If one had to be brief, one might say that Electro: from Kraftwerk to Daft Punkis an exhibition tracing 30 years of electronic music and experimentalism at the Philharmonie de Paris until the 11th of August 2019. A standard review would then follow, highlighting the uniqueness and singularity of some of the objects on display and drawing readers’ attention to the artists involved in the project and to the work of the sound designer and of the scenographer. None of this would be wrong, for sure. However, this exhibition, Electro, is, at least in museological terms, much more than this: in short, it is an event that has much to offer on how to effectively build experiential exhibitions, based on the landmark assumption of museum studies that an exhibition should facilitate dialogic rather than linear communication. In fact, several aspects are particularly worth mentioning as they closely align with a contemporary museum framework, as I would like to demonstrate:
After the great success achieved by the recent trend in commissioning exhibitions about pop-rock music and its leading figures1and, above all, after these exhibitions have proved to be particularly effective in sending shivers down one’s spine as they exhibit music, a bold new experiment seems to be emerging, namely equipping virtually any sort of exhibition with a sonic layer – in other words, commissioning a team of sound designers to compose a soundtrack specifically for an exhibition. Examples of this trend seem to have effectively grabbed the attention of both museum-goers and practitioners. Among these could be mentioned Robots at the Science Museum, London (2017), with sound design by Coda to Coda, and Video Games at the V&A in London (2018), also with sound design by Coda to Coda, the sound layer of which is really interesting and compelling. Anyway, from all the exhibitions on this theme that I have seen so far, the one that has made the strongest impression on me was Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, which was on exhibition at the V&A until 18thNovember, with sound design by Ben and Max Ringham. I found its soundtrack really did set the right atmosphere for its contents.
Although it is in itself already very suggestive, the fact that the exhibition was presenting, for the first time outside Mexico, an extraordinary collection of personal artefacts and clothing belonging to the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (which has been locked away for the 50 years since her death), I cannot avoid marking it out for its soundtrack’s effectiveness in setting an affective pattern for the exhibition. In fact, I furthermore believe that the majority of the museum-goers left the exhibition without noticing its soundtrack, which is similar to what happens with soundtracks for movies most of the time, but I am sure that the extent to which they enjoyed the exhibition was in a great part set by the sound design.
This points to a wider theoretical discussion regarding communicating in museum exhibitions. In fact, the knowledge delivered by the social sciences about how humans manage to organise their lives and relationships for the purpose of maintaining the species has reached the point of an extraordinary complexity and value which cannot be comprehensibly encoded solely by the written word. Alongside this, many changes in the wider social and cultural orders have occurred: knowledge is no longer fixed, authority in communication is increasingly being rejected, and there is a quest for the semiotic power to reach a broader number of people. Within this backdrop, the representational and communication power of a sound layer has been receiving more and more attention from both practitioners and scholars. Whereas the written word alone cannot do justice to non-discursive information (such as that of the dynamic nature of the phenomena and the expressive and impressive dimensions that are present in the communication processes), museum exhibitions do have a lot to offer in this regard, for they can easily call upon other modes such as images and sound to convey those dimensions; ultimately, in providing the exhibition with a soundtrack, the curators are offering further layered narratives.
Hence, to rely on sound to communicate within museum exhibitions is not an option but rather an urge for the exhibition’s subjects to be written down.
1 David Bowie Is, V&A (2013), Bjork, MoMA (2015), You Say you Want a Revolution, V&A (2016), Velvet Underground: New York Extravaganza, Philharmonie de Paris (2016), Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones, Saatchi Gallery London (2016), Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, V&A (2017), Michael Jackson: On the Wall, National Portrait Gallery, London (2018), and many more.
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). 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). Reading Images, the grammar of visual design. London and New York: Routledge.
Michael Jackson: On the Wallis currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London until October 21st. In the words of Nicholas Cullinan, the National Portrait Gallery director and the curator, the exhibition seeks to convey the artists’ ‘[…] fascination, solidarity or sympathy for what Jackson represented, what he did and what was done to him. The exhibition examines Michael Jackson as both an artist recognised as such by other artists, and as a total work of art’ .
This being the case, museum visitors will not be presented with Michael Jackson’s personal objects, costumes and other memorabilia items, but rather with a wide range of artworks inspired by him or his image. It alsodiffers from the majority of the more recent exhibitions about musicians from popular music in that, although music is present in the exhibition, it is not the focus of the narrative nor is it exhibited as a museum object. Nonetheless, I find the exhibition remarkably fulfils a major aim in museum practice today: that of addressing the diversity of ways in which a certain matter resonates with the exhibition’s visitors – in the case of Michael Jackson’s exhibition, it widely addresses the ways in which audiences use Jackson’s music and personal image as a self-referential construct in which they build their own identities.
In more detail, it comprises the exhibition of 83 works of art, each accompanied by a text explaining in general terms what moved and compelled the artist to produce a work about Jackson and about what led them to approach him in a certain manner. There is a multitude of perspectives and one can easily find an approach resembling one’s own: portraits of the singer as reflected through his admirers or works reflecting the biographical dimension of pop and the way it becomes the soundtrack to a life, to name only a couple. As it is an exhibition that shows what artists made of Michael Jackson and, in some sense, what audiences made of him – as Jackson shifted into constantly new entities, there are plenty of perspectives – it forms a portrayal of the condition of fandom itself, a portrayal of Michael Jackson as a cultural icon and so of Michael Jackson as part of collective memory.
I have read some reviews that maintain that the show is confusing in that it jostles together visual traditions as different as pop, conceptual, post-pop, post-conceptual and plain commercial, but I find this critique inappropriate in the light of the purposes of the exhibition. In fact,the textual discourse and the organisation of the rooms follow the rationale of identities that Jackson presents,by means of foregrounding the particular perspectives artists took on him. Furthermore, as one reads each work’s panel text, there is no mention of artistic techniques. From all these perspectives, Jackson as a surrogate for blackness is perhaps the most significant. In fact, ‘[…] the Jackson family was the first wholesome black American family who entered homes all over the US […] during a time when most black [African-American] people were portrayed as criminals, [or] drug addicts’ . In line with this, in the exhibition, images of black people speak to people who have always felt excluded, to popular audiences and to culture at large.
A must see.
 Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 16.
 Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 18.
Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the very first sound-focused exhibition staged by the British Library and it brings to public view material from the tremendous resource which is the British Library Sound Archive. The exhibition tells the story of sound recording since the invention of the phonograph in 1877, reflects the impact of radio in the 20th century, and the importance of sound in recording our lives and cultural heritage. It is part of a major event the British Library is conducting, Season of Sound, celebrating all aspects of the listening experience, which comprises a programme of accompanying events such as lectures, tours and workshops, all aiming at connecting people with their audio heritage.
If one of the purposes of the 21st-century museum is to facilitate and broaden the general public’s knowledge without losing depth and rigour, then Opera: passion, power and politics, the first exhibition to be staged inside the V&A’s large new underground exhibition space, ranks among the most successful temporary exhibitions I have seen lately. In fact, although opera used to be a particularly popular and exciting genre for a long time in the past, today it is music for a very restricted elite and so this exhibition stands out for bringing a comprehensible account of it to a potential wider audience.