Charting Kathy Slade's Soundless Chords, Brady Cranfield, essay from exhibition brochure, 2006
Basic guitar tablature or tab is a simplified pictorial representation of guitar chords. It is utilitarian, a useful didactic device for musical self-learning. In tab form, the frets closest to the guitar's head and its strings are depicted as a grid, with finger placements for notes depicted as dots. New players in particular make use of tab to learn chords, from principal to alternate, and this is an early experience likely shared by most guitarists. An accessible, pragmatic and non-specialist form of musical notation and pedagogy, there are many tab-based chord books available as well as many online resources, including extensive archives of popular songs. Rendered in tab form by often anonymous enthusiasts, these ever-growing archives feature classics like Stairway to Heaven or (Sittin on) the Dock of the Bay to the most recent (if sometimes obscure) indie-rock favourites, such as Sublimation Hour or The Fox in the Snow. With access to one of these archives or a tab chord book, a record collection, time and practice, most everybody is able to learn at least elementary guitar, probably more.
The promise of self-directed instruction and autonomous production offered by the simple accessibility of guitar tab was notably highlighted by an illustration in a 1977 issue of the early English punk fanzine, Sniffin' Glue, founded and edited by Alternative TV's Mark Perry. Roughly scrawled and cheaply copied, the illustration shows three simple chords (A, E, and G major) in tab form with the proclamation, "This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band." This pedagogical/rhetorical illustration concisely articulates the then-nascent punk "do it yourself" ideology, which continues to hold influence. As depicted straightforwardly by Perry, thereby emphasizing the position being postulated, the notion of D.I.Y. is a foundational concept and a fundamental value -- and indeed even a near-spiritual edict -- for subsequent punk-oriented cultural production, music-based or otherwise. This is especially true for the North American trajectory of 1980s second-wave punk, post-punk and hardcore, as if re-enacting a kind of rugged cultural frontierism. Now widespread, D.I.Y. is a principle accepted as a cultural commonplace, informing craft collectives as much as contemporary shopping-mall-wear accoutred emo-punks, if thereby somewhat deracinated.
But if guitar tab in the context of punk subculture fosters a self-empowering and community-focused D.I.Y. ideology, Kathy Slade's extensive collection of embroidered tab chord "samplers", titled Chart, suggests something else in contrast. Her black and white minimalist display, a grid of over one hundred canvases spanning an entire wall, is D.I.Y. turned infatuated impulse. Subtle yet overwhelming, this work depicts a kind of obsessive-compulsive, late-capitalist excessiveness -- a Veruca Salt-type subjectivization, a disposition present in many of Slade's recent works. Full of less commonly used minor, augmented and diminished chords, this collection is the gluttonous tab book demanded by the insistent, anonymous but somehow simultaneously universal "I" of Slade's poster work, I WANT IT ALL I WANT IT NOW, also in black and white. Perry's idealistic "three chords" cannot satisfy this implacable demand, which seems to propagate by means of its own edgy inner energy. Caustic, unsympathetic, inhuman -- or, perhaps more exactly, ahuman, as if surpassing humanity -- this power is not containable or reconcilable. It is unable to be positioned within the context of any concise subjectivity, exceeding all borders and boundaries. Yet it is by virtue of the very blockages and limitations of its confined context that this irresolvable demand for "All" comes into its own, becoming powerful enough to command the impossible.
For all its insistence, this urge for "All" is fantastical, fed by its own propulsion, never touching earth despite its overtly worldly directive. Rather than wanting material realization, this drive is thus oriented towards the course of its own never-ending orbit. Drive here is understood in terms of Jacques Lacan's reading of Sigmund Freud, in which drive is not an animal instinct but an attenuated psychological impulse abstracted from simple human biology. For Lacan, drive does not anticipate a specific final goal, but instead is sustained by virtue of its perpetual aim, which sends drive circling endlessly around its ostensible target: the eternal way of the aim is ironically its very goal. This closed repetition is itself a source of pleasure, one that perpetually delays resolution like an otherwise uncomplicated pop song that evades its home key at its finale, leaving listeners wanting, yearning. And like this hypothetical pop song, drive is thoroughly cultural and symbolic; it is also partial and multiplex. There are several drives, in other words, not a single drive: Lacan's topology includes oral, anal, scopic and invocatory drives, the latter two relating more closely to desire than the former. As such, drive does not equal desire, which in contrast has a ubiquitous constancy, albeit elusive, incandescent. Returning to Slade's work, although drive might fix on her humongous woolly Orange Pom-pom, for example, desire would fuel the unconscious attraction of the object as a sublime-infused thing, the source of which is not tangible in the conflux at the non-space of the pom-pom's heart.
Slade's I WANT IT ALL poster, Pom-pom and now embroidered Chart can all be seen as different targets for the same unending, almost tragic aim of drive, an inevitable overshooting that turns back on these specific, culturally demarcated objects in terms of critique: the lived world is simply not enough, never "All." From this point of view, Alighiero Boetti, one of Slade's influences, similarly aims at the impossible with his embroidered works Order and Disorder and Mappa, both of which emphasize less the futility as the impossibility of fully representing their respective objects. As Boetti shows, despite the best, most inclusive effort, some remainder always escapes such cataloguing, a mysterious extra something -- perhaps the elusive real of desire itself? An absence like this is doubly present in Slade's tab collection, which not only is not really music, strictly speaking, but also is not yet comprehensive. Further, more obscure and even improper chords remain unnamed. Spookily, music seems audible nonetheless, as if always-already in our heads, in this way corresponding to the Lacanian symbolic, the social dimension of language preceding and enabling the formation of subjectivity. Furthermore, like the embroidery samplers that traditionally serve as training for larger works, Slade's tab chords are also representations of alphabetic letters, but translated in a different way. With this correspondence, Western music's partially shared history with rhetoric is apparent: both once promoted balance, organization and reason, a conservative ethic since challenged. Indeed, the problematic nature of language is an ongoing concern for Slade. For instance, her Embroidered Monochrome Propositions (O series) works deconstructively in this respect, with the empty spaces of the Os encircling the void that language cannot reconcile.
With its fascination with doomed-to-always-fail contrivances as language and music (that is, failing in the sense of being inherently incomplete, non-totalizable), Slade's idiosyncratic minimalism in Chart is much more early Dan Graham, especially his 1966 grid and dot-based print work Side Effects/Common Drugs, than the formalistic endeavours of Frank Stella or Donald Judd or the spatial phenomenology of Robert Morris (form-wise, the particularistic minimalisms of Agnes Martin and François Morellet also seem evident here instead). In this sense, Slade's objects are less "specific" than abundantly referential: they expand complexly into intersubjective, cultural and historical space, metaphorically speaking, not just the literal dimensions of the gallery. Accepting this people-scale conciliation, Slade's work embraces the theatricality of Minimalism, its inevitable social dimension, which is the very condition of its embroidery, of being more than basic material -- in other words, of being something also unknowable, excessive. On the one hand, therefore, Slade consequently absorbs while reinterpreting Michael Fried's Greenbergian rebuke of Minimalism: postponing its own closure, Chart is art, not everyday, ignoble stuff. And on the other hand, Slade's work is critical here, too: it is also determinedly prosaic, non-exclusive. After all, what is guitar tab if not commonplace, and meritoriously so? Or thus the punks would have us believe.
Yet Slade is no partisan punk rocker. She trumps the D.I.Y. rulebook by using machine production to create her "handcrafted" embroidered tab chords, producing friction between masculine and feminine social norms and art-historical clichés (think Judd's "manly" fabrications versus Eva Hesse's "womanly" constructions, for example). There is no real solution for this well-worn confliction either, of course, only more deliberation -- yet another irresolvability opened by Slade. With so many questions hanging unanswerable, it is no wonder that a common subtext of much of Slade's work is a pronounced melancholia (see her poignant, winsome video work, Please Please Please, for example). Hence, her tab Chart. It is an old chestnut to proclaim that music is an abstract, universal language, somehow speaking unmediatedly to our emotions (read as pre-intellectual, pre-linguistic). If this hoary conception of music has any credence, then guitar tab would surely be music's Esperanto. Like all utopian schemes, which most often hold forth the fantasy promise of something else, something better, Slade's manifest sadness is well justified: beholding her alphabetical wall of chords, music both is and is not present. Still, one thing music can do is help make this inevitable uncertainty seem not so strange and terrible, more an oddly comforting, even beautiful woe. Sometimes all the rational thinking in the world cannot express the inarticulable abundance invoked by something so innocuous as Don't be Shy, the Cat Stevens tune notated on the A-side of this essay. And yet, here as elsewhere, tab only acknowledges what forever rolls on by.