Keepin' it ersatz 

Transforming the legacy of Detroit techno into a self-created world of Detroit techno-pop, the artists of Ersatz Audio, as their name suggests, glorify the synthetic and artificial. Ersatz’s roster – such as the late Le Car, along with newer entities Adult. (yes, that period is silent) and Perspects – approaches the electronic music of the present with irony, even as it demonstrates a sincere appreciation for electronic forms of the past. The Ersatz Audio label celebrates its fifth anniversary this Saturday at detroit contemporary with a multimedia exhibition called "The Forgotten Sights and Sounds of Tomorrow."

As label founder Adam Lee Miller explains, "It’s always weird to say, ‘Our music’s art.’ That’s a very weird sentence. But we thought the art gallery would help explain what we’re doing. In that environment you would listen differently than if you were at the dance club."

As well as presenting Ersatz’s off-kilter take on modern electronic pop, this free, one-night-only event gives Miller and his partner, Nicola Kuperus, the chance to showcase area artists who have informed the label’s visual aesthetics. The links between Ersatz’s homemade electro sounds and some of the area’s cutting edge visual artists, photographers and designers have been strong since the label was founded in 1995.

"Most of our friends are artists. That’s the group we hang around with. And we’re not just musicians. We’re musicians and visual artists and we operate a label," says Miller, who, along with Kuperus, graduated from the Center for Creative Studies.

Besides contributing paintings to the exhibit, artist Philip Burke provides some ultramundane photos, rendered that much more disturbing (or humorous, depending on your politics) because things are what they appear. "Space Available," a photo of an austere, isolated storage space next to a man-made pond, provides a counterpoint to Kuperus’ own photography, informed by the world of fashion. A definite sense of unease permeates Kuperus’ work, even when it’s something as "normal" as a shot of legs resting on a leather couch.

Both Miller and Matthew Gollnick (former Detroiter, now of LA) share similar ideas of composition and execution. In their paintings, each authoritatively uses collage and superimposition techniques, the juxtaposition of figurative and abstract patterns, and the integration of design motifs and text. Miller’s own "Swimming in New Romance" clues the music genre-conscious viewer in to the links between the evocations of these images and the evocations of Ersatz’s sounds. Riva Sayegh, Rita Sayegh and Scott Stephanoff, who all three have massively influenced the design face of Detroit techno, contribute to the art show as well. Pilot Pictures, the latter two’s production company, will have a multimedia installation at this show.

In conjunction with this exhibit, Ersatz is releasing a companion CD, with images from the show and tracks from the first 14 Ersatz releases. Kuperus provides the cover photo, bringing to the surface what lurks underneath the facade of her contributions to the exhibit. It’s a detail of a sterile office, interrupted by a trickle of blood on a dangling arm. The disk, "The Forgotten Sounds of Tomorrow," will be available for sale – there will be a merchandise table where you can fill in the holes in your Ersatz discography, and also purchase T-shirts, buttons and stickers. "Because it’s an exhibition of ‘art, design, music and commerce,’" laughs Kuperus, referring to the event’s deadpan subtitle.

Also, the Ersatz EP jackets will be on display. In the Ersatz discography, many a 12-inch is practically a work of art, whether it’s through the application of an immaculately designed sticker, a rubber stamp or, most infamously, the inky tire tread of Le Car’s "auto-motif" EP. As the label’s publicity says, "Each jacket was personally run over by Le Car and friends." Ersatz’s cover designs even pop up in the first few pages of Disc Style, last year’s album cover journal for the electronica set.

With the transformation of the Belleville Three into the Holy Trinity of the history of techno, the Detroit spirit often gets overlooked in the face of the Detroit sound. But the spirit, removed from the constraints of genre, still thrives as one of innovation and creativity. As Miller concludes, "When the label first started, if you were from Detroit but you didn’t have the Detroit sound, it didn’t add up. You’re supposed to have that Detroit sound. But we’re trying to follow the legacy of innovation, which is what I think Detroit really is about. You do it for yourself and for the art."

More by Greg Baise

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