Soundtracks at the SFMoMA: using sound to convey concepts

The Soundtracks exhibition was held at the SFMoMA from July 2017 to January 1st, 2018. I do not usually choose to comment on an exhibition after it has closed, but this time I only had the opportunity to visit it at the very end. I was actually staying in San Francisco for the last 15 days of the exhibition to conduct interviews about how museum-goers received the work The Visitors, which was part of the Soundtracks’exhibition but, of course, I took the opportunity to have a look at the other exhibits for myself.

While the museum has a long history of presenting audio-based works, Soundtrackswas the first large-scale group exhibition by the SFMoMA centered on the role of sound in contemporary art. It presented a set of 21 works by 20 artists dating from 2001 to the present and representing a multilayered approach to sound, covering sound as sculpture, as immersive installation, as record performance, and as a participatory act of listening. Moving beyond medium-specific histories of sound art and electronic music, this cross-generational presentation highlights past SFMoMA commissions by Brian Eno and Bill Fontana, as well as new and diverse work from contemporary artists, including Ragnar Kjartansson, Christina Kubisch, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, O Grivo, and Susan Philipsz. 

Starting on Floor 7, the exhibition created a path that circles down through the museum, leading to two participatory walks with live soundtracks on Floors 1 and2. The decision to take such an extensive collection of works and to give them the highest floor of the museum as the core gallery for the exhibition translates into bestowing on sound art a particular significance and acknowledgment (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006[1996]). As for museum-goers, such a range of exhibits enables them not only to interact with sound consistently but also, a considerable number of times, performatively.

While I was reading each label accompanying each work, I was struck by the exhibition’s overarching achievement: Soundtrackstakes into account and fosters the contingency of meaning, the multiplicity of interpretation and the possibility of change. In fact, each exhibit has an unforeseen idea or concept underlying it. This was not immediately noticeable but, nevertheless, the dedication of a bit of time to both the piece and the label made it entirely graspable.

Soundtracks is accompanied by a map and an online catalogue that at still available in the museum site.

Image: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, clinamenv.3, 2012–ongoing; porcelain, plywood, polyvinyl chloride, water pump, water heater, water; courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; © Céleste Boursier-Mougenot; photo: CharlesVillyard, courtesy SFMOMA


Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (2006[1996]). Reading Images, the grammar of visual design. London and New York: Routledge.


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