Ken Butler: The Voice of Anxious Objects

A fantastic and colorful collection of menacing dinosaurs, mythological beasts, and predatory aliens marches exuberantly across the wall of Ken Butler’s studio. The high-tech appearance of these Zoids (snap-together Japanese toy kits) belies their ingenious low-tech assembly and simple mechanisms. Assembled over a 10-year period, these cubistic, obsessive constructions serve as an appropriate introduction to the extraordinary multi-media productions of the wildly inventive and hyper-energetic Butler.

Urban Grand Piano, 1998. Mixed media, interactive audio-visual piano.

Butler often uses the prefix “hyper” to describe thematic aspects of his work—as in hyper-utility (“the desire for objects and images to work together in varying ways”). He brilliantly combines urban debris, found objects, electrical components, an eclectic variety of conventional and musical hardware (compulsively organized and stored) with found and created images, sounds, and rehearsed and improvised performances by himself, collaborating musicians, and the audience. He categorizes five spheres of activity that function separately or intertwine. These include hybrid instruments (hybrid is Butler’s word for his combination of “unique playable instruments and collage”); performance on the hybrid instruments; collage on paper; sculpture that references music but is non-playable; and interactive installations/performances, which may include all of the above in combination with a variety of audio/ visual equipment.

Little in Butler’s middle-class upbringing in Portland, Oregon, presaged his hyper-existence in gritty Williamsburg, New York. He did study viola as a child and maintained his interest in music while studying art in college (MFA, Portland State University). But it wasn’t until he created his first hybrid instrument in 1978 by “adding a fingerboard, tailpiece, pegs, bridge, and contact microphone to a small hatchet” that he discovered his sought-after “fusion of art forms and conceptual framework.” Butler has since created 300 instruments ranging from a tiny toothbrush guitar to his Urban Grand Piano. During construction, Butler’s primary focus is visual, “it must look right,” and he emphasizes the ergonomic relationship between his instruments and the body. All of the instruments are playable to some extent, but a small group of 20 is used in performances on a regular basis, including the original, Axe-Violin. The sound produced by Butler’s instruments is “an accidental by-product of the formal relationships” between the myriad objects that he uses and the necessary head/neck/body proportion of a stringed instrument. And myriad the objects are: worn-out brooms; discarded hockey sticks; sexy high heels; ratty umbrellas; silent guns; rotary telephones; rat-tail combs; deconstructed guitar bodies; simple claw hammers; and a few “exotic” objects, such as a chessboard with the chessmen attached and a beautifully aged wooden sled. The sound is, in some cases, what one might expect—abrasive and street smart—but more often, it is seductive and romantic as in his composition Sweeping the Moor, performed on a broom cello.

Hammer Violin, 1991. Hammer, tuning pegs, violin strings, and contact microphone,
18 x 6 x 2 in.

Butler’s career blossomed in 1988 when he moved to New York. By that time, he had synthesized a vast array of visual and musical influences including Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, collage and assemblage techniques, 16mm filmmaking, photography, synchronized projection, animation, jazz, rock and roll, world music, and Cage’s music of chance. Since then he has regularly exhibited, performed, and created multi-media environments at venues that include the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has received grants from NYFA and the NEA. In 1995, he assembled a 4,000-square-foot environment at Thread Waxing Space, a cutting-edge art and performance gallery in SoHo. He characterizes this interactive installation, Object Opera, as the culmination of his entire career up to that time. “The piece incorporated numerous hybrid instruments which were activated by small fan motors with ‘weed-eater’ fishline strummers or auto-strum devices made from LPs rimmed with guitar picks (with specific rhythm patterns) powered by gear motors, along with hundreds of other sound, light, and motion devices.” Visiting Object Opera, I was astounded by the complexity of Butler’s vision; it was like being inside a musical kaleidoscope. The constantly changing pattern of sound, movement, and light was mesmerizing. I couldn’t resist taking my turn at manipulating the installation through the keyboard controller. Butler enjoys and solicits this type of collaboration with his audience; it is one of the most notable aspects of his work.

Object Opera, 1995. Mixed media, interactive audio-visual installation at the Thread Waxing Space, New York.

To increase audience participation, Butler created Urban Grand Piano (1998), which incorporated the technology from Object Opera into one compact unit. In his studio I made another attempt, this time on Urban Grand Piano, at becoming a Butler crew member, hoping to invoke the rich magic of urban life that is so vital to his performances. I began by striking keys which flashed images on the piano’s screen, sounds erupted, and suddenly I felt foolish. As Butler quelled those fears, I remembered a label from the Morgan Library show “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur”: “Music was believed to possess sacred and protective qualities and was performed at dangerous and ominous times.” This confluence of music and violence (note the similarity in “viola” and “violence”) is of great interest to Butler.

Accumulation of Futures: A Reliquary of Braque and Roll, 2000. Mixed-media assemblage, 96 x 45 x 9 in.

Never content to take a breather, Butler recently had a solo exhibition of sculpture, “Lost and Sound,” at Florence Lynch Gallery. The eight sculptures function like altars—Butler calls them “reliquaries”—and, as such, they are more to be contemplated than activated. Each one has a separate “altar screen” that provides a background for an assemblage of hardware, objects, and debris incorporated into the chair body on which it rests. Butler describes the construction of these pieces as a cleansing—a repository of past projects and remnants of his trash storehouse (everything that remained after the construction was discarded). More importantly, Butler has, in these sculptures, brought forth an issue of importance, one that contemporary artists readily acknowledge: the radical redefinition of art- and music-making through technology. The “black box” has removed the body, the physicality from art. Butler makes no judgment; he is curious and cautious, allowing the sculpture to open a dialogue with the viewer. Accumulation of Futures: A Reliquary of Braque and Roll presents the case. Deconstructed bodies of numerous guitars weigh down the spindly legs that support them, yet soar toward the sky with an exuberance and lightness of spirit. Butler presents an age-old dilemma—the weight of the past versus the provocative, mysterious future. It is Butler at his best—funny, optimistic, eloquent, obsessive, intelligent, wacky, and very, very relevant.

Judith Page is an artist and writer living in New York.