‘The Visitors’ by Ragnar Kjartansson: when the text is the experience

Everything that museum professionals have long been waiting for a museum exhibition to achieve but which has not yet been invented.

The only possible way to start my essay about the installation-work The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansoon, on display in The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, is by highlighting the memorable way I experienced it, as well as the exhilaration, passion and pleasure that I felt. I became even more delighted when I realised that, in addition to the rewarding experience I had had, the installation-work also accomplishes two things that are, it seems to me, of particular significance today. On the one hand, it achieves one of the most demanding goals of contemporary museum studies in that it provides the museum-goers with avenues not to learn or contemplate but to experience some dimensions of life. On the other hand, although it was certainly not an intentional gesture by the curator, The Visitors is particularly interesting in that the experience it provides visitors with is theoretically informed by ethnomusicology, most notably by placing the museum-goers within a rich picture-experience of the relevance of music to human life. Additionally, the fact that music’s role in and significance to society is not being carried conventionally by words by the installation-work, but is being conveyed by the experience itself that it endows museum-goers with, stands like a cherry on the top of the cake: ultimately, in the installation-work The Visitors, it is the experience that is the text.

The installation-work is exhibited in a separate hall of the museum where darkness is maintained by the means of curtains, thus deliberately excluding other forms of stimulation so that it becomes the focus of intense attention. Inside this room, nine HD video projectors, each projecting its own image and sound, are displayed along the existent walls and also on an additional temporary one. As for the contents, Kjartansson invited a group of musician friends to spend a week in a nineteenth-century mansion of rare beauty, charm, and romanticism, set in upstate New York. During the stay, together they recorded The Visitors for over an hour in one single take, each camera covering each musician’s performance simultaneously in different rooms of the mansion. With musical arrangements by Kjartansoon and Davió Pór Jónsson and lyrics based on a poem by Ásdis Sif Gunnarsdóttir, the recording is made up of the voices of the musicians, two grand pianos, a banjo, guitars, an accordion, a cello, a bass guitar and a drum kit. Several musical phrases work their way in and out and each is repeated quite endlessly, with several variations created by gathering new singers, body movements, harmonies, volume and instruments, thereby instilling nuanced meanings. When projected in the galley, with the sound from each suspended projection speaker so distinctly heard, this ritualized repetition and duration ends up eliciting feelings, a true engagement and a true immersion from the audience. I must mention that, in fact, the majority of the museum-goers looked for a place to sit on the floor and stayed there for quite some time, changing their place once in a while to make the most of different perspectives of image and sound; some museum-goers even lay down on the floor.

What I find most remarkable is that this noteworthy appeal for immersion does not rely on the potential effectiveness of buttons to push and screens to scroll down, as these features are not present in the installation. In focusing, then, on the specific features of the installation-work that does provide museum-goers with a remarkable opportunity to individually and collectively feel emotions and so to experience such an immersion, I would like to observe that the mode of The Visitors is primarily that of a musical instance – performed by a group of friends who have enhanced it with a sense of genuineness.

From the musical-composition point of view, the installation-work is enmeshed in a dynamic of repetition of musical phrases (like rituals) where emotions stand as fairly short-lived emergent properties furthering interactive contexts, not only between the musicians themselves but also between the installation-work and the actual visitors of the museum. From an ethnomusicological perspective, which is supported by long-standing and geographically wide-ranging research, music is vital for the human species to survive in that it can create and maintain individuals’ subjectivities and collectivities. Music is thus a social resource by which fundamental physiological and social goals can be achieved, thereby bringing members of an entire society into synchronicity with each other. And this is, I believe, where the success of this installation-work lies.

At the same time, by being exhibited in a museum and not experienced as a musical event or concert, The Visitors becomes specifically a major and very interesting instance of ethnomusicological knowledge, in that it expansively encodes some claims that ethnomusicologists have made concerning music, namely by unequivocally drawing attention to its significance for human life – a point which ethnomusicologists have long strived to prove. No less importantly, the audience is given the opportunity to become aware of these insights affectively, rather than by written words, and this results in the museum clearly fulfilling one of its major commitments for today – to be generating new knowledge and understanding regarding its subject-matter by means of experience. This opens up a new avenue for making meaning in museums, one that shows no dichotomy between the discursive (by means of interpreting words of a written text) and the immersive (by means of experiencing something): the installation-work actually becomes the text.

Ultimately, The Visitors is everything that museum professionals have long been waiting for a museum exhibition to achieve but which has not yet been invented. Personally, I can find no other words to associate with it than outstandingly inspiring, and overwhelming.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Alcina, I am writing a book about the new ways that visitors experience museums and would like to quote from this blog essay. Can you please email me, so I can know a little bit more about you?
    -Seph Rodney

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