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Chris Cunningham @ MOMA

Last night British director Chris Cunningham premiered a new short work, New York is Killing Me, at the Museum of Modern Art. An “audio-visual remix” of the song by Gil-Scott Heron from his new album, the piece was projected on three screens and was both darkly beautiful as well as unexpectedly simple. Far from the stutter-step hyperglitch and shocking imagery of his short Rubber Johnny and some of his Aphex Twin videos, New York is Killing Me was dreamy in both seductive and menacing ways. A close-up of Scott-Heron singing the song occupied the left side of the middle screen while the right side and the other two screens were filled with imagery mostly shot from and of the New York City subways. Trains gliding by, entering and emerging from tunnels, housing projects as seen from the elevated tracks, the Empire State Building seen in the distance through the spaces between buildings, and, of course, light — strobing from streetlights, rolling-shuttered from the train windows, decorative on the skyscrapers at night. As the piece progressed, the constant motion of the subway imagery was layered, with faster lights pulsing beneath slowed-down imagery shot from the train windows. The piece, which I’m guessing was about ten minutes long, had a trance-like quality that was accentuated by the music track itself. As Cunningham explained, he has been recording train sounds from outside his U.K. apartment for ten years, and for this piece he replaced 90% of the Scott-Heron’s musical track with these train sounds and environmental recordings, pitch-shifting and harmonizing them to create a “musique concrete” version of the original composition.

The brief presentation included a pre-screening Q&A, in which Cunningham, who came off as modest and sincere, was asked pro forma questions by MoMA Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art Barbara London. He spoke of early musical influences (Kraftwerk, Tomita, Vangelis, particularly the Greek composer’s Beaubourg album and the soundtrack to Blade Runner); film influences (Blade Runner, Alien, and, later via Harmony Korine, Cassavetes’ Faces), and his move into his own composition. Cunningham said that because some of his music videos and new multi-media work required such specific synchronicities between image and sound that he’d sometimes music edit the other artists’ works himself. Working with Aphex Twin pieces he said he’d re-edit the pieces and sometimes even use bits from other tracks. Realizing that he “didn’t want to spend the next ten years being dependent on others [for music],” Cunningham said he’s been learning composition and is now creating his own music.

This MoMA Pop Rally event was something of a teaser of Cunningham’s new direction, which he’s been presenting in hour-long programs titled Chris Cunningham Live at various European festivals. I hope an enterprising promoter or institution can bring Cunningham back to New York with a larger program.

The single channel version of Cunningham’s New York is Killing Me is embedded below.

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