February 16, 2011  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Listening to Art

The Residents. Freak Show. 1995

The Residents. Freak Show. 1995. Interactive CD-ROM. The Museum of Modern Art Library. Image courtesy the artists

The idea of looking at music has percolated in my mind for decades. I followed how the violin prodigy Laurie Anderson successfully straddled the worlds of art and music. She cleverly harnessed media to merge visuals with lyrics. Her work unfolded in tandem with technology, as computers and software allowed her to move more fluidly between disciplines. Before long we all stopped seeing a distinction between art and music.

Looking at Music 3.0</a> the third in a series of exhibitions that explore the influence of music on contemporary art practices, focuses on New York in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city operated as a dynamic hub for a broad range of artists. Ad hoc collaborations of graffiti, performance, and media artists presented new works in alternative spaces and short-lived underground clubs. The excitement it brought infused all five boroughs.</p>

Art of the street thrived. On the heels of graffiti, hip hop started out at grassroots, amplified music/dance gatherings in schoolyards in the Bronx. On the Lower East Side artists joined forces, notably after the 1989 Thompson Square riots. Handmade posters plastered around the neighborhood protested police brutality and the gentrification of a park where the homeless had camped out for decades.

Appropriation, also known as sampling or remix, flourished as a means of opposing the mainstream. It was a time of movements. AIDS activists rallied inter-disciplinary colleagues to protest and disseminate accurate information in the form of animated public-service announcements, posters, and concerts. A new articulation of feminism manifested itself in zines, video chain letters, and in-your-face performances.

TELLUSTools. 2001. Double-LP

TELLUSTools. 2001. Double-LP. Composition: 12 1/4 x 24 5/8" (31.1 x 62.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art Library, New York. Gift of Harvestworks. Cover Art by Christian Marclay. Produced by Carol Parkinson, Harvestworks. Image courtesy Kanji Ishii

The inexpensive audio cassette offered new channels for presenting and disseminating sound and rap art. While everyone made their own mix tape to give friends or to sell, Tellus became known as a monthly audio magazine that tracked innovative fusions of music, language, and sound art.

Video maintained that you-are-there, live feel of performance, whereas interactive CD-ROMs turned audiences into active participants. Anyone could venture behind the circus barker in the ResidentsFreak Show CD-Rom to enter performers’ caravans. Image and sound were equal as bits of electronic information.

Research for Looking at Music 3.0 began with a dedicated team. Curatorial assistant Stephanie Weber ferreted out the many avenues of appropriation and remix culture. Interns Tasha Parker and Maggie Bryan probed hundreds of MoMA Library artist files and scrutinized websites and YouTube, sleuthing for clues and connections. Deep within MoMA’s holdings, we discovered a 1979 flyer with Christian Marclay playing his patchwork vinyl, operating his record player as if it were a guitar. A print accompanied by a never-before-heard record revealed a heated monologue set to a collage of music by Martha Rosler, now listenable in the gallery. Zines by Le Tigre band members Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman can be picked up and read.

Other detective work transpired over coffee. Carmen Hammons introduced artist/curator Derrick Adams, who put us in touch with Def Jam Records’ initial designer, Cey Adams, and publicist, Bill Adler. They all shed light on the animated culture that grew out of rap and hip hop and an economy of lack.

Instrument. 1999. USA. Directed by Jem Cohen

Instrument. 1999. USA. Directed by Jem Cohen

Karen Finley stopped by to discuss her performance and music days at the club Danceteria, mentioning how the lyrics and persona of Boy George inspired. Filmmaker Jem Cohen conveyed the DIY ethical stance of Fugazi, as portrayed in his film portrait of the band, Instrument, which screens on March 4 and 5. Media artist Tom Kalin described how feminist appropriators (especially Martha Rosler and Barbara Kruger) mentored the activist members of Act Up. This music- and media-savvy collective pursued direct action as they fought to end the AIDS crisis.

Visit the media gallery and experience Looking at Music 3.0 firsthand. Poke around Spike Jonze‘s music video for Weezer. Sample the Tellus cassette magazine and discover what sound art is. Perhaps Afrika Bambaataa’s lyrics, heard on an MP3 player, will take you back to the rhymes of early radio disc jockeys Wolfman Jack and Cousin Brucie, the forerunners of rap.

Visit the show, and then give us a shout.

Also be sure to check this blog for regular postings about Looking at Music, including posts by guest bloggers Bill Adler, Karen Finley, and Tom Kalin, and original interviews with John Kelly, Cey Adams, and Lee Quinones.