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.

 

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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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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Rockheim is the Norwegian national museum for popular music, which alone is already very singular: despite the growing trend towards celebrating and exhibiting popular music in museums, few are the countries which are given a national museum specifically to take care of and address the country’s popular music. The idea for the museum emerged during a conference in 1998 focusing on the discussion of musical and sound archives, during which the delegates recognised the need to preserve Norwegian popular music as heritage. There then followed a long development process until the museum’s opening in Trondheim in 2010.

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The museum and popular music: spectacle or dialogue?

Exhibitionism is a travelling exhibition that pays tribute to a long-lasting band followed by many devoted fans: The Rolling Stones. It is going to be on display worldwide for four years and was first displayed at the Saatchi Gallery in London from 29th April to 4th September 2016.

The exhibition left me with the belief that it is no longer possible to maintain that museums have long been avoiding dealing with popular music themes, nor even that heritagising them is an innovative and untested museum practice. On the contrary, I would say that organising an exhibition about popular music by calling upon, at some point, the exhibition of sound and/or music has clearly proved a successful practice with great impact. Even more, I would say it has become an approach every museum seeks to profit from, if it has assertive marketing and if it in some way pays attention to, if not innovative, at least the latest opportunities. Accordingly, plenty of museums have been jumping on this bandwagon with the aim of making an extraordinary critically acclaimed show, without carefully exploring the opportunities that museums’ curators can be provided with, in order to deliver truly dialogic narratives about the theme.

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