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Rock icons headline Mission Creek with lecture and performance

BY ERIC HAWKINSON | MARCH 31, 2011 7:20 AM

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Thrust into a world of artistic change, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore narrowly escaped the tumultuous downtown New York City arts scene of the early ’80s. But out of the chaos, they created a jewel, the rock band Sonic Youth.

The band’s formation in the noisy punk and alternative-thinking atmosphere has introduced new worlds to music, art, film, and literature. As the creative forces behind the group, Gordon and Moore hacked away at conventions in rock music, and they have been a significant touchstone for decades.

And the pair will visit Iowa City to talk about their story and perform.

As part of the Mission Creek Festival, Gordon and Moore will present a lecture at 7 p.m. today at the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., in which they will talk about the New York City arts and music scene in 1981. The event, also sponsored by the University Lecture Committee, is free. Then, at 9 p.m., the couple will perform an intimate set at the Mill, 120 E. Burlington St.. Admission is $20 in advance, $25 the day of the show.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Gordon knew she was going to be artist — she never thought of doing anything else. But for the last three decades, she’s had a conflict between visual art and music as her artistic medium. Moving to New York City in the early ’80s, her curious confusion led her to new avenues, and her passions began to change.

Working in an art gallery in New York City, she saw firsthand a reblooming of the city’s art world. Many new galleries were opening, and they began fighting over the work of young artists.

“I got a bit turned off by that,” she told The Daily Iowan.

Simultaneously, Gordon was attracted to a particular scene in contemporary art and music called No Wave. She was seeing concerts of noise-rock groups such as Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and Mars. She was also meeting her future bandmates and husband, Thurston Moore. They created their own No Wave expression.

“I found that to be so different from punk,” she said. “It was much more free and totally unconventional — I had never heard anything like it, although it felt very organic and made sense.”

She was also attracted to not needing musical training to understand the genre. The do-it-yourself ethic had a visceral appeal to her, and she began to associate herself with the movement.

“I just sort of related to it,” she said. “It was minimal and dissonant. It was very interesting, in some ways kind of expressionistic in a way, that I couldn’t do art like that.”

Sonic Youth has been associated with groups ranging from Nirvana to the Beastie Boys, and the group has worked with filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola.

After working with these figures in literature, music, and film, Gordon and Moore are willing to share these experiences with younger generations. Gordon believes one of the most valuable lessons young people can have at school is learning from those who have been successful in the art and music scenes, she said.

Living in times as uncertain as today, she encourages people to do what they love because self-expression is always certain.

“You might as well do what you want to do and not really worry about security,” she said. “You can’t really tell what’s going to be secure.”

Gordon and Moore have gained much as artists because of the merging cultures they witnessed during their formative years in New York. Even with the commercialism the city is synonymous with now, Gordon said she believes the art history is so rich that it will never stop people from experimenting in music.

“It’s part of the imprint of the community,” she said.

Art has no bounds in reaching people, even in smaller communities. Although no one will soon confuse Iowa City with New York City, a lot is still to be said about the arts culture around town. The University of Iowa provides a great deal of culture for the city with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the various artists, and performing arts. UNESCO has honored Iowa City as a City of Literature, a culture that is recognized throughout the world.

“In Iowa City, you know, the writing program has such a huge reputation, it sort of builds on itself once you’ve established something like that,” Gordon said. “If you feed that, it will grow.”

That’s what Public Space One Program Director John Engelbrecht has been trying to do — nourish the city’s culture. Public Space One is an endeavor by the James Gang, a group of community members interested in helping people do something public. The space, located in the basement of the Jefferson Building, is open for anyone who wants convey her or his artistic expression.

Engelbrecht looks at it as a community art project — hopefully, one that challenges viewers without being an enigma.

“We try to really balance it out educating the public about art, while being accessible,” Engelbrecht said.

He said that in some respects, being smaller in size helps the Iowa City arts scene because there’s still plenty to see. Every night, the city offers happenings in musical circles, art circles, and literary circles.

With festivals such as Mission Creek, which incorporate the city as its venue, art is accessible for anyone who wants it. Engelbrecht said he loves what Mission Creek has done for the community by integrating literature, music, and visual arts.

“I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t have meaningful, cutting-edge dialogue surrounding art and expression in Iowa City,” he said. “Especially given the history we have as a progressive, educated place with a lot of energy in the town.”

He believes the lineup for this year’s Mission Creek Festival couldn’t be more fitting for Iowa City today — especially with the opportunity to look into the lives of two cultural icons.

Kembrew McLeod, a UI associate professor of communications studies, believes the lecture is a prime event for the city and to see Gordon and Moore perform afterwards in small venue such as the Mill is truly “special.”

“I think the most interesting thing is that they’re opening up and talking to an audience of hundreds,” McLeod said. “It’s a rare chance to see two people who are extremely creative and influential, who have interacted with a variety of key cultural figures.”

The period when Gordon and Moore met each other has manifested itself into a long-standing influence that resonates in cultural events today. The panel at the Englert is essentially a dialogue that brings forth the context behind a different time, a time when artists didn’t see the difference among visual arts, music, and poetry.

But for Gordon, music and art will always be the framework behind a community’s existence.

“I think they’re interesting in that they actually create a depth of experience that just builds on itself,” she said. “It kind of allows people to give something back to the community and get something out of the community.”


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