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Feature Thu Aug 30 2007
From Ritual to Romance: a review of Gregory Jacobsen's Ritualistic School of Errors CDr/DVDr/Book box set (Resipiscient Records)
If the name Gregory Jacobsen rings a bell, it's probably from one of two things: his cabaret-art-rock tea party Lovely Little Girls, or his intricate and colorfully upsetting visual art, perpetually on display throughout Chicago and the art world at large. Few, however, might remember The Ritualistic School of Errors, Jacobsen's alter-ego from over a decade ago. The project mixed music, dance, costumes, and audience-inflaming theatrics, serving retroactively as a signpost for all of Jacobsen's artistic endeavors for years to come.
Recently, San Francisco label Resipiscent has reissued a handy primer of the Ritualistic School of Errors project (originally released in 1998), a CDr/DVDr/art book box set that requires only a slim Jackson to ensure speedy delivery to your postbox. I got mine, and now, I have six paragraphs to tell you why you need to get yours.
The "book" that is advertised on the web site is more of a booklet, really. It's about 32 pages with a translucent red cover, with all art in black & white. Jacobsen's artwork does not conform to the "if it matches the couch, it's art" dictum, unless you've got a really unusual couch. His paintings evoke whimsical, candy-colored fairy-tale lands, seen through the eyes of a little child who is still desperately enamored with the parts of the human body that adults find distasteful. Distended body openings (often with flags stuck into them!), farting, awkward grins, asymmetrical faces, boys with girl parts (and vice-versa), poop-filled undies (and I do mean filled!), birthday party humiliations that last a lifetime, objects tied to people's heads (fruit, mostly), inappropriate fondling — these are the connecting fibers that tie together Jacobsen's various canvases. The grotesque, banal, damaged and hilarious all rub shoulders freely, and the density of his best works evokes the masters of many different art eras — like looking out of Breughel's window at Mike Diana's crotch. Don't be fooled, though — Jacobsen skews much closer to the former than the latter. His art might be distressing, but it's not amateurish at all — there is a real beauty and sensitivity given to his subjects, most of whom are usually smiling some kind of crazy smile regardless of the horrors they're embroiled in. Hey, maybe some people like having flags in their butts! (A quick internet query confirms this.)
The CDr, though composed more than 10 years ago, still sounds fearfully modern to these ears. For this project, Jacobsen works in the medium of tape composition — musical and non-musical events are edited together on multi-track tape in a compositional manner as one would score a film, or compose for an orchestra. When done well, these works become little movies for the ear; at worst, they are either dated by excessive devotion to then-current technology, or simply meander. Pretty much all great tape music (and this work definitely fits in that category) has the ability to sound timeless, regardless of the technology available, whether it's pause-buttons on a boombox or 16-track reel-to-reel machines in some French electroacoustic music studio. When the emphasis is on interesting sounds and their interrelation to one another, the composer can evoke atmospheres well beyond the realistic hopes of a more traditionally-composed piece of music. The Ritualistic School of Errors gets a lot of mileage from repeated use of organ tones, gnomic grumblings and gruntings, shuffling metallic clatter, and evocative bleats of all sorts, assembled with care and unfettered with clichéd processing tricks. The result is like spying on a marching band (accompanied by an organist with large, clumsy hands) through a hole in the circus tent between shows, listening to them groaning, farting, humping, and occasionally practicing. Those of you who follow tape music styles through the years will clap for joy if I tell you that this recording starts in Lieutenant Caramel territory, making frequent dips into Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock's chum-bucket. As befits a Transmission staffer, the audio is my favorite portion of this multimedia set.
Sound clips from the CDr:
The DVD is a harder nut to crack. Assembled more like an art portfolio than a logical program, it's an awful lot to go through in one sitting. The six short films that open the set are the best — they're brief, evocative, colorful, lively, and timeless. My favorite is "A Pathetic Dance of Failure," a dance piece that is repeated in different incarnations throughout the disc. Jack Smith (of Flaming Creatures fame)'s fingerprints are all over this film: the jumpy, nervous camera, sped-up action, and strobing editing work emphasize, rather than obscure, the claustrophobic sets and abstract costumes. "Fairyland" uses old recordings of a child's read-along book-on-record (complete with the "bing!" sounds that indicate a page turn), cut apart, looped, and scored to a very short film about a fairy princess being harassed by two goobly goblins, who try to wake her by racing toy trucks down her lifeless back. There's also some beautifully shot and edited footage of cows in a field, accompanied aurally by fast bursts of clanking and scraping (this being a collaboration with Ausgang web-zine creator Melinda Fries), and an abandoned reel for a never-completed dance piece feels like one of the early Residents short films.
After the films, there's also an hour-plus worth of performance footage, much of it single-camera handiwork from the back row of a bunch of clubs that don't exist anymore (oh man, I almost forgot how much I missed Robie's!). "Pathetic Dance of failure" gets several more airings in front of befuddled audiences all over town; masks, skimpy costumes, blatting trumpets and crazy rants turn "bar night" into "night terrors."
"Pathetic Dance of Failure," live at Robie's, 1999
Many pieces are accompanied with live music, such as a peppy dance routine that's accompanied by violin, drums, and skronky guitar ("Arsenal Road Excerpt," 2000). There's also some dirty dancing on the runway ("Hot and Wet!" 1999), psychotic crooning in the bunker ("In the Mood for Love" [yes, that one], 2000), and 20 minutes worth of screaming and Voguing while in diapers ("Big Boys," live from The Spare Room, 2000) that will probably get you exiled to the kid's table at Thanksgiving next year (I mean really, in the back of their minds, your parents secretly think you go to see stuff like this every night in Chicago, right?). There's even a performance by an early incarnation of Lovely Little Girls (featuring Velcro Lewis of the 100 Proof Band, and Andy Ortmann of Panicsville), playing a synth-drone song that's light years behind the Bertolt Brecht-in-the-hands-of-Fat-Day style of the present day group.
(Oh, and make sure you continue to through the end of the photo gallery for some great lost footage from Chic-a-go-go!)
"Arsenal Road Excerpt," live at the Empty Bottle, 2000
I spoke with Jacobsen recently, and he confirmed that new RSOE recordings and performances are in the works, and I say "great googly-moogly" to that. As a historical document of days gone by, this is fascinating stuff. If you're not bound to the idea of a piece of art that you can digest in one sitting between dinner and the 10 o'clock news, this release will rain down ant-covered lollipops on your nightstand for weeks and weeks to come.