Going Underground to Find New Ground: Atlanta-Based Collective and Caving as Practice

February 27, 2014 · Print This Article

Descending Into the Cave

On January 11, 2014, I rode an elevator down into a cave, one that contains the underground spectacle Ruby Falls – a waterfall lit by color changing lights and epic Muzak you might find accompanying the timed water spurts of a fountain in Disney World. I was invited to participate in this cave excursion of the hyperreal by the Atlanta-based collective that started the project Speleogen – a project that calls itself The New Cave Art. This trip was meant to engage members of the Atlanta community in an exercise of perception and attention.

From right: David Matysiak, Gary Brown, Kara Wickman, Nghi Duong, Devin Brown, Meredith Kooi, Lear Bunda, Cathy Brown, Meta Gary, Chelsea Weyler, Mason Brown. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

From right: David Matysiak, Gary Brown, Kara Wickman, Nghi Duong, Devin Brown, Meredith Kooi, Lear Bunda, Cathy Brown, Meta Gary, Chelsea Weyler, Mason Brown. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

The collective, and thus Speleogen, was founded by a group of musicians, and this rootedness in the music community is an important aspect of the collective’s projects and ways of working. They have recently started multiple projects, however, for the space of this piece, I’m going to only address specifically the one involving caves, Speleogen. Though Speleogen centers itself on caves, the impetus to start the project came out of a greater desire to work collaboratively and engage in artistic practices that Atlanta doesn’t always offer. In a conversation with Speleogen’s founders Devin Brown, Mason Brown (no relation), and David Matysiak, they noted that what initially led them to explore various structures of collaboration was due to their frustrations with the way musicians are generally pigeonholed into certain roles, times, and spaces. They realized that often this assigning is done by the musician him/herself; there is a certain complicity with the system as it stands. Apart from this structure, they also voiced concerns about the disconnect between Atlanta’s art and music communities. They are interested in the ways in which projects that are considered “music” are accepted (or not) or presented (or not) within an art context and vice versa. Thus, part of the goal Speleogen hopes to achieve is providing an environment that doesn’t fix people into specific and static roles. Speleogen says that they are seeking for artists/makers/scientists/musicians/etc/etc to imagine new possibilities and collaborate with each other in order to actualize those possibilities.

For its founders and many of its members, collaborating is like second nature. Many of them have played in bands with each other over the years and this informs the ways they work together, play off of each other, and establish certain tentative working “roles” within the group. Devin stresses the fact that “there isn’t a singular artist in this kind of configuration.” The concept surrounding the working environment that Speleogen proposes is a kind of autopoietic sort of “collaboratory” work that attempts to create its own world that inherently collaborates with itself. Part of the reason why the project takes on a sort of autopoietic, self-sustaining structure is because of the concerns mentioned above (i.e., fixed musician roles, disconnect between various Atlanta making communities), but part of the reason may also be due to the exploratory stage the collective is still in. Apart from Speleogen proper, the group works on and produces many other projects including ROAM, a monthly podcast that solicits found sounds from musicians, chitchats, a performance project that uses crowd-sourced material pulled from online chats, text messages, and etc., Synaesthesia, a music performance that explores the relationship between sound and light, and Boating, their band along with Jordan Noel, who runs the label Coco Art. These other projects, though “headed” by various members of the collective (ROAM is David Matysiak, chitchats is Devin Brown with Michael Hessel-Mial (not a member of Speleogen, editor of the tumblr Internet Poetry), and Synaesthesia is Mason Brown with Ian Cone (also not a member of Speleogen), are still collective endeavors. Another reason that this group is relatively secluded also has to do with the nature of how art and music venues function in Atlanta. The city doesn’t open to outsiders easily and exploring new mediums if you’re not necessarily already known doesn’t necessarily seem like a possibility.

Speleogen Proper: Inside the Cave

Even though members of the project claim that essentially Speleogen’s methodology could be applied to any object/concept/topic, the place of the cave, the chosen focus of the group, with its particular materiality is an appropriate place to locate and situate Speleogen, and arguably the collective as a whole. Devin recounts that in the cave “you can only see as far as your headlamp shines” and that “all the terrain is treacherous” – an apt description of artistic practice in general; failure is always a possibility. This project is all about searching and experimenting. It’s not about creating a discrete object, the “monolithic product” that is the record or album. Rather, the group tends toward an ecology of production and “not scorched earth which [doesn’t] leave anything to come back to” which the production of a static album can do to its creators.

Descending by elevator into the depths of Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Descending by elevator into the depths of Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

For Devin, his interest in Speleogen concerns social relations and collaboration themselves as the artwork. At this point in their process, it is uncertain where Speleogen falls in the spectrum of relational art and socially-engaged practices. Since their methodology implicitly illuminates the social structures of musical and artistic production and their dissemination, Speleogen might want to take a page out of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics and the (maybe already dead horse) conversation surrounding this kind of artistic practice and see where that leads them. The crux of all of these projects is the structure the collective has created for itself, which enables them to hone their energies. As Mason Brown puts it, “once there’s a structure, you can do anything.”

It is striking that Speleogen chose to center itself on caves. Not only does the cave figure as a rich metaphorical space for imagination and incubation, but it also serves as a point of departure for conceptualizing collectivity and making. If we take Gregory Sholette’s work on the “dark matter” of the culture of artistic practice seriously in terms of cosmic relations, what happens to the underground caverns Speleogen inhabits? According to Sholette’s use of the astronomical and cosmological phenomenon of dark matter, most of the art world’s activities are “invisible” and essentially unaccounted for; resting outside mainstream institutions, these activities create the possibilities for other activities to come into visibility. If invisibility is taken simply in the case of Speleogen’s practices and goals, the dark underground space of the cave serves as an apt metaphor and location. David Matysiak stated during a conversation that part of the project is to (re)build a world, which coming from the subterranean space of the cave means that they are “starting from underground, not even ground level.” For this particular part, and for the collective more generally, this is important; the intent to build a world for artistic practices that does not rely on any already established foundation; the task is to create the very foundation that will serve as the ground. Speleogen chooses to inhabit the margins; whether this is due to lacking a particular knowledge of or interest in the Atlanta art scene is a question that may need to be asked.

Part of Speleogen involves the ritualistic and meditative. Because of the physical challenge involved in traversing caves, the caver’s particular embodiment becomes a site of reflection. What is interesting about the corporeal for Speleogen is how this experience translates into multimedia works that are, for the moment, only presented in a digital form. However, as I mentioned in my last article, even digital work is experienced by some body in some place at some time, an embodied being. What Speleogen has the opportunity to do is push these relationships of the embodied and the digital to new possibilities. One way they can do this is through sound, which for musicians, this is a primary material. Sound, being invisible and immaterial, pours through speakers into the listener’s ears, vibrating the membrane of the eardrum, causing the bones to move, translating waves into concretely experienced sounds that carry with them a particular sense. In a sense, Speleogen could provide the portal into a different sensible space by literally delving underground into a radically different landscape. Mason describes that experience “as going into an alternate world” which “once you’re in that world you think differently.” One obvious way to talk about entering the cave is through the metaphorics of the womb and the female body, and this is indeed something on the table, but putting too much weight into this structure could be too simplistic. Devin, David, and Mason all are aware of the problem of the figure of the male plunging into the depths of the earth. For them, the cave, serves as an incubator space where images (sound-images, moving-images, still-images, etc.) are produced, but as to whether this means created in the womb may be another discussion, which Luce Irigaray addresses in the section “Plato’s Hystera” in her book Speculum of the Other Woman. Unlike Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which quickly dismisses these images as mere artifice, Speleogen describes the images they produce in and from these caves as emanating from the caves themselves and become a way of connecting with others and “communing with old cave spirits.”

Re-Mixing and (Re)Building

If placed within the context of Nicolas Bourriaud’s observations in his book Postproduction concerning contemporary art practices that involve the figure of the re-mixing DJ, maybe the question of Speleogen’s relevance to contemporary art (and conversely, contemporary art’s relevance to Speleogen) becomes more clear. Though these conversations about re-mix and file sharing are not new to the Creative Commons community, Speleogen adds another topography to the existing focus of many projects. However, unlike, say GLI.TC/H, Speleogen is not necessarily interested in delving into these technologies as telecommunicative tools that inherently carry with them disruptions and breakages.

Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Ruby Falls. Photo by David Matysiak. Image courtesy of Speleogen.

Because their focus is on sharing materials with each other and re-mixing “completed” works into new ones that then become material for further re-mix, the group is constantly moving as David states: “you give the idea a chance to grow the way it wants to grow … you’re just working on things, you’re always just playing with materials and it’s not about showing off at the end “Here we did it!” You’re always moving … encouraging people to walk with you.” This calls to mind Bourriaud’s claim in Postproduction that “the contemporary work of art does not position itself as the termination point of the “creative process” (a “finished product” to be contemplated) but as a site of navigation, a portal, a generator of activities”(19). Speleogen is concerned with carving out a space that enables them to keep on making; part of this space is left open to others – they encourage others to hop on board with them.

As I mentioned above, this ethos is not new to contemporary art. Chicago, for example, has the collective Temporary Services among others, a multitude of artist-run spaces, and strong Creative Commons and GLI.TC/H cultures. Atlanta is still picking up on these issues. Eyedrum, one of the venues/collectives that has been around for the longest, serves as a space for experimentation. MINT Gallery also attempts to open its doors to emerging artists and curators. There are also a few other artist run projects and spaces including Beep Beep and the Atlanta Zine Library. However, this Atlanta-based group is not interested in the institutionalization of their practice and is still figuring out the Atlanta landscape, which can feel at times quite closed.

To quote Bourriaud’s Postproduction again: “precariousness is at the center of a formal universe in which nothing is durable, everything is movement: the trajectory between two places is favored in relation to the place itself, and encounters are more important than the individuals who compose them”(49). Speleogen is still precarious. It is looking for its audience. It is looking for its space/place/location/situation. Considering that core members of Speleogen also work with each other on many other projects including projects mentioned above (Boating, ROAM, chitchats, and Synaesthesia), the method of working that fuels Speleogen also fuels these other projects, making these discrete projects porous to each other. These projects are all about play; as Devin states: “this is all play … everything is an opportunity to expand and riff.”