U.S. 1 - April 8, 1998
By Peter Frook
Medium's the Message, Body's the Canvas
Anything for the medium's sake is like a mantra for Suran Song. With nearly the entire history of human sexuality projected
onto herself and backdrops behind her band, Song challenges the antisexual alarmism of the day. Slide images include Pamela Anderson, Kate Moss, Jim Lehrer, O.J. Simpson, and Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. "Then we also use art historical pictures,"
says Song. "I use a lot of Perseus and Medusas, and also some Paleolithic figurines. Those are from 25,000 B.C. I'm just trying to look at images of sexuality in a very broad span of time and move them about my body."
Song (and that is her real name) is actually a singer in a rock band called Suran Song in Stag. The band merges the esthetics of music and visuals and is pushing the envelope hard in the effort. While playing a juice bar in Wilmington, North Carolina, Song and Bil Weis, her bassist and husband, gave the concept of canvas organic trimmings: they wore nothing but body paints and played an entire show au natural, despite warnings from some locals that nudity was frowned upon there in Jesse Helm's backyard.
At New Brunswick's Budapest Cocktail Lounge last year they wore nothing but white pancake makeup and slide projections freaking out the lounge's owner (New Jersey statutes forbid nude performances in venues where booze is sold). For weeks afterwards, the bar was fielding calls from people who thought it had switched to a go-go format. Last month Suran Song in Stag returned to the Budapest again, but this time the recently married Weis and Song relented, donning white cloth jumpsuits instead. And while the images projected well on Song's body canvas, she admits that something was lost in the translation. "It's much more of a clear statement when you are buck naked," she says.
Suran Song in Stag (named as such because Song is the only woman in the band) brings the show back to New Brunswick for a gig at the Melody Bar on Friday, April 17, at 10:30 p.m. One onlooker at the Budapest last month described the combination of Song's
music, body, and images as impersonally sexual. "That pretty much hits it on the bone," says Song. "It's really a discussion. It's about using self-objectification in a way to get people to think along with me or let me think in front of them. My body becomes a buttress for the conversation. It doesn't become an end in itself, or a meal that's devoured." But Song is slightly incredulous that nude performances still summon such controversy. "People have been doing it for years and years and years and years and years and it still shocks people."
During a gig at the Melody in January, Song stood on a stool and had the images projected onto a large bedsheet draped around her. She appeared to be nine feet tall. Depending on the song she would step on and off the stool, thereby elongating her body and the images. She also tapes the clickers onto her costume and changes the slides in between songs and sometimes verses. Some images stay in the background perpetually. "We project a baseball field with the idea of it being about a game or a competition and getting form one base to the other," Song explains.
The band has recently released a CD EP, "Analogue Lovemuffin", a self-produced effort on the band's own label, Cruel Music. With titles like "Dust Crush", "Tryst Trying Trust", and "Cribbage in Provincetown" stream-of-consciousness images and feelings create canvasses of their own to sublimate the art ethic. The music, written by the whole band, summons memories of Talking Heads, Fugazi, and Red Cross. It uses driving power chords, bass-driven melodies, and searing leads to rock home a feeling of angst and incredulity at the panoply of images confusing us on our home plant. But the whiffs of Laurie Anderson and art school intellectualism soften the message.
Another fun thing to do at a Suran show is watch the eyes of the audience: they could be on the 15 million images, the song lyrics also projected on the state, or on Suran's often-transparent outfits. "I think, if I'm successful, they don't know where to look," says Song. "On the whole, women really look at the images on my body more. For them it's really more of an intellectual thing. Sometimes when I look at guys their faces are a little more split.
"Song is of Korean and Greek extraction. The daughter of two librarians, she went to an alternative high school in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. "It was super crunchy," she says. "You could eat and smoke in class. You could call the teacher by their first name." Then she went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she finished with an art degree (Class of 1990), and to the Parsons School of Design in New York, where she got her masters in 1993. Her first job out of school was for Peter Max, the renowned 1960s artist whose pop psychedlia portfolio included the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine".
It was at this point that she started doing performance art in Soho and Chelsea galleries. "It was all right, but doing the stuff in an art gallery was really sterile," she recalls. "Everyone was so pre-conditioned about the stuff, I didn't feel it was communicating, so I started working with musicians." But her inspiration of packaging her message in a band format didn't happen until following a stint teaching art to sixth graders in Los Angeles she moved to Lakehurst to be with her mother. At this point Song started thinking about, "putting visuals into three or four-minute pop songs".
In 1995, she considered moving back to New York, but had already begun to piece together a band in the Garden State. "In New York, everything is so saturated, the institutions don't pay attention to what's in their own back yard. They want everything imported from other countries and other cities. There's no regional pride."
Song first started playing with Claude Coleman, a drummer who played with Ween and now has a solo project, Amandala. Song's new band, formed in 1996, features Weis on bass, guitarist Brian Sugent, and drummer Jason Reynolds. "We all have really different tastes in music," says Song. "We all love Bowie to death."
Now about that marriage. Both Song and Weis are freelancers and live in Princeton. Weis does Web pages and Song does graphic design. Recently she completed a project for Simstar, the multimedia firm based at 190 Tamarack Circle. They came together as a result of the band and eloped in March (perhaps they prefer to confine their ceremonies to the stage). The proceeding happened at Princeton Borough Hall, where Marvin Reed, the mayor, presided. Band members Reynolds and Sugent were the witnesses.
Song thinks the marriage will help the band stay intact. "If anything it cemented things, we now talk about 10 years from now," she says. But keeping the band's visual attack going turns out to be a pretty expensive endeavor. "It's basically where all my money goes," she says. When she started in 1991, she had one $250 slide projector. "I have five of them now," she says. "Over the past seven years I've probably invested $3,000 or $4,000 just in equipment, and with the CD, it was double that. But it's totally worth it. One of my favorite profs, Rona Pondick, said you shouldn't let the money stop you. The same goes for public nudity laws.