Terence Hannum tells us we're all gonna die using dead media

City Paper

Like the brutal, beautiful drone he creates as a solo musician and as a member of the only doom band that matters, Locrian, Terence Hannum’s solo exhibition “Decay” goes to great lengths to accurately, obsessively, and painstakingly evoke random chaos. (Full disclosure: Hannum spoke on a panel at CP’s recent “Blade Runner” screening). The medium here is cassette tape, endless spools of it, laid delicately across wood panels covered with an archival adhesive spray or placed on the sprayed panel, magnetic side (the music side, that is) down and peeled off, leaving remnants of data that looks like scuff marks on a gym floor or a street sign slathered with promotional stickers that’ve all been partially picked off. The large wooden panels Hannum uses add a heaving physicality to the work. You see its thickness and size hanging up on the wall. You could pull one of these down and break it over somebody’s head and do some real damage.

The “Trihedron” series (the first you see when you enter Guest Spot at the Reinstitute), consisting of five, 1-foot- by-1-foot panels with lines of tape meeting to form an image that resembles one of the pyramids, is Hannum’s peculiar process at its most hypnotic. In particular, ‘Trihedron II,’ in which the tape left on the panel reflects a gradient, looks more like a graphite drawing, hazy and barely there, like a mirage of a pyramid. This is one of the charms of Hannum’s outré process: Who the hell knows what tape looks like in this context, let alone the ferric leftovers of musical data when it’s stuck on a panel and tediously torn off? So, you find yourself reaching for comfortable precedents: graphite, large swaths of black paint, electrical tape. As for artists, well, Barnett Newman perhaps, or Ellsworth Kelly, only, you know, a lot more metal.

Rarely does Hannum approach the representational, so when he does it’s stunning, offering up a contrast to the rest of these knotty, abstract works. ‘Saturation’ pairs black tape with brightly colored leader tape, arranged as to bump into one another a little over halfway up the panel. It looks a bit like a city skyline, as rendered by some old, outdated video game system; stark black buildings and all of the colors of a stirring sunset in long strips. If all of the pieces looked like this, then Hannum’s work would be far less compelling and much more obvious, but as a stand out, it’s a welcome respite from the starkness of the other work. Similarly, there is “Abscissa”: Tape scraps assembled on a circular panel and layered in a way that looks like digital noise—as when something impossible to represent, such as data from the internet swirling around bumping into itself, is made visual in cyberpunk shlock like “Hackers.” You feel like you could climb inside of “Abscissa” and end up in some digital “The Matrix”-y world.

The way the light hits these works enhances their power too. Blacks get even blacker, affording them a voidlike quality, and colored tape has a twisting, forever adjusting shimmer to it, particularly the gold tape residue used on ‘Disintegration XI’; depending on where you stand,sometimes it’s yellow, other times it’s more of a copper. ‘Phase I’ and ‘Phase II,’ and ‘Resonance I’ and ‘Resonance II,’ two sets which play with parallelism and the stark reflective blackness of the tape, like ‘Saturation,’ approach “tastefulness” and are even a bit ’80s cheesy (they hang angled, with the points of the square aimed at the ceiling and the floor). But they too are deceptively “clean.” If you look closely, bits of white stick out where the tape was not perfectly placed.

These are the visceral, ineffable rewards of minimalism: Small, almost insignificant differences suddenly seem massive next to all of this transcendent sameness. A little bit of blue leader tape on ‘Resonance I’ catches your eye and gets you hypothesizing. And the trick of observing these four relatively clean, mostly black pieces is that you desire the abundance of decay found in “Trihedron.” We spend our whole life trying to avoid things that remind us that we are slowly falling apart but Hannum’s work is at its most interesting when it reminds you that all things break, flake, crumble and go away. 

Exploring this theme with the cassette, the most fragile of formats, one where every act of listening requires putting the tape through trauma, is inspired. The whole listening to music on cassettes thing is a precarious and nervous endeavor because at any moment, the player might eat the tape or the tape might finally give up and unravel. You tempt fate every time you hit play. 

‘Infinite Floor,’ a sculpture/installation made up of two cassette players and sound-squashing foam, forces you to endure “will my tape break?” dread in real time over and over again. It lies on the floor of the gallery, plugged into the wall, and at first you might mistake it for a heater or fan, especially because all it does is project a stop-start buzz. As just sound, it is scary yet ambient, like something trying and failing to do what it is supposed to do, which is always depressing to hear. Specifically though, you’re listening to an ugly tape loop, caught by the player pulling it around, which should evoke dread in music listeners. It is the sound that you hear moments before your favorite cassette gets eaten and it won’t stop.

The gnarly, grinding hum of ‘Infinite Floor’ subtly soundtracks the show and contrasts with the eerie pulses of Hannum’s latest record “Via Negativa,” playing from a record player in the back room of Guest Spot at the Reinstitute, where there’s a clean “merch table” presented as a sacred, meditative space featuring Hannum’s numerous limited edition zines and copies of the essay, “Where Even the Darkness is Something to See: Regarding Terence Hannum” by Drew Daniel. Back there, among the zines (including “Variant” a frustratingly shaped zine of cut-up music notation, diagrams, and images from Hannum’s art, and “Tape Guide,” made up of photocopies of old ’80s cassette ads, many with a homoerotic bent) are a few bound and handsewn zines collecting cassette inserts.

And therein lies an appropriately hedged but still significant degree of hope in this otherwise mean-mugging, the end-obsessed work. Sustainability informs Hannum’s tape fetishizing. Like a hunter whose ethos demands they use every part of the animal they’ve slaughtered, Hannum employs many parts of the cassettes he breaks, not just the tape, for zines, or say, a sculpture. In other words, Hannum, whose art is about destruction, doesn’t waste what he destroys. 

“Decay” is on display Through Jan. 17 at Guest Spot at the Reinstitute

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