Whenever music finds itself in less than typical venues, the result are often spectacular. I’ve seen ethereal sounds under the greenery of Garfield Park Conservatory and tender indie rock at Fourth Presbyterian Church. There is something about an unusual juxtaposition like those that truly enhances both elements, letting you see their beauty in completely new perspectives. Which is why that Prime Time:⌘R (Refresh), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Pitchfork’s collaborative event, was one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had in a long while.
Every floor of the MCA was full of people wholeheartedly diving into the existing and exclusive exhibitions alike. In fact it was a little difficult to decide where to look, everything felt worthy of an experience. You couldn’t simply ignore exhibitions like Surrealism: The Conjured Life or Kathyrn Andrews’ Run for President even if they have been running since November. Everything felt soaked in a brand new lights and sounds as Tim Kinsella and Tom Krell DJed between the live acts. Kinsella and Krell’s focus couldn’t have been more different, and yet their musical choices were particularly perfect for their respective times. Krell especially as he let the hip hop vibes permeate during his DJ set. Prime Time offers a completely different experience that a usual day trip to the MCA.
I was so entranced by the atmosphere that I showed up a little late to Jimmy Whispers’ set in the first floor lobby. I was lucky to arrive in the midst of a particularly emotional section of his set, where he twisted his mic cable around his neck and pulled up as hard as he could as a sole trumpeter stood in the foreground. His faced turned bright red as he sang through the self-hanging, contrasting what I thought at the time was a black and yellow floral shirt. I wasn’t surprised to see such an extreme form of Whispers. His performances are always insanely inventive and tiptoe across the lines of sincerity and absurdism, but always entertaining.
Eventually Whispers undressed, revealing his shirt to be a dress. I should have known that this was the case, but Whispers’ has a way of sucking you into the moment, leaving behind all expectations. He started a new song, going over to his iPod to change the music, before finding himself crawling up the stairs and crooning with all his might. Whisper energy and complete devotion to his songs was amazing even without a full band. His final song came in as a cover of “Que Sera, Sera,” bringing the whole audience in with him to sing along.
There was so much to do between sets that it was borderline impossible to be bored or aimless at the event. The top floor was occupied by the more interactive aspects of the ⌘R. One section was occupied by the Busy Beaver Button Co. offering guests their red (heart), blue (head) and yellow (gut) personally buttons and a chance to make their own buttons out of magazines. Towards the rear was the Chicago Zine Fest creating the zine that would eventually be distributed at the show. But right at the entrance of the 4th floor was Bit Bash providing indie video games for attendees to indulge in, with Johann Sebastian Joust being the most inclusive and energetic of the bunch. The game had players holding PlayStation Move controllers, which if moved to quickly or tapped would result in a loss. It was so fun watching and joining in on that Sportfriends’ game, walking around the floor strategically trying to eliminate other players.
Bitchin Bajas took up the center live spot of the night, playing in a small balcony on the 3rd floor. The spot was tiny, with many listeners trying to cram in with the band instead of peering up from the second floor. The band’s sound slowly moved into existence, practically sneaking up on the crowd below. Their meditative performances can often be lost in translation if the mood isn’t just right. Luckily, MCA seemed to really fit in with what the band was doing, and the attentive audience below them were completely enthralled.
While every performance and exhibition had the refreshing sensation that the event was named after, the Tracers Spa on the 3rd floor was the one that was most emotionally rewarding. In addition to the manicures, hair braiding, and ASMR therapy, the spa experience also offered a feminist advice station. Not a single one of these treatments felt like a by the numbers for art’s sake. Instead it was an honest and completely sincere take on conversation and connectivity. The conversation between people were in public but maintained a confidence found in privacy.
Holly Herndon capped off the night with an enthralling electronic set that shed the coldness often associated with electronic music. Instead of clean and clearly antiseptic sounds Herndon opted for a more on the fly performance, emphasizing the human element in her music. She and her cohorts, Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self, spoke to the audience through a projection of sans serif font. They greeted the crowd and made it very clear that this wasn’t going to be typical. Together, the trio admonished technology that ignored its sense of humanity and declared the set as a way of bringing the crowd together.
Even more importantly they paid tribute to Trayvon Martin, starting off the set with thoughts certainly worth remembering. The words were typed in the moment, just as the music would eventually be composed and the dizzying array of chaotic imagery that would later accompany Herndon and co. Candyman posters and 2D card board cutouts of people and objects being thrust into motion in the moment by Dryhurst through a 3D realm launched the set into heavily surreal territory, but the messages presented at the start of the performance felt all the clearer the further we traveled into it.
I absolutely wish that MCA would put on more than three Prime Time events in year. ⌘R is only the second type of these events that MCA has put on and it has proven to be a perfect way to experience a full immersion in the museum. The next Prime Time event will take place on May 6 and will be a collaboration with Metro/Smart Bar, another music-centered and commendable partner that will surely continue the great series.
Photos by Julian Ramirez