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Seen and Heard

BMA’s New Cram Sessions Show Asks, “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes About Sound and Vision?”

A SHOW ABOUT NOTHING: in an untitled audio installation, the ultra-red collective performs John Cage's silent composition, “4’33.””

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 4/13/2005

CRAM SESSIONS: 03 SOUND POLITICS

At the Baltimore Museum of Art through May 1

Baltimore Museum of Art contemporary art curator Chris Gilbert likes to say that his idea-driven Cram Sessions shows are not about illustrating an idea but about developing a conversation around one. In 03 Sound Politics, he has literally illustrated the conversation.

What’s initially striking about this third of four month-long group shows is its visual appeal. The cool modernist sheen of the exhibition layout is surprising, both because Gilbert has tended to favor a defiantly haphazard aesthetic in previous installments, and because the show is, at least in part, about the struggle of sound artists (known in the real world as musicians) to carve out a space for themselves in a museum context that inevitably privileges sight over the other senses. Gilbert’s apparent concession here to visual elegance—with its attendant high-class, high-art connotations, presumably anathema to his Marxist politics—lends a self-effacing, almost poignant tone to the show, one that has been missing in previous outings.

Dominating the exhibition in the museum’s interior colonnade are the seven octagonal viewing stations that comprise documentarian Renée Green’s “Wavelinks” video installation. Made of aluminum tubing and paneled with high-tech Xorel fabric, each pod contains a monitor playing a segment from Green’s anthropological exploration of experimental electronic music and its artistic, political, and sensual possibilities. Six of the viewing stations are outfitted with headphones, while the seventh broadcasts its soundtrack into the yawning space. The resultant sound mix is an echo of the dialogue that takes place on-screen between Green and her interview subjects, and between her subjects, who are intercut with one another. The dialogue is then expressed visually by the translucency of the Xorel panels, which permit the viewer to see outside each station. Add to this ambient mix a mellow laptronica soundtrack beneath the interviews and you have a many-layered experience that mimics, in both sight and sound, a conversation.

The conversation is more interesting to look at than listen to, unfortunately, since the talking heads on Green’s tapes—recorded between 1999 and 2002—tend to be Euro glitch-rock types whose musings on the state of their art are about as appealing as the music they make. (For those who have been blessed to forget, arty electronic music is a relic of the dot-com era, notable mostly for successfully reproducing on a Macintosh the sound your grandmother would make falling down a flight of stairs.)

Another good place to conversation-watch is on the white Ikea chairs assembled around Los Angeles-based Ultra-red’s untitled audio installation. This new work by the sound-art and activist collective was created specifically for Sound Politics, and is a recording of experimental musician John Cage’s most famous composition, “4’33.”” First performed in 1952, the piece requires the musicians to do absolutely nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. Performances and recordings of this nominally silent work end up featuring the sounds of the audience itself, making it a classic of modernist navel-gazing. Ultra-red appropriates its fellow Angeleno’s composition for overtly political ends. The recording you’ll hear at the BMA was performed by the collective at the start of a recent AIDS policy workshop in East Los Angeles, with the intention of goading their fellow activists into a reappraisal of the bureaucratization of AIDS activism, and a return to its angry, anarchic, ACT UP glory days.

Politics aside, if you’ve never heard “4’33”” performed, here’s a rare opportunity to revisit a signal moment of 20th-century minimalism. (Though, as Chris Gilbert trenchantly pointed out on the opening day of the exhibit, Cage’s composition is one you can “put on” anytime you like.)

The highlight of Sound Politics is tucked away in a corner of the Fox Court, enclosed in a cavelike white box. On a screen play a pair of mid-1970s musical video collaborations between avant-rock group Red Krayola and the conceptual art collective Art and Language. With Krayola’s guitarist, Mayo Thompson, playing his disjointed brand of protopunk in the background, members of A&L take turns declaiming from a theory-thick text that includes slogans like “Capitalist cognition produces systems of interpretive belief!” These grainy basement flicks are so ridiculous they simply must be self-parodying, which actually makes them really funny, rather than really idiotic.

Here’s hoping Chris Gilbert will include even more witty works of art in his final Cram Sessions show, 04 Counter-Campus, coming up in November.

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