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Anxious Objects – Sarah Werkmeister

Swingingly caustically between the man made everyday and a primal urge to create a language using what’s at hand, Sky Needle’s improvisational explorations set the stage for a tactile contact with music making. Armed with a resourceful eye and a slight interest in engineering, Alex Cuffe, Joel Stern, and Ross Manning collaborate for this project, creating objects that are then transformed into beautiful machines. These machines, they almost play themselves; constructions that almost mimic musical architecture. Only, they’re a little more slap-bang makeshift, and the consideration of acoustics isn’t taken into account!

The music, well, let’s talk about the music. It’s stalking, eerie, the night stumblings of a pot addict; a literal time hammer bearing down the weight of its metronomic corrosive mechanism onto a skull that’s ready to step into flight mode. Oh, and the sweet meandering sounds of what could be a kids’ learners trumpet, but in fact… could be that tacky orange PVC piping? As Sky Needle say, “we are a couple of steps up from banging rocks together in a cave and a couple of steps down from modern music”. You can hear in there, the influences of the repetitive abrasion of late 80’s New York post punk/no wave, but it’s got more rhythm and more soul. Perhaps somewhere between post punk and free jazz. Hell, why not throw in a bit of African Folk, outsider noise and distortionist gregorianism? The one-liner describing their sound: Uncle Fester discovers alchemy.

Engaging with the ideologies of punk rock, DIY, and pirate music making, their influences are wide and varied. Alex Cuffe I remembers being a kid and playing with rubber bands, making musical instruments out of nothing to amuse myself for hours”. These kids probably had OCD. Let’s just say that they’re no strangers to making arranged noise from nothing; all three share similar predispositions to the art of DIY music. Joel Stern, known for his performances under the moniker Abject Leader, and Ross Manning (using analogue technologies and everyday objects to create kinetic visual wonderlands), and artist Alex Cuffe are well versed in the aesthetics of instrumentation. They have been heavily involved in bands and music/art/film around Brisbane for quite some time.

There is a rich history in Western Art of the appropriation of sound. Luigi Russolo, considered one of the first noise composers, wrote the manifesto The Art of Noises in 1913, where the Futurist proclaimed that noise (which came into being as a by-product of Industrialization) can create musical forms, and the boredom of conventional Orchestra was out the proverbial window. In lieu, machines were responsible for making the music that could then be arranged into songs. In 1948, Pierre Schaffer pioneered the concept of “found sounds” or musique concrete.

Elaborating on these ideologies, Sky Needle find their sounds, create an orchestra within one instrument, and collaboratively compose fluid songs on instruments made of the lost and found. Stern, on the potentials of these objects, comments “mastering instruments of your own design of limited and limitless potential – this sits at an obtuse angle to conventional notions of musicianship”. Modernist utopias? They’re dead. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use their ambitions to make a new world, right? The appeal is in the challenge.

Cuffe muses on the conceptual backbone of Sky Needle: “There’s something about building instruments. Not many people do it for some reason, especially in Brisbane… but if you think about it, it’s been happening since the birth of human kind. There’s something primal about the idea and I guess that’s one of the key points about the band. We reject the conventions of pre-made, high quality, diverse sounding and generic instruments and explore our own crummy ability to make shit (when of course you compare it to the finer art of instrument building)”.

These ideologies have continued throughout history, where (in the rock realm) you see bands brandishing home made custom aluminum neck guitars, the other Nick Cave making sound suits and performing them, or, in the case of Indonesian/Australian band Punkasila, constructions of AK-47 guitars in a punk rock band. Sky Needle, they’re a slice of humble pie. This doesn’t make the music any less powerful, but it does make it less pretentious. And you know what they say; the only way to break down your audience is to offer yourself up, no holds barred. To detourne the seriousness of the situation. Under the cobble stones, a beach, right?

The appropriation and montage of the materials is a necessity. Sky Needle work just outside the framework of late consumer capitalism, on the fringes of the metaphoric industrial wastelands of Brisbane. Stern reminds us of Umberto Eco, who dreamt of “groups of communications guerillas who could restore a critical dimension to passive reception”. Sky Needle try to embody this.

Sky Needle have a knack for turning the profane into the sacred. To make their instruments, they use materials found in op shops, around the house, in trash cans, bits and bobs scavenged from dumpsters at midnight. Ross Manning utilizes a dust shovel and rubber bands, and at times a home-made metal zither like instrument. Alex Cuffe, a constructed wooden box with bass strings, wooden neck, and contact mics attached. Joel Stern, PVC piping, latex, and foot pumps for air mattresses (“I bought the last two in the Stradbroke Island general store. Someone must’ve slept rough that night as a result”). Their repertoire of instruments is interchangeable as new objects are continually bought into the fold; Manning goes as far as to say that the instruments are disposable. It’s almost a homage to Arte Povera artists, who created works that were made from materials that were both ancient and modern, man made and organic. These works were intended as experiential, and not only implicated the viewer, but begged the question “what is experience and meaning?”. Acconci went on to state that “all experience is aesthetically provocative”, and Sky Needle, by implementing the everyday, make this concrete.

There has always been a sort of desperation within communities of artists and musicians in Brisbane. Staging events in abandoned buildings, car parks, squares, and houses; even graveyards, these artists/musicians risk their instruments, their works, public liability fines and what have you. The safe haven of “underground” bars or squats isn’t often an option here. It reminds me of the Woolloongabba clairvoyant in the 80s, who charged $20 for a cup of tea (and not the reading) because it was illegal to practice Clairvoyancy. It isn’t a matter of just desublimating the state though; rather, it’s the pure and simple fact that these artists have the drive to communicate beyond their bedrooms.

Stefan’s looming sky needle, projecting sharp beams of light across the city, stands as a source of inspiration for Sky Needle. To Manning, Stern, and Cuffe, it holds a steady spot in their hearts. The mythology surrounding the Sky Needle, its phallocentrism (in relation to them being a “boy band”), its rumoured functions (as an indicator for drug shipments, an indicator for what‘s going on in Stefan’s personal life – wink wink), and the fact that it didn’t go to Tokyo after Expo 88 just proves it’s as much of a Brisbane Institution as, say, Parliament House or City Hall. Its flimsy production, the fact that it burnt down, and the fact that it was refurbished serves as a symbol of the site itself, and the context in which it was built. A watchful eye over a city constantly changing, producing the waste that Sky Needle then use to fabricate their instruments. The freedom is in the loot.

published in Independent Press

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