Q&A with Alumnus Allison Kaufman on ‘Friday Nights at Guitar Center’

August 15, 2013

A four-minute montage of impromptu in-store performances at big-box music stores, Friday Nights at Guitar Center, by photo and video artist Allison Kaufman (MFA 2008 Photography, Video and Related Media), examines the packaging and stereotyping of identities perpetuated by chain stores in America—in this case, the charismatic identities of pop or rock musicians. friday200The video is on view at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts through Sunday, August 18, and it will also be a part of Kaufman’s solo show next March at Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut. In a recent review, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review called Kaufman’s video “compelling” and predicted it will “take most [viewers] by surprise for its sheer gawking value.”

Kaufman recently answered some questions about Friday Nights at Guitar Center over email.

Before starting this project, had you spent much time in stores like Guitar Center?
I hadn’t. The inspiration for the video came a few years ago, when I was teaching outside of New York City and kept driving on a particular highway on my way to and from work. It could have been anywhere in America—filled with big-box stores as well as a lot of empty storefronts. One of the stores that was still open was Guitar Center. I started thinking about the customers who frequent Guitar Center and other musical-instrument stores, and decided to go in and investigate them.

How difficult was it to get the performers to agree to be filmed?
If someone is in Guitar Center and playing an instrument, there’s an element of exhibitionism that exists already, so it wasn’t that difficult. I would get permission before filming and if someone wasn’t sure or preferred not to be filmed, I would respect that and move on. Most people were comfortable and I would ask them to keep doing what they were doing when I approached them, playing whatever instrument and music they had been drawn to in the store.

How many nights would you say you spent filming?
I filmed around eight or nine nights.

You’ve mentioned that most Guitar Center performers are male. Why do you think this is the case?
I think that, for the most part, the rock-star fantasy—and certainly the version of this fantasy as perpetuated by Guitar Center and stores like it—is geared towards men. Inherent in this fantasy is the idea of being cool, possessing power, youth, talent, sex appeal and technical knowledge.

The proficiency of some of the featured players suggests that they had regular access to their instrument of choice. Why do you think they chose to play at a store instead of, say, at home?
People come into these stores for a variety of reasons. All skill levels and all ages are represented, which is why these type of musical instrument stores—as opposed to smaller, more specialized stores—really interested me. Many are there to kill time, others are playing equipment that is fancier and more expensive than they can ever afford. Some are practicing the one or two songs they know on the guitar while others are trying out music they’ve written themselves. I think that, to some degree, everyone is in the store to connect with music on some level, to see and hear others, and possibly to be seen and heard themselves. I do believe that there is a loneliness that is somehow both abated and accentuated by spending time in American chain stores in this fashion.

Rock stardom isn’t what it used to be. Do you think the rock-star fantasy will persist?
I do. Even though the music industry is changing drastically, we still need music and the “star.” It’s human nature to want to be seen for more than we are, to want to be recognized and adored. Who wouldn’t want the excitement and fulfillment that being a rock star promises?

Do you play a musical instrument yourself?
No. I took piano lessons in elementary school but haven’t played in years.

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most compelling performer you saw? What did he play?
That’s tough to answer. There were so many, and all of the individuals in the video are intriguing and meaningful to me. One of my favorite segments features a young African American man playing piano in front of a very generic and staged set. There are photographs of Elton John and Michael McDonald on the wall behind him, and plastic plants and sheet-music holders. The setting is humorous, and the young man is hip and confidently dressed, yet he’s playing music he wrote himself that is beautiful and emotional and revealing.

Next March, you’ll have a solo show at Real Art Ways. What are you planning to show? Does it relate to or build on this project?
All of the work will address themes of gender, performance, vulnerability and aspiration. Friday Nights at Guitar Center will be on view, along with other new and existing video works.

The show will also include an installation, inspired by the work I’ve done at Guitar Center, that mirrors a staged DJ/speaker showroom at an electronics store. These store showrooms aim to highlight the equipment that is for sale: speakers playing loud music, colored lights, smoke machines, disco balls and dance floors. Yet as these props run incessantly, they wait for a party that never really materializes, ultimately becoming sad and empty stages. Throughout the show, the work will at times remain an empty stage and at others be activated spontaneously by viewers who decide to make use of the dance floor. Those who do dance will become performers, exhibitionists who are simultaneously vulnerable, aligning themselves with the subjects of the videos that will comprise the rest of my show.

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