Imagine a concert that's not about the music, and a piece of art that's not about what you're looking at. Imagine an experience that focuses on the space around you, the way sounds bounce around it, the shapes they might make.
With all this in mind, you may be ready for a performance by international artist Benoît Maubrey, who will perform Electronic Guy at Colorado College's Cornerstone Arts Center on April 28. Electronic Guy is a one-man show in which Maubrey will don a smoking jacket outfitted with guitar amplifiers, radio receivers and speakers. The suit will create feedback loops and sounds based on what Maubrey does. It also will alter his voice and respond to light and movement.
"I'll make a special composition for Colorado," says Maubrey of his performance, which he can tailor (no pun intended) to any occasion. Maubrey, who spoke from his home in the German village of Baitz, outside Berlin, adds, "I can improvise, too, because I'm talking into the jacket essentially and sampling it, and it loops it and changes the sound via all the buttons on it."
Electronic Guy is part of Maubrey's extensive audible/art oeuvre, which includes a cabal of other similar characters (called "Phonic Bodies" on his Web site, benoitmaubrey.com) with "acoustical-sculptural clothing." He has created dozens of sound performances and sculptures over his career of 20-plus years.
One of Maubrey's most famous pieces is his ongoing production of Audio Ballerinas, which he co-created in 1989. The ballerinas wear clear plastic tutus equipped with speakers, microphone jacks and amplifiers, along with simple leotards and sneakers. I.D.E.A. Space curator Jessica Hunter-Larsen explains.
"The tutus create feedback loops, which the dancers break or extend by moving sensors through the feedback field in their tutu. So every movement that they make has this eerie, science-fiction 'wa-wa' noise."
Feedback isn't exactly the easiest on the ears, Larsen concedes when pressed. "It's not a beautiful thing. It's very jarring," she says. "There's no melody, there's no musical cohesion — that's why he uses terms like 'audio ballerinas' and 'acoustic sculptor,' not 'composer,' not 'musician.'"
Larsen uses the word "atonal" to further describe the noises, but it's not an insult. Maubrey says his work isn't about music you box up and play repeatedly.
"We're working with sound, which is ephemeral," Maubrey says, "and sound is a three-dimensional sculpture which is perceivable with the ear."
Maubrey, 56, was born in Washington, D.C., to French immigrant parents and studied at Georgetown University. He received a degree in English literature, then went on to live in New York City as a painter.
He moved to West Berlin in 1979 and soon discovered an experimental sound-art movement, which had localized there. He stopped painting and took up electronics.
"I felt a little bit like van Gogh," says Maubrey. "He took painting out of the gallery; he started painting in the landscape. I decided it was very important to do artwork in outdoor, public spaces, and in order to do that I developed a form of mobile sound systems: loudspeakers that people could wear inside their clothes and essentially, if you want to put it in rough language, to make a nuisance of yourself in public spaces."
While his early works nearly got Maubrey arrested, these days permits for festivals (where most of his art appears) have kept him on the public's good side. In fact, during rehearsals for works such as Audio Ballerinas, curious onlookers are more of a problem.
Maubrey cites such interruptions as he explains that although his works are quite different, the response is almost always positive.
"The point about art is that you want to change people's perspectives ... and you want people to be happier in their lives," he says. "Maybe I'm a little like a magician."
It takes more than waving a wand to work the logistics of his art, so Maubrey created Die Audio Gruppe (The Audio Group) in 1985. The group is a collective of about 30 people, including dancers and technicians, who gather on occasion to assemble the acoustic clothing.
While electronic technology has continued to shrink and become more streamlined and clean in appearance, Maubrey's equipment remains visually conspicuous. The tones he creates are often incredibly loud, and require appropriate stereo systems. (He uses car speakers, for one.) Yet Maubrey says that new technology — what he calls a "modern clay" — makes wiring his art cheaper and the components easier to find.
Currently the artist and his team are working on a series of performances called Audio Peacocks. His performers wear striking white fans around their waists, which are tilted up like large cups and often have videos projected on them.
While traveling, Maubrey has worked with students and artists around the world on new projects. In Japan, he helped create the Audio Geishas, a series of flashy, screaming kimonos. Other endeavors have led to dramatic, almost theatrical performances.
In coming to the Springs, Maubrey is most excited to work with CC students in a "Dance and Digital Technology" class. He has no idea what they will create together, yet he sees his performance and the presentation he will give on his works as a demonstration, or jumping-off point.
CC's interdisciplinary curriculum could have no better guest instructor: Maubrey's work incorporates sonic explorations with dance, fashion and performance art. He insists that the clothing (while quite sculptural in itself) works as "a tool" for the ultimate goal of sculpting sound.
Adds Larsen, "This is thinking about sound the way, in art, you think about shape or form."
Above all, Maubrey seeks to expand upon the most common settings, public spaces around town, which in Europe are inherently more romantic and numerous than in the U.S. Yet the idea stays the same: Maubrey wants to change our perception of the landscape.
"You have to think of it," he says, "as an apparition that's happening in front of you when you're walking along the sidewalk."