Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Forty Part Motet and the meaning of art after September 11th

Takashings, Sky Blue Sky (2011); Janet Cardiff and George Bures, Forty Part Motet (2001)

I know exactly why Janet Cardiff and George Bures' Forty Part Motet has been included in MoMA PS1's show to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I know because I happen to have participated (along with hundreds of other museum goers) in making the association between the two. I attended the opening of Cardiff's show when Motet was shown for the first time in NYC, just a month after the 2001 attacks. I didn't know Cardiff's work before the show. I remember thinking the little theaters she makes with her collaborator George Bures were tricky but not much more. I entered the gallery where Motet was installed, and was relieved that the miniature theater portion of the show had ended (not my thing). But unlike the theater pieces, I didn't know at all what to make of what I heard and saw. Motet was nothing but an oval of forty plain black speakers, each mounted head high on black iron stands. Entering the gallery, the view from the windows immediately overwhelmed the minimalist aesthetic of the piece. The long wall of windows on the gallery's west side faced Manhattan. The sky was a beautifully clear and bright - the same cloudless blue as the morning of September 11th. "A sky blue sky" Laurie Anderson might of called it.

There I was looking at our disfigured skyline and the I began to become aware of Cardiff's sound installation - I remember my very first impression exactly: "Great, another piece about rich people at parties." I now know that I must have walked in just moments after the work began its loop. What I heard where a babble of excited of voices coming from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. It is a startling effect. A strange element of the Motet, is that like Cardiff's headphone walking tours, it was recorded three-dimensionally.

Cardiff's headphone pieces are recorded with two microphones placed on either side of a foam head. Unlike conventional recordings Cardiff's technique eerily reproduces sounds as they are heard from the inside of a human head. One of the things we are very good at as a species, as it turns out, is accurately judging the origins of sounds within three-dimensional spaces. If you hear a pencil drop behind you, you likely have a very good idea of exactly where to look to retrieve it. Cardiff's headphone tours take advantage of that, especially when played back in the same architectural spaces where they were recorded (her outdoor are not as effective). So walking down the staircases at PS1 accompanied by the headphone soundtrack commissioned for the museum, you hear the conventional sounds one expects to hear not just in a crowded museum, but in that exact crowded museum stairwell you are descending within. As a noisy group of middle-schoolers rushes up the stairs towards you from around a corner in the stairwell, you brace for their jostling bodies, only to have them pass around you - invisible phantoms existing only in Cardiff's recording. (Experiencing a Cardiff walking tour should be on any serious art lover's bucket list).

The Motet works almost the same way, but without headphones. The original recording was made with forty individual microphones arrange very much like the speakers, so if you place your ear against any one speaker you will hear an individual voice. But you will also hear sounds coming distinctly from corners of the room where there are no speakers. 

I can remember getting caught up in the novelty of those effects as I walked around the installation for the first time, but I can also remember feeling bruised and hurt by the combination of the tragic view of a still smoking skyline and vacuous nature of the recording (party chatter). Then there was a crisp tapping from a point at the center of the ring of speakers. I remember swinging my head around and being surprised to see that no one was standing there, that nothing was there. I felt a little embarrassed, but I then noticed that the few other people scattered around the gallery were looking with confusion at the same spot I was. The tapping sound was unmistakable; it was a conductor raping his baton in a call for attention. The merry recorded voices immediately quieted themselves and were replaced by soft murmur of whispers and throat clearing. Anyone acquainted with Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis can imagine what happened next. I was totally unprepared for the beauty of the 40-part choral motet and I began to weep just as PS1's Founding Director Alanna Heiss and the then-Head Curator Klaus Biesenbach entered trailing a gaggle of VIPs. 

For those unacquainted with the New York Art world: You don't get extra points for being "moved." Crying at art exhibits is an amateur move - or at least that is how it felt at the time. I wasn't just embarrassed, I was totally humiliated. I probably made some attempt to cover over by taking a sudden interest in the gallery's ceiling vaults. However I handled it, I know that I managed to pull my shit together - just barely. What I found out later from friends who worked at PS1, is that I wasn't the first or the last person to be overwhelmed by Motet. Someone lost their shit in that gallery several times a day, every day, of the exhibition's run that fall - comforting people became one of the duties taken on by the museum's staff (which is all the more awesome to think about given the fact that at the time the policy was still to hire neighborhood kids - young toughs with gang tattoos - to watch the galleries).  I would bet that of the all people who lost their shit, that no one wept because they understood anything about the original choral work. Like me, the sound of the voices was an abstraction. Like me they were each giving the work a meaning that neither Cardiff nor her collaborator Bures (much less Tallis), could have possibly predicted.

Cardiff and Bures did not make Motet in response to September 11th - it was conceived and built in advance of the attacks. Nor does it doesn't illustrate some theme related to the attacks. It is an abstract work that was waiting for an audience to impress it with meaning. Those who feel abstract aesthetics come prepackaged with meaning set by American Cold Warrior theorist give the past too much power. Those that feel that a mute art is merely decorative and therefor fails to fulfill serious art's critical role, give words too much power. And those who invoke Theodor Adorno's assertion that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" would rather abandon us to dispair, than imagine we, as modern people, are hardy enough to absorb all tragedy,even those we inflict on ourselves. They have lost sight of the importance of the unnameable in art. In his play of that title, Samuel Beckett expresses it perfectly: "I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on."

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