Invisible is a band, and it isn't. Yes, there are guitars and synthesizers and amplifiers onstage, playing structured music that respects typical performer-and-audience conventions. But there are also elaborate, homemade instruments that are part-sculpture, part-exploded mechanism: an enormous water-driven drum machine, a typewriter-driven piano, an array of outdated computer monitors. Elsewhere, an extensive cast of found and archaic media components—from the salvaged messages of old answering machines to Commodore 64 data tapes—holds court. In fact, Invisible brings so much gear to gigs that it can take the better part of a workday to set up.
While the Greensboro project's initial lineup played rock clubs five years ago, the current iteration is more suited to art galleries. Accordingly, when Invisible plays a two-night engagement at Nightlight this week, they'll be joined only by one other act each night. By this point, joining multi-band rock club bills is both stylistically improbable and logistically impossible.
Bart Trotman plays keyboards and electronic drums with Invisible while also filling the ensemble's requisite A/V geek role, too. "We realized we couldn't do both things, so we let the rock thing die off and focused our efforts more on a performance that was equal parts visual as well as aural," he explains. "That pushed us towards performing in galleries and art events, coupled with the fact that it takes us forever to set up. It kind of alienates us from playing with other groups."
Such one-act gigs freed Invisible to construct maximalist setups, culminating in shows like The New Obsolete. Member Mark Dixon can also construct and use his intricate and experimental instruments, something he has been doing for more than a decade. The drum machine he uses for The New Obsolete, for instance, is water-driven.
"There's this kind of troglodyte digital thing happening," he says of his machines. Dixon feels that performer interfaces don't require a bottleneck—a screen or knobs and switches, say—and builds instruments that are more tactilely (and, therefore, visually) engaging. He's simultaneously fascinated and alienated by the way things work.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've taken apart things so I could put them back together—mostly unsuccessfully," he explains. "I can't figure it out, so I tend to make my own version of things and accept the eccentricities. I love the way that I fail to reproduce the 'real thing.'"
For Dixon, there's no moral lesson or agenda to the devices involved in The New Obsolete. Instead, Invisible uses them to explore the idea of planned obsolescence and its junctions with everyday life. "We're thinking," Dixon says, "out loud about something that's thought about a lot."
It's a constructed concept, but it has real-world implications.
"I have an older cellphone, so when my friends with iPhones send me text messages, sometimes they come in the form of pictures—my phone doesn't really handle pictures all that well, so it cuts me off from them," Trotman says, exposing the conceptual underpinnings of this familiar phenomenon. "So I have to make a decision—do I allow myself to get cut off from a certain group of people or do I join up and buy whatever it is and enjoy communicating with them?" In its show, Invisible brings in far more obsolete technology—the Commodore 64, VHS units—to present this disconnect. In this music-driven array of mechanism and lost media, as Dixon describes it, the members of Invisible step onstage like mammals among dinosaurs.
Today, Trotman is hunting dinosaurs of the electronic ilk. He's in a thrift shop somewhere between Greensboro and Washington, D.C. If he's on the road and he sees a secondhand store, he'll typically plunder its media section for video- and audiotapes that he can either incorporate in a future show or simply ponder. Today, in a stack of CDs, he finds music by Billy Joel, MxPx and a horde of Christian rock acts.
"I think I'm going to skip that," he says.
Sometimes, however, there's gold in these bins, and that is how and why Trotman builds the End User Archive—Invisible's ever-expanding multimedia library. Trotman mentions tapes of Kevin Trudeau's fraudulent MegaMemory program, meaning it can be an absurd collection. But it can be strangely poignant, too. "There's this sense of kind of haunted audio or haunted media," Trotman says. "If you pop in a cassette tape that's someone's Christmas morning from 1985, it feels like you're listening to ghosts."
Dixon says that they listen to some of the home-recorded tapes over and over again, trying to decode exactly what is happening. If not for this project, many of these tapes never would have been heard again.
The New Obsolete doesn't only explore technological obsolescence but functional biological obsolescence, too: Dixon built a Selectric Piano—a piano powered by a typewriter—specifically for Jodi Staley, a professional transcriptionist. She questions how much longer her job will even exist. In turn, her keystrokes often set Invisible's rhythm.
"With voice-activated software that types for you, the transcriptionist is about to become a useless or disappearing office part," she reckons. "I'm currently re-evaluating my mode of making money for the future, and looking for ways to get off the grid and stay close to home—hopefully making most technology obsolete to me, before it makes me obsolete to the workforce that I'm currently dependent upon."
Even The New Obsolete has now run its course: This double-header is likely the end of The New Obsolete's planned yearlong run. The installation has taken Invisible to regional art museums, including a special daytime Moogfest engagement at the Asheville Art Museum, and it has expanded their profile. But Invisible doesn't end with The New Obsolete. Dixon is still building unlikely instruments. Trotman is still perusing secondhand VHS tapes and cassettes. Our cultural cache of obsolete technology is still expanding. That's where you'll find Invisible lurking.
"The dustbin is definitely more full than the archive," Dixon says. "And we like to play in the dustbin."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mammals and dinosaurs."