Essay on Jason Martin

Jason Martin is, in the expression of his personality through his art, a living relic. Last Thursday night, he was in his most apt context as a performer. The location: a museum on a hill in an urban wasteland with abandoned factories, well preserved historic districts, and modern corporate retail outlets. The setting: a well- hidden museum of historic Schenectady, hard to find for the uninformed (such as myself), ill-frequented, pored over in fascination by some, a mere curiosity to others, and the most boring place on Earth to yet others.

In the most post-modern performance I have ever witnessed, Martin, in full suit and tie, appeared as an overly enthusiastic professor. He was part weirdo art teacher, part mad scientist, part brilliant lecturer. He variously spoke at a podium from a ‘Manifesto’, sang and played folk songs on an acoustic resonator guitar, played various reel to reel tape machines, and interacted with all of said objects in a sometimes baffling, sometimes humorous, always entertaining manner.

At many instances during the performance, Martin was ostensibly describing a new genre of music which it seemed he himself was the progenitor of. He vehemently denied being the originator of said genre though (both artistically during the performance and directly during the question and answer period following the performance), and as proof cited all previous idiosyncratic compositions that could be said to fall under this genre. For my part, I disagree: the modern machine aesthetic did not become ‘Art’ or a genre in architecture when architects like Albert Kahn pioneered the form in the interests of pure functionalism; it became an art form when European architects like Walter Gropius and Corbusier declared it to be so. Jason Martin has declared the emergence of this artform, and therefore, to me he is the grandaddy and the inventor.

In any case, Jason Martin is doing something that no one around here (or possibly anwhere) is doing (or has ever done). To some it is probably difficult to discern whether what he is doing is simply a bizarre act for the sake of fascination with the bizarre, or in other words merely ‘artsy’ or pretentious. To others such as myself, there is ingenious method to the madness. Partially, the ‘madness’ is merely the expression of the method itself, like the action painting school pioneered by Jackson Pollock. The process itself is part of the artwork, therefore even when there is no presumed meaning behind an action which occurs in the performance, the action itself is art when carried out in a manner that bespeaks its expression.

Even if Martin himself cannot specifically verbalize the reasons for everything he did or why he did it when and where, it all seems to spring from the same deep seated fascination with history, the march of time, and the notion of ‘progress’. Indeed, the most telling aspect of the performance was when professor Martin enlightened us to a central theme of his work which is the depreciation of the notion of linear ‘progress’. The idea of what Martin termed ‘discard art’ (building on notions such as ‘found art’) was particularly illustrating in this respect. Objects that are considered ‘discards’ (i.e. useless, outdated, outmoded, or even simply ‘waste’) by others, are actually the subject of fascination, worship, and utility. Martin enlightens us to the idea that we need to take another look at these materials, for reuse, recycling, or simply to be preserved in a museum as objects for study and cultural enlightenment.

In terms of last night’s specific performance, I’ve seen the schtick where he talks back to reel-to-reel tape machines plenty of times before. It’s still amusing, and it’s still enlightening (and even inspiring). And he added some new aspects this time and played everything a bit differently, as he has done every other time I’ve seen him. However, he’s still playing the same songs I’ve seen him play for years. I would like to hear some new ones. I’d also like to see an act where he talks back to the reel to reels in different conversations. But I wouldn’t want him to know that…

At the end of the show Professor Martin asked if there were questions or comments regarding the performance. Many chimed in with aspects of the performance that they particularly liked. He responded by expressing interest in possibly accentuating these aspects of his performance in the future, or changing it entirely. I wanted to yell out “Don’t do it! You’re an artist, everything that comes from you is brilliant and expressive, and to change it based on what someone else says would be to compromise it! That’s when you cease to be an artist and become an entertainer!” But I’m certain that I would’ve been rightfully castigated for such a pretentious statement, and the irony contained within yielded so many contradictions it made my head spin. So I chose to remain silent. Which I felt was the appropriate thing to do. Observe with fascination and awe.

Despite my feelings on this subject, Martin always encourages audience participation. It was fascinating when he yelled “everybody” at the end of the song and no one joined him on the chorus of “please assist us in transmission”. There was a connection that was lacking, among professor Martin and his students, amongst the folk songs and the electronics, amongst old electronics and new electronics, and amongst all of our communications in the modern age. Whether or not Martin meant to illustrate this is unimportant. What is important is that it was conveyed.

In short, Jason Martin could take an industrial wasteland and turn it into an amusement park. It wouldn’t physically become a park filled with roller coasters, you would just be enlightened to a new way of looking at it. And where the majority of people look at it as useless, ugly, and something to be buried, Professor Martin will make you see that it is beautiful, brilliant, timeless, and fascinating.

-K Sonin