Chris Flanagan, Cambridge: The Album Project
by Jon Davies
Toronto-based artist Chris Flanagan’s new project in Cambridge, Ontario, takes the form of a covert, musical engagement with residents past and present, living and dead, of this small city on the Grand River. Cambridge boasts a picturesque, historic downtown, but has suffered an economic downturn in recent years – like many places in Ontario and beyond. Flanagan discovered that one kind of storefront that was not being boarded up was the city’s booming thrift store business. These shops act not only as trading posts for goods to pass from one set of hands to another, but also as hubs for the community to gather.
Over a number of months, Flanagan collected piles of vinyl records from the thrift stores of Cambridge – adding to the artist’s already copious collection.
A DJ and a big music fan, Flanagan’s prior installation projects have often worked with musical subcultures, pop myth and legend, and the aesthetics of the antiquated. His Art Bwoy Burial (2008), for example, involved a small, disheveled-looking mechanized vulture that “sings” a song that was written by Flanagan and recorded by reggae star Linval Thompson to “endorse” the young Australian-born artist and his talents. Another reggae-themed project, Canada Cold (2009), featured a masked figure in costume as the legendary albino deejay Yellowman wandering through a wintry Canadian landscape. Also resonating with Flanagan’s Cambridge is his The Devil’s Chord (2005) wherein the visitor to a painstakingly dilapidated gallery space would follow a string of clues – hidden in a Scrabble board, a dog’s ear, a cobweb, etc. – leading you on a scavenger hunt culminating in the sounds of an organ that would either play a triumphal harmonic chord or the sinister diminished 5th: dubbed “the Devil’s interval” in the Middle Ages for its evil disharmony.
Despite Flanagan’s fascination with music, this was his first attempt at actually composing: sampling from the records that he purchased, he created an entirely new piece drawn from the records of Cambridge. These were not just musical albums but vinyl “records” of their owners: the hands they had passed through and rooms they had inhabited: the thrift store as municipal archive. Each was at one time desired and – we hope – loved before falling out of favour and being discarded – only to be redeemed by Flanagan. They range from the sounds of a mid-80s local girls’ choir to a strange novelty release featuring a psychadelic cover of the “Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead, a nun from Flanagan’s own hometown of Adelaide. The end result is several atmospheric sound collages – some – some haunting, some catchy, all arguably capturing different moods of the city whence they came – that take on an otherworldly character particularly when human voices are present: the ghosts of Cambridge?
The keystone that holds together the entire project, however, was Flanagan’s decision to release his musical Frankenstein monster back into the wild. Not only would he surreptitiously return his new, hybrid recording into the ecosystem from which it came, but he chose to camouflage his creation. Having pressed very limited quantities of his new album onto vinyl, Flanagan adopted the visual style of a late-60s/early-70s prog-rock album cover – rainbows and lightning bolts in slightly weather-beaten colours, a vintage font – to mimic the kind of obscure but intriguing recording by a mysterious near-unknown artist that musical scavengers like Flanagan hope to find in a thrift store: a diamond in the rough. (The cover also features a rendering of Cambridge’s iconic haunted post office, which sits just two doors down from the Right to Life Center.) Appropriately enough, this first release of the fictional Crystal Radio label lists the artist as “Chris Flanagan” and the title as Cambridge, making it a musical portrait of the city’s residents through their cast-off recordings, given back to them without their even realizing it.
Jon Davies is a widely published writer and curator based in Toronto. He recently curated the traveling retrospective ‘People Like Us: The Gossip of Colin Campbell’ for the Oakville Galleries, Ontario. He also wrote a book on Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s 1970 film Trash for Arsenal Pulp Press (Vancouver), to be published in November 2009. He is the Assistant Curator of Public Programs at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.