As High Zero fights to tear down cultural walls, xenophobia and paranoia build them stronger
Published: September 15, 2010
Visit highzero.org for more details.
It’s apparently fairly complicated to call a cell phone in Mexico City. Usually when conducting telephone interviews with residents of foreign countries, this reporter uses a prepaid calling card because it’s easy and fairly cheap. But for some reason a card purchased for calling Mexico wouldn’t connect with the interviewee’s cellular provider network. Calling from the personal cell phone wasn’t going through, and Telmex Internacional wouldn’t let the call be charged to a credit card. So when the call finally connected it sounded a bit like memories of calls to Mexico as a kid: You can sorta hear your own voice echoing on the line, there’s a significant pause between finishing a sentence and the person on the other end sounding like what you said had arrived, and even with the handset volume turned all the way up the call still sounds faint. Add to such a delicate connection an interviewer—despite being the grandson of people from Mexico—being an atrocious Spanish speaker and the interviewee having a much better understanding of English, although perhaps not being able to understand too well a man who talks inexcusably fast, and a 20-minute phone interview is more like an exercise in trying to make basic connections.
Fortunately, Juanjosé Rivas—a sound and visual artist based in Mexico City and one of six performers coming to High Zero 2010 from another country (28 artists total are performing, from Baltimore and beyond)—is a consummate and patient gentleman, putting up with awful Spanish and obscenely speedy English. He reports that he came to improvisation, circuit bending, and experimental music from his background studying mixed-media visual arts at La Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. On his web site (juanjoserivas.info), MySpace page (myspace.com/juanjoserivas), and Vimeo channel (vimeo.com/juanjoserivas/videos) audiences can hear and see samples of his work, which showcase a sound artist adept at creating texturally complex soundscapes that wittily use an assortment of samples and hacked/fabricated sound devices to create audio environments.
He’s the first Mexican artist invited to High Zero, and City Paper wanted to talk to him because, well, we know nothing about him or experimental music in Mexico City. “There’s an active community of musicians in Mexico City, not only musicians—visual artists, composers—doing experimental music and sound art,” he says, and goes on to talk about an experimental music festival in Mexico where performers have included Tony Conrad, Boredoms, Anthony Braxton, and Elliott Sharp. “I think in Mexico there is a large community of people interested in experimental music,” he says.
But we wouldn’t necessarily know about it up here. With perceived access to the international world at your fingertips if you know where to look via the internet, it’s easy to assume that data flows freely and often from every corner of the globe. News briefs certainly get pushed into your field of vision on anything that has a video screen of any sort, and thanks to Facebook and Twitter making the 140-character missives a lingua franca for social interaction, it’s easy to fool yourself that you live in a world in which information knows no bounds.
But just as it was surprisingly difficult to call a cell phone in a country that shares our southern border, even in the globally connected world pockets of activity remain unknown. And in the already small—but constantly getting bigger—world of experimental music, new faces and scenes are important to moving forward, moving in unseen directions, or making something totally new. Fresh interactions throw a monkey wrench into familiar ideas, and High Zero has always welcomed that push.
“This year we have some pretty far-flung and obscure guests,” Tom Boram, a Red Room member and one of HZ’s many co-organizers, says by phone. “And that’s something that’s interesting to us as a collective, having people that aren’t necessarily art stars, but they’re from far away or they’re from a really small scene, or there’s something really odd about their playing or their aesthetic.
“And Mexico’s interesting, because I’ve been to Mexico City a couple of times and it’s blown my mind,” he continues. “But as far as the people that I know on the East Coast in experimental music, they’re not asking what’s going on down there. And it’s preposterous, because it’s way closer than Europe and actually has a huge scene. But there’s really no communication between the Northeast and Mexico City, which is kind of embarrassing.”
Inviting people from other cities was part of HZ’s organizing idea, and very early on the festival invited people from other countries and cultures. At first these invitations were extended to people from places where various Red Roomers had established connections—such as Montreal or Germany—but soon that process began to include artists from Japan, all over Western Europe, Australia, Lebanon, and Argentina; this year’s festival includes Hans Koch from Switzerland, Andrea Neumann from Germany, Tuna Pase from Istanbul, Tomoko Sauvage from Paris, Gary Smith from the United Kingdom, and Rivas from Mexico.
And while what maybe drives this sonic potpourri is a desire to hear and experience new audio states of mind, the result is as cultural as it is musical. Artists trading ideas and visiting Baltimore, speaking entirely personally, sounds like nothing but a positive experience. It’s part of the significant cultural work that the festival does, creating a situation where you can not only experience something you perhaps have never heard before, but that’s created by somebody whose culture you might not know very well. Free improvisation may have, as a whole, steered from the outright political components that marked it in the 1960s and ’70s, but you’d be hard-pressed to find contemporary artists more interested in pursuing relationships across all sorts of cultural, political, and religious barriers than these musicians. Confronting and embracing the unknown is part of the art.
Of course, High Zero started in 1999, meaning it has grown during one of the most xenophobic eras in modern U.S. history—it has been trying to expand its scope and reach during a time when visiting the States from someplace else isn’t always that simple. And, really now, can you think of anything less culturally or economically threatening than an experimental musician? “We’ve had musicians pulled aside and actually put in rooms and questioned by customs when they reached the States,” Boram says. “We’ve had people come under scrutiny but they were never turned away.”
Until this year. A phone call from John Berndt, another HZ co-organizer, as this article was well into production confirmed that one of High Zero 2010’s musicians was denied an entry visa, a first for HZ. But Boram worries that such difficulties are a portent of changes to come. “I think it’s become more Orwellian maybe because terrorism is a lot more [prevalent] in the West than it used to be,” he says. “And I think that the Western world, all the conservative, racist, fearful ideas that have always been in the West have just kind of come to flower because they’re supported more” by populations who have been scared into believing they need more protection.
He recalls attending a concert of Persian musicians at New York’s Town Hall in 2003, the year we invaded Iraq, where two out of the three visiting Iranian musicians were turned away at the airport, and the organizing institution had to come out and inform the audience what happened. “It was devastating,” Boram says. “Because you’re already on edge about the politics going on anyway, and then all of a sudden we can’t even develop our culture because of all this paranoid bullshit? That’s really incredibly shortsighted. It’s chopping the feet off of things that are completely harmless and, in fact, are really helpful to the culture.
“I hope that this doesn’t start interfering with High Zero but I’m not really sure,” he continues. “I mean, in a lot of ways Tehran is pretty cosmopolitan. It’s only a matter of time before we start hearing about some pretty compelling music stuff coming out of there. And we’re going to want to start a relationship with them. Is that going to be possible?”
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