The Fall guy

Audiovisual performance artist Asaf Etiel has been hired to warm up the crowd for the post-punk band’s Tel Aviv concert. He promises everything from Michael Jackson intoning like a muezzin to a bloated Elvis chanting like a cantor.

Asaf Etiel 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Asaf Etiel 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Athletes and professional wrestlers may thrive on it, but imagine an artist going onstage knowing there’s a reasonable likelihood that before the end of the performance, he’s going to be drowned out in boos and catcalls.
Welcome to the world of Asaf (Safi) Etiel, aka the Video Sniper, an audio-visual performance artist who will be raising the hackles of fans of British post-punk veterans The Fall when he creates his mayhem ahead of their performance on January 20 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.
The 50-year-old native of Haifa has been warming up the crowd at shows by The Fall for over five years with his Star Search and Destroy presentation.
Media manipulation at its purest, it can best be described as an audio-visual free-for-all using found footage, which is altered through scratching, skipping, and jumping.
“Star search and destroy, a play on the British version of A Star is Born, is a good name for what I do.We tried to find a Hebrew equivalent for it, but couldn’t,” said Etiel last week from his home in Berlin, where he’s lived since 1986.
“Basically, what I do is take video clips of famous stars like Michael Jackson or Elvis and alter them in real time using a scratching method similar to what rap DJs do on records. By focusing on a moment in the video and adding some extra altered audio to it, I’m creating a new video clip and a new form of music.”
That resulting jittery image loops could consist of anything from an “I Want You Back”– era Jackson sounding like a muezzin call to prayer to a bloated Elvis bellowing like a cantor. It can be delightfully deranged. Or depending on the viewer’s mood and patience, Etiel’s desired effect of recreating a record stuck in the grooves, both aurally and visually, can just be plain grating.
For Etiel, who has been devising these audio-visual montages for over two decades, either response is fine. He takes his set clips – his “building blocks” – and varies them depending on a number of factors, including audience reaction.
“The way I go with a clip depends on the audience feedback, the sound of the room, my mood, the kind of music I choose to sample,” he said.
“I react to the audience a lot. This is one of the things that’s interesting performing for The Fall because sometimes their audience is not really into what I do.”
FORMED IN 1976, The Fall have outlasted most of their British punk brethren, thanks to the staying power of its only constant member Mark E. Smith.
Even though they never achieved the notoriety of many of their contemporaries, the band has influenced a new generation of talent ranging from Franz Ferdinand to LCD Soundsystem, and retained a cult of rabidly loyal fans which has enabled Smith to tour regularly ever since. Etiel can attest first hand to the fan’s allegiance.
“At rock shows in Britain, people spend a lot of money, they come straight after work because the curfew is quite early, they stand there with two beers in their hands in the front row and they wait for their favorite band. They see these warm up bands that bore them – but it can be ok if it’s somewhat familiar or if it’s rock & roll,” said Etiel.
“In my case, here’s somebody coming onstage and playing something totally different, something unexpected, something so-called ‘experimental’ and it can be irritating to some, especially the die hard fans. It results in interaction, whether it’s booing to try to get me offstage, trying to turn me off my electricity, or even throwing things at me.”
That kind of response, rather, than force Etiel off the stage, can provoke to go even further out in his art.
“It can be really energizing. I have the power – with the tips of my fingers – to make them really furious. If it’s one of those nights, after the Elvis piece, I’ll put up an image of Barbara Streisand with a fish eye effect (a curved, distorted landscape), and that really sets them off.”
By the time The Fall takes the stage, pandemonium has often set in, just the way Smith probably intended when he brought Etiel on. According to Etiel, The Fall frontman gives him carte blanche in his artistic freedom.
“Sometimes he’ll give me comments, every now and then if he likes something. But we really don’t tell each other what to do,” he said.
The two first became acquainted through Smith’s wife Eleni Poulo (The Fall’s keyboardist), who is a longtime friend of Etiel’s and once roomed with him in Berlin.
“She saw me being interviewed on TV when she was still a kid, in 1985, I think,” he said.
“10 years later, she saw me on the street in Berlin and remembered me. We became friends, and after we lived together and she moved to London, we stayed in touch.”
“One time I was passing through London, and I met her and Mark at Liverpool Street Station café.
He asked me what I did, so I took out my laptop and put on the program I used to scratch and played the Elvis piece on the spot,” said Etiel.
“A couple of days later, he called me and asked me if I wanted to join The Fall for two shows, in Liverpool and at All Tomorrow’s Parties in London.
That was five years ago.”
ETIEL IS expecting a gentler reception from his hometown crowd when he performs here with The Fall. That’s because he appears in his native country often, usually as part of the Wonderful World of Ron & Safy, a show he created with partner Ron Katsir in 1987 and the prototype of his current video mayhem. And when a more sizeable portion of the audience is there not just for the main act but to experience the evening as a whole, the reaction can be considerably more favorable.
“The show I create with Ron is basically a video concert where we used loops from recorded media and extended them to long sequences to create a musical performance,” said Etiel.
The duo have maintained their partnership over the years despite living in different continents, and have staged their show at festivals in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and throughout Israel. Even though he’s spent half his life in Berlin, Etiel is still an Israeli at heart, and returns regularly for shows and to indulge in his passion of hiking the country’s nature trails.
“When I left Israel after the army in the mid- 1980s, it took me six years to return for the first time. But now I come back all the time,” he said, explaining that his decision to leave was based on career ambitions more than any disillusionment with the country.
Etiel will be back in full force on Thursday night in Tel Aviv when he takes to stage preceding The Fall.Whether he’s booed or cheered, he will undoubtedly succeed in achieving his goal – eliciting a response.