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Saturn Dogs: Noise and Sushi Dinner in Berlin

This multi-level approach fits well in Berlin, where the idea of a band already drifted away from traditional musical and instrumental concepts years ago, and where the art scene has been forced into adapting the scrappy attitudes and strategies of...

Saturn Dogs are an improvisational performance group, or perhaps they are sound sculpture, or maybe even a noise band. Eschewing labels and categorization, their shows might just as easily involve music, on the spot psychedelic mural painting, or the eating of elaborately prepared food.           

The duo formed in Brooklyn in 2012, when Sto Len, an artist/musician and co-founder of the Cinders gallery, met Manon Parent, a classically trained violinist and dancer from Paris, then living in New York on a Fulbright scholarship. “I saw her perform a dance piece at a DIY music space, where they never have stuff like that,” Sto recalls. “It was completely different, it blew everybody away.” Manon saw Sto perform soon after, in his experimental project Stolen Temple Pileup, which involved playing an amplified shopping cart–“I was doing weird noise music with costumes,” he says. They decided to collaborate, and eventually relocated to Berlin.

A recent show I attended was billed as a “record release and sushi dinner.” I arrived at Sameheads, a cafe art-space in Neuköln, to find tables laid out with plates of homemade sushi. The rice had been dyed deep neon blue, giving the rolls an eerie look, as if they were dissected rounds of alien tentacle. It was impressive, and the small crowd that gathered for the event was unsure whether to begin eating or appreciate the sight as an installation. I can’t resist free food, so I led the charge. The sushi was quite good, and even these small morsels were examples of odd cuisine cross-pollination: a Mexican sushi roll with beans and salsa, a desert sushi with nutella and banana.

The two members of Saturn Dogs appeared from behind a curtain, dressed in glittery costumes somewhere between superhero and prom night, to seat themselves in the center of the room at a table set with wine glasses, cutlery, dishes and kitchen utensils. A candle was lit, and the performance began, in the emphatic slow motion body language of modern dance. Contact mics on gloved hands provided a horror movie soundtrack, amplifying the scraping of cutlery and clinking of wine glasses into jittery screams of tension, transforming the grating of a carrot into something like the churning howl of a factory. At times the beating and banging on the table became rhythmic enough to suddenly settle into a beat, a percussive groove that would then dissolve back into abstract, atonal sound. Though the performance seemed mostly improvisational, like one lucky try after another, I wondered afterwards how much of it was planned in advance. The climactic moment, with amplified wine glasses cupped over mouths during a screamed and blubbered back and forth, seemed too well staged to have ended up there by chance.

When the dinner ended, the Dogs, rather than exiting as dramatically as they entered, slump into a relaxed posture and broke character. “OK, let’s hang out!” said Sto, smiling shyly, in a gesture which seems less art gallery and more reminiscent of a basement punk show.

The merch table also reminded me of a DIY show, with its wall full of handcrafted merchandise, including necklaces, individually made T-shirts, and the new release they’d advertised, a CD-R entitled Blu Pu. Again it was difficult to say whether this was a true merch table or functional sculpture, like the food. Was the record the end product, or just a side product? And why dye the rice such an unappetizing shade of blue?  As it turned out, the final sculpture was yet to come: “We want to make you poo blue,” explained Sto, simply.

This multi-level approach fits well in Berlin, where the idea of a band already drifted away from traditional musical and instrumental concepts years ago, and where the art scene has been forced into adapting the scrappy attitudes and strategies of musicians out of economic necessity. The breadth of activity that Saturn Dogs manage to fit into one conceptual package is impressive, as is the amount of sheer work that went into the production of this evening: the food, the costumes, the sonic and theatrical elements of the performance, the construction and packaging of the merchandise. It represented a crazy effort for two people, in no specific medium. That seems to be the idea. “It doesn’t need to be something,” Manon said. “It’s the first time I’ve just let everything be, without trying to understand it.” On that note, dessert was served: chocolate cake with bright blue frosting.

Saturn Dogs next performance will be on May 8 at L’Atelier Kunstspielraum in Berlin.