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

References

Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (2006[1996]). 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’ [1].

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’ [2]. 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.

[1] Cullinan, Nicholas. 2018. ‘The Last Modernist’. In Michael Jackson On the Wall, London: National Portrait Gallery, page 16.

[2] 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.

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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.

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The Museum of Portable Sound is a noteworthy contribution to the preservation and exhibition of sound as objects of culture. Because of its name and content, you might be expecting it to be placed on and accessed through a web page or app, but actually its sound objects are housed in an iPhone, which constitutes the physical museum itself. To visit it, one has to go to the museum’s webpage and book an in-person visit with its director, John Kannenberg. As he is based in London, the museum is primarily visited there; however, it can be visited elsewhere in the world, whenever John is travelling. The fact that the museum is accessed in such a format is clearly intentional: in fact, Kannenberg wanted the sound files to be endowed with a sense of exclusiveness and distinction by means of facilitating access to them through in person visits.

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Of all of the museums of popular music that I have ever visited, Ragnarock, the museum for pop, rock and youth culture in Roskilde, Denmark, is for sure the one I have enjoyed the most so far, not just from the aesthetical point of view but also because it is the one whose narrative best conveys contemporary knowledge about popular music, knowledge gained from both popular music studies and ethnomusicology.

The permanent exhibition displays are of an unusual contemporaneity and remarkable design, thereby creating a very attractive and bold environment. Nevertheless, for museums to rely on innovative technology to convey their narratives is becoming more and more common sense. It is therefore the narrative itself that merits my highest praise, in that it completely departs from the approaches of conventional museums as regards music. More to the point, Ragnarock’s narrative reflects the current perspectives of music studies as an endeavour that approaches music as a cultural and social practice, i.e, a practice created not only by music and musicians but also by people using it to develop themselves as individuals with an identity, to build communities, and to produce and challenge societies. Furthermore, in conceptually placing a great emphasis on audiences as consumers of popular music throughout the whole narrative, the museum is ultimately conveying the idea that people do not need to be musicians to engage with and thereby participate in the production of popular music.

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