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“Mobilizing Difference,” by Nuit Banai

Like a post-modern bricoleur, toying with concepts and conditions of possibility rather than gadgets and gizmos, Romeo Doron Alaeff disassembles and rebuilds the devices that help maintain the semblance of a unified sense of self. In practices that include video, film, photography and music, Alaeff pirouettes on the thin line between fusion and confusion, gently pulling at the seams that hold the fictional fabric of reality in check. For more than ten years, this New York based artist has explored the experience of inhabiting liminal zones, those architectural spaces, psychological and physical states in which contradictions collide. In these unlikely spaces and fleeting situations, dissonant perspectives, beliefs, emotions, sounds and rhythms briefly coexist. For Alaeff, such unsettling ‘in-between’ states, where synthesis and separation are only infinitesimally differentiated, contain the potential for both terror and beauty.

 Alaeff’s most sustained exploration of this subject is Still Life with You, Stories about a Restless American Family, a film series devoted to his idiosyncratic, exuberantly complicated relatives. His current project in this series is a feature film sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts documenting eight years in the life of Alaeff’s younger brother, Gabriel, as he negotiates the threshold between adolescence and adulthood. The saga chronicles the challenges of being caught between Judaism and Christianity; the two different belief systems that Gabriel struggles to reconcile in order to function within his multi-faith family. In one of the most poignant scenes from an early film, Believe (1996), Alaeff asks his brother “Gabe, do you believe in God?” The thirteen year-old responds, “Yes, but its a little bit more complicated than that…You see, it’s like there’s a DJ…and two different [music] groups…and he mixes them together on one mixed tape, well, that’s kind of like what my God is, a mixed tape, because I’m Jewish and I’m Christian (He begins rapping…and I’m Texan and I’m Jewish and I’m Christian).”

 It comes as no surprise that Gabriel uses DJ’ing as common parlance to explain his existential crisis to his brother nor that he adds a third term to break out of the binary that he is in. For Alaeff, sound plays a fundamental role in the constitution of the individual and is an arena of unmined possibilities that destabilizes binaries. In the last five years, he has transformed his fascination with the idea of a multiple unity into a signature DJ’ing style based on sequencing and blending. In the notion of musical sequencing and the auditory connection to pre-rational states, Alaeff tries to undermine the linear element of time. His sets, constructed out of a palette of music that has no internal logic either through genre, tempo or label — rely on the listener to make both retrospective and prospective connections at every instant. For example, a track by rapper LL Cool J may be followed by a track by Reggae maven Sister Nancy, followed by the electro-clash-art spectacle Fischerspooner and wrapped up with a track by Berlin based Ben E. Clock. Alaeff leads his listener through this potentially chaotic mélange by blending the tracks together in relation to an overarching emotion or sensation that he tries to communicate throughout the set. For the listener, then, the disparate genres are synthesized into a fluid experience that exceeds facile dichotomies, through Alaeff’s guiding hand and their own creative ability to transform sound into memory images ofthe past and wish images for the future. These aural experiments have been showcased internationally in Berlin, Tel Aviv and New York at such venues as Cookie’s, Tamarz, Turntables on the Hudson, Sapphire Lounge, and Halcyon. In fact, it was while opening up for two years at ‘Acupuncture,’ a weekly party sponsored by Breakbeat Science at Halcyon in Brooklyn, that Alaeff’s mix-up style caught the attention of legendary drum’n’bass impresario DB and the party known as ‘Shift’ was born. Since September of 2002, Alaeff and DB have been collaborating in eclectic sets that continue to explore the space of thresh-hold. In a single night, each DJ performs his own type of sequencing in thirty-minute sets that fuse electro, house, 80s, rock, classic hip-hop, dance hall, punk, funk, mash-ups, and nu skool beats. That the popularity of this party continues to grow suggests Alaeff and DB are able to turn a conceptually driven, experimental model of pastiche into a danceable event.

Beyond DJ’ing, Alaeff continues to work with sound as a way of complicating the primacy that images hold in manufacturing our understanding of reality. In the video series, Crybaby (2002-2003), recently presented at the “Sonic Self” exhibition at the Chelsea Art Museum in March, 2003, Alaeff explores the act of crying in relation to strategies of filmmaking. The narrative is reduced to a bare minimum. An attractive, young brunette, wearing a simple white t-shirt, occupies center stage with only a black backdrop as contextual signifier. Tears well from her eyes, slowly at first then in abandon, and soft whimpers gradually turn into choked sobs. She seems introverted and absorbed in her own malaise her eyes averted from the Camera’s gaze except for one or two moments of direct eye contact. We know nothing about her or what led up to such emotional distress; we do not even know if it is feigned for the camera or if it is real. Yet, despite this vacuum of information, we cannot help but empathize. In fact, with each identical four-minute video loop, her tearful performance evokes different emotional registers. Pathos, anxiety, pity and, in our attempt to give meaning to such seemingly unmediated emotion, an imagined internal narrative of heartbreak at the end of summer or an accident on the highway. If we disengage from our emotional reaction, we realize that the accompanying soundtracks are the only changing variables in the identical image-loops and are the ingrained devices that pull at our heartstrings. Two of these were readymade tracks given directly to Alaeff from Moby & duke b, based on their personal reaction to the video while three others, by Chi2 Strings (A string trio who has worked with the likes of Moby, Boy George, Lamb & Nelly Furtado), JohnTurner and Axel Belohoubek were written as original scores. In this collision between manufactured images and sounds and genuine emotion, we understand the even the most ‘natural’ and individual aspects of our life are multi-layered social constructs. More troubling, popular forms of entertainment such as filmmaking, exploit identical strategies to control the fabrication of our reality and our sense of self.

To describe the double aspect of his work, the beauty and terror of experiencing life as perpetually multiple, Alaeff uses the metaphor of a spinning coin. In the same way that natural laws of gravity always pull a spinning coin downward, forcing it to fall on one of its faces, it is human inclination to choose a single lens through which to frame experience. Despite the difficulty or near impossibility of the project, Alaeff strives to keep the coin perpetually spinning so that both of its faces are always visible. In this dialectic, there is also the proposition for a sublime model of subjectivity, a way of navigating spectacle culture by continually, and always just, exceeding the limits of unified experience.

Nuit Banai is a Doctoral Candidate in the History of Art at Columbia University.
(at the time of writing, 2003)