Jerry Hunt: Performance Artifacts
by Steve Peters
NOTE: This text was written in May 1994 to accompany the exhibition Jerry Hunt: Performance Artifacts, which Steve Peters curated at Nonsequitur Music Gallery in Alburquerque, June-August 1994. An edited version also appears in the liner notes of the Haramand Plane CD.
Jerry Hunt (1943-1993) was a brilliant, one-of-a-kind artist and human being. A pioneer of real-time electronic and computer music and video, he designed and built much of his own equipment long before the advent of commercial samplers, digital signal processors and computers. Because his tools were so idiosyncratic it was difficult to know how it all worked; I'm not sure that anyone ever really knew what he was doing. For this reason his performances were wonderfully disorienting -- one never knew exactly where these sounds and images were coming from, or what their relationship was to his onstage activity. In fact, you never quite knew if it was all "working" or not, but that was part of the mystery and the charm of it.
That sense of mystery is appropriate given Jerry's interest in magic and various strains of arcane knowledge. By the age of thirteen, having already immersed himself in Rosicrucianism, he started his own mail-order church, and later investigated Crowleyism and other mystical belief systems. His work was directly influenced by such esoteric traditions, especially the angelic communication tables of the alchemist John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley, and it isn't such a big jump to view his use of technology as a continuation of them. Surely his Elizabethan predecessors would appreciate the magical potential of the computer, the sampler, the synthesizer, and would recognize Jerry as one of their own. On the other hand, Jerry obviously saw himself as part of a long line of great charlatans: "All you need is a map of Texas and a couple of books from 18th Century magicians, and you could figure the whose thing out." He never denied that it was all sleight-of-hand, but like the magician who claims to be showing you how a trick works, his cryptic explanations never quite reveal the secret, rather they only serve to deepen the mystery.
The objects displayed here -- sticks, wands, flags, sigils and fetishes -- were used by Jerry in his performances as a way to lead the audience into the music, to focus their attention and evoke a sense of mystery and magic. They were all, quite literally, "pointers". Hanging in a gallery, these objects are the whimsical yet inanimate artifacts of a life's work: taken out of context like this, it is hard to know what to make of them. But watching the video documents we can see how they came to life in his hands, the objects and the performer's body working together to create a visual analog to the sound. Jerry was just as concerned with the presentation of his work as with the sound of it, and he sought to undermine the expectations of a concert, to "play" the audience by acting as medium and guide. He knew that a concert audience wants to be mystified, and he gleefully exploited that convention:
"But these are mimetic transactional exercises. That is what I call them and that's exactly what I mean them to be. These objects are not symbols; they're seeders that seed the attention; This is what this is about. This is the seed. Now we can get on to the transaction of why I'm here: Why am I displaying for you? Why are you allowing yourself to watch me? What are you getting out of me? What can I extract from you? and, How can we do this with the convention of the music being made?...There are specific scenarios for each of these works that involve certain relationships with objects, what objects I carry, what are available. I have a list of strategies and a list of goals and interests and pursuits and exercises and desires that I'd like to work out with the audience. Some very personal, some confrontational and violent, some overtly sexual, some pretentious, some apologetic, some friendly. They're all just interpersonal games with tools."
Shamanic is a word that frequently comes up when people talk about Jerry's performances, and while I feel as uncomfortable as he did with that term, I understand its appeal, especially in the context of a culture which has forgotten its own magical traditions and so can only reference that experience in the exotic cultures of others. And in many ways Jerry fit the bill; his performances, like that of Joseph Beuys, were loaded with ritual overtones and inscrutable symbolism. Unlike Beuys, however, Jerry had a wicked sense of humor. I will always carry with me the image of this slightly nutty guy in a lab coat waving around a bunch of sticks with little bells attached to them, obsessively gesturing, stomping his feet and whistling as the most exquisite maelstrom of disembodied sounds and images swirled inexplicably around him. It wasn't difficult to feel that he was conjuring something, although you were never sure what or who that might be. That said, I'd like to think Jerry still accessible, that he's just hanging around in the aether waiting for us to figure out the right combination of circuits, gestures, objects and sounds so that he can put in another appearance and get on with his work from the other side.
Original Material Copyright © 1994 by Steve Peters. HTML Coding Copyright © 2001 by Michael Schell. All Rights Reserved.