The 2014 Whitney Biennial came to a close this past weekend, ending with a performance by esteemed artist and musician Pauline Oliveros. The composer, whose sound and video installation opened in the museum’s lobby just seven days ago, bid the exhibition farewell with a short solo accordion improvisation. The performance resonated with one of the more striking, if overlooked, curatorial themes of the show: sound in the museum.
Oliveros’s installation, “Deep Listening Room” (2014), consisted of several large digital video projections displayed on three walls in a small gallery on the first floor. The video feeds were sourced from fisheye surveillance cameras installed in the main lobby, covertly projected for collective viewing. There were no signs indicating this process: visitors remained unaware that they were being filmed until they entered the installation, where they were confronted with their own voyeuristic gaze. A microphone was also installed in the lobby, capturing live sound that was quickly fed into the surveillance room; however, the sound was first routed into a computer system and electronically manipulated via generative synthesis. This process manifested a delayed and heavily processed soundtrack: the video and audio feeds were clearly related, but the latter was entirely ambiguous, creating a disorienting experience. The installation called attention to the ubiquity of modern surveillance while also suggesting its shortcomings: mechanisms of surveillance were both exposed and aestheticized.
Indeed, the title, “Deep Listening Room,” refers not only to the unseen ‘big brother’ tapping into our email or collecting our cell-phone records, but also to Oliveros’s own decades-long practice of meditative listening. For her, the concept of “deep listening” means being attuned to the aural environment to the point of, in her words, “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” This practice forms the basis of Oliveros’s entire musical practice, which was evident the moment she took a seat on Sunday evening at the Whitney and promptly closed her eyes, barely moving except for a diminutive tilt of the neck, and then only in order to focus on some discrete aural object. Before Oliveros could begin playing, she had to carefully assess the sonic orientation of the room, including her own position inside of it.
Deep listening is an appropriate entry point for discussing the specific attention given to sound in this year’s Whitney Biennial, which was a pointedly noisy affair. Each floor of the exhibition had some sort of aural component, and although certain pieces were more explicit than others, it was rare that one did not hear something new when turning a corner. In many ways, the display of sound functioned as a second show altogether — one that was intentional, articulate, and in no way secondary to visual elements.
Aural walkthrough of the 2014 Whitney Biennial (audio recording made by the author for Aurchive)
The most prominent sounds of the show were undoubtedly the ghostly, ritualistic drones and chanting of artist Charlemagne Palestine, who constructed an immersive, omnipresent sculptural/aural installation in the museum’s main stairwell. The powerful, dirge-like moaning of Palestine’s “hauntteddd!! n huntteddd!! n
Palestine was a leitmotif, but as soon as one walked through the Whitney’s doors sound was present. Sergei Tcherpnin transformed the famous, minimal grid of Breuer’s light fixtures into an eight-channel speaker system by attaching surface transducers to their metallic frames, and the soft, buzzing noises could be heard overhead and across the room. The audio signal was sparse and controlled, shifting throughout the day as it was routed to one of the eight individual fixtures. The result was a quiet, contemplative installation that, as the museum suggested, “redefine[d the lobby] as a place to pause and actively listen.” However, the installation was often too quiet to hear clearly, and at times its sounds were entirely lost under the din of museum visitors and cash register chatter. In order to listen to sound in the museum, one really must pause, a loss of momentum that many casual museum visitors are unlikely to cede (at least directly upon entry). Tcherpnin’s piece highlighted one of the challenges that sound art often poses: allowing visitors to experience it without, as former MoMA curator Barbara London has said, “nail[ing] someone’s feet to the ground.”
The biennial did provide plenty of opportunities to pause and listen, if one so desired: a small gallery dedicated to the personal effects of Malachi Ritscher (1954–2006), an audio archivist and social staple of the experimental music scene in Chicago; two playable vinyl records (one an interview with deceased filmmaker Jack Smith presented by Semiotext(e); the other a field recording of silent airspace over Chicago on September 11, 2001, co-presented by Academy Records and the recently deceased Matt Hanner); a series of sculptural representations of bird calls by sculptor Terry Adkins (what Seth Kim-Cohen calls “non-cochlear sonic art”); an obnoxious, disturbing multimedia environment by Bjarne Melgaard; a series of interactive performances by sculptor Kevin Beasley; and the in-house production of multiple operatic works by the late Robert Ashley. There were also numerous videos and films that filled the galleries with ambient noise; sculptural works that had charming, if incidental sonic elements (such as the clicking of a slide projector); and a recurring series of live performances that took place in both the galleries and the lobby throughout the duration of the exhibition.
In terms of incorporating sound into an exhibition, then, this year’s biennial was a welcome step in the right direction; it also made clear the challenges that museums face as they continue to embrace the aural paradigm: they must be willing to make changes to their infrastructure, both on the architectural level, by providing spaces conducive to sonic work, and on the institutional level, by ensuring that such works are not an afterthought. We visitors also play a role in this equation, as we learn how to listen in a space that has been built around vision.
Oliveros brought the theme of aurality to a poetic conclusion on Sunday evening. She played her accordion, carefully maneuvering her instrument and embracing an abstract tonal palette reminiscent of the post-serial school, but was also consciously listening to the sounds that filled the room during each passing moment. She was as much a part of the audience as anyone else present, which was particularly challenging because her installation was active underneath the performance. However, the noises were not so much a distraction as they were springboards: nearly every tonal gesture coming from the accordion reflected a sound event from the lobby. After about 45 minutes, the performance ended, but Oliveros did not get up. Instead she sat silently, once again tilting slightly to listen to the room during these final moments. She affirmed the sounds of the museum before adding her own, a sympathetic gesture we would all do well to emulate.
Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening Room” was on view at the 2014 Whitney Biennial from May 21 to 25. The biennial ran at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) from March 7 to May 25.