Almost every laptop show is the same, says local electronic musician and performer Liz MacLean-Knight: some pasty white guy sitting at a machine pushing buttons and moving a mouse. “While that’s cool for the ears and cool for the mind,” she says, “it’s really boring to watch.”

A native of Brookfield, MacLean-Knight has spent the last several years making music as Quantazelle, a blue-haired vixen in silver platform boots and a tight shiny dress; she uses environmental samples she records while–among other things–knocking over and running into objects, slamming doors, hanging out in the alley behind her house on recycling day, driving around, and defragmenting her hard drive. Her latest release, A Cold, is a three-inch CD packaged in a petri dish that fuses dreamy, glitchy, music-box-like melodies with sneezes, sniffles, and coughs–samples she collected while home sick.

That’s the kind of thing that makes electronic music fun–but rarely do artists take the same pains to frame their music in a live setting. A little over a year ago, MacLean-Knight and her friend Logan Bay, cofounder of Pilsen’s Bruner & Bay gallery, vowed to do something about it. What they came up with was Laptronica–a no-holds-barred multimedia spectacle that pits teams of laptop musicians against one another to compete and posture WWF-style. The first edition was staged at the Funky Buddha Lounge in January 2002.

The rules are few: Only one “digital portable music engine” per team member. No fire, no animals, no water, no interfering with the equipment or power source of the opposing team. Every match has two rounds and two teams. In the first, each group gets five uninterrupted minutes to play. In the second, each team tries to play for another five minutes while their opponents endeavor to distract from, eclipse, or somehow destroy their performance. Overly animated commentators monitor the action, calling out plays to the crowd; audience enthusiasm and the whims of a panel of judges determine the winner of each round.

Almost everyone–judges, combatants, audience members–wears a costume. At the second Laptronica event (also at the Funky Buddha) one judge showed up in a cape and plastic laser-tag helmet rigged with a flashing LED strip; his fellow lady judges dressed as a slutty sailor and a sleazy Bo Peep.

That night MacLean-Knight and her partner, a man in a silk robe, passed out champagne and hired a raver in baggy pants to dance to their music with glow sticks. They won their match. Then IRA–two fat, hairy guys in tank tops and spandex shorts–took the stage. While one used his laptop to mix industrial belches, metallic marching beats, searing heavy metal, and samples of Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings,” the other plopped a frozen chicken onto his keyboard. He slathered it with yellow mustard and barbecue sauce, scorched it with a butane torch, and then hacked at it with a gigantic knife. When their brief performance was over they guzzled the remaining condiments and took their leave, berating the crowd in fake German accents.

When they were through, their opponents, Pain Research Center, were up. Two stoic men in white lab coats–one with a spelunking light strapped to his bald head–cranked out a stream of blistering noise from a pair of early-model PCs. Before long they were joined by two stiff women in tight nurse uniforms who held whips and smoked methodically.

As IRA began their second set, the Pain Research Center quartet casually approached. One nurse attacked them with a staple gun while the other whaled on them with her whip. The man with the light on his head fired up a Taser and the other blinded the opposition with an enormous spotlight. All IRA had lined up for their defense were cans of banana pudding and plungers. About a minute later all six combatants were tangled up on the floor, throwing fists and yelling. The match ended in a double disqualification.

“This is fucking shit!” hollered one of the IRA guys. “This is the most bullshit contest I’ve ever seen!”

After the room cooled off and the evening wound down, a guy in a hot-pink ape suit grabbed the mike and started freestyle rapping, egged on by several onlookers in wigs and fake mustaches. “Laptronica is very confusing and surreal,” says MacLean-Knight. “But we do what we have to for entertainment.”

The next Laptronica will be held at 9 PM on Saturday, March 1, in a cage made of chicken wire installed at Open End Gallery, 2000 W. Fulton. There’s a suggested donation of $10; call 773-209-7058 or see for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.