There was a lot to love about America is Hard to See, the sprawling inaugural exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. One of its less obvious treasures was hidden inside a pitch-black room on the sixth floor, where a slideshow presentation featuring some of New York photographer Nan Goldin's most memorable work ran on a loop. Titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the hundreds and hundreds of photo slides depict the extreme highs and unbearable lows of the late-’70s and early-’80s Downtown scene with the bruised honesty of a total insider. While the groundbreaking photo book of the same name contains a gorgeous edit, the 45-minute slideshow version leaves nothing out, presenting an unfiltered barrage of life being lived, heartbreakingly set to a playlist of classic tunes by The Velvet Underground, Dionne Warwick, Lesley Gore, and tons more.
To celebrate the project's 30th anniversary, the crew over at publishing house and general arts institution Aperture Foundation dedicated their Fall Benefit to The Ballad. Tonight, for a single night, Manhattan venue Terminal 5 will become one of the rowdy, tightly packed nightclubs that Goldin used to screen the slideshow inside, and all the musical accompaniment will be performed by real-life musicians. "It was an incredibly influential project that changed the landscape of contemporary photography," Aperture's executive director Chris Boot told FADER over the phone. "We built an event around celebrating that moment."
For the music portion, Aperture tapped an eclectic but appropriate cast of characters: performance artist Laurie Anderson, folk singer Martha Wainwright, improv king Samuel Rohrer, and club-punk outfit The Bush Tetras. The evening's musical director, the glue that will hypothetically hold everything together, is Pat Irwin—the composer and ex-B-52s member who played in no-wave band 8-Eyed Spy alongside Lydia Lunch. Here, Irwin talks to The FADER about prepping for the one-off performance.
What is your personal connection to these images?
PAT IRWIN: I'm from that time. I was in a band with Lydia Lunch, who's in the photographs and then there are other friends in the photographs. I think Nan refers to the subjects as her “tribe,” and I would safely say that my tribe intersects with that. We were all part of the similar scene in Lower Manhattan. There was so much of this beauty in the air at the time. I remember seeing these photographs, and seeing Nan show them live, so this is exciting for me. It’s gonna be another dimension.
How has your reaction to the photos changed since first seeing them back then?
Now, I look back at them and I see a kind of beauty that I didn't see. Lots of times it was almost like I was too close—I would be looking at friends. Now I can step back and see the narrative, and more of a beauty, and I can appreciate how personal they are to the photographer in ways I don't think I could have when I saw them the first time.
Parts of the slideshow are pretty heartbreaking. Is it emotionally overwhelming to watch at times?
No, it’s not overwhelming to me. To be honest, I find it increasingly beautiful.
In terms of the live performance, are you drawing inspiration from the songs on Nan Goldin’s original soundtrack?
Oh, definitely, but that’s a personal playlist, and we’re coming at it as composers and musicians. We might evoke some of it, but I think a new sound is going to come out of it. I don't think we'll do the songs specifically, but we may allude to them. There’s a very personal energy that Nan’s work has; the subjects nearly stare back at you. What I'm going for is something basic; I want to honor that narrative, and that process. I don't want to underline the images, I want to create a counterpoint and an accompaniment. I want it to be cathartic by the time we're at the end.
“You know that feeling when you play a song, and it’s your song? These were Nan’s songs.” - Pat Irwin
Are you going for a specifically nostalgic sound?
I wouldn't say I'm going for anything specific, I'm going for what I'm going to get. I think when you're at your best you can be yourself, and what’s fun about this is we have Laurie Anderson, Martha Wainwright, and The Bush Tetras. There's really powerful female energy with those three. I don't think anyone would specifically say it’s an ’80s sound, it’s more about the energy of who they are now. Each one has a different personal style and I'm just excited about what it’s going to be when it’s in tandem with the photographs.
We're looking for a certain kind of spontaneity. Nan talked about the camera being an extension of like, her hand. She said if there was a bottle in the middle of the shot, that’s just where it was, that’s the way it was going to be. And I think, to a certain degree, we're going to adapt that kind of vibe. There’s basically no way we're going to recreate the original soundtrack, so what we're hoping for is something completely new and different and unique. We want to bring our individual selves to it—to honor the original work and pull that narrative out of it.
What is the relationship between Nan Goldin’s photos and music?
I have been thinking about that since the minute I looked at it. What is it about the Velvet Underground, what is it about that song that takes it to another place? In a way, the music is helping to provide a narrative, making it like a diary. You know that feeling when you play a song, and it’s your song? Those were Nan’s songs. I'm amazed at the power of music and images—that’s all I can say. When images and music come together, it’s like the third mind, there’s another element—and I'm really looking forward to having that happen.
It's interesting that for this function, the slideshow is the main event—like the center of the action. For her original screenings, it was kind of just peripherally playing in the background of the party. How are you approaching it differently, knowing that?
I just want to do the right thing. I want it to be right and I want it to be perfect, but you know, live music isn't like that. And in a way neither are the photographs. They're not perfect, but they have their own perfection. They have their own beauty.