Vol. 34 Issue 1 Reviews

Art | 40 | Basel: Media Art with Music

Messe Basel, Messeplatz, Basel, Switzerland, 10-14 June 2009.

Reviewed by G. Shintani
Karlsruhe, Germany

In 1999, the New York Times called Art Basel the “Olympics of the Art World” (J. Dobrzynski, 17 June 1999, www.nytimes.com), and ever since, superlatives about it have buzzed across the Atlantic. This year, from 10-14 June 2009, the art world met in Basel, Switzerland for the 40th time (Co-Directors: Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler, artbasel-online.com) and demonstrated a slower, more deliberate pace of transactions, but no reduction of volume.

Music at the world’s largest art trade show—is this a topic that makes sense for a scholarly journal on computer music? In view of the unbroken burgeoning of art commerce and the collapse of the music industry, it would seem to make at least economic sense to cast a look at music’s place in the growing world of media art. With unbroken growth in all manner of crossover media works and a lagging theoretical evaluation to accompany this phenomenon, the matter merits our attention, at least so far as to discern the contours of what is taking place. Whether we are finally interested in and what value we ascribe to the goings on are secondary questions.

Today, many of us welcome a multidisciplinary orientation toward works of art and their study. But what credentials might a computer-music junkie such as myself have to weigh in on such art-heavy matters? At the height of the technology bubble, when I was working in what some called Germany’s Silicon Valley (Munich), a media art gallery in my neighborhood piqued my interest. After a long stay at underground Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, what was I to make of this above-ground, converted store-front gallery with its darkened rooms, computers, projectors, joy-sticks, rudimentary sound systems, and quirky, interactive moving images? Those first timid steps into the world of media art whetted my appetite for more, and soon I was doing the circuit: Art Basel yearly, the Venice Biennial, the quinquennial “documenta” in Kassel, as many lectures as my free time permitted, and I even wielded a paint brush.

During these activities, I divided my concentration between becoming acquainted with a new world of art and trying to understand how music was perceived and practiced within it; for, it was soon obvious that the rules I had learned as a musician did not adhere. I have written—and sometimes complained—in these pages about what I saw, and recently I completed a dissertation presenting my view of emerging technologies and aesthetics. I have found, however, that the theory surrounding this kind of art is still pretty ephemeral stuff, so writing a music review of an art show is terra incognita for me today.

But, I was reassured; for, it was evident that this year Art Basel was working on similar questions concerning mixed media art. Art Basel’s brochure promised that “the most spectacular event” of the year would be Il Tempo del Postino, a “group exhibition that would occupy time rather than space” (“wie die Zeit doch vergeht”).The work, first given at the Manchester International Festival in 2007, “was to be presented sequentially on stage… just as in a play or opera” (R. Dorment, 17 July 2007, www.telegraph.co.uk; c.f., J. Griffin, September 2007, www.frieze.com). Moreover, the entire second half was given over to “one of the most influential artists in the world today, Matthew Barney” (whose phenomenal Cremaster Cycle is arguably a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk comparable in scope to Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle).

After I had registered, fought my way through the long lines of visitors (a record-breaking 61,000) to the press entrance, and unpacked my 750-page glossy catalog, and after being sent from one sales point to another, from Hall 1 to Hall 2 and back, I was sadly confounded to discover that this spectacular event was being offered off-venue, it was entirely sold out, and no standing room was available. Not even YouTube can offer us solace, so I can only quote S. Douglas’ review: “There was so much hype surrounding Il Tempo del Postino… that one felt inclined to dislike it, even though disliking it, given all that favorable advance hype, would seem tantamount to a crime against humanity. Luckily for everyone, then, the thing was spectacularly good in some parts, just plain good in others” (S. Douglas, 15 June 2009, www.artinfo.com/news/story/31736/the-postman-rings-twice). The thing, it seems, ended with Mozart. With the disappointment of knowing I had already missed the highlight before I’d begun, I headed into the swarm of visitors in the cavernous Basel convention centre.

Art Basel was founded by a small group of gallerists in 1970. Over the years, satellite events have accrued—shops, statements, conversations, films, public art projects, etc. Further, there are book and media sales, refreshments, a childcare centre, and a VIP lounge. Yet other spaces are reserved for discussions and presentations; disparate themes such as performance, magnetic tape conservation, “Gender, Wars and Chadors,” and legal questions find their places here. This year some 20 different events made up Art Basel. (The sister exhibit, Art Basel Miami Beach, has made similar presentations in Florida possible since 2002.)

But the principal participants remain the galleries, and from a record number of more than 1,100 applicants this year, some 300 were selected to exhibit their works in some 40,000 square meters. Scratching on my notepad I figured out the geographical breakdown of the galleries selecte—Europe 204, North America 77, Asia 13, Latin America 7, Near East (Turkey & Israel) 2, Russia 1, Africa 1—and reflected on what these numbers reveal about the concentration of cultural wealth today.

Doubtless, not only the common music critic feels daunted by the fleet of black Mercedes with matching coat-and-tie-and-sun-glassed chauffeurs, an indication of the masses of collectors present. Was that really Brad Pitt over there? But Art Basel’s organization pulses with the tick of Swiss precision, the visitor is swept along and is soon strolling among the gallery booths. A few short minutes after opening time, it became difficult to advance through the lanes, sooner or later you turned around and noticed a Picasso, Serra, Warhol, Kandinsky, Hirst, Sherman, Goldin, Pollock, or a you-name-it, and it is the abundance of such art works that continues to give Art Basel its cachet. All but the most jaded habitués stand in awe before the plethora of great classics and dazzling new art. This mix of awe-struck visitors, hard-dealing gallery owners, and collectors with a few young suffering artists sprinkled among them characterizes the fair. But thrill factor aside, does (electronic) music have a place here? What role might it play at this venue?

Some galleries concentrate on particular artists, art movements, art types, art from geographical zones or epochs. My main object of interest this year were the 27 “Art Statements,” works by emerging artists, and “Art Unlimited” (curator: Simon Lamunière), innovative and large-scale works and performances that do not fit into standard display booths. These were all exhibited on the floor of the gaping Hall 1 (12,000 square meters), while the gallery works were displayed in a labyrinthine layout of booths on the two floors of Hall 2. Fortunately, there was some method to the maziness, making a stroll through neoclassic, Asian, London contemporary art, etc., possible.

I began with the two floors of Hall 2. My tactic for coping with this daunting embarras de richesse was to make concentric circles and figure eights through the galleries, always checking for works with sound elements. I pressed feverishly through the mazes of Hall 2, casting my gaze to the left and to the right, mostly straining to hear above the droning gallery noise that rises and spreads like smoke to the top of the art cavern. Sometimes, with difficulty, I perceived organized sound, I identified a repetitive loop, or a roar somewhere. With the sound in my ears, my pace quickened until my feet brought me to its source. But by the time I arrived, I had already heard the fragment several times, the playback conditions were carelessly set up, the loop dispersing in the hot air, etherizing. A spark of conversation with the artist or gallery owner, a glance at the program… perhaps it was a scrap of dialog, a movie track from an unknown Russian film, or a Western B-movie from the 1950s; perhaps an unadulterated strain, perhaps a mash-up. Who knows, who cares; it is background now. I would lose interest and lope onward

In my pacing, I might meander through an aural cloud—smudged, threatening minor chords or shadows of dark ambient, noise, deep gloom-core. The visuals that would go with it were black-and-white, maybe tinged with filtered, grey color-shades. The media underscore each other, combining to transport their message: contemporary doomsday—dark, unfocused, oppressed emotion.

Then, it was not my ears that guided me, rather my stomach. But on the way to the corner restaurant a strange construction caught my eye. I moved closer, I circled around the booth. It sounded like soft chirps. What was I hearing? Where was it coming from? I view a roughly hewn wooden table standing on saw-horses. Crystalline Morse Code beeps and stuck-LP swipes; cables and plugs fixed with duck-tape; and small videos. What are those mini computer screens? The ambient loudness mixes with the sounds emanating from a table hastily strewn willy-nilly with compact laptops and small loudspeakers. On the video screens I could see heads, but could not make out any facial features. I saw letters, either so large I could not fathom sentences, or print so small I could not read it. The whole time, the table seemed to be sending me a message I could hear, but not really make sense of, a do-it-yourself message-in-a-bottle attempting to communicate with electronic crudeness. Transfixed by the DIY roughness in the midst of Art Basel’s polished surfaces, fascinated by the juxtaposition of attempt and failure, I stood and watched, tried to talk with the representative (Galeria Benítez, Madrid), paged idly through the notebook of plastic pages she put in front of me while she explained that a catalog will be printed later. My glance was drawn back to the table with its ambiguous sounds… the sounds without the table would be uninteresting; ditto for the inverse. But together, the work’s outlandish techno-hieroglyphics—audio and visual—succeeded at riveting my attention. Captivated, I photographed the note scrawled on the wall:

“Home Cinema no1: Devolver”
Dispositivo Audiovisual (3 canales de imagen, 6 canales
de sonido).
Dimensiones Variables.

I left my calling card, thanked the gallerist, and finally moved on to eat.

I had by now traversed the hundreds of gallery booths, I had taken sustenance, and at last I tumbled from the brightly lit Hall 2 to the gaping dimness of Hall 1, to the “Art Statements” of the young artists and to “Art Unlimited.” I spied the black boxes, the shut off rooms that signal some kind of video art or installation. I parted the heavy black curtain of one, popped my head into stuffy air, allowed my eyes to adjust to the darkness, hesitantly found a bit of floor-space next to a wall to lean on and spent some minutes cross-legged on the floor. I strained to catch a bit of video narrative that would transport me somewhere unknown. The black boxes did not disappoint me, and works such as Fiona Tan’s A Lapse of Memory (2007) or Nathalie Djurbergs’s The Rhinoceros and the Whale (2008) took me to astonishingly invented non-places, be it of poetic, evocative dreams, or of freakish bestiality. In both of these works, the soundtrack is as minutely elaborated as the images. But the sound functions, once again, as an accompanying track and less as an aural work I could follow with my eyes closed in the cool darkness. Rested, I got up and resumed my quest.

I eavesdropped on the tour guide’s explanation of why Nina Canell’s installation (no title, 2008) won the Swiss Bank prize (“the more or less random composition reveals a subtle dialogue and complex forms of interaction”) and lingered admiringly in front of the contrasting surfaces and spatial geometry of Aleana Egan’s sculptural installation (2009) before hearing a sharp, almost piercing rat-a-tat tat coming from around the corner.

The rat-a-tat tat accompanied my steps through a couple of other Statements, and subliminally I sought its pattern. By the time I arrived in front of the work, I hadn’t yet figured out its rhythm. Upon stepping before Hanna Schwarz’s installation Living In A Box (2009), I was disconcerted. A slightly darkened display booth, mirrors, objects hanging on the walls or strewn on the floor. I understood that the rat-a-tat I’d been hearing was tap dancing. In the installation space, I saw no tap dancer, but black and white minimalist frames, wood and mirrors, and lines on the floor. In order to enter the installation, I had to transgress some of these. In the corner, the projected image of a performance by a lanky androgynous-looking woman. But no tap dancing. I stood in the installation, I walked around in it. I rested my arms on the podium in front of the projection. The projected image seemed to be atrompe l’œil. Or a trompe l’oreille? The tap sound became clear; it is cleanly, expertly cut, but it doesn’t fit exactly with the dancer. Why not? Is the synchronization faulty? Then the dancer got stuck. Or was she just standing still and holding her breath (she trembled)? Then the tap track stopped completely. A few single, chopped tap sounds. What does the questionable dancing have to do with the mirrors hanging around, with the un-sharp photo in the black frame? Each item seemed disconnected from the rest. And again rat-a-tat; but as soon as I whipped out my camera, it stopped. What was I seeing? Hearing? The sound had its own quality and narrative, the video had another. Neither, it seems, could stand alone. Each seemed to be enunciating independent, but interrelated statements. Each lends to the other its poetic power. Surrounded by the suggestiveness of both, I ambled through the small installation, questioning and mirroring the questions that its few, simple objects posed (Gallery Dépendance, Belgium).

It was getting late, and after the “Art Statements,” there were only about 40 or so exhibits of “Art Unlimited” left to visit. I gathered my energy and begin a sinuous path among patterns, carpets, trees, and other objects displayed on the floor and around various buildings, bridges, and ships constructed in the hall. I visited Willem Boshoff in his residence as the Big Druid in His Cubicle (2009), with his idiosyncratic messages of Christian love scribbled amid an endless historic collection of early wood-working instruments. And I tarried in the room filled with the fragile beauty of Sigmar Polke’s pastel apricot wall installation, Cloud Paintings (1992), not wanting to leave the presence of its delicate celestial radiance. My energy waning, I drew near the end of the hall where there were a few more black boxes. Hoping for a resting place, I approached.

A rather large black box, somewhat crowded, a very dark projection, objects in the room. My eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness, and on the somber projected video I could just make out the shine on the forehead of a young black boy with a pale, disembodied ivory child’s hand placed diagonally across his breast. The boy is seated beside a window with alternating hues behind its panes. My ears gradually blended out the sounds from beyond the heavy velvet entry curtain. Concentrating on the audio track I heard something like bongo slaps, arrhythmic, paced far from each other. The illuminated “room” in front of me became lighter, colors behind the window changed, and a colored wall appeared. Gradually, the crowd left, exposing directly opposite the filmed boy a very dimly lit, pale ivory ceramic statue of a diminutive girl extending her hand. The room had by now almost emptied—ah, against the wall, two chairs under a faint spotlight. On the projected window, unfocussed scenes take place between black-outs. What was happening below the window? If I sat on the installed chair, would I be accessory to it? The bongo slaps became louder and faster, an occasional something reminding of a distant, filtered lion’s roar instrument added. Seated, I could now look around and suddenly perceive what had been there all along: directly opposite me a real window, high on the wall, with colors painted on the closed wall behind it. The window, too, was spotlighted, as was I on my seat. I must remain outside the window, I can enter neither the wall window in front of me nor the film window to my left. To my right, the dimly lit girl. I could only depend on the acoustic signals and changing colors to orient myself in the goings-on of this space.

Faster and more rhythmically, the drum was hit, struck, punched; very loud and almost rhythmic, on the edge of violence. No, that is no longer a lion’s roar, and it’s so soft—that’s a child’s whimpering, isn’t it? The hitting stopped, the whimpering took on a whining animal tone. Then the images behind the window expanded beyond the boundaries of the window, taking up the whole projection space of the wall. Buildings in blue, exploding clouds, then the slow bongo slaps resume. A man’s head without eyeballs, it is quiet. The projected window disappears, the boy disappears. We were left in darkness.

With its continually changing colors, sounds, and lighting, Andro Wekua’s installation By the Window (8 min 30 sec, 2008, Gladstone Gallery) uses varying media to direct my attention, my perception, and to evoke emotions. Through the masterful and exigent use of them, he transports the notions evoked from the relationship between the individual sitting on the chair and the projected individual, toward inclusion of the outsider of another color standing in the room. The closed window on the wall heightens consciousness of being enclosed, closed off, in the room, while through the sequence of sound and enlargement of the images a larger community and its doom were brought to mind. In Mr. Wekua’s piece, I initially analyzed the sounds, their nature, their potential meaning. But, through the density of the combined medial input (not the density of the sound, for with the exception of the “apotheosis,” it remained minimal), I was overwhelmed by multiple narratives, none of which was conclusive. The sound and image design were reminiscent of David Lynch. At times, the music narrative dominated, at times the visual; at times they were in tandem, at times the room was black or silent. By conjuring its narratives without the use of spoken or graphic words, the work managed to keep the narratives in a non-verbal part of the brain, together with the emotional reactions to the non-verbal (atavistic) audio and video inputs, all of which maintained a precarious balance between their forces. The over-activation of input and inconclusive narratives caused me to shudder at the end. It was not a shudder of catharsis; I was shaken.

Not surprisingly, I noted this year a dearth of works that were joyous, playfully interactive, or exquisitely breathtaking. 2009 has been a year of gloom. But here it hardly matters, for I have been rubbing elbows with art: with Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Joan Mitchell; with Paul Klee, Yves Klein, and Gustav Klimt; and with the new acquaintances Francisco Ruiz de Infante, Hanna Schwarz, and Andro Wekua. I missed Brad Pitt, but there’s nothing for the music critic to complain about this year. Art is finding a complex way to marry music as its equal partner, and I’m happy to dance at all their weddings—the squeaky, the silent, and the somber.