are too great for ineffective politicians.

The next video on the reel is Schizophrenic Vampire Karaoke. It follows the classic karaoke video formula of rotating stock footage overlaid with lyrics. Horses graze in the meadow. Lyrics sparkle with digital stars. In it, a man being interviewed blurts on about women’s dress sense and the boogeyman. It's hard to feel sorry for someone who states that he “wears sunglasses at night because women show their tits and wear shorts skirts and feel violated when he looks at them”. Here, karaoke is not made of a song for fans to perform in homage to their favourite artists, but instead for someone’s unhinged ramblings.

It’s a genuinely shocking watch; perhaps not just because of the misogyny but also because I’ve come to expect polite content in the context of video art. Problematic opinions are, often for good reason, avoided so as not to platform unsavoury ideas. There is an argument to be made for the fact that, whether we like it or not, this content is out there. Ultimately, however, this ethical question is left unanswered by the artist. I doubt the viewer is going to sing along, and I doubt Clague wants them to.

I’ve always thought of Clague as primarily a painter. We used to share a studio. He spent most of his time painting. But looking at his exhibition history, there’s a lot of sculpture that prominently features found objects. He is a scavenger, looking for materials online and IRL to appropriate, alter, or re-present. When he left the studio, he had heaps of objects that he wanted to re-home as opposed to throw out. One such was a retro letterboard; another, a chunky old window frame, nice pieces, a shame to throw away!

Because of this sensibility, Clague’s foray into electronic music seems logical. Digital technology’s ability to quickly borrow and remix audio visual material from the internet is a suitable extension of Clague’s wider experiments within the medium of collage. Furthermore, the artwork that comes to mind when considering techno music videos as art, is Foriuchi made me hardcore (1999) by British artist Mark Leckey. Fiorucci sets remixed ambient techno over footage of various versions of British dance culture from the 70’s-90’s, from northern soul to raves. Fiorucci was made in the time when music videos were the dominant form of music media. But it’s not a music video. It’s too long and lacks the immediacy of something played on MTV. There’s no rush; the low-res dancing figures slowly work their way over you, making the otherwise fairly usual sight of drunken dancing seem off.
Sam Clague, Sing Alongs Volume 1, 2022. Detail.
Leckey’s work, made in the 90’s is very much a product of its time. The footage is hazy, flattened out by the limitations of VHS. Clague’s work on the other hand, made in 2022, looks out of time. The standard definition suggests early internet steaming in the 2000s. Presented on a wall mounted flatscreen LCD, the videos look decidedly standard definition; the narrower frame leaving black bars on the sides. The driving beats and distorted crunch sound more like early WARP records, however the pitch shifting and bird-like chirping of MP3 artefacts suggest something more recent.

In comparison to found objects and still images, sound and video are more emotionally direct. The brooms and tennis rackets of Clague’s sculpture are benign in comparison to videos of politicians, oil spills and rambling schizophrenics. Collage methods, when applied to video, can feel more random than when applied to sculpture or painting—harder to justify as an intuitive and formal consideration. The line between ‘scatterbrained’ and ‘frivolous’ is a tough one to judge, and can tax an audience's patience. While I compare the two works; Leckey’s Fiorucci finds its stride in concise subject matter while Sing Alongs meanders through worldwide politics.

Sing Alongs toys with discomfort in a way that isn’t so obviously foregrounded in his paintings and sculptures. Pitching a bleak world, Clague has found respite in music. The question is asked in the bio for the exhibition, “Does a confused person get a resolution?” I don't think Clague has found one yet. So, what now? Become a music producer? For those of us who can’t make it we’ll just try and sing along.

Sam Clague, Sing Alongs Volume 1, 2022. 11 August – 3 September 2022 at Pyramid Club,  Pōneke.

Watch here:
Dog In The River
Schizophrenic Vampire Karaoke
Heavy Seas/Who's Bad
The Ocean And Me

Photos: By Max Fleury, courtesy of the artist.

Article image: Sam Clague, Sing Alongs Volume 1, 2022. Installation view. Monitor shows Schizophrenic Vampire Karaoke, 2022.

ISSN 2744-7952

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