The program for Back To Back, an exhibition featuring newly commissioned works by chukwumaa, Ngu Asongwed, and RP Boo, curated by Guy Weltchek

Four friends dance to each other in a circle. They share their energy generously and take it in turn to hype one another up. Their jubilant expressions fold into a pattern, many lifetimes of meaning behind each gesture. In perfect flow, they write the future together.

That’s the scene that came to mind when I encountered wreckin (2022) by the artist chukwumaa, who’s also in sound and performance art duo SCRAAATCH. Four sound sculptures of various heights, composed of car batteries and speakers and a variety of objects held together by orange tape, each emitting a burst of music in sequence and inviting the audience to eavesdrop. The fragmented nature of this listening experience — rhythm in fits and skitters — direct the ear’s attention to the space between the sculptures, to the often obscured relationships between the people and places that pollinate the music.

wreckin was commissioned for a new exhibition titled Back To Back, which explores the connections between Black regional dance music forms, including Jersey club, Baltimore club, Chicago footwork, and Miami bass. It was curated by Guy Weltchek, who grew up in New Jersey, for his thesis exhibition at Bard College. “Back to Back was inspired by my interest in what I’ve loosely referring to as club music,” Guy told me over email. “I use this term to describe genres that emerged beginning the late ’90s and broke from the four to the floor pattern in house and techno.”

Initially, I wondered if each sculpture represented a specific city, but after reading the exhibition notes, my assumption revealed itself: “One of the sculptures incorporates a block of solidified palm oil, a cooking and topical oil extracted from a species of palm tree native to West Africa, referencing the West African origins of many of the musical traditions explored in Back to Back and their subsequent migration around the world in the modern era.”

I reached out to chukwumaa to ask if wreckin more generally represented the dialogue between the various musics and locations.

“I realized early on in making wreckin that I couldn’t really separate any of the sounds along non-porous boundaries any more than I could separate Western Africa and Western European influences or the sounds in or around the Gulf of Mexico,” chukwumaa told me over email. “So each speaker is more about *some* examples of *some* transformations of sounds, for example, Miami bass music feeding into Baltimore club via Frank Ski’s direct influence, or DJ Tameil talking about physically traveling to and from places like Chicago and Baltimore for tracks that went off well in the New Jersey parties of the time or how early Brazilian funk is heavily connected to the sound of Miami bass too!”

“Long answer short, yes, it’s focused on the dialogs, especially in response to what I commonly experienced in dance music journalism as a ‘Galapagos fallacy’ of isolation,” chukwumaa continued. “‘We found this new sound coming out of the hidden and isolated hoods of xyz place and it sounds like nothing we have ever heard, so it obviously sprouted out of thin air!’ Well I imagine that sample-based musics (many of these sounds are!) would have to at least come from those references, for starters! So I took Guy’s thesis around the connections between Jersey and Chicago and just kept going, the sample chains never stopped.”

In Back To Back, chukwumaa’s sculptures dance in a space of adjacencies. Alongside the premiere of a specially commissioned mix by Chicago footwork pioneer RP Boo, and next door to a new video work by New Jersey artist Ngu Asongwed that stars Jersey club dancers Khari Johnson-Ricks and Blue Smith, who shape their limbs into language in response to music by producer Tah. There’s a lovely moment in the short film where a series of text messages bubble up on-screen in anticipation of a night out. Visual representations of an internal ache, somewhere between the organs, to dance with friends through time and space.

Update: April 18 2022

I followed up with chukwumaa to ask about the title wreckin. Did it refer to the salvaged parts that each sculpture is made of? The use of car batteries made me think about the crisscrossing of literal and metaphorical roads that the artists and sounds have taken.

wreckin is definitely meant to be multi-meaning, but I hadn’t thought of that one,” chukwumaa replied over email. “I like it! Especially because found and post-consumer materials are important to how I make sculptures. Including the provenance/origins of materials and the stories and associations that come along with them.”

“I was originally thinking of a ‘trainwreck’ (or clang etc) mix, as well as a (dance) battle or fight,” continued chukwumaa. “Where I grew up, some people called fighting wreckin. I wanted to reference on a micro level the dance circle and the way many of these dance music styles have a tightly-related dance and/or dance battle culture (I also did this through the arrangement of the sculptures) and on a macro level how different scenes and sounds sort of find themselves vying for credit, attention, and ultimately, the resources that come with them (I think back to every time I’ve heard someone from one scene say, ‘We did x before x scene that is getting more shine right now,” the Chicago —> UK —> BK drill continuum, for one with a linear connection, or Chicago and NY/NJ simultaneously birthing House and Garage respectively, for one with a parallel relationship, or even seeing younger Ghetto house/early juke scene folks deride Jersey Club as stealing their sound). For me, this is again connected to the colonialist and capitalist myth of isolation (and related distortions) that typical dance music journalism introduces and even encourages. The sense of a trainwreck mix here is formal in that each separate culture is not synched to each other, so the sounds are expected to clash at moments.”

There’s a lot for writers with an interest in electronic music to digest here. Thanks to chukwumaa for sharing so generously. Check out more of chukwumaa’s work here.