Pop-crackle-sparkle. Fireworks take flight over the city, from the North to the South – sound and vision wed in the momentary act of an aesthetic explosion. It’s the Fourth of July and the city is rumbling around me as I sit and write this article.
Down at the Art Institute of Chicago, however, things are quieter at their Sound & Vision exhibition in the Modern Wing, running from June 19th to August 29th. Opened by a performance from hometown hero Cory Arcangel, this exhibition explores the juncture between sound and vision, more specifically, how they have come to be represented in contemporary art and culture since the ‘70s. Now, this survey of representations was not the curator’s intention entirely, to be fair, it was to show: “various media explor[ing] the symbiotic relationship between art and music.” Ah, so that’s where the exhibition title pulled from a David Bowie song comes from. Yet, I can’t help but feel as if the aural has been superseded by the visual in this manifestation.
Arcangel’s performance on June 11th called Music for Stereos is perhaps what was considered to be the sound portion of this exhibition, a forty-five minute indulgence of ironic musicality. It wasn’t his most astounding piece though it was entertaining to watch a world-renowned artist struggle to hook up one stereo system after another on stage. The video piece that Arcangel has in this exhibition, Untitled (After Lucifer), 2006, is much more representative of the artist’s commitment to working within the digital medium that has brought him the recognition he deserves. Untitled (After Lucifer) is a looping and continuously degrading video of the Beatles’ famous Ed Sullivan Show performance without the sound. The black and white imagery of the iconic performance is now a dance of gray pixels visually similar to the art practice of datamoshing. Personally, I love this aesthetic; it has a random poetry to it that just entrances, once you get over the initial “What’s wrong with this?” reaction. The age of digital video allows for extremely interesting aesthetic reinventions of reproducibility, as that which was wrong becomes that which is right. The glitch is what is of interest, what is unexpected is beautiful.
The piece that stole the show for me, however, was John Baldessari’s Songs: 1. Sky/Sea/Sand, 1973. Along the wall, a blue three-line music staff has been created, a simple organizing structure drawn onto the white wall with blue chalk. Photographs of a red ball in mid-air, lying on the sand, floating ominously over the bluish background of ocean waves or framed by cerulean sky in a sort of static ode, dot the lines of the musical staff. The structure of the work was an experimental symphony conducted by a person out-of-frame. They were told to yell out the range — low, middle, high — and the artist would try to capture the ball in his frame at the appropriate time. Baldessari limited himself to one roll of film for the length of the score. The red ball in the image is placed on the corresponding line — low, middle, high — and the result is stunningly beautiful: a visual score according to chance and effort.
Hidden away in the corner of the gallery, next to Arcangel’s Untitled (After Lucifer), are three more video artists crowded onto one screen in succession. The first piece is a lesser work by Dara Birnbaum called Pop-Pop Video: General Hospital/Olympic Women Speed Skate, 1980 (still seen above). Birnbaum’s work is always amazing, but this piece compared to her famous Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman video is disappointing. It does, however, show that Birnbaum was a pioneer in the type of video mash-ups common to online visual culture today. Her work retains the criticality and humor that comes with the act of appropriation and recontextualization, a practice with a long history stretching from the Situationists to the Dadaists. While representative of her work and contribution to the visual arts, Birnbaum deserves more than 5 minutes of a 15-minute loop in the corner of a gallery.
Following Birnbaum is a video by David Hammons. It begins with a dark screen. A strange noise is heard, a pop and then a kind of metal-grating trickle, then another pop followed by that metal-grating trickle. After a few minutes, the video that corresponds to the soundtrack appears and you see Hammons walking down the street kicking a metal bucket, chasing it as it skews and kicking it again. It’s actually quite beautiful, melancholy and yet whimsical. You can feel his concentration as he chases down the bucket each time only to kick it again, playing a sort of conceptual momento mori game with himself. After Hammons comes a piece by Jorge Macchi and Edgardo Rudnitzky called Streamline, 2006. Cars that pass through the frame on a four-lane highway become the pluck of the string in this visually inspired symphony. An interesting idea but for some reason, neither the visual nor aural result affected me like other work on view.
All in all, this show is worth seeing. The curation could have been much better had there been the space necessary to present each work with the gravity it deserves. Like it or not, moving-image work has had a tenuous relationship with the museum as an institution. How does one present it? How does one objectify and comodify it in the manner accustomed to the museum and the museum-goer? It somehow always just doesn’t work. There has to be a feeling of anonymity as a viewer and as we all know, the museum is just as much a place to see things as it is to be seen. The internet is changing this. The personal computer as a media-megalith has become a private portal to the art world and allows for the kind of personal experience required by most video art. Thankfully, this exhibition has a series of internet-based work curated by the wonderful Hamza Walker starting this Thursday, July 8th, at 5 pm. Perhaps Walker will be able to figure out how to get around this problem, perhaps not, but I’ll see you there to find out.