Bone Music and Bootleggers at Garage Art Gallery, Moscow

So one day British musician and music producer Stephen Coates was walking through a flea market in St Petersburg, Russia (as you do) when he spotted something which looked a lot like this.

Rib record Bone Music X-ray audio Garage Moscow

Intrigued, he stopped and asked the seller about it, but didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. Coates bought the thin plastic disk anyway, discovered it did in fact play music, and then set about trying to find out more.

This was, apparently, a bit difficult at first.

Of course, had Coates asked Mama, he could quickly have found out what he had acquired. This is because Mama long ago read Back in the USSR: the true story of rock in Russia, about the underground rock scene in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

We went on about it here, you might remember.

This book, published in the very late 80s, was written by Atemy Troitsky. Who was very much in the thick of it all as a producer, musician, critic and organiser of some of the Soviet Union’s first rock festivals.

Troitsky is mostly concerned with the scene in the late 70s and 80s, but he includes as a sort of prequel a whole chapter on the clandestine music lovers who came before. These were the stilyagi, or hipsters, who went to extraordinary lengths to simulate the Western lifestyle of rock and roll fans in the late 40s and 50s, up to and including listening to bootleg records made out of old X-rays.

Rock and roll posters Bone Music Garage Moscow

One of which, of course, is what Stephen Coates had got his hands on.

Mama is smug that she knew about this before it was cool. But then on the other hand, Mama did not start a whole organisation called X-Ray Audio dedicated to preserving the records and researching the phenomenon by meeting and interviewing some of the participants like Stephen Coates did. And now there is a whole exhibition, Bone Music, at the contemporary art gallery, Garage, dedicated to these fabulous objects.

Bone Music Garage Moscow

Mind you, not that the ryebra, or ribs, were just about passing round Western rock and roll or jazz music, acceptable during the war, summarily banned afterwards. Also frowned upon by the post-war censors was music by Russian emigrees, 50s gangsta rap-esque prison ballads, and songs by any individuals who had pissed off the Communist party or one of its more influential members.

Roentgenizdat Bone Music X-Ray Audio Garage Moscow

Why X-rays, you might be wondering. Well, they were reasonably easily obtainable – hospitals had to get rid of them after a certain amount of time because of the fire risk they represented – and took the grooves cut by improvised recording equipment well enough, if not particularly well, to be able to hear the desired tunes. Alongside a lot of hissing and crackling.

So the Bone Music exhibition is not just celebrating the roentgenizdat, but the people who made them and the machines they built to do it. People who were arrested, sent to the gulags, came out, and settled down to do it all over again.

And you never thought Rock around the Clock was all that.

But also on display at Bone Music was the way that people who might want to listen to such things were portrayed in the press, or even in films. Negatively, as I am sure you can imagine.

Quote about stilyagi Bone Music Garage Moscow

Yes, much of the text in the exhibition is in English as well as Russian. But then the Garage art gallery is very hip.

Very apt.

Our favourite bit of the whole Bone Music exhibition was the room set up to simulate a bootlegger’s lair. The reason? Everything in the room was touchable. All those little drawers had bits and pieces in. Tattered ID documents, valves, more valves, bits of string, technical drawings, some wire, valves, stamps, a tin of old kopecks, and valves. We opened the tea caddy and smelled the leaves inside. We handled the freshly produced X-ray records. We looked though the old exercise books of carefully handwritten catalogues. Hours of fun.

Bootlegger room Bone Music Garage Moscow

Bone Music is on at Garage until 14th October, but if you don’t catch it before then, the X-Ray Audio project goes on tour internationally quite often. See if you can check it out when it comes to you, because the sheer ingenuity of people generally, and the indomitable spirit of those suppressed should be celebrated.

And then there’s music. You should definitely remember the days it didn’t die.

To help you, here is Stephen Coates doing a TED talk about Bone Music and his X-Ray Audio project.

More information

The exhibition’s page on Garage’s website (in English).

X-Ray Audio’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Beat generation.

Address: 9/32 Krymsky Val, 119049, Moscow, Russia (inside Gorky Park).

Opening: 11am to 10pm all week to 14th October 2017. Other exhibitions at Garage also exist.

Admission: 300 roubles for adults, free for children under 11.

Getting there: The two nearest metro stations to Gorky Park are Oktyabrskaya (orange line) and Park Kultury (red line).

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The Bone Music exibition about X-ray records and bootleggers at Garage art gallery in Moscow Russia

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Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art or Not.

It is Mama’s firm belief that modern art is the medium to go for if you want childish appreciation of visual virtuosity. Classical paintings are very flat. Contemporary… whatjmacallits tend to be a lot more pace roundable, climb upable, crawl alongable, duck underable and even, occasionally, touchable.

The current exhibition at the Garage art gallery in Moscow, the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, has items on display which allow you to do all of these things, and put on headphones to listen to the soundtrack that accompanies them as well.

The Way of an Object Makhacheva Garage Triennial

Of course, so far we have only been to one exhibition where you were invited to handle everything, and the Garage Triennial wasn’t it.

Figuring out which items you are supposed to manipulate and which to contemplate from a safe distance by carefully observing the appropriate behaviour of more clued up others is both a profoundly moving representation of an essential aspect of the human condition and also a very good opportunity for children to practice this vital social skill.

Faces Garage Triennial of Russian Cintemporary Art

To limit the potential damage this might cause, the very practical Garage gallery had stationed a large number of young docents at every possible corner on the lookout for people doing it wrong, so generally the art was safe from everyone except Mama, who absent-mindedly walked into the dangling skier model. We simply can’t take her anywhere.

Female Male Red Khasanov Garage Triennial

Adding to the child-friendliness, in the Garage Triennial, when the art is flat, it tends to be on TV. Can we recognise the difference qualitative difference between Spongebob Squarepants and a woman being sloooooowly covered with large smooth stones on a beach? Mama has no idea, but she does know that my Predictable Big Brother will be entranced as long as there are moving images.

Mama wouldn’t say that the Garage Triennial is simply uncomplicated fun for the more youthful element of society though. So she experienced trepidation every time I put on the headphones, and even insisted on sampling the soundtracks first if she could get there ahead of me. But since I retained my sunny delight in trying on every single one of them for the whole of the exhibition, Mama concludes that it was fairly innocuous after all. And the set that also included virtual reality goggles was simply FABULOUS. Floor to ceiling dancing babushkas. ‘Nuff said.

The Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art is organised into a number of themed sections. Its overall aim is, for the first time ever, to showcase the current state of the modern art scene for the whole of the Russian Federation, and to this end curators spread out all over the very very big country in order to discover what is going on out there. Way way out there in some cases.

They seem to have decided that artists are working on being famous (‘Master Figure’), describing themselves (‘Personal Mythologies’), describing their location (‘Fidelity to Place’), describing what’s wrong with that (‘Art in Action’), describing art (‘Common Language’) and scribbling on walls (‘Street Morphology’).

Prussian Winter Matveev Garage Triennial

And actually Mama, who can sometimes find herself in a modern art gallery staring a large, random, piece of burnt wood and wondering if it would make sense the other way up, felt that either the Russian artists had been unusually successful in getting a point across or that the groupings were particularly well thought out. In pondering the connections between pieces or between the piece and the topic, she made a lot more sense of what was going on than that time when she was interviewed by a psychic guru in the catacombs of the Tate Modern.

Reticence Novikov Garage Triennial

Went a bit over our heads, mind you. My Predictable Big Brother stared particularly blankly at the large golden model of a priest and inquired with some disapproval as to why he was making a mildly rude gesture. Being moved to read the caption and finding out it is a self-portrait didn’t seem to help much.

Basically, both of us much preferred the shiny metal spiny sculptures, the giant pile of rubbish that changes into something much more attractive when the lights go down, the sand tray where you could use tweezers to move a few buttons, twigs, grains of sand, plastic baubles and fabric flowers around, and the giant multi leveled wendyhouse, with the extremely steep twisty stairs.

Metropolis Seleznyov Garage Triennial.

Most of all I liked the dolphin buried in a concrete brick. Look, I just like dolphins, alright? No need to overthink things.

Dolphin Tail Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

I liked it so much, in fact, I drew it in the visitors book, full of sketches by other gallery goers too, after double checking to make sure it wasn’t just another piece of art.

Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

Mama thinks that very much in evidence was the Russian surrealist sense of humour, impressive commitment to fixing anything as long as there is a bent paperclip or a large hammer to hand, and habit of flinging themselves wholeheartedly into their latest project.

But the Russian reputation for startling directness is also not unjustified and this was definitely on display at the Garage Triennial too.

Take this one, which Mama found one of the most powerful examples, given that it marries the very delicately pretty feminine art of watercolour painting with the ugly subject of domestic violence.

Bruise Potemkina Garage Triennial

Or this one, in which items from the personal and political history of the country have been embedded in amber, itself an iconic item from this part of the world. Can’t get more crushing that the implication that the symbols you held so dear are now fosilised remnants of a disconnected past.

Nasubullova Garage Triennial

Or this one. These are house numbers. Note the missing ones, intended to represent the losses suffered to wars and instability in the artist’s hometown.

Numbers Gaisumov Garage

Which is Grozny in Chechnya.

Let’s just take a moment to add a new layer of painful interpretation to that, shall we?

But the problem with message-driven art is that at some point that you do start to wonder if perhaps standing in a swish custom-built chrome-plated art gallery, thinking about the coffee you can have in the large, tastefully-appointed cafe downstairs, next to the extensive souvenir cum glossy art books shop is all a bit… too… comfortable.

Is there, in fact, a point to looking at this kind of thing if all you are going to do afterwards is play on the table football, and then wander downstairs to the elegant toilets, where there are sprays so you can detoxify the seats before parking your rump, as well as a mirrored area with a built in clever-clever hashtag for teenagers to primp in front of before their edgy Instagram session upstairs? And all this while listening to the deliberately amplified sound of flushing loos?

A question already addressed in the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, by the Monstration happening.

This is an event which takes place annually, and which at first glance seems to show a large street demonstration in action.

Monstration Loskutov Garage Triennial

But if you look a little closer (and you can read Russian), you will see that the placards are covered with pseudo slogans.

Because this is a pseudo protest.

Yes, the artist organizer may occassionally get arrested for planning it, and the onlookers heckling the participants may also be taking it seriously, but no, these people have turned out en mass and with considerable enthusiasm, having taken the time to paint up their own signs with absurd sayings to participate in an entirely content-free demonstration.

Mama simply cannot decide whether this is the most genius bit of biting sociological satire she has ever seen, the angriest political commentary or an egregious example of shocking frivolity given that it is 2017, the year after 2016. It’s been bothering her considerably.

Which, I suppose is the point of art, contemporary or otherwise. To get under your skin, to stay with you, to make you examine the world in a different way.

So go, if you can. It’s interesting, fun and worthwhile. And your kids will love it.

More information

The exhibition’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about bluffing your way round an art gallery.

Address: 9/32 Krymsky Val, 119049, Moscow

Opening: The Garage Triennial of Contemporary Russian Art is on until 14th May 2017. 11 am to 10pm daily.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults. Children under 11 are free. Children over 11 cost 100 roubles.

Public transport: The Garage gallery is in Gorky Park. The two nearest metro stations are Oktyabrskaya (orange line) and Park Kultury (red line).

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The Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art

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