An earlier 'Nude Descending a Staircase' - Muybridge
An earlier 'Nude Descending a Staircase' by Muybridge

Polyethylene Pet - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Band

The year was 1977 - a common year starting on a Saturday. The National Museum of Modern Art in Paris was inaugurated, as was Jimmy Carter; Led Zeppelin played their last show; the world was introduced to the Clash, Talking Heads, Pavarotti, Star Wars and the TRS-80; America fell in love with Anita Bryant all over again; Elvis died and snow fell in Miami for the first and last time ever.

A great time to be alive. The political scene was vibrant, pure and as honest as ever. It was in this social climate that Polyethylene Pet was born.

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Polyethylene Pet group shot
Polyethylene Pet group shot
Mendocino Headlands
Mendocino Headlands
Filthy Lucre
Filthy Lucre

Neighbouring Metals - The Emancipation of the Dada Aesthetic

Kimara Sajn, a Canadian composer, conceptual artist and musician from Vancouver, British Columbia, had long been creating compositions which fused ideas from contemporary art and chamber music with those from popular entertainment culture. He leveraged techniques borrowed from musique concrete and conceptual/performance art, resulting in unusual works which often featured tape manipulation and other abstractions.

These rather abstract works were seldom if never performed by the various rock groups he worked with, however. Since he was able to also write catchy numbers in the accepted styles of the day, he did this, in order to find playmates and to eat and so on. Privately, however, he longed for the day when his more Dadaist tendencies could be unleashed upon the world. This came in 1977 when he moved to Mendocino, California.

In California, he met his good friends Erling Wold and Brian Woodbury, two likeminded artists, with whom he discussed the concept of a performance art group that did not perform. That is, a group which created meaningful compositions, and put on performances, but didn't exactly perform. Needless to say, they loved the idea, though they had no clue what the hell he was talking about. He had been inspired by the approach of the avant-rock band Faust, the Rock-in-Opposition (RIO) ideas of Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, the band Henry Cow and other similarly political, conceptually rich artists in the rock and modern classical universes. He wanted to put these intellectual abstractions in a context that could resonate with and actually affect an ordinary person, feeling that it would be more powerful and communicative than preaching to the choir.

Kimara set about producing an album under the name Polyethylene Pet. The first was called "Smile" and contained a mix of avant-progressive tracks, in the vein of Henry Cow with a twist of more abstract Zappa-styled elements, and pieces for magnetic tape. Erling and Brian took part in this recording, playing certain instrumental parts and generating helpful conceptual commentary. The music and the attitude of the recording, made on a 4-track over a few days, properly reflected the anti-art aesthetic he was hoping to foster with the group. This, combined with the fact that there was no actual group, fit the tone perfectly.

While in Mendocino, he took a job teaching music composition at the revered Community School (an offshoot from the high school). There he discovered a small and immensely talented group of, apparently, highly impressionable students, who took his anti-art conceptualisms to heart ... well ... wholeheartedly. This inspired him to record, with their assistance, the second Pet album "Smile - FAT TOOLS". This album came in the guise of a radio-broadcast-cum-pop song collection. It was deliberately quite LO-FI (this was years before it became fashionable) and still mixed in tape abstractions and complex avant-progressive music. The students who took part in this recording included the singly named Tuffer on sax, Yosef Katz on station breaks, Kirsten Denner on station breaks and conceptual assists, and Chris Diurni, also on station breaks and conceptual assists. As it turned out, Chris Diurni was a kindred artistic spirit who would later help Kimara realise the performance aspect of this non-performing group.

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Cavellini Sticker
Cavellini Sticker

Chris Diurni, Performing Pet Non-Performance and Massivist

It was now 1979. Kimara had been teaching at the school for over a year. With the help of Wold, he mastered and released both Pet albums on cassette, to his small and ever shrinking list of fans. They were both quickly unembraced by the public who thrilled to numbers from the first album such as Dance of the Mad Molecule, toetappers such as the collage piece "Freeform" and the 15 minute tape work "Meonoon" as well as the radio-unfriendly tunes from the radio satire "Fat Tools".

His students however, who totally got where he was going with this, encouraged and inspired him to continue the vision. One who completely understood was the amazing Chris Diurni. Chris was an extremely gifted guitarist and music student whose mother was the well-respected conceptual/Dada artist Polly Esther Nation. She and other artists such as Buster Cleveland were pioneers in mail art and other conceptual art movements. Chris turned Kimara on to the artist Cavellini and his concepts, one of which was self-historification and the creation of faux-biographical artifacts. This somehow seemed a key piece to the Pet puzzle. The band needed to make itself real, in order to become the absent entity. As it stood, they only existed on recordings, as a virtual unit.

Chris and Kimara struck up a very deep friendship and musical bond, and formed an actual band - "Edgewise". This group was comprised of the advanced composition class - Chris, John Bush, Tony Vito, Phil Milner - and monster guitarist/bassist Michael Ward, a friend. With the exception of Kimara and Michael, everyone in the band was under 18. This did not reflect, however, the incredible talent, tight execution or musical sophistication of the group. It was a fiery, energetic and exciting unit. Kimara had helped to build a school recording studio, with Philo Hayward and Chuck Bush (John's dad and co-founder of the school), and so managed to record this band. The recording, "WedgeVision" was released for the first time by Precognitive Records in 2008. It features the raw, untamed energy of Diurni's guitar playing as well as stunning performances from Tony Vito (on drums) and all of the other players.

The back story of Edgewise, in keeping with their conceptual bent, Dada spirit and the newly adopted ideas of Cavellini, was that it was really a group called "Massivist" who had recorded, as "Edgewise", a more or less accessable music "for the masses". And that, at some point, Massivist would return to present it's REAL art (which may or may not involve music). The slogan "Massivist Lives" became an in-joke of the group, a means of obscurification and a self-historifying tactic. The album contains this slogan and other deliberately cryptic statements. This would become a very important notion in later Pet projects. Sajn and Diurni immediately realised that this technique of self-history provided the means to have a group put on performances in which they themselves do not perform.

Kimara decided to produce the first Polyethylene Pet show in Mendocino, to try out some of these ideas. The very first concert was held at the Mendocino Art Center on December 8th, 1979. It was billed as a Polyethylene Pet concert, complete with pamphlets describing the band, it's faux-history, the personnel - which included all who played a part in conceiving the pamphlet (which was the only aspect of the performance involving the band) and so on. Members of the Pet this time around were Kimara, Chris, Kirsten Denner and Jeff Armbruster. The actual show was akin to a John Cage piece, with Kimara welcoming everyone, followed by tape compositions and conceptual pieces wherein the audience were the unwitting performers. Surprisingly, the concert was a hit, with everyone having a good time. Wonderful though this was, it didn't make him happy. He wanted to get a rise out of the audience - to stimulate and provoke them. To this end, he and Diurni set about planning for the next annual show.

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Polyethylene Pet/+1 dynamic
The Polyethylene Pet/+1 dynamic

Fat Tools Live and The Rise of +1

In 1980, Chris Diurni moved to Santa Cruz, California, followed not long after by Kimara, who had been composing a new performance piece called "FAT TOOLS". The performance itself took place on Dec 8th, 1980 with Kimara, Chris, Jeff Armbruster and Peter White. This show was about how audience expectation shapes a concert experience and thus featured a "rock band" on a "stage" performing "stuff". However, this band was not called "Polyethylene Pet", although the show was billed as a Pet show. The band was merely an element of the larger experience and was called "+1" (originally named for a plus sign and a negative sign back to back, the pop YIN to the Pet YANG as it were). The show started with the audience entering the room (an event actually listed in the program with the title - "Audience Entry" - as the first tune, with a duration). Then there was a piece called "Silent" which was also listed with a duration, and was a scored piece which consisted of 8 minutes of the group (+1) on stage silently watching the now seated audience. Then there was "Band Introduction", wherein the "band" kicks into an extremely quiet funk groove above which the members are introduced and the audience thanked for attending. This was followed by the title cut from the Fat Tools album, which consists of an unresolved chord being sustained until, as the score says, the performer can't stand it any longer, at which time it resolves and holds for 15 seconds. The entire show went on this way, interspersed with music for tape and various audience interactions, with the "band" only on stage for less than 1/3 the total show length.

This concert also was extremely well-received with people finding it fun, uniquely musical and thought-provoking. Once again, Kimara was not happy with the outcome. He was sure there would be rioting but, in spite of the severe diversity of the audience (having been invited from all walks of life, young to old, rocker to classical music lover), people seemed to get it and enjoy it. Both elated by the execution and disappointed by the lack of an execution, he started working on the next annual show.

Earlier in the year, Chris and Kimara were invited to be the performers for the opening and closing of the highly-regarded InterDada-80 festival in Ukiah, CA. Chris's mother and Buster Cleveland were the organizers, and they were to be hosting Cavellini himself! So Kimara composed two pieces: one was a collage composition for tape, constructed using a series of complex edits in realtime over the course of the week before the show - to be used as the opening performance (with no one performing) and the other was written with Chris for actual performance on guitar and wind organ (as "+1") for the closing. This performance was later released on CD in 2004 as "Polyethylene Pet - Live at InterDada 80". Kimara and Chris were both quite pleased with the response and support received.

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The last hour has been bought for you by Red Balloon
Bought for you by Red Balloon
Schopenhauer as a young man
Schopenhauer as a young man
A Money Melt
A Money Melt

Opposite Optimism, Alien Radio and Existential Funk

In 1981, Chris Diurni moved back to Mendocino, having written and recorded Polyethylene Pet's seminal EP "+1 - Slow Photos" in late 1980 with Kimara. This was an album which featured reversible music (a constant in Kimara's output); political and social commentary disguised as pop music; and complex avant-progressive abstraction. It paved the way for the notion of colliding commercial musical ideas with highly uncommercial ones in a rock album context. They discussed ways to present these ideas in a non-Pet live performance setting but were never to realise them.

Deciding to leverage the "rock band" angle, in order to reflect on popular music culture and commerce, apart from the abstractions of Polyethylene Pet, and free of the performance art aspect, Kimara started recording the first official +1 album "Opposite Optimism". This album combined sincerity, tunefulness and a heartful rock music with complex avant-progressive music of the kind on the Pet albums. +1 albums are solely about music and the listening context itself. These projects are stylistically unpredictable from album to album (and often from song to song) not unlike an old-style FM radio broadcast. The in-joke for the project is that it really is an alien radio broadcast (aka "The Alien" or station "c-WK40") - and that the band exists only as facilitators for this broadcast.

The music in +1 projects may be completely accessable pop, or funky jazz fusion or a tender song one moment and a complex tape piece or contemporary chamber music the next. It's highly unpredictable. On the other hand, Polyethylene Pet recordings more reliably tend toward ambient electronics, tape pieces and other abstractions.

Often, musical and pop cultural references can be found in the form of adverts, station breaks and other media/commerce evocations. These ideas are never far from the surface of the album presentations. Even so, these albums tend to be far more accessable to the ordinary listener, and thus more subversive.

There has never been an actual +1 concert, being as the band was conceived as an entirely fictional character in Polyethylene Pet shows. This doesn't keep them from having their own life, in record form, apart from these shows, however. In fact, more albums have been produced under this moniker than under the Pet tag.

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An Angel
An angel
Love and Joy, Magic and Wonder
Love and Joy, Magic and Wonder...
A Devil
A Devil

The End as a New Beginning and Virtual Visuals

The last physical Polyethylene Pet concert "Visuals" was held on Dec 8th 1981 at Moraga Concert Hall in Santa Cruz. It featured +1 more prominently than the others, and contained far more traditionally musical material also (with fully 1/3 of the show devoted to the "rock concert" aspect). Predominantly, however, the show was not about the rock concert aspect and featured mostly visual events and audience interaction. The themes of the show were the same as the others - popular media and culture, entertainment rituals (such as "rock concerts" and the accompanying accoutrement), audience expectation vs artistic expression, etc. This time, although it was somewhat less aggressive than the previous Pet shows, the audience was torn between folks who loved it and folks who were FURIOUS about it. Kimara was in seventh heaven. This was the reaction he wanted. Part of the provocation was, evidently, the subversive accessability of the affair. People said they were surprised and either entertained or upset by the show's many unexpected twists and attitude, after being lulled in by the music. This show has been represented on numerous "Pet" recordings, primarily Exciting New Dirt and "Live/Visuals". This time, the "+1 live unit" consisted of Kimara, Ed Dickie, Van Spragins, Joe Palermo, Peter White and Dave Egan on tapes. And a finer band one could not find.

In 1985, after a brief couple of years back in Mendocino, Kimara moved, with his wife and Pet/+1 co-conspirator B.Sue Johnson, to the Seattle, Washington area. Over the course of the next 20 some years, he would go on to release that many more albums under his own name, as well as "+1" and Polyethylene Pet, with B.Sue assisting musically - writing, performing and helping with concepts. As of this writing (2007), the first Polyethylene Pet show in over 25 years "Virtual Visuals" can be found on this site. It addresses all of the same concerns of the previous shows: popular media and audience perception, entertainment culture and so on. An online representation of a virtual "rock concert" (featuring +1), complete with the usual concert ephemera (interviews, merchandise, etc), it uses current technology in a creative way to make comment on technology and how we experience art. The group this time consists of Kimara, B.Sue, Ed Dickie, Joe Palermo and Van Spragins with Tim Z Falconer assisting.

In keeping with the Dada aesthetic, everything is done using public domain materials except for the actual music - which is as unpredictable, lively and heartfelt as ever. A new Polyethylene Pet album is in the works and will hopefully be released early 2009. This is one group which refuses to stand still while moving forward.

Andre Breton
Not written by Andre Breton (b. 1896 - d. 1966)