Ensemble Encore

Very much a piece of his work, even though none was in it, Ensemble was a group show organized by Christian Marclay, who drew on his credentials as an artist, musician, and deejay to engage others in a project they might have resisted in the hands of most curators. Because, as the title suggests, the exhibition was conceived as a composition to which each work contributed some sound. Not that we in the post-retinal field of contemporary art necessarily lack the ear; it’s more a question of trust. “Sound artists routinely see their work relegated to the lobby, elevator, toilet, and basement, or simply put outdoors,” Marclay observed.1 He knew from experience. Indeed, it was the opportunity to counteract this tendency of museums to isolate the act of listening from that of looking at art that prompted him to accept an invitation from the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and conceive this exhibition in the first place.”2

Under the guise of “guest curator,” Marclay operated more along the lines of “generator-arbitrator.” This is the term Marcel Duchamp coined to describe his own role as an artist making exhibitions (which he routinely did) by compelling peers to contribute to a collaboratively constructed tableau. Any reference to Duchamp taps deep into the roots of Marclay’s practice, from the name of the experimental band – The Bachelors, even – that he performed with during the 1980s, to a more recent installation to empty museum crates outfitted with music boxes that played like so much hidden noise (Music Boxes [from Crossings], 1999), to the very Duchampian sense of agency that allows Marclay, as a conceptual artist, to move freely between making objects and music. Nor is Ensemble the first museum exhibition Marclay has organized in his career; there is a strain of shows, starting in 1995 at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva, in which he has drawn aural images and objects from historic collections to create installations that perform like silent concerts, filling the viewer’s mind with pictures of unheard melodies.

However, Ensemble is the first time Marclay made an exhibition with works borrowed from his contemporaries. In this case, Duchamp’s approach proved more conducive. Acting as an agent among peers, Marclay made Ensemble not only to illustrate his solidarity with sound artists, he also neatly sidestepped issues of authority and submission that would otherwise have loomed large in the creation of a show in which each work was selected as an instrument that would complement the others and culminate in an overarching composition. No artist wants his or her work to be instrumentalized by a curator, but who doesn’t want to be a part of a cool band?

Ensemble was not just curated, it was orchestrated. Using both eye and ear, Marclay selected twenty-seven works by as many artists that made some kind of acoustical or natural sound (i.e., not amplified). Mineko Grimmer’s giant bamboo curtain was set rattling as soon as one entered the gallery, which was filled with bright and shimmering noises: there were bells gonging, pieces of china clinking, a teapot whistling, metronomes clicking, music-box tines pinging. Not everything played at once: Some works, like Dennis Oppenheim’s Attempt to Raise Hell (1969) and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Orchestra of Rags (1968) were on timers; others, like Martin Kersels’s Creakers (2007) and Katja Kölle’s Staccato (americano) (2004/2007) required viewer interaction. Motion detectors set Carolee Schneemann’s War Mop (1996) a-beating and Fia Backström’s Visitor Chime (1996) a-chiming. Sometimes the show ticked and hummed like a nervous cabinet of curiosities. There were the constant clinks of Céleste Boursierr-Mougenot’s thirty-one bowls floating in a plastic inflatable swimming pool and the regular flap of Darren Almond’s monumental flip-clock. Other times the exhibition erupted into urban din. Lift the lid of The Alarming Trashcan (c. 1987), by Yoshi Wada, for an alarm bell-deafening din. Occasionally the phone would ring. I was in the gallery the day that two little boys got to talk to their father’s favorite artist, Yoko Ono. More often, Ono would reach the gallery guard Linda Harris, and they would have a quick chat.

Overall, as Ono’s Telephone Piece (1997) might intone, Ensemble was very Fluxus in feeling, in terms of both the ordinary and readymade nature of the objects on view, and the flow of chance and happenstance that brought the show to life every day. Echoes of the historical movement that emerged during the 1960s turn into clear sound when one considers the exhibition in light of Marclay’s 2004 video installation Shake Rattle and Roll (Fluxmix), in which he handles objects form the Walker Art Center’s formidable collection of Fluxus art like tiny instruments to produce a matrix of sounds.

As playful as Ensemble was, it also contained the specter that haunts all kinetic art: When it’s not moving, it’s dead. Enter the Accompanists. Marclay invited eight musicians and performance artists to add their own sounds to the exhibition and interact with it. The vocalist Shelley Hirsch gave throat to works in the show; electronic musicians o.blaat (Keiko Uenishi), Aki Onda, and Alan Licht sampled and produced feedback for themselves to loop and play and drone back into; sculptor Terry Adkins beat jazz percussion from the more instrumental objects. One of the original Fluxus artists, Alison Knowles, performed with her own accompanist, a volunteer Penn student, whom Knowles armored in crinkling sheets of mulberry paper and paraded ceremoniously (and blindly) about.

Collectively the Accompanists pitched into relief the musical meaning of ensemble: A concert piece involving a number of voices or instruments. The show was also a score, arranged by Marclay only to be played, sampled, and given variations by the viewers who interacted with it. Sampling and scoring being the primary modes of Marclay’s practice, Ensemble was as representative as it was generative. Its staging calls to mind Graffiti Composition (1996-2002) in which sheets of musical composition paper were pasted around the city to be marked up by people and documented through photographs, which were published as an edition to be used as a score.

As much a populist as he is a conceptual artist, Marclay often plays off and with public accessibility and participation. Performed annually, The Sounds of Christmas (1999) allows deejays to spin, mash, and mix tunes from Marclay’s collection of more than one thousand holiday records. Likewise, so many images, ideas, and anecdotes continue to spin out of Ensemble and attach themselves to bigger thinking and to memory. As a viewer, each visit was episodic, depending on who and what sounds were playing in the gallery with you. Small children leaping to pull the clappers of Jim Hodges’s blown-glass bells comes to mind. As does the day that a talented viewer picked up the mallets and hammered beautiful music from Doug Aitken’s K-N-O-C-K-O-U-T. And from my peripheral curatorial involvement, I know the show created much lore within the institution and for the individuals involved. There was that scavenger hunt for the vintage amp required by one of the performers that plunged the ICA curatorial department into an uproar.3 And there is the idea of the Accompanists as a curatorial model of programming that activated an exhibition from within: Each performance was integral – as opposed to ancillary – to the artist-curator’s total composition of objects within the gallery. Perhaps my favorite outcome is the various recordings, including one you can find on Ubuweb online, of a student reciting John Cage’s Notes on Silence inside the exhibition.4 You can actually hear the walls of the gallery, baffling and bouncing with all of the intriguing and dissonant volumes this exhibition contains. What is especially audible it the reality of the situation: ICA’s galleries were not built for showing sound. The acoustics are terrible! But boy, did Ensemble sound good.

Endnotes:

  1. Christian Marclay, Ensemble, exh. cat (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2008), n.p. The publication documents the installation and includes a CD recording (featuring the sounds of individual works, plus excerpts from the eight performances that accompanied the exhibition and a compilation based on them by Aaron Iglar).
  2. In accepting the invitation, Marclay inaugurated the Sachs Guest Curator Program, a new series of exhibitions aimed at bringing outside perspectives to ICA’s program.
  3. Thanks to ICA Whitney-Lauder Curatorial Fellow Stamatina Gregory for administrating to all the many logistics of producing the Accompanists and sharing her recollections with me.
  4. This recording of Kaegan Sparks was one of a number of engagements with Ensemble by Penn students in poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Writing Through Contemporary Culture.” A collaboration between ICA and Penn’s Center for Contemporary Writing, the class produced Cover Without a Record, a journal of texts based on strategies lifted from Marclay’s art. http://ubu.artmob.ca/sound/Sparks-Kaegan_Cage-John_Lecture-on-Nothing_2007.mp3