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Medium’s the Message, Body’s the Canvas
Anything for the medium’s sake is like a mantra for
Suran Song. With nearly the entire of history of human sexuality projected
onto herself and backdrops behind her band, Song challenges the antisexual
alarmism of the day. The slides include Pamela Anderson, Kate Moss,
Jim Lehrer, O.J. Anderson, and Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. "Then
we used art historical pictures," says Song. "I use a lot
of Perseus and Medusas, and also some Paleolithic figurines. Those
are from 25,000 B.C. I’m just trying to look at images of sexuality
in a really broad span of time and move them about my body."
Song — and that’s her real name — is actually a singer in
a rock band called Suran Song in Stag. The band is merging the esthetics
of music and visuals and is pushing the envelope hard in the effort.
While playing a juice bar in Wilmington, North Carolina, Song and
Bill Weis, her bassist and husband, gave the concept of canvas organic
trimmings: they wore nothing but body paints and played an entire
show au natural, despite warnings from some locals that nudity
was frowned upon there in Jesse Helms’ backyard.
At New Brunswick’s Budapest Cocktail Lounge last year they wore nothing
but white pancake makeup — and slide projections — freaking
out the lounge’s owner (New Jersey statutes forbid nude performances
in venues where booze is sold). For weeks afterwards, the bar was
fielding calls from people who thought it had switched to a go-go
Last month Suran Song in Stag returned to the Budapest
again, but this time the recently married Weis and Song relented,
donning white cloth jumpsuits instead. And while the images projected
well on Song’s body canvas, she admits that something was lost in
the translation. "It’s much more of a clear statement when you
are buck naked," she says. Suran Song in Stag (named as such because
Song is the only woman in the band) brings the show back to New Brunswick
for a gig at the Melody Bar on Friday, April 17, at 10:30 p.m.
One onlooker at the Budapest last month described the combination
of Song’s music, body, and images as impersonally sexual. "That
pretty much hits it on the bone," says Song. "It’s really
a discussion. It’s about using self-objectification in a way to get
people to think along with me or let me think in front of them. My
body becomes a buttress for the conversation. It doesn’t become an
end in itself — or a meal that’s devoured." But Song is slightly
incredulous that nude performances still summon such controversy.
"People have been doing it for years and years and years and years
and years and it still shocks people."
In a gig at the Melody in January, Song stood on a stool and had the
images projected onto a large bedsheet draped around her. She appeared
to be nine feet tall. Depending on the song she would step on and
off the stool, thereby elongating her body and the images. She also
tapes the clickers onto her costume and changes the slides in between
songs and sometimes verses. Some images stay in the background perpetually.
"We put up a baseball game with the idea of it being about a game
or a competition and getting from one base to the other," Song
The band has recently released a CD, "Shiny Objects," a self-produced
effort on the band’s own label, Cruel Music. With titles like "Date,"
"Fuquan," and "Cribbage in Provincetown," stream-of-consciousness
images and feelings create canvasses of their own to sublimate the
art ethic. The music, written by the whole band, summons memories
of Talking Heads, Fugazi, and Red Cross. It uses driving power chords,
bass-driven melodies, and searing leads to rock home a feeling of
angst and incredulity at the panoply of images confusing us on our
home planet. But the whiffs of Laurie Anderson and art school intellectualism
soften the message.
Another fun thing to do at a Suran show is watch the eyes of the audience
— they could be on the 15 million images, the song lyrics also
projected on the stage, or on Suran’s often-transparent outfits. "I
think, successfully, they don’t know where to look," says Song.
"On the whole, women really look at the image on my body more.
For them it’s really more of an intellectual thing. Sometimes when
I look at guys their faces are a little more split."
Song is of Korean and Greek extraction. The daughter of two librarians,
she went to an alternative high school in her hometown of Ann Arbor,
Michigan. "It was super crunchy," she says. "You could
eat and smoke in class. You could call the teacher by their first
name." Then she went to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia,
where she finished with an art degree (Class of 1990), and to the
Parsons School of Design in New York, where she got her masters in
1993. Her first job out of school was for Peter Max, the renowned
1960s artist whose pop psychedelia portfolio included the Beatles’
It was at this point that she started doing performance art in Soho
and Chelsea galleries. "It was all right, but doing the stuff
in an art gallery was really super sterile," she recalls. "Everyone
was so polite about the stuff, I didn’t feel it was communicating
right, so I started working with musicians."
But her inspiration for packaging her message in a band format didn’t
happen until after a stint teaching art to sixth graders in Los Angeles.
She moved to Lakehurst to be with her mother and then "started
thinking about putting visuals into three or four-minute pop songs,"
In 1995, she considered moving back to New York, but
had already begun to piece together a band in the Garden State. "In
New York, everything is so saturated, the institutions don’t pay attention
to what’s in their own back yard. They want everything imported from
other countries and other cities. There’s no regional pride."
Song first started playing with Claude Coleman, a drummer who played
with Ween and now has a solo project, Amandala. Song’s new band, formed
in 1996, features Weis on bass, guitarist Brian Sugent, and drummer
Jason Reynolds. "We all have really different tastes in music,"
says Song. "We all love Bowie to death."
Now about that marriage. Both Song and Weis are freelancers and live
in Princeton. Weis does Web pages and Song does graphic design. Recently
she completed a project for Simstar, the multimedia firm based at
190 Tamarack Circle. They came together as a result of the band and
eloped in March (perhaps they prefer to confine their ceremonies to
the stage). The proceeding happened at Princeton Borough Hall, where
Marvin Reed, the mayor, presided. Band members Reynolds and Sugent
were the witnesses.
Song thinks the marriage will help the band stay intact. "If anything
it cemented things, we now talk about 10 years from now," she
says. But keeping the band’s visual attack going turns out to be a
pretty expensive endeavor. "It’s basically where all my money
goes," she says. When she started in 1991, she had one $250 slide
projector. "I have five of them now," she says. "Over
the past seven years I’ve probably invested $3,000 or $4,000 just
in equipment, and with the CD, it was double that. But it’s totally
worth it. One of my favorite profs, Rona Pondick, said you shouldn’t
let the money stop you." The same goes for public nudity laws.
— Peter J. Mladineo
New Brunswick, 732-249-3784. Friday, April 17, 10:30 p.m.
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