Lucas Abela: “Australia needs to get more critical.” Interview by David Sullivan

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Lucas Abela’s report card from 1977 reads thus: “Lucas is an intelligent little boy, and in many ways has made good progress in the formal activities. He needs however, to give these activities more concentration.”

Talking to him for this interview, it was obvious that he has mostly disregarded his teacher’s advice. He puts aside most of the “formal” considerations of musical and artistic boundaries and gives all his concentration to his own visions.

From his early turntable antics, through the glass crushing Justice Yeldam days and now his intricate arcade game installations, his creations and performances exist in their own realm, a singular entity that blur the line between sound, art and pure fun to create something that truly defies categorisation.

The report card finishes with the line “His art is delightful and reflects original thinking”; despite where you position his oeuvre in the fickle hierarchy of artistic analysis, I think most of us can agree with that teacher’s final sentiment.

David Sullivan: Do you personally make your creations or do consign people to do it?

Lucas Abela: I personally make them all, except for the Gamelan Wizard, which was done in Indonesia, for that I worked with a crew of Indonesian craftspeople, in a gamelan workshop. I gave them a plan I did, printed it out and they made it exactly how it was.

David Sullivan: Is the Gamelan Wizard all acoustic?

Lucas Abela: Yeah it’s the first and only acoustic one, each one has its own kind of timestamp on it, the Pinball Pianola is meant to be kind of turn of the century arcade instrument, the Balls For Cthulhu is an 80s style thing, then Flip Off was kind of art deco, I wanted this one to be kind of ancient, pre-electricity amusement.
The next one’s going to be a turntable piece, there’s not going to be any artwork on it, it’s just going to be completely clad with records and there’s going to be 28 working turntables in it, all spinning, with eight players in an asterisk kind of shaped machine that I just actually got funding for to build in residency for the Vancouver New Music festival next year.

David Sullivan: What do the targets themselves set off?

Lucas Abela: They can set off effects pedals, and you can change the knobs, but in the future instead of turning an effects pedal on and off I’m going to have them act more like resistors. When people play with them they usually just end up playing with them randomly, or turning the volume down, putting it in an area where it doesn’t really respond with the instrument. So instead of turning them on and off I’m going to have them scroll through preset resistances, settings that I really like that work with the instrument so you’re getting that idea of the effect changing throughout the game, but it’s at its best potential. I want them constantly making music.

David Sullivan: Do you think of it as music? It’s kind of post improvisation even, how do you view the sound of it?

Lucas Abela: Yeah, I see it as music, it’s in the same thing as game theory, like Cage and Zorn explored but in an interactive way, rather than musicians playing musical games, really putting it in the hands of the audience. I consider them all to be large scale musical instruments, interactive play. Basically using the situation to make people inadvertently make my music for me. One of the the philosophies behind it is I’ve always thought experimental music making is more fun than observing people making experimental music, there’s something cathartic about it, especially noise music. I wanted to make a situation where people are enticed to play these things and enjoy playing it.

In the art world recently, I’ve learnt the term GP, as in General Public, someone described my work as GP recently at a meeting at the MCA. It’s meant to be offensive to be termed as this, I think it’s a badge of fuckin’ honour. If you can get anyone to come into the room and engage with your work I think it’s fun, it’s satisfying, it’s harder to be GP.

David Sullivan: What was the genesis of this? Was the vinyl rally the precursor?

Lucas Abela: The Vinyl Rally was the first installation. When I started with music in the late ‘80s, when I first started doing turntable stuff, I used to remodel records and play them, which in a really strange way kind of evolved into the glass playing today, but from that period I often thought of turntable ideas, like the idea of racing a remote control car over records. I guess I couldn’t really afford to do it, I was so fucking poor I used to live in my car… Years later I started getting some grant money…

David Sullivan: What was the grant money off the back of?

Lucas Abela: I first heard of the grant system from, strangely enough, an old lady after I auditioned for Hey Hey It’s Saturday at Twin Towns Services Club on the Gold Coast.

David Sullivan: Haha, what was your audition?

Lucas Abela: I was playing my motorised turntables which is kind of knives and skewers against these spinning discs, dressed as a cheerleader because I thought it was Red Faces and I’d do it in drag. I didn’t get onto Red Faces unfortunately but afterwards an old lady came up to me and said “that’s wonderful dear, you should receive government funding for that.”

I noticed this Music Fellowship, that was 80 grand, I thought ‘that sounds good, I’ll go for that’. So I answered all the questions and sent it away. A few months later I got my rejection letter. When they give it back, they give you the statistics, and the statistics that year, only two people applied. So it was me verse Martin Wesley-Smith, the head of the Conservatorium. So if I hadn’t applied he would have got the money just for showing up, which is absurd now, it shows how much more competitive it is now.

As weird as it is, the grant money process has become really important to my practice in that way. A lot of my concepts are just a one sentence, but writing grants forces me to flesh it out and that turns it into these more complicated installations.

David Sullivan: So back then you couldn’t get a grant because it wasn’t ‘high art’, but now you’re quite well respected but it seems you still want to remove any pretence from your art, do you think you’ve always had that attitude?

Lucas Abela: Yeah, I mean there’s pretence to everything. I’ve managed to lay out some success from going through the underground, it’s only the last five years I’ve been getting some serious funding, prior to that it was just some touring funding, it took at least 13 years of practice before I even got to that stage. These days kids just graduate from art school and they give them ten grand just for fucking finishing.

The whole Art Start idea, I find really insulting. To a certain level I think you need to have some kind of struggle with your practice, and just giving people money willy nilly is a silly idea, it gives people too much confidence to go on, there’s so many artists out there and their ideas aren’t really that great, Art Start just waters everything down and gives people an altered sense of reality about how their career is going to be.

David Sullivan: How would you change the system?

Lucas Abela: I think you should just be eligible to throw your ideas into the hat with everybody else, it shouldn’t just be a special fund just for recent graduates.

I find that the peer assessment model of the Australia Council to be one of the reasons that the critical discourse in the arts isn’t that good in Australia because every three years the peers are rotating, you never know who your peers are going to be… I think because of the peer situation, people aren’t going to go and criticise things the way that they should because they don’t want to publicly put something down when they know that these artists could be assessing their work at a future date. I think Australia needs to get more critical. I don’t want everyone to be negative but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of critical discourse in the arts.

I’m kind of new to the arts in general, it’s only the past five years that I’ve been doing installation, before that I was mostly involved in the music scene, mostly the underground noise scene. As I got involved with my partner I started going to these art shows a lot, which is another reason I started wanting to do installation because you’d go to these fucking gallery shows and see the idiotic ideas of sound art, they’re really borrowing from the experimental music community but just putting it into a gallery context in a lot of these shows and they’re not very well nuanced at all.

I just figured if that’s their idea of sound art then some real people should get involved in this.

It wasn’t something I was necessarily so interested in but the joy of the public interacting with it was a completely different high from the joy of performing, there’s something about providing these installations, activities or fun things to do, it drives me to continue wanting to make them.

David Sullivan: Do you think your ultimate satisfaction comes from other people’s enjoyment?

Lucas Abela: Yeah well for the pinballs, making them is frustrating as fuck, but I really enjoy exhibiting them and I really love watching people play. I love seeing people smile when they play it and I love watching kids go crazy on them – even though they always bust stuff!

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David Sullivan: So the pinballs are touring around the world?

Lucas Abela: Yeah they’re currently in Europe, I’m going to Paris in April to set them up and then I’m putting them on a boat to go to America where I’m going to be at High Zero in Baltimore before going to Vancouver.

David Sullivan: Any more future projects?

Lucas Abela: Yeah, I wanna do one, Physical Pong, which is like Pong but with pinballs, similar to the Flip Off one but it’ll have two slingshots on sliding rails on each side and walls of slingshots on each side so you basically shoot balls backwards and forwards in a rally, but all the slingshots trigger samples.
Another one I’ve built is a giant bass speaker, I wanna build reverse play fields out of that, instead of the play field being out of wood I’m just going to have lots of strings, and instead of normal balls I’ll have ping pong balls so the speaker cone throws all these ping pong balls up and you have flippers to hit them back.

Another idea I had is I want to create a music EEG, head music synthesiser that you play while you’re in a wind tunnel. So you’re floating in a wind tunnel and you have all these photo cells… Actually I cant remember now, I wrote all this shit down somewhere… I think your thoughts will control light which hits photo cells in the environment and those photo cells control different parameters of effects so you can play a synthesiser while thinking while you’re suspended in midair…

David Sullivan: Whoa

Lucas Abela: I like the idea of of floating, having some kind of instrument you have to play while you’re in midair.
I just wanna play in a wind tunnel really.

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  • Peter Barnes

    a second rate christian marclay – subsidised

  • Peter Barnes

    displaying a point and negating it at the same time. what a mad cunt

  • Peter Barnes

    or what a boring cunt.

  • Peter Barnes

    embracing nostalgia and negating it at at the same time. wow – go kill yourself. community service announcement

  • Lucas Abela

    upset i didn’t accept your friend request?

  • Bbb Ppp

    It’s a problem with Australian Lit as well. It is a small community, so people are reluctant to criticise, since they are likely to be in the same room at the next launch or something, or have that person deciding whether they get funding. They also favour people they know for publication and awards, for this reason, which disenfranchises people outside the literary community. As a result, and because we advised to support Australian literature as a moral good in itself, a lot of crap gets through. You end up with award winning literature that is riddled with bad similes and purple prose about nothing of consequence. Australian Literature needs much harsher criticism, not nurture, to provoke international standards.

  • Peter Barnes

    so an automated facebook message is some kind of tactic? that’ makes you feel bitchin? do some art about Conor McGregor. but do the same amount of work.that made Conor McGregor a true piece of art.don’t reply,don’t talk – act like a true artist.

  • Chris Downton

    (Cyclic Defrost) – Hi Peter, looking through your previous Disqus history, it appears that you do this sort of thing a lot. Might I suggest that you take this ‘discussion’ (extremely tenuous application of the word) somewhere else as you do not appear to be making any constructive or even interesting points.

  • Peter Barnes

    how’s this for constructive? I do this A LOT? George Orwell is in his grave on high rotisserie. maybe you need to actually implement a cyclic defrost. btw – define A LOT. if you reply you might be in danger of the very thing you are talking about.