System of a Down's Serj Tankian: Upgrading the Dynamic of Art and Audience

I'm still running iOS 5, which means I have ad-free YouTube, native Google Maps and a smartphone experience that's more like playing with bubbles than sifting through index cards -- which would you rather do? It also means my outdated phone isn't compatible with many of the latest apps, and I wasn't going to be able to use it at Serj Tankian's multimedia exhibit, Disarming Time, last month, which required iOS 6 or higher to experience his latest piece of innovation: An art show where each painting is intertwined with a piece of music. Though I refused to budge on my increasingly irrational, anti-update stance, I was determined to fully experience the event that had gathered this eclectic crowd. You know something interesting is going on when Tom Morello, Moby and Richard Dekmejian, a world expert on the history of genocide, are all in the same room.

So I promised my friend an enormous sandwich at Fat Sal's if he would forego the full-immersion element of the show and lend me his iPhone (that was no longer compatible with his snap-on charger since his iOS 7 upgrade, which, I felt, further validated my decision to live in the past). Upon our arrival at the bustling Project Gallery in Hollywood, however, he'd realized he had forgotten his new iTunes password, and sat down to figure it out. Luckily, I'd brought a backup friend. This one had a rickety Android, with 20 percent battery life, that couldn't handle multimedia texts, which he handed to me with a gracious, hopeless smile. I downloaded the app, plugged my iPhone headset into the foreign device, and with childlike faith, aimed the camera at a painting.

A sound crept in, smooth and low, and the clamor of 100 conversations melted away until all that remained was the painting, the music and me. The back-up friend was definitely getting the sandwich. Once "Space Clock (Green)" -- a burst of emerald shades, quicksand-like enveloping a handless clock -- had taken me with a softly wandering beat, I moved on to "Space Clock (Blue)," which mirrored the previous, with the addition of what I can only describe as audible snowflakes, or maybe stars. Nearly all of the 22 multimedia pieces featured deconstructed clocks surrounded by color and abstract shapes, with companion musical compositions that varied as wildly as the moods and hues of the respective paintings. "Timeless" and "Self Portrait" were fast and fun, "Grieving Banner" evoked a jarring sadness, and I found myself at their mercy.

"That's the cool thing," Tankian told me during our chat a few days after the show.

You can display the dynamics of different emotions with different pieces right next to each other. One is totally black and white, and very dark and gloomy, and the next one is bright neon red and happy and uplifting -- and you can do that with an exhibit like this. But that's also my records. You can't pick the one thing. Let's use multiple emotions, let's play with as many colors as possible, because that's fun! Why not? Why just stick to one mood, one emotion, one color?

That last bit pretty well sums up Tankian's M.O. since day one -- leveraging his weight as a musician to create unexpected scenarios: axe-shredding tracks shedding light on social injustice, hard rock laced with soft melody, the frontman of System of a Down composing a symphony and now an art show where paintings are cyber-linked to music.

"Conversion, software version 7.0. Looking at life through the eyes of a tired hub," was the first Tankian lyric I ever heard. I loved that the title track to System's 2001 album, Toxicity, was viewing emotion in technological terms. When I asked him about it back in 2010, he told me the line was probably a reference to the software company used to own, and in our follow-up interview last year, he explained in detail the inventory management system he'd developed for the jewelry industry before launching into music full-time. With all this in mind, I wasn't surprised that Tankian's latest creative project involved adapting a piece of technology.

Tankian says:

Tech is here to stay. We were laughing at the fact that ours is probably the only exhibit that not only allows people to have their phones out, but encourages it because you need it to scan the paintings. It's part of our world. You don't hang out with someone for 10 minutes without them checking their phone for one thing or another. I think you can embrace it and use it in a creative way, but for us, it was a convenience.

Tankian and his crew had experimented with all sorts of speaker arrangements and sonic contraptions before realizing that the only way to create a personal, private connection with the art -- a "complete turnkey solution," as Tankian describes in apropos industry-speak -- was the development of his Eye For Sound app. The larger goal, he says, is to broaden the project to include multiple artists for an expanded multimedia exhibition.

As to the exhibit's central theme, Tankian has been interested in handless clocks as a metaphor for timelessness since the days of SOAD's 2005 double album, when he bought some antique clocks, broke the arms off and, "wrote poetry on them and gave them to the guys in the band as presents," he recalls.

We also integrated the concept into Mezmerize/Hypnotize. The artwork has clocks where the arms are somewhere else, and Dali-esque melting of clocks, that [guitarist] Daron [Malakian]'s dad, Vartan, actually worked into his paintings for [the album artwork]. So when I started thinking of doing musical paintings, I wanted to integrate that idea of timelessness of clocks.

When the conversation turns to his recording and touring, it sounds like Tankian is happily taking a break. "Not at this time," he replies when I ask him if he has any straight-up music plans in the works. "That's the first time I've said that for a while. Yeah, I don't."

And any specific plans for System? "As of now, no," he says.

There are no plans for System or my solo music stuff. I just got off a two-and-a-half month tour about a month ago: a System tour in Europe as well as an orchestral tour. At this point I'm happy just to be doing some more scoring for films and video games and the exhibition, and see where that goes, and take some time -- and then come back and do records and touring again. But for now, I put out six solo records in the last six years, [and toured] with three different outfits, including System, over many continents, and I'm like, time for a little change!

As the crowd began to disperse and my friend, my backup friend and I pondered a late-night trip to Fat Sal's, we agreed this exhibit was certainly a change from the status quo -- Tankian's upgrade to the dynamics of art and audience, and some breathing room before getting back in the saddle.

To experience a sample of the exhibit, visit For more on Serj Tankian, visit