It was only a matter of time before Serj Tankian revolutionized the art world.
He’s changing the way art is viewed with his Disarming Time exhibition in Hollywood. Featuring paintings by the singer, poet, activist, and artist, the gallery requires visitors to download the Eye for Sound app, point it at the respective pieces, and listen along to music Tankian composed. It’s a groundbreaking experiencing merging visuals and audio like never before. It opens to the public at PROJECT Gallery in Hollywood from November 15-21 from 12pm-6pm.
In order to find out the best way to experience Disarming Time, ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino sat down for an exclusive interview with Serj Tankian about the gallery showing, Eye for Sound, and so much more. He also reflects on a System of a Down favorite…
How would you describe the concept of what you’re doing?
Well, there are many ways of describing it. You could call it, “art plus music plus tech equals experience”. You could call it, “a multi-sensory experience”. There are many ways of explaining it. For me, it’s great that the development of the “Eye for Sound” app gave us the ability to breach that divide between physical art and music so people can be in communion with them simultaneously.
It’s very active for the creator and the viewer.
Yeah! What we’re looking for today are experiences. It’s no longer just commercial purchases. Those are so available on Amazon and other web sites that you can pretty much order anything in the world. It’s the same with service. What we need now are experiences to move us. Whether it’s a beautiful theatrical experience, an art experience, or a combination thereof, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re trying to create that kind of experience. Experience requires participation. It’s not just sitting on your ass, hitting YouTube, and watching a video of a piece of art with music running on it. The experience is you going out and basically taking your phone with you. It’s something you probably have in your pocket all the time. You’re able to have a painting recognize your phone somehow or vice versa and you’re able to hear music on your phone in relation to that painting and see other content, etc. That’s a unique thing. The experience of art and music has been done before originally by Kandinsky with Schoenberg’s compositions. He called it “Synesthesia”. We’re taking it to the next level in a way with technology and having one artist do it all through the music as well as the paintings.
How do the paintings correspond to music? What’s the correlation? Obviously, there’s a connection for you as the creator?
I write the music first. So, everything stems from the music, which is why this is such a natural departure for me in some ways. It’s not a reach because it starts with the music. Each piece I wrote musically I wanted to see visually. I wanted to create it myself. I didn’t want to hire an amazing director friend to make a video or anything. I wanted to create the vision of that personally. Part of it was sketching out the notes. We use clocks for example on a lot of the Disarming Time musical paintings exhibition. The clock faces denote where the notes are supposed to be on the score on the canvas. Part of it is a visual interpretation of the score of the music. Then, the rest is painting and throwing in a lot of interesting things.
If you’re in a minor key, would it change the tones? Is there theory to it or is it gut emotion?
It’s all correlated emotionally. If you look at a space clock, it sort of looks like a giant planet in the middle of space using a clock. It’s very sci-fi music and low hum accordingly. If you look at a brighter colored painting, it’s got jazz. There’s one called “Jazz It Up”. The music is jazz because there are bright colors and that kind of a vibe. There are large paintings that have a lot of dense composition, and those are beautiful piano or string pieces. It all correlates. It’s like how a composer would score a film. You wouldn’t have a part where someone is getting killed and have music that doesn’t go with it. It’s the same thing. I’ve basically reverse-scored my paintings.
What’s the best way to see it all at the exhibit?
That’s a very good question. I think understanding the concept requires that type of participation. The first thing you have to do is download the “Eye for Sound” app. It’s available for the iPhone (iTunes link) as well as Android (Google Play link). Once you download that free app, you have it on your smart device. I’d recommend bringing your own headphones or in-ears to the exhibit as well. A lot of people carry their little iTunes headphones or whatever they feel comfortable with. Otherwise, we’ll provide headphones for the experience. If you bring your own, it will be easier as you won’t have to wait for headphones. Once that’s done, they walk in, and the rest easy. You load the application on your phone and point it at the first painting. The phone will recognize that painting and bring up music you can play correlated to the painting as well as information about the painting and information about the artist, me in this case. If it’s available for sale, there will be a “buy” button. You can purchase directly from our web site if you don’t want to buy it there at the exhibition hall. There are many other things we’re building into direct access with the web site. It’s an experience someone alone with their smartphone and headphones can walk around and experience these paintings without anyone else helping them out or explaining it at that point. It’s almost like a museum where they give out headphones with little recording devices with numbers but this uses optical recognition technology.
Most galleries would frown upon everyone using their phones, but it’s encouraged here…
[Laughs] It’s totally encouraged! We want people to be on their phones in the gallery. We’re in a different age. It’s hard for young people to walk in and have a museum or gallery experience without taking out their phone at least a few times, whether it’s checking messages, sending a text, or taking a picture. We’re encouraging them to be on their phones. We’re encouraging something that’s natural for young people in the gallery setting. Having it mobile on their own phones makes for a bigger experience. It’s really unique. No one has really done it in this way. The technology has been used for many things, but no one has put music into to correlate with the paintings. Certain museums have used the optical recognition technology, but they’ve only used it for information about the artists and paintings which we have as well. No one has used it to have music popping up that correlates.
As an artist, you want your art to be viewed as more than an inanimate piece on the wall.
True! I figured the more senses we can communicate with as an artist simultaneously, the more powerful the experience will be. Right now, it’s only audio and visual. In the future, maybe we can design something that has more tentacles in terms of the physical senses.
When did this idea first strike you?
The first time I experimented with doing anything with the idea of clocks and timelessness was actually in 2005 when we were recording Mezmerize and Hypnotize. I had gotten a bunch of these interesting giant clocks from thrift stores, broken the arms, written poetry on them, and given them to the guys and Rick Rubin as gifts. We used some of those themes within the artwork for Mezmerize and Hypnotize—clocks without arms and clocks with the arms somewhere else. We were using the symbolism of clock faces for timelessness. I have a lot of artist and painter friends. I see them creating these tangible amazing pieces. In the music world, we grapple with the ever-evolving devaluation of our industry in certain ways. It’s not just under commercialization and whatnot but people just aren’t valuing music for what it should be—a piece of creative magic that can move people and co-inspire between artists and listeners. I was like, “How can I make my music physical? How can I create a unique experience someone can’t just download from a Torrent web site? How can I make this a very unique experience?” Thinking of that started evolving with the paintings and the music, the bridge between them was the tough part. How do we bridge these? Do we use speakers? Do we use MP3 players? How do we do this? We came up with what I think is the best and most modern way to be able to exclusively experience a painting musically using the app.
What did you like about PROJECT Gallery?
There are number of things. When I first went to visit it, I realized it’s right down the street from Amoeba Music, which is where I used to always go shopping for records. It’s right down the street from one of my favorite Thai restaurants. It’s a central place in Hollywood. You’re going to love this. I walked into this gallery, I turned around, and I was like, “I feel like I’ve walked by hear many times. I know this area really well!” I looked down the street, and I thought, “Fuck, right across the street is where we mixed our first System of a Down record!” It’s a green building, and it’s literally right across the street. I thought, “This is really special. This is something very interesting. I’m starting something new right across the street from where I started something new 16 or 17 years ago with music. There are a lot of young people. There’s a lot of foot traffic and interest. It felt really great to be there. It felt like the right place.
Do you want to take this out on the road?
I see this in two different ways. One, as an artist, I want to continue doing my musical paintings and taking them to different countries and galleries. I’m doing a lot more art, making more pieces, and letting other people see them in New York, London, Paris, wherever all around the world. I’d love that. That’d be an amazing experience. What I’m also doing, I’m the guinea pig. We want to use the same technology, branding, and app—”Eye for Sound”—to do this with other artists who can paint and do music. Or other artists who just paint and we can correlate a musician who can do the music. We want to use the same app and experience to do exhibitions with multiple artists. It’d be a really cool musical journey for people to walk in and experience these pieces with music with many different artists. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with “Eye for Sound”. It adds a layer of multimedia perspective in a very easy and usable way. It’s not a lot of gear and hardware. We want to take this into museums as well. It’s beyond a normal gallery experience. It’s participatory.
What have you been working on musically?
I just got back from Europe a week-and-a-half ago. I was on tour for over two months. One tour was with System of a Down doing a bunch of the festivals. The second tour was with orchestra doing Orca and Elect the Dead symphony every night. I played about 29 shows in total and got back. I haven’t really had time to do anything new over the last two or three months accordingly, just this.
What have you been listening to?
I just listened to the Man of Steel soundtrack by Hans Zimmer yesterday. I thought it was pretty cool. I’ve listened to a couple of the new Eminem tracks. They were really cool. It’s attitude. Eminem is anything but typical. I want to the Silverlake Music Conservatory benefit event that Flea and Anthony Kiedis hold everywhere. Red Hot Chili Peppers played and Neil Young played acoustically. It was beautiful. It was outside at some person’s home they had rented or taken over. It was just gorgeous. That was really impressive.
Was the Hollywood Bowl show special for System of a Down?
It was! It was an amazing show. Being in Los Angeles after all those years and never having played the Hollywood Bowl, it was a big deal for us. We were quite taken aback by how fast the show sold out and how excited people were about it. We had a great time. The vibe was there. As a professional musician, you get up there and do it every night. Some nights are just magical because they are. There’s no other reason for it. Other nights aren’t necessarily magical, but you’re playing your songs well and you’re enjoying it. That was one of those magical nights. It was one of those nights. It could’ve been anywhere, but it was definitely magical. There was some real strong positive emotion going on in the air.
Steal This Album! is the most underrated System of a Down album.
I agree. It’s actually my favorite System record because of the diversity if nothing else. It’s a shame we haven’t really played a lot of those songs on that record. I’ve always wanted to do a Steal This Album! beginning-to-end show. One day, I’ll convince the guys to do it [Laughs]. It embodies the diversity and spirit of this band.
—Rick Florino 11.06.13
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