Charles Atlas / William Basinski
Extreme Animals: The Extreme Animals Sit Down
Posted by: John Wilmot
It was a pretty young crowd on Friday night at The Works, but then Portland is a pretty young town. So the evening’s performances, both of them visually arresting video projections set to live music, seemed especially suited to the festival and to the audience, as well as to the legendary short attention spans of “kids today.” That might suggest a predictable evening, however talented the artists may be. Luckily, the pairing of two very different performances drawing from widely divergent cultural influences made for a livelier time.

First up was video artist Charles Atlas, who mixed his projections live onstage, accompanied by composer William Basinski performing his own work. True for both the music and video, the presentation was lush and beautiful, but with palpable tension. Atlas’s video collage was, of course, the star of the show, and in many ways it was a trip down memory lane, back to the obsessions and fears of mid-twentieth century America. Perfect Hollywood starlets danced, gyrated, strutted, and twirled. Or they twisted and screamed, receding only to resurface between World War fighters jets and military helicopters on the move. Mushroom clouds and infinite space made inevitable appearances. The shadow of the Cold War was heavy.
That might have been a good thing if there had been more intellectual meat to chew on, but sadly, there wasn’t. The videos seemed to be little more than evenly spaced, steadily paced, vaguely meaningful, pretty pictures. That was all fine for a few minutes, but it got monotonous pretty quickly. The hindquarters of this intrepid blogger began to hurt. People fidgeted. Some left.
Compounding the growing impatience was a lack of cultural relevance for most of the audience. Atlas, who is in his early fifties, seems stuck at the dawn of video, when clips of old film footage were the latest thing and references to Vietnam still had a disillusioning power. But that was thirty years ago. Times are very different. The Cold War is but a quaint memory or, more importantly, not even a memory for many of those present. Until the last few minutes of the performance, there wasn’t a single identifiable cultural reference from after 1980. When, at last, Mariah Carey flashed onscreen, there were audible chuckles. It was the first and only time there was a reaction.
The contrast with the night’s second performance could not have been more dramatic. Extreme Animals were a shameless crowd pleaser. And where Atlas/Basinski was serious, mature, and professional, Extreme Animals were irreverent, casual, and seemingly makeshift. After warming up the audience with a few jokes, they went right for the media darling jugular, poking fun at Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus in rapid succession while viewing their YouTube videos “live” onstage. The references could not have been more current, nor could the medium.
Songs followed with images flashing across the projection screen at machine gun speed. Pounding beats and a blazing electric guitar were met with bright colors, cartoons, and awkwardly ironic eighties video clips, all blasting by in mere milliseconds, seemingly out of determination to engaged even the most microscopic of attention spans. Later, a hair metal inspired guitar solo squealed along with an inspirational video dedicated to, in essence, the creative process. Despite all the testosterone, the message was positive and uplifting — another stark contrast with the clichéed apocalyptic darkness of Atlas.
Bottom line, it was fun and satisfying, all the more so after the worrisome mid-century Americana from Atlas. Indeed, the contrast was what made the evening. The two performances and their performers were quite characteristic of their age and time. It was interesting to see such different results produced in essentially the same medium, and we were treated, in these two shows, to a reminder of its past and vision of its future. Kudos are due the programmers for such an inspired pairing.