Right now, something called a "torture horn" is sitting in a room at the Frye Art Museum. It's really a sarcophagus of spit. Built in 2006 by musician Josh Stewart for the Degenerate Art Ensemble, it is an old wooden toy piano joined to a sealed plastic reservoir that holds air (specifically, old musician-breath) and bagpipe reeds encased in plastic tubes. The torture horn is operated by breathing into it, and when DAE cofounder Joshua Kohl played it for me during a visit to their studio space, it sounded like a vaguely harmonious wheeze but not entirely unlike torture. "Look here," he said with a small smile as he pointed to beads of condensation in its plastic reservoir, leftover saliva from years of musicians playing the thing. "Some of this spit is 5 years old!"
The torture horn is a relic, an artifact from the living, messy world of DAE's performance history, which began in 1999 when DAE—a Butoh-influenced dance/theater/music company—sprang from the forehead of Seattle's Young Composers Collective.
In another room at the Frye hangs the Tuning Nest, an eerie forest of eight brown pods that look like the dangling heads of ligneous aliens and emit low, entrancing tones. The pods (made from thousands of feet of paper and gallons of glue and beeswax, and tinted with persimmon tannin, rust, and pine soot) are wired to a broken trunk in the middle of the room (vertical, but with a raggedy gap in its middle) that is wired to a box full of electronics. During a press preview, Robb Kunz (a musician, sonic engineer, and instrument inventor for DAE) opens the box proudly, showing off how he hacked together cheap and found materials to make this bizarre jungle of tones that glide from soothing to disturbing.
Unlike the torture horn, Tuning Nest is not a relic—it's an installation artwork, made for the museum. The nest fills its room with the droning, off-kilter tension that saturates DAE performances, an interpolation of the company's live performance into a sculpture. The gap between the torture horn and Tuning Nest is the gap between what works and what doesn't in this exhibition that attempts to translate a theater company into a museum installation. It's an admirable ambition, but a mixed success.
For weeks before the opening of the exhibition, Frye curator Robin Held and Kohl stressed to me in interviews that it was not supposed to be a collection of relics and artifacts from previous performances, but an experience in its own right, a distillation of the DAE aesthetic into a museumworthy show. Held especially talked about the "ninjas," "warrior princesses," and "moments of battle and transformation" that characterize DAE's experimental performances and wanting to introduce them to new audiences.
DAE has made eight full-length pieces in the past 12 years—including Cuckoo Crow and Sonic Tales—which are characterized, in part, by the work DAE puts into each one. They write full scores (sometimes for dozens of instruments), they build new instruments (including the torture horn and chest harps made of tunable construction nails), they commission dance and animation (from choreographers like Amy O'Neal and animators like Stefan Gruber, performed by dancers including oft-featured Haruko Nishimura), and they build costumes that double as instruments (witness the "weeble wobble" at the Frye, a giant dress built on a human-sized bowl-shaped base, tricked out with chimes for attackers to "play" with wooden dowels during dance-fight scenes).
Kohl has spoken about how the manipulations of theater and the manipulations of a gallery are different. Theater is fast, he explained—stitching on a dress can be provisional, details can be shellacked over, and if a costume splits or a thing breaks, a little tape can hold it together until the end of the show. "But in a gallery, people get up close and examine things," he said. "So we wanted to feature the work of the artists we've worked with for years* who've mostly been in the background and bring them up to the foreground." They built and rebuilt things, sorted through over a decade of photo and video and sound documentation, and put together this exhibition.
The result, despite Held's and Kohl's arguments, feels more like a collection of relics than its own thorough, rich installation. The Tuning Nest room stands apart because it's a success, weird and stimulating and unsettling. But other exhibits—even the 50-pound costume of crocheted yellow yarn by noted Seattle artist Mandy Greer—feel like anthropological artifacts. Those already familiar with DAE's imaginary universe, with its ninjas, warrior princesses, etc., will likely enjoy this invitation to step backstage into their rehearsal room, costume shop, and walk-in closet where they keep the 5-year-old spit. Those who aren't probably won't.
The Frye, Held says, assembled this exhibition with plans to tour it, and let's wish them all the best. But I will be surprised if people with little or no relationship to DAE's work rev up a strong interest based on this exhibition. DAE will, however, perform a new work at the Frye entitled Degenerate Art Ensemble's Red Shoes, this May and June. Consider the current exhibit a teaser of what DAE has done longest and done best—play live in front of an audience.
This article has been updated since its original publication.