Rochester’s ‘Alternative’ Avant-Garde: The point at which Alternative Music Film Society, MAG and fine art converge
BY CHRISTINE G. ADAMO
In The Transformation of the Avant-Garde: The New York Art World, 1940-1985, Diane Crane explains that “artists working outside of styles are generally, although not invariably, acting as entrepreneurs” focused more on their own production, techniques and output than the advancement or dissemination of existing artistic concepts or canons of knowledge.
The avant-garde artist, while equally intent on doing more than just assuage or engage the public, advances that concept.
“He or she is attempting to paint in a way that no one else has painted before,” Crane adds, “but by using the body of artistic knowledge that already exists.”
In this way, they help define and educate others about their style. So it is with the Alternative Music Film Society.
AMFS’s most recent screening – held April 23 in Memorial Art Gallery’s 290-seat auditorium – was Records Collecting Dust. The 2015 film traces the origins of LP collections curated by some 30 underground or avant-garde musicians: Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Danny Benair (The Quick), Lisa Francher (Frontier Records founder), Clifford Dinsmore (Teenage Time Killers) and others.
Prior screenings included rockumentaries, docudramas and concert films made early or late in the careers of Daft Punk, Roxy Music and Sigur Ros – revealing the fine point at which AMFS, MAG and the art world converge.
“We love the (AMFS) because it’s a work of passionate participants in Rochester’s music scene,” submitted Jonathan Binstock,
who was named director of MAG on July 7, 2014, holds a master’s degree and PhD in art history and was most recently a senior vice president and a senior advisor in modern and contemporary art for Citi Private Bank’s Art Advisory & Finance group in New York City.
“With this series, (AMFS and its patrons) share their love of music and documentary film with us and create another forum for the appreciation of creativity at the MAG.”
AMFS’s co-founders are Christopher Amann, Andrew Chinicci and Jennifer Sciarabba.
“As the owner of (Lakeshore Record Exchange), my entire life is immersed in music,” Chinicci explained.
“In a sense, I was fortunate enough to be able to live in this sort of suspended state of late adolescence – early 20s – where music is a big part of your life.”
Consequently he made a habit of screening music-related films in his free time.
“After watching dozens and dozens of them at home … it just dawned on me one night: It’s rare you ever get to see documentaries or performance films in a theatre. It happens once in a while with something that’s fairly high profile but, on the whole, it’s rare.”
As Crane might say, the trio built AMFS around an existing canon of knowledge captured on film and packaged it for public consumption – further defining alternative music and giving audiences an education in underground and avant-garde musical performance.
“It’s a universal story, usually: somebody telling how they got connected to music and why they (pursue) it,” said Sciarabba, aka Jen V., creator of “New Wave Wednesday” (WBER-90.5FM).
“It’s so great to hear how people are connected to music and, really, connected to art – what their vehicle is. Because, most of the time, you find out from these particular musicians that they’re not just musicians. They are artists and they are tapping that creativity (to channel it) in all different kinds of ways.”
Concert films, Amann noted, offer a rare glimpse behind performance. Assemblages of backstory, preparation and audience reaction, they’re rich in texture, context and community. The relationship between AMFS, MAG and art is equally rich and complex.
“It’s all art – it’s all creativity,” said Meg Colombo for MAG.
“What I see, when people are here for the movie,
is that there’s instant connection …. It’s that ‘I get it!’ feeling that, I think, people are pulling from the movies and relating to each other.”
“(Art is all about) connecting with your society.”
“If you think about it,” Chinicci posited, “music is an art form just like painting or photography or sculpting or anything else. Most people don’t perceive it that way because music is consumed more by the masses than other forms of art are – just like movie-making is.
“In that sense, I think it’s a perfect marriage to have a movie-themed series at a gallery because it’s an art form that you are kind of showing the process of: How it’s made and what goes into it. And, as Jen said, most of the artists are artists in a bigger sense.”
Adam Ant is one example, painting and sketching long before becoming a new wave/pop music icon. Bryan Ferry, of Roxy Music, is another. Art school was a vehicle through which they met other artists and collectively adopted music as their medium.
“The film The Origin of Post Punk focused not on one band but on the movement of music that happened after punk,” Chinicci explained. “It started out as this very basic form of rock ‘n’ roll, but what it did was show young people that you didn’t have to practice an instrument for years on end and be technically proficient to make an artistic statement.
“What started out as just purely, straight-ahead, basic rock ‘n’ roll exploded into all these different forms: everything from electronic to avant-garde rock to noise to everything.”
That “everything” falls in the art rock category, describing work by artists as diverse as 10cc, David Bowie, Daft Punk, The Human League, Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. This subgenre of rock dates to the late 1960s – when avant-garde efforts collided with classical form to spawn art-based, experimental music.
AMFS celebrates its two-year anniversary in May, opening in April 2013 with a free concert that brought the UK’s China Crisis to MAG for its first-ever Rochester performance and drew fans from Toronto, NYC and LA. The band is returning for a June 13 concert at Montage Music Hall.
“Here’s a place where not only is art happening, but (it’s created) in different ways,” Sciarabba said of MAG. “Seeing a band play here and planning that (was) something that, probably, most people would never experience. It was wonderful being able to do that.”
The AMFS did that by structuring its series like an installation piece on a limited run, bartering its way into a six-month contract with the gallery in exchange for an A/V facelift.
“We hoped to recoup our costs of the donation we made, but it was a donation,” Chinicci said. “So, it wasn’t like, ‘Well, we have to get our money back.’”
Amann and Chinicci pulled $5,000 out of their own pockets and replaced MAG’s aging video system with an HD,
theatre-grade JVC X30 digital projector and a HDMI-, LAN port- and legacy A/V connection-equipped Sony BDP-S590 Blu-ray/DVD player that has built in Wi-Fi and is 3D and iOS/Android remote control capable.
“Either way,” Amann added, “we knew we’d walk away doing something good for the art gallery – and they’d have a projector system they could use for years to come.”
The AMFS planned to work off use of the auditorium with the trade but, by the end of those first six months, MAG extended its run. AMFS recently hit another turning point, doing away with a $10 ticket price to screen films for free and remove lingering barriers of entry for movie goers.
Chinicci’s co-founders laud his tenacity, hunting down films of all genres and types with alternative music as his constant muse.
“We try to program films we think will be interesting and that we think the audience will like,” he said. “We do do avant-garde stuff and we’ve done fairly mainstream stuff, as well. (But) you can never tell what sort of reaction you’re going to get … in terms of attendance.”
In collaboration with one another and the gallery, the founders of AMFS blend their unique skills, creative talents and perspectives on a monthly basis – lifting the veil on the process:
In the same way they let audiences peek behind the curtain to watch musicians hone their craft, they give Rochesterians and out-of-towners a view of MAG from the inside out.
Upcoming free screenings include Genesis: Sum of the Parts (2014, 124 min.) on Thurs., May 28, and Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police (2012, 79 min.) on Thurs., June 25, at MAG (500 University Ave.). Learn more at AlternativeMusic.com.