Last month, as bidding was underway at Sotheby’s for what would prove to be a stratospheric Jean-Michel Basquiat sale, Lonnie Holley, a 67-year-old artist who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and has worked for decades in various folksy and homegrown modes, was preparing to take the stage at a sports bar in Durham, North Carolina. He was sitting at a table in the back, in a place that stank of burgers and beer. An audience of a few dozen had convened for the occasion, though it was hard to distinguish between Holley fans and regular denizens of the Bullpen, a joint next door to the stadium for the beloved local minor-league baseball team, the Durham Bulls. Night-game lights were bright outside. Televisions above the bar showed the Bulls making easy work of the Gwinnett Braves, in town for a weekend series from Georgia. The air was thick and languid in the way it tends to be on a deep, hot Southern summer night.
Holley is a hero to some: as an artist, he has made formidable paintings and sculptures that have been collected by the Souls Grow Deep Foundation and exhibited by museums and institutions all over, and as a musician, he has forged an unforgettable sound with a stirring voice and stewing electronics. For all his accomplishments, though, Holley remains underappreciated—certainly not as known in the worlds of either art or music as he should be.
So first came an introduction. Tim Duffy, the founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization devoted to preserving musical traditions of the South, took to a microphone and lavished Holley with praise, running down a list of laurels and markers of a legacy still in the making. “Thumbs up for Mother Universe,” Duffy said, thankful for the cosmic conception of an artist he clearly revered.
Then, just moments before Holley ambled up to assume his place behind a keyboard covered by a quilt stitched with a large “H” on front, a news alert arrived by phone bearing word from the New York Times of Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) going for a record-breaking $110.5 million to a buyer sending bids from Japan to Manhattan. In Durham, the news felt like a transmission from many worlds away. Here were two African-American artists, born 10 years apart in New York and Alabama, one a ghostly legend in a message on a phone and the other a lanky man about to start singing inner-head hymns to forces all around him. Over accompaniment from spare drums and slurry trombone, Holley warbled a sort of incantation, like Otis Redding played at too slow a speed. “How can we come together?” he wondered in song. Then, in a spell of repetition, over and over: “Thank you.”
The setting for Holley’s performance was Moogfest, a self-described “synthesis of music, art, and technology” organized under the aegis of Moog Music, a manufacturer of synthesizers with history dating back to the 1960s. The festival has been happening in North Carolina since 2010, when it took up near Moog’s home base in Asheville; last year, it moved a little more than 200 miles away to Durham, a city on the upswing in the so-called Research Triangle (with other coordinates in Raleigh and Chapel Hill). It’s an odd affair: a gathering for experimental electronic music and art in a small city stowed away in the South. And it’s all the more resounding for its oddness.
I was there in part to interview Michael Stipe on stage as part of the festival. The former R.E.M. frontman—and subsequent artist in many different mediums—was presenting a new installation work, Jeremey Dance, for which he had filmed an old friend dancing in front of a green screen and composed music using Moog gear to accompany it. The piece was projected on the windows of an empty storefront in the middle of town, and it turned out that the masses assembled to see it were watching a man of much significance to Stipe: Jeremy Ayers, an artist who had lived in New York and frolicked as one of Andy Warhol’s superstars (under the name Sylva Thin) before settling in Athens, Georgia. Stipe had met him in his early years and Ayers served as a sort of muse, taking him on his first visit to a thrift store—the fabled Potter’s House that supplied wild threads to fellow Athens freaks like the B-52s—and otherwise brokering epochal connections between New York and the burgeoning Athens music scene of the early 1980s.
Ayers passed away, unexpectedly, last fall, so Jeremy Dance turned out to be an unintended memorial. It was a spirited one, with an impish silver-haired man who couldn’t have been less inhibited dancing for seven minutes in intimate close-up, with all the tenderness and awkwardness that such a scenario would seem to entail. Stipe was emotional talking about it all, tearing up and falling silent for a long stretch on stage, but he was clearly happy to share in the memory of a momentous presence in his life.
The music Stipe recorded for the piece is electronic and more club-minded than might have been expected from him, with abstract drum-machine beats that worked their way toward more smoothly rolling house and techno rhythms. Hovering above were seething synth figures and foreshortened snips of vocals that were recognizable as Stipe but only just barely. Talk of future plans during the interview tended less toward music and more toward art—he has a pair of at least partly photography-inclined books in the works for this fall and a proposed series of carillon compositions for Jonathan Berger’s short-listed The Bell Machine for the High Line in New York, among other projects. But the big, bounding sound of Jeremy Dance made one hope for more in the way of pop music too.
Moogfest sprawled over much of Durham in venues including the stately Carolina Theatre (opened in 1926) and an old armory building (with dubious acoustics) as well as bars, clubs, and a big outdoor stage erected specially for the occasion near a disused gas station that had been transformed into a brewery. The heart of it all was a complex of rooms and a central meeting place in the boiler room of the old American Tobacco campus, a historic home for cigarette makers dating back to the 19th century. A giant smokestack and an iconic water tower rising up there inform the city’s skyline with fading signs that read, LUCKY STRIKE.
It turned out that Sylva Thin—the “Warhol superstar” alter ego of Stipe’s friend in Jeremy Dance—had roots in American Tobacco too. The name was taken from a cigarette made by the company, which in 1970 courted controversy with advertisements that claimed “Cigarettes are like women. The best ones are thin and rich.” Following a boycott of the brand instigated by the National Organization for Women, the company used its promotional resources to develop a character known as the Silva Thins Man: “a suave smoker,” as once described in the New York Times, “in wraparound sunglasses.”
No longer used for its original purpose, the tobacco campus has been reconceived as a home for hip upstart office space and family-friendly eating/entertainment, and during Moogfest it hosts a wondrously nerdy four-day trade show and expo featuring electronic-music gear by Moog and other manufacturers. Exhibitors included brands with names like Voltage & Company and Erogenous Tones. A miniature factory demo featured an assembly line for Moog synthesizers being crafted by earnest workers by hand. (In 2015, Moog Music changed its structure to be principally employee-owned.) Attendees strolled in slow and orderly lines to gawk at things like Force Sensitive Resistors and try their luck at stations where drum machines and synth modules could be switched on and played. For the most seriously invested aficionados, workshops and classes abounded, including “Synthesis of Abstract Visuals Using Lasers,” “Savage Technologies and the Misuse of CGI,” and “Witchcraft & Code: Female and Non-Binary,” to name just a few.
The music at the festival itself enlisted electronics in many different modes. One of several long-duration performance pieces had the English artist known as the Haxan Cloak and Nick Zinner (guitarist for the rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs) collaborating on a misty, noisy, amorphous ambient sound installation for four hours on a Friday afternoon. The guys from S U R V I V E, creators of the soundtrack to TV’s Stranger Things, were splayed out with others on the floor, digging it. In the headlining slot that night, Animal Collective squirmed and yawped through a set of would-be demented lullabies and otherworldly sailors’ songs before Derrick May, one of most masterful and elusive practitioners of Detroit techno, took the late shift with a DJ set of dance music suited for a wasted after-hours idyll or a brooding dystopia.
My Saturday morning began with an off-circuit diversion to Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, where a solo painting show by Nina Chanel Abney shared space with a tribute exhibition for the late Barkley L. Hendricks. The works by Hendricks, who had a close relationship with the Nasher until his death earlier this year, included three photographs and three paintings, among them two large oils from 1975: Bashir (Robert Gowens), a tall triple-view portrait of a man in a fly coat and hat, and Take All the Time You Need (Adrienne Hawkins), an intimate horizontal view of a woman lying around in her underwear with a feather boa and candy-colored striped socks. The latter was made shortly after Hendricks had paid a visit to Durham with his girlfriend (Hawkins, from the title), who would strip down on hot summer nights to work on moves for a dance festival at which she was a performer. “It’s a damn good painting,” Hendricks himself told the Nasher decades later, in 2014.
Meanwhile, back at Moogfest, the day program was heavy with panel discussions and artist talks—more than could be attended by one lone soul. On Saturday afternoon, a stage was given over to a conversation on the theme of “Prisms, Mirrors, Lenses: Tricks of Light, Time, and Sound in Afrofuturism,” with speakers including the DJ/producer King Britt and emerging artist Moor Mother alongside members of Ono, a self-described “experimental, noise, and industrial poetry performance band exploring gospel’s darkest conflicts, tragedies, and premises.” References to poet/theorist Fred Moten and science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany flew at the start, before talk turned to ways to try to reconcile time. Moor Mother said she thinks of time less as a line and more as a spiral, to properly account for the past and the future in any given present. “A lot of my ancestors are speaking through me,” she said of questions she had mulled as to what it might have been like to travel on a slave ship from the Congo to the Carolinas. The past is a principal part of any futurism, she said, before wondering, “Who has access to the future we all talk about? Does it include all of us?”
After that was “How the Immortality Bus Changed Transhumanism Forever,” a presentation by Zoltan Istvan, who ran for U.S. president in 2016 with a cross-country campaign and a platform premised on transhumanist ideals. Among his goals, Istvan said, is a desire to “spread awareness that with the right resources we can conquer death through science and technology.” Among his less heady revelations: he has a microchip implanted in his hand through which he can open doors to his house and start his car.
Music for the night included DJ Jubilee spinning sultry R&B and booming Miami bass in a tiny bar before, on the big outdoor stage, Flying Lotus took to astral-traveling through cosmic/electronic jazz and sampled allusions to Twin Peaks. As the music played, a spectacular thunderstorm gathered and flashed in the background, menacing but also thrilling in its way. “Do you think the lightning is part of the performance?” a fellow festival-goer asked aloud. The collective answer: “Probably!”
After Flying Lotus’s headlining extravaganza was done, it was back inside to the armory for trim, tough Berlin-style techno courtesy of Function, an American DJ/producer who has been a longtime force in the dance-music underground. At one point, he played a track with a vocal part that offered instruction by way of a refrain, repeated over and over and over again: “Live in the future. Live in the future. Live in the future.”