"Paul DeMarinis" S.F. Art Institute exhibition brochure 1993
by Ron Kuivila
PAUL DEMARINIS blurs music, sculpture, and engineering in a technocultural patois that moves from CMOS (1) to hijk(?jh) as readily as an Acadian advises "Worry pas ton brain pour ‡a" (2). While his work has a definite relation to the opposing "gee whiz" and "daddy don't" schools of technological celebration and social critique, it stands apart from either. GW and DD are both forms of portraiture where the subject (as abstract as surveillance or as literal as a chaos equation) stands at a distance and the artist goes to work. DeMarinis, on the other hand, systematically confounds the boundary between artistic and instrumental reasoning. This project is anticipated in "Primal Sound", written by Rainer Maria Rilke in 1918. In that essay, Rilke defines 'experience' as involving the free interplay of all of the senses. He observes that, since the 'instruments of research' (by which he means the telescope or microscope) only expand the capabilities of one sense (the visual), they cannot be said to extend experience. Rilke then imagines a poetic technological practice that will draw experience from these instruments. In particular, he proposes to transduce the irregular groove at the top of the skull with a phonograph needle.
The creative misuse he proposes involves an awareness of both the mechanical logic of a phonograph and the internal structure of a skull. It sutures together unconnected spheres of knowledge and, for precisely that reason, generates experience. This conceptual suture has been at the heart of DeMarinis' creative project since his very earliest work.
Although Rilke repeatedly fantasizes about the aural output of this thought experiment, he is not primarily concerned with its implementation. DeMarinis, on the other hand, is an artist, not an essayist. The mystery and perversity of physical realizations are as important to him as the conceptual suture they may enact. This can be recognized in the collection of phonographic assemblages that comprise The Edison Effect. While they bear a striking resemblance to Rilke's head phone, they do not share in its romantic idealism.
Machines tend towards the banal. The mysteries of flight have long since been replaced by the mild discomfort of crowding, dehydration, and inadequately filtered air. Loving/dying: the unrequited quark addresses this with sly wit. Rilke's skull is replaced by a cylinder recording of the apotheosis of romanticism, the Liebestod. The recording is played by a laser, not a phonograph needle. The laser is advanced across the surface of the disk by the pulses of a geiger counter, moving in lock step with radioactive decay. To hear the lovely Liebestod, one must risk the mild toxicity of a lump of radioactive ore.
This combination of pataphysical mechanics and deadly love bring to mind the host of bachelor machines that have littered the stage with their cracked glass and sharpened pendulums. However, this machine refuses both the empty glamour of spectacle and the simple-minded certainty of negation, the depressingly familiar stances of most latter-day bachelor machinists. It is as if some empathetic alien logic has designed this machine in a sincere attempt to understand.
This unsentimental acknowledgement of sentiment is a both striking and subtle characteristic of DeMarinis' work. Consider his hologram of a 78 rpm disc. The hologram, a visual simulation, provides an exact copy of the 78, an aural simulation. In fact the copy is so exact that it can be played back. The hologram passes for the original in its appointed task: simulation. But the piece is not simply a post-modern conundrum. Its design reveals an understanding and an involvement with what can be described as a non-retinal play of light and surface. This physicality once-removed does not try to create the surreal; it attempts to dislodge the hyperreal.
The image of an alien logic can be found in DeMarinis' work from the beginning. It can be heard in the perfect repetition, endless variation, and unceasing flow of the Pygmy Gamelan. This, the first of his pieces to take the form of single circuit board, is housed in plexiglass. The sound of the circuit is produced by a small collection of filters that act as a 'solid state gamelan'. (So, the title explains something about the piece while commenting ironically on the flattening of difference so often a part of technological thinking.)
The gamelan is played by a circuit that translates the overall electromagnetic activity in the environment into a series of pulses. These pulses 'ring' the small collection of carefully tuned twin-T filters that constitute the gamelan. The pulses are also repeated and varied with a logic circuit that, in "Blue" Gene Tyranny's wonderful phrase, 'generates the feeling of meaning'.
One is initially drawn in by the softness and beauty of the sounds it produces. One is then held by the variations it produces, the constant, but unstable, blending of predictability and unpredictability. Finally, it becomes clear that it will never stop. At that moment, staring at the little green printed circuit board, what had been simply charming becomes implacable.
This, the implacable quality of electronic processes, is at the heart of a composition from the same period. In Great Masters of Melody, a circuit ceaselessly 'invents' melodies that the performer must anticipate and double. In one sense this piece is a mini-Metropolis, a dystopia where the human performer cannot possibly live up to the inhuman fecundity of the machine. But 'failure' in this situation is not failure at all, it is merely an attribute of the performance process. The real musical issue the piece explores is the possibility of a music where there is no memory, only a relentless forward trajectory.
In current work, DeMarinis has focussed on speech synthesis, the discovery of melodic patterns in spoken language, and the physical nature of recording media. All of these preoccupations reflect his most basic interests. The extraction of melody from speech enacts, in a purely audible way, the kind of short circuiting of separated spheres of knowledge presented materially in the CD hologram. The low fidelity and antiquated appearance of a wax cylinder forces upon our attention that etched upon its surface are voices of the dead. As is, perhaps, the voice that is not a voice of synthetic speech that intones the history of the slaughter house.
1 Pronounced 'sea moss', this family of components based on complementary metal oxide semiconductors was crucial to the small size and battery powered operation of many of DeMarinis' early circuit pieces.
2 "Don't worry about it," in the distinctive north Cajun blend of French and English.