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John Lamb, Published October 08 2012

Ice Man Cometh: DJ Spooky/Paul Miller gets prepped for Fargo

FARGO – So a former North Dakota senator and a hip New York DJ/artist sit next to each other…

Sounds like a joke, right?

There was, in fact, joking between Byron Dorgan and DJ Spooky/Paul Miller last week when their book signing tables stood next to each other at the South by Southwest Eco conference in Austin, Texas.

“I can’t imagine a DJ from downtown New York and a senator from North Dakota having a lot of common ground, but we ended up cracking a lot of jokes about former mayor of Washington, D.C., where I grew up,” says Miller.

It wasn’t all laughs between the men. When Miller told Dorgan he was making his first trip to Fargo for a talk at the Plains Art Museum, the statesman had some words of advice.

“He said, ‘So you’re going from downtown New York to Fargo? Just bring a heavy coat,’ ” Miller recalls.

It’s good advice given last week’s unseasonably early snow, but not something Miller needed to hear.

The DJ’s Fargo show was inspired by his trip to Antarctica in 2007.

The installation, “Ice Music,” explores life on Antarctica as well as how the remote, un-colonized continent influences life around the world.

The exhibit consists of two parts; “Terra Nullis” – (translated from Latin to mean roughly “land belonging to no one”) a mix of video footage and a soundtrack composed by Miller. The second part is “Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica,” a series of faux propaganda posters and flags.

“The whole idea is that Antarctica is a remote place that reflects some of the core issues that affect everyone,” namely climate change, says Miller. “Antarctica is kind of like the canary in the coal mine and so is Greenland and both places are facing tremendous amounts of devastation.”

He talks about record high temperatures this past summer and how some scientists predict a worldwide increase of 2 degrees could trigger massive ice melting in Antarctica that will affect wind and water flow patterns around the globe.

Though he may see that in the video, it may not jump out at the casual viewer of the 90 minute piece.

“He’s one of these clever contemporary artists saying something political without hitting you over the head,” says Megan Johnston, director of curatorial affairs and interpretation at the Plains. “He’s really messing with the utopia/dystopia of a country no one owns. What does it mean to have a country with no language, no race.”

Miller says it’s “a real shame” that climate change has not been addressed in the presidential campaign.

“We really need to think about the long term and the problem is people always think in the short term,” he explains. “So I think the arts can play a critical role not only in getting people more motivated, just helping people understand that this is a very serious issue.”

Out in the cold

Miller’s initial endeavor was to create “acoustic portraits of ice,” he explained in a SyFy TV clip.

“It’s a hexagonal shape… You can easily think of it as a tuned material,” he said. “Mathematics and music are combined… You can make it become bells, drums, you name it.”

His experience on the icy continent wasn’t just audible, however. It delivered “an incredible sense of awe,” both in the eye-opening vastness but also the frigid temperatures, which averaged - 70, “and that was in the warmer parts.

“It was breath-taking, all puns intended,” Miller explains. “I think I have a better understanding of the term ‘breath-taking.’ When you breathe in air that cold, it’s like a shock of electricity to the body.”

The trip invigorated the multi-media artist to produce not only video, the graphic designs of the posters and flags and the score, “Sinfonia Antarctica,” but also “The Book of Ice,” a corresponding edition of archival images, graphics and writings about the continent.

A renaissance man (he majored in French and philosophy, has written science fiction and currently is the executive editor for origin magazine, and musically has worked with everyone from avant-garde jazz artists to the Kronos Quartet, from rappers Kool Keith and Chuck D to Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo), Miller doesn’t see the need for borders.

“Music and art, to me, are reflections of one another. They’re never separate,” he says. “It’s really incredible, the intensity music can bring to bear on anything. Any of the social movements of the last century and any of the major issues that have faced people, whether it be civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, there’s always been a good soundtrack. You have to kind of update the formula, that’s what this show is about. It’s not just music. It’s not just art and it’s not just literature. It’s a combination of them all.”

“Like (James) Rosenquist likes samples, Paul likes samples,” Johnston says, referring to the Grand Forks-born artist whose large painting, “The North Dakota Mural,” is a keystone of the Plains’ collection.

The comparison is even more apt since the two artists, separated by nearly 40 years, recently became friends. They live in the same Manhattan neighborhood and met at a museum event.

“It was a beautiful thing. He’s a great guy. Really very open,” Miller says. “There is a very big demographic difference. He’s an older guy from a whole different scene and I’m a digital media guy.”

In fact, Rosenquist is a big part of how Miller and his work ended up here. Plains Director and CEO Colleen Sheehy met the DJ when he was spinning at a Minneapolis Institute of Arts event honoring the pop arts pioneer.

Miller says he’s excited to visit Fargo.

“I hear it’s remote. I’ll fit right in,” he says with a laugh. “Between James Rosenquist and Byron Dorgan, I think I have a really good idea of what’s going on with North Dakota.”

If you go

What: Paul Miller/DJ Spooky discusses his multi-media work including his iTunes app for composing.

When: 7 – 9 p.m., Thursday

Where: Room 140, Richard Barry Hall, North Dakota State University, 811 2nd Ave. N., Fargo

Info: $5 donation requested. (701) 232-3821

What: Performances by Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, Ill Chemistry (Carnage the Executioner and Desdamona), Ernest Rhodes, Scratch Dungeon and D. Mills

When: 7 – close, Saturday

Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave., N., Fargo.

Info: $10 concert; $20 concert and preview meet and greet. (701) 232-3821

Online: www.plainsart.org

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533