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Standing on the Corner’s Divine Interventions

With 'Seven Prepared Pianos for the Seven African Powers', the multi-hyphenate collective transforms MoMA PS1 into a site for spiritual communion.

By Isabel Ling

September 20, 2023

Standing on the Corner: Bembé Secreto, performed at MoMA PS1 on June 3, 2023. Image courtesy MoMA PS1, photo by Marissa Alper.

“I’m trying to return the piano back to its most original form, which is a drum,” Gio Escobar, the frontman of New York City art ensemble Standing on the Corner, tells me in a recent interview.

In the group’s first museum presentation Seven Prepared Pianos for the Seven African Powers, organized by curator Ruba Katrib and on view at MoMA PS1, the piano is transformed into a site for spiritual communion. 

The exhibition centers seven different piano models, each selected for how their physical make-up and acoustic characteristics compliment the distinct personalities of the seven deities they represent. Placed in a circle, the installation is activated through a performance titled Bembé Secreto, which recontextualizes the percussive instrument as a decolonial vessel. “In a way, we are trying to destroy this Eurocentric image of the piano,” adds Escobar.

As an ensemble, Standing on the Corner is amorphous, shifting in membership according to each artistic undertaking. For Seven Prepared Pianos, collaborators included Escobar, Aya Brown, Carly Heywood, Christian Martir, Kat Tom, and Aja Grant. The performance consists of five concert pianists scouted by the collective, as well as Escobar himself playing individually prepared pianos, each composition a sonic offering dedicated to a different African power. The music, a melding of African, Caribbean, and Western musical and spiritual traditions spirals upwards and outwards. Punctuated by the altered instruments’ plinking and metallic vibrations, the performance is an aural narrative unfolding, an invitation into a dizzying encounter with the divine. 

Standing on the Corner, Installation view of Seven Prepared Pianos for the Seven African Powers, MoMA PS1, New York, 2023, image courtesy MoMA, photo by Marissa Alper.

The invention of the prepared piano is often traced to composer John Cage, who is said to have pioneered the manipulation of piano strings with object interventions out of a desire to “place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra” In Seven Prepared Pianos, Cage’s deconstructivist approach is reconfigured into ritualistic rite. Offerings that range from a small forest of miniature model trees to silver, aquatic-themed trinkets are carefully wedged between piano strings alongside the typical bolts and screws to achieve the composition’s sonic textures. Cameras installed in the body of each piano capture a live video feed of the interventions, with Escobar’s disembodied, white-gloved hands occasionally appearing in the frame to adjust the positioning of the objects. Where previously, Standing on the Corner has employed video in installations as a commentary on the surveillance of Black and Brown communities, here it is used as a medium for holy intercession. “I didn’t want people to actually look inside the pianos. It’s like that myth with the lady with the snakes… Medusa? You should never look a god in the face,” Escobar quips.

Each piano is configured as an altar and is carefully adorned as such. Swathed in streamers and glittering cloth, material is used to invoke the favor of the divine. One piano glinting with scavenged scrap metal, features circuit boards inlaid with cowrie shells, a gesture towards the ancestral technologies used for celestial communion. Attentive viewers will notice that the installation is diffuse with secret rituals. In Seven Prepared Pianos, god is everywhere and in everything.

Initially conceptualized to be a spinning carousel of rooms, visitors are invited to walk at the perimeter of the installation as the performance progresses. An orbit takes us through a series of distinct worlds that range from a beach cemetery, to the high heavens, to the red velvet interiors of a place of worship. In one scene, outfitted to look like a New York City street corner, a Helpinstill Roadmaster piano and its miniaturized twin remain unplayed throughout the performance. A mannequin dressed like Escobar in a khaki pants set and Timberland boots lies on the ground, sheet music still clutched in his hand. The allegorical mise en scène suggests that the supposed musician for this altar has just had a piano fall on his head, divine intervention, perhaps, in response to the bequest of a jilted lover. 

Standing on the Corner: Bembé Secreto, performed at MoMA PS1 on June 3, 2023. Image courtesy MoMA PS1, photo by Marissa Alper.
Standing on the Corner, Seven Prepared Pianos for the Seven African Powers (detail), MoMA PS1, New York, 2023, image courtesy the artists

The installation draws from a rich visual vernacular rooted in the New York City, Puerto Rican, and African diasporic communities the collective is borne of. Humorous and deeply specific to the communities it represents, the installation’s dense assemblages are abundant in intimation and in-jokes. Escobar is fluent in the practice of doubling, proposing entendre as an antidote to DuBois’s consciousness. This methodology of transcultural tricksterism draws inspiration from the insurgent origins of La Regla de Ocha-Ifa, which Escobar calls a “fugitive religion.” Known also as Lukumí or Santería the religion was first developed by enslaved West Africans as a strategy to preserve Yoruba religion and traditions under Spanish colonial rule, which decreed Roman Catholicism as the sole religion. Through the process of syncretism, these Afro-Caribbean communities paired Yoruba ancestral deities, or orishas, with Catholic saints, allowing them to continue their spiritual practices and ceremonies undetected by the colonial gaze. A durational exercise in survival, many current practitioners are intentionally secretive about the religion around outsiders — in an interview from the 90’s one New York City botanica owner recalls purposely sharing incorrect information about the religion’s inner workings to academic researchers as a protective measure. The maintenance of opacity in order to preserve tradition, culture, and the self, is an ethos that Standing on the Corner extrapolates across their output, often infusing their works with an “if you know you know” sensibility—a strategy, perhaps, for navigating the Western institutions the group often showcase in.

Central to the myriad endeavors Standing on the Corner has produced since its founding in 2016 is a desire to reanimate the archive. As a musical collective, which in its present iteration includes the collaborators Syl Dubenion, Jack Nolan, Buz Donald, Clerida Eltimé, and Devin Starks, the groups’ experimental records deftly thread samples from across decade, genre, and sonic medium together with fuzzed distortion and their own freewheeling improvisational jazz, creating music that feels decidedly futuristic. Other more curatorial projects have included the “Puerto Rican Rumble Rock Radio Offensive,” a bi-weekly WKCR radio show transmitting salsa and Latin soul classics. 

Most recently, the ensemble took up residence in lower Manhattan’s Performance Space, hosting the Taino Needle Science Institute. Amidst programming that included community “chair yoga” and talks with Black revolutionaries, visitors to the Institute’s almost weekly “drone acupuncture” performances could receive free acupuncture, the same detoxifying medical treatment the Young Lords administered to community members in their 1970 takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx.

Gio Escobar (center) in Standing on the Corner: Bembé Secreto, performed at MoMA PS1 on June 2, 2023. Image courtesy MoMA PS1, photo by Nathan Bajar

For the most part, the group has been able to avoid the Frankenstinian trap of revival by skirting nostalgia (and its obsession with authenticity) in favor of ecstatic reinvention. As an archival project, Standing on the Corner’s preoccupation lies with the living, carving out spaces in the present for histories rendered ephemeral because of their existence outside of the Western canon. 

In The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), Kathleen Collins’s resplendent, magical realist film about a trio of orphaned Puerto Rican brothers who are roped into helping an elderly neighbor with the renovation of her home, Victor Cruz , the eldest and the “historian” of the family (played by Randy Ruiz), is constantly recording his thoughts on a reel-to-reel, a proxy for his communications with the ghost of his father. This interpretation of archiving, as a way to sustain conversation with our ancestors, appears across Standing on the Corner’s practice in initiatives like the collective’s film club Unseen Nuyorican Pictures, which stages free-to-the-public screenings of Nuyorican films, including The Cruz Brothers

Because of the platforms available to them, the collective has stepped into the role of caretaker of collective memory. Most recently, the collective hosted a curated selection of films as a part of Saint Heron’s curated series at BAM. Through the screening of one film, La herencia de un tambor, a documentary about the Puerto Rican musical traditions of bomba and plena, the director Mario Vissepó was reunited with his own archive, a work he hadn’t seen essentially since he’d made it. 

“In a sense we’re trying to reinvigorate an economy for these filmmakers and artists who have made these amazing contributions they’ve poured their identity and souls into and just haven’t gotten credit,” Escobar reflects, “It’s something as artists we can do for one another, you know, and I hope that if I’m ever forgotten somebody would do it for me.”

Bembé Secreto closes in jubilant crescendo, with all six pianists joining together in a final, swelling chord progression that I’ve caught myself humming often in the months since the performance in June. The effect of the prepared pianos performed in tandem mimics a cacophony of voices, a thunderous echo from the ancestors. In their practice as archival excavators and cultural interlocutors Standing on the Corner has situated their art among a long lineage of artists, musicians, organizers, and healers—joining up with a chorus of other voices of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and the Black radical tradition, the collective ushers the force of their memory forth into our present.

Standing on the Corner: Seven Prepared Pianos for the Seven African Powers continues through October 9 at MoMA PS1, with additional performances on September 29 and 30.