This August (2006), I was asked to contribute to Shada/Jahn’s talented artistic endeavor involving 20 international students from around the globe at the International Symposium for Electronic Arts (ISEA) and the Zero One festival (San Jose, California). ISEA is an international, non-profit organization whose aim is to foster “interdisciplinary academic discourse and exchange among culturally diverse organizations and individuals working with art, science and emerging technologies”. Working with the students from all over the globe was a wonderful experience but we were one of many art projects being presented. So, on an afternoon off, I went back to the dorm room where we were all staying and, rather than take a nap, I decided to check out the festival.
I began by heading down to the Tech museum to try to take part in a game involving large red balloons. I missed the launching of the balloons but saw what they looked like, which was exactly like large red balloons. People were inside the museum playing some sort of interactive, competitive game involving the balloons.
Checking the schedule, I was excited to see the release of homing pigeons as part Beatrice da Costas's highly hyped Pigeon Blog project. The pigeons were equipped with sensors that would relay environmental air pollution information which would be presented in the form of an internet blog. I expected a flock of pigeons to emerge from the clock tower and block the sun sending people screaming for safety, but only about five pigeons were released and flew away (I heard that animal rights activists were protesting the inhumane treatment of the pigeons). An exciting idea but a disappointing launch; still, the website and its design are fascinating to check out.
After, I headed down to City Hall where I was awaiting the arrival of the mobile karaoke/ice cream truck. With some time to kill, I was able to check out Babylove(http://babylove.biz/), inside the City Hall Rotunda. Presented by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Babylove consisted of six over sized teacups, similar to the teacup ride from Disneyland. Each cup already had a "passenger" on board who you could sit with consisting of a giant molded plastic “baby clone".
People could upload love songs to be played while you careened into other museum patrons attempting to spin the teacups around the main floor. When crashing into other teacups, a data screen would record the time of the interaction and the music would be altered. This was an exciting interactive event that will repeat at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City in November.
Soon after, Karaoke Ice arrived. Driven by a man in a large chipmunk outfit, this ice cream truck jumped the curb and began to hand out free icees to anyone who approached. I was the first to be chosen to perform karaoke and had to sing the Ramones, I Wanna Be Sedated. I think I sang well and didn’t make a total fool of myself. Everyone participated, whether given an icee or asked to sing karaoke - sea of smiles encircled the karaoke van.
Then I went back into the Rotunda to see what would win the Emerging Artist Award entitled ACCLAIR. I placed a virtual reality helmet on my head, covered my ears and eyes, and was subjected to images and sounds while my brainwaves were analyzed. While not as fun as Babylove or Karaoke Ice, I did gain amnesty points against a variety of illegal activities I would perform in the future. I inched myself into a seat located near the front of where the opening ceremonies were to take place and found myself sitting next to the Mayor of San Jose (who might be facing jail time!) as well as presidential types from Microsoft and Adobe. With the sounds of Taiko drummers pounding away, Akira Hasegawa’s Digital-Kakejiku spit steam out from empty flag poles while massive projections covered the Rotunda and played tricks through the mist. Overall, it was an impressive sight and an impressive festival performance.
My festival experience concluded in my heart weeks later when I read that the fountain in Cesar Chavez Plaza, recently promoted on the cover of the San Jose Official Visitors guide and where people would play during the hot weather days of the symposium, had contaminated water.
There is a lesson to be learned here somewhere.
Sean Neil and Aa: "Long, Unglamorous and Exhausting"
When Sean Neil and his underground band, Aa, received an invitation to tour different cities in Europe at the end of 2009, the haudenschildGarage commissioned Sean to document the "long, unglamorous and exhausting" experience of the band's first European tour. Upon his return, he decided to extend his tour journal by inviting the participation of his students at Juvenile Hall in Northern California to critique his documentation and artwork produced during the tour.
When offered the teaching position at Juvenile Hall, I accepted under the condition that I be allowed to leave for three weeks in December in order to tour with my band Big A Little A (Aa) The tour was spread out over 11 countries in Europe, and was long, unglamorous, and exhausting. Upon returning from the tour, it was back to work for me in the jail. When offered the opportunity to write for the haudenschildGarage's blog, I decided that I wanted to share a bit of my trip with my students, and in turn, I hoped to learn a bit about their lives as well.
I started the band eight years ago with my friends Aron Wahl and Nadav Havusha. We were bored with some of the traditional elements of independent music at the time, which seemed so heavily guitar based. We started the band with the idea in mind that there would be multiple drums and no guitars. The band has always been a bit of a collective with members coming and going. We were constantly inviting our friends to play with us at our shows. The shows themselves were always very high energy as we never wanted our audience to get bored while watching us. We put multiple records on various labels, and gained a strong following in New York City. A childhood dream was recognized when we were able to open for the band Sonic Youth. Thurston Moore even wrote a review of our first EP. We all invested a lot of hearts into the music, but I eventually left the band and moved back to the West coast. But the collective spirit still exists within the band, and I was asked to join them for their first European tour.
My role was to sing/scream on certain songs, and to bang away on a big orange kick drum that had followed us since our conception. I made it my goal to destroy the drum by tours end. I would begin the shows always out in the audience, pushing the boundaries that existed between spectator and performer. A highlight from the tour occurred in the Czech Republic, when the audience dragged me off stage and hoisted me into the air. I’m 31 years old, a 200 pound school teacher, and I was crowd surfing for a bunch of manic kids.
Coming back from tour, I immediately went back to work at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco. I was hired to teach the students science, math, and technology. The students that worked with me on this project were involved in my technology class. It is my belief that if the students can learn 21st century technology skills, they will have an easier time finding a job and not contributing to the high rate of recidivism that exists amongst juvenile offenders. The students I work with have not had the easiest of lives. The group that helped me work on this project are all serving a portion of their teenage years behind bars. I feel compassion for each and every one of them, primarily because I feel that not many have in the past. The students helped me in transcribing my journal, as I tried to help them develop their typing skills, and we then sorted together through relics obtained from the tour. After reading through the journal, I realized that my words were boring. No one would want to read about the details of the food we ate or where we went to the bathroom.
Here’s how I described our van breaking down in Italy. Don’t worry, we make it to both the shows in Croatia and Vienna.
“The road to Zagreb. Mighty and I are up round 7. We are going to back track to the car so we can take the train heading back to Cessna . Our stop is Forli. Three police question Mighty and I. I don’t have my passport. They don’t like that mighty is Czech. We arrive and cab to the car dealership. Our van won’t be ready until tomorrow, which means we may have to miss Zagreb and Vienna. I drag mighty to the airport in Forli in hopes of finding a van, which we do for 750 euros. Now the race is on to pick up guys and go to Croatia, but it is not looking good for us. We cab to the city centre to eat. I get some squid from a street vendor. We are on time back at the hotel waiting for Sergio, but little do we know about Italian time. He’s 45 minutes late. Soundman seems annoyed by us, but after we set up, he proclaims to be a big fan and I believe him. We play and crowd it a little bit mildly raucous. I electrocute myself for the second time, but the power does not cut out.”
My students especially didn’t care about what I wrote about. I was hoping to share a world with them that they have never been exposed to. I was hoping to help them flee the confines of their cell. The process was not always successful. But one aspect about the art of teaching that I love best is what I learn from failure.
Before I begin, I think it would be prudent to describe the sound of my band. To me, the band is a poly-rhythmic, noise, drone, electro, marching band assault. My students didn’t quite see eye to eye with me on this. When asked for an honest, written response to my band’s music, I got a wide range of responses. I try to represent that range in the selected quotes below, and hopefully I arrive at a more accurate representation of our sound:
“I don’t like it, this is weak. I like hip hop. This is not good at all. Who would like dis? Not me.”
“I heard beats and wild music, and I did not like it. No one was singing or rapping, it was just music playing for along time. I would never listen to this ever again in my lifetime.”
Not all the students hated the music, however. We were touring in support of a new single being released in Europe by the label Deleted Art. Two students had an interesting review of the songs on the single, as I forced them to listen to the songs on decaying headphones, played on even more decrepit computers.
“The song I just heard was cool. It sounded like two young youth were getting married from an African tribe or an Indian tribe. The beat was cool and I actually liked it a little.”
“The music pieces that I listened to was a lot of different instruments and beats. I like the beats and the drums and other instruments. To me, this sounded like some kind of African or Arabian kind of celebration, but at first to me it sounded like a Chinese new years celebration. The music was interesting and maybe something I might be interested in if somebody rapped on it or something.”
I wasn’t expecting them to connect the music to any type of music they like. However, this website talks about a supposed obsession my band has for the rapper Lil’ Wayne, someone who my students definitely love. I’ve never heard his music, but most of my students mentioned wanting to play music with the man.
“If I could be in a band, I would be in Lil’ Wayne’s group, because they make a lot of money. He knows a lot of women and I like women.”
Unfortunately we do not pull in the dough like Lil’ Wayne, nor do we “know a lot of women.”
There has always been a strong visual component to the music (thank you Aron).
I made a homemade cd with original cover art to sell and give away during the tour. The thirty cd’s all came with a hand made cover collage made from old dissection textbooks. I asked my students to critique the art, based on the cover seen here.
One student was brutally honest in his critique.
“This piece of artwork looks like some kind of deformed pizza or something with a human leg in it. This artwork doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m really not food art type of guy. It also looks like they’re trying to compare the pizza to a person’s leg/foot. I think it weird to do that, but whatever floats your boat. I don’t like it.”
One of the better shows we played was in a town in France called Clermont-Ferrand. Here is my journal entry description of the show:
“Marlena greets us at the squat we will be playing, looking as if she were ripped from and Edward Gorey comic. She’s a fascinating individual, proudly informing me that she doesn’t like to use money. Sound check goes a bit well but I need to leave my mic stands in the audience as there is no room on the stage. The three-story squat is in shambles, but the people here are genuinely kind. They pushed hard to get us to play in their shithole town, and for this I am glad. Aron tags the wall by the train station and then steps in a pile of poop. During our set, I’m throwing drums and lights into the crowd. For the first time on tour, people in the audience are banging on my drum. I electrocute myself, and trip a fuse, but it’s quickly turned back on. This happens again during the best time possible. The sound cuts out during thirteens allowing the sound of just the pure drums to ring true without the hiss from the PA. The sound comes back on right in time for me to sing. It’s these moments that I love best. Happy little accidents. Nine of us sleep upstairs. No one here seems to have a job. No one here seems to have a need for money. The kids plan on following us to Lyon.”
I asked my students to describe the flyer that was made for the show.
“I don’t know what this story is telling. It looks hella dumb and what does France and New York have to do with each other? It looks like three ugly girls are trying to get away from an elephant/octopus. I don’t like this piece.”
None of my students recognized that we were called the “best band in the world”, or that we were playing with a hip hop group.
When asked to describe another flier, for a show in Lyon, my students responded below.
“I’m not sure what this picture tells me. All it tells me about is an old lady and a young lady. I really don’t like this picture because it don’t tell me about nothing.”
“The picture does not mean nothing to me I don’t like it. It is ugly.”
It’s hard for my students to relate. Which emphasizes the importance of how I relate to them. Performing every night in front of a crowd can be a bit of scary experience. Vienna was especially scary. The audience seemed hostile, and I was worried for the first time that I might actually get hit by someone. The second we began, both my mic stand collapsed into the audience as I hurled myself out into the crowd. Nobody hit me, and the audience seemed to enjoy themselves. I still was expecting someone from the audience to show me a bar graph they created which would explain the elements of our performance. I wanted to see if my students could share with me a time that they had performed in front of a crowd.
“When I was in Diabetes camp in Santa Clara we would always do a night out and we’d do skits in front of the whole camp.”
“I had to perform at a school play in 9th grade. I was the lead actor.”
“It was cool when I had to present something about a book to a group.”
“The time I had to perform in front of a group is when I was in the 5th grade. Then one more time is when I was in the 9th grade, know what I’m sayin’.”
“When I was in elementary I had to sing over the rainbow.”
Another highlight of the tour occurred in Heidelberg, when we played a show in an old Nazi movie theater. The audience was seated, so I would repeatedly march up and down the aisles, making everyone stand up. Eventually I just walked straight into the crowd, supporting myself on the armrests while banging on my big old orange drum. I was amazed that I didn’t fall, and grateful that I didn’t fall on anyone.
I never successfully destroyed the drum. Duct tape helped keep it intact every night. I did manage to almost fall out of a four story window in Berlin right at the start of our show. But luckily the glass didn’t break when I fell against it. So there are many tales that I leave out of this blog. Tales of vans breaking down, being cursed out in front of a classroom, hands cut from smashing on a drum, student’s tears, bruises obtained from a crowd, loneliness and isolation, hungry stomachs, broken dreams. My journal has been demolished. Its pages have been ripped out of the bindings and passed through the hands of my students. In its place exists this blog. The written stories, as I journaled them, no longer exist. There are many more tales that will never be heard that belong to my students.
- Sean Neil
Sean Neil has been teaching in the public school system for seven years. He began his teaching career working with inner city youth in Brooklyn, NY. He taught science for three years and then taught literacy for three years at Ray Kroc in San Diego. Currently he is teaching at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco. By teaching his students how to use modern technological skills, he hopes to reduce the high rate of recidivism of incarcerated minors by giving them skills that would help them in entering the workforce. He loves both his parents.
Aa was on tour in Europe from November 27 - December 12, 2009
27.11.2009 Malmo, Sweden - Debaser
29.11.2009 Utrecht, Netherlands - Les Guess Who Festival w/ WAVVES, The Field, more
30.11.2009 Kortrijk, Belgium - The Strip
01.12.2009 Heidelberg, Germany - Altes Schlosskino
02.12.2009 Paris, France - Panic Room
03.12.2009 Bordeaux, France - Le Saint Ex
04.12.2009 Bilbao, Spain - MEM Festival w/ KTL
05.12.2009 Clermont-Ferrand, France - Raymond Bar
06.12.2009 Lyon, France Grrrnd Zero
07.12.2009 Cesena, Italy Officina 49
08.12.2009 Padova, Italy Stalker Reloaded
09.12.2009 Zagreb, Croatia - KSET
10.12.2009 Vienna, Austria - Fluc
11.12.2009 Prague, Czech Republic - Klub 007
12.12.2009 Berlin, Germany - Raum 18