The exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye at MoMA

Are we being driven by technology? A new lens for focusing on sound technologies

My visit to the exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye at MoMA has awakened my longstanding urge to write a post on the discussion regarding the extent to which technology controls society. In fact, although I found that the exhibition had adopted an original approach regarding music, in that it addressed the role of technology and design in its development, it also treated the role of technology as self-evidently decisive, rather than revealing technology as a result of social and cultural forces and needs.

The Making Music Modern exhibition was held at MoMA from November 2014 to January 2016. Spanning a period from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, it focused on the ways in which music practices in the modern era – playing, composing, listening, distributing and visualizing – have been radically transformed and shaped through design innovations and technological development ever since the appearance of the phonograph. Interestingly, the exhibition was an initiative of MoMA’s department of Architecture and Design: its curator Juliet Kinchin considers music and sound to have always been a very important dimension of design, which, unfortunately, is often not written about or exhibited in museums.

With regard to the objects exhibited, Making Music Modern drew entirely from the MoMA design collection: it showcased technological equipment, posters, audio, music sheets, architectural and design models, films and records. As a result, its narrative departed from the material dimensions of music to highlight the two-way exchange between music on the one hand and the design and technological dimensions of the exhibited objects of material culture on the other. In other words, if we had no design or technology, music would not have acquired its power as a trigger of memory and collective experience, one of the features for which it is known today.

In reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye, a few points have occurred to me. I truly believe it is a strength that the exhibition shifted the terms of discussing music: in fact, considering the conventional practice of addressing music in museums almost exclusively by showcasing musical instruments, the exhibition clearly portrayed musical dimensions that have hitherto not necessarily been noticed by the general public. It is also worth mentioning that, with regard to the exhibits selected, attention seems to have been paid to balancing the iconic items with some less familiar items which are nevertheless valued and telling when put in a certain context. At the same time, musical sound seems to have been understood as an ‘organic component’1 of the exhibition: it was exhibited not only through clusters of sound domes (a kind of musical shower), but also by the innovative system of placing transducers on the vitrines so that the glass panes could function as loudspeakers. By making the origin of the sound unidentifiable, the system made it seem completely natural within the spatiality and physicality of the gallery.

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Nevertheless, in my view, the exhibition also had a major flaw. While it was extremely committed to providing visitors with the interchanges between music, technology and design, it completely overlooked the role of the human agency in this process. It did not lift even one end of the veil on the extent to which design and technological developments are expressions of social and cultural practices. Although it brought to the fore the importance of technology and design in music practices, it seemed to stop with technology and design themselves and ignore the opportunity to adopt a broader and more contemporary approach by revealing the interchanges of technology and design with cultural and social mechanisms. The result was, it seems to me, that without making this perspective clear through the narrative, the exhibition maintained and reinforced the idea that technologies are a given rather than a result of human practices and needs. In fact, the idea that technology comes from nowhere to govern the way we live, long known as technological determinism, has been widely criticized.

In keeping with the above, with specific regard to the technologies of sound and music, I would like to mention Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past, since it effectively criss-crosses like no other the boundaries between human body and machine. In his understanding:

‘Technologies are repeatable social, cultural, and material processes crystallized into mechanisms. Often, they perform labor that had previously been done by a person.’ (Sterne, 2003, p. 8)

and also:

‘People design and use technologies to enhance or promote certain activities and discourage others. Technologies are associated with habits, sometimes crystallizing them and sometimes enabling them.’ (Sterne, 2003, p. 8)

Sound reproduction-technologies have led to a major shift in human practices regarding music. Accordingly, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the view that they must be a topic of major relevance when addressing music thoroughly, be it in museums’ narratives or elsewhere. Nevertheless, contemporary knowledge about music has provided us with a suitable lens with which to zoom in so that we can see the role of people in the process of interchange between music, design and technology. Shall we share this lens, then!?

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[1] Term coined by Nikos Bubaris.

Bibliography

Bubaris, N. (2014). Sound in museums – museums in sound. Museum Management and Curatorship, 29(4), 391-402.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past, Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

 

 

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