Portrait of Chacon, photo by Josef Bachmeier

Portrait of Raven Chacon (photo by Josef Bachmeier)

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Sound often accompanies visual experiences, such as music set to film, dance, and performance. Yet it is less frequent to have a visual depiction of our auditory experiences. For Diné (Navajo) artist Raven Chacon (b. 1979), visual and auditory expression are indivisible. In his solo exhibition Lightning Speak at University of New Mexico (UNM) Art Museum, Chacon’s still images, installations, and videos illustrate the liminal, hybrid manifestations of sound and image and how they coalesce.

Chacon, born in Fort Defiance, Arizona, is no stranger to the visual art and music worlds. A member of the interdisciplinary collective Postcommodity and performance art group Death Convention Singers, and founder of the independent Albuquerque record label SickSickSick Distro (which releases native-made music from the southwest), Chacon embraces diversity as elemental to his voice. In addition to his work as a visual artist, Chacon has a substantial practice as a noise musician and composer with upcoming commissions by Kronos Quartet and the Native American Composers Apprenticeship Program (NACAP). In fact, Chacon’s noise and chamber compositions are the framework and foundation for his exhibition at UNM Art Museum. The exhibition is both visual and musical, with several works illustrating electronic sound. In the Diné language, the word for electricity is used interchangeably for lightning, which Chacon uses to reference the use of technology in noise music and visual art production, and was the main inspiration for the title Lightning Speak.

Installation view, photograph courtesy of Demian Dineyazhi

Installation view of ‘Lightning Speak: Solo and Collaborative Work of Raven Chacon’ at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Art Museum (photog courtesy Demian Dineyazhi)

Entering the exhibition, which resides on the lower level of the museum, the viewer is met by a wall of landscape photographs, each accompanied by a set of headphones and a different audio recording. The images are of iconic and, in many ways, fetishized locations within the Navajo Nation and Southwest, including the Sandia Mountains, Window Rock, and Canyon DeChelly. The audio, which is part of Chacon’s Field Recording series, is comprised of recordings taken on those sites. The sound effects are otherworldly, quasi-disturbing, and unexpected. Thinking you might hear subtle sounds of wind, perhaps native birds or wildlife, you’re instead flooded with an audioscape that reminisces of outer space with its discombobulating combinations of static and high-pitched frequencies. Chacon takes what is expected and usurps that with his own narrative. In a way, he reclaims agency in the representation of native peoples and landscapes, as he breaks through stereotypical tropes of indigeneity and presents a reality of natives now, as a contemporary people. The piece is impactful, though I was left wishing the photographs had been printed on a larger scale to allow for fuller immersion.

 Field Recordings, 1999 Sandia Mountains, 11:00pm Window Rock, 4:00am Canyon DeChelly, 10:00am Sound installation with photo prints. Image courtesy of Demian Dineyazhi

Installation view of Raven Chacon’s ‘Field Recordings’ (1999), sound installation with photo prints (image courtesy Demian Dineyazhi)

Progressing deeper into the exhibition, you encounter a work from 2003, “While Contemplating Their Fate in the Stars, the Twins Surround the Enemy.” The piece is comprised of a metal birdcage, two finches, and the expected accoutrements such as a water/food dish and newspaper liner. There is also a high-pitched noise that the zebra finches match in their song. The work, according to Chacon, is about, “people being trapped in a situation, despite any efforts or illusions toward self-determination, where they are forced to defend themselves, and in doing so, must interact with an encroaching presence in any way necessary.”

While Contemplating Their Fate in the Stars, the Twins Surround the Enemy, 2003 Installation with two finches, cage and theremin 5' x 2' x 2', image courtesy of

Raven Chacon, “While Contemplating Their Fate in the Stars, the Twins Surround the Enemy” (2003), two finches, cage and theremin, 5 x 2 x 2 inches (image courtesy Demian Dineyazhi) (click to enlarge)

Perhaps the most imposing piece, which takes up the most real estate within the exhibition, is Gauge, a three-channel video collaboration between Chacon and Canadian artists Danny Osborne, Patrick Thompson, and Alexa Hatanaka. The work features time-lapsed videos of artists practicing graffiti on the undulating formations of ice in the Arctic. The shapes expand and shrink as the landscape of ice and snow shifts and recedes, causing the painted images to morph and distort, colors bleeding into one and becoming an incoherent, unreadable vision. The piece addresses the violence and paradoxical beauty of a climate in chaos, illuminating the disruptive effects of global warming.

The work in Lightning Speak, which illustrates issues of Native American representation and humanity’s state of existence in relation to landscape, is at once graceful and abrasive. At first glance, the work seems simple, with a cleanness and ease; however, upon further inspection, it is incredibly nuanced, allowing each moment spent contemplating the work to unfold and reveal new readings on the meaning to the overall arch of the show — one that uses sound and visuals in an inextricably linked way to show that native traditions and contemporary culture can also coexist.

Gauge, 2013-2015 Three-Channel Video with 5.1 audio Image courtesy of Demian Dineyazhi

Danny Osborne, Patrick Thompson, Alexa Hatanaka, and Raven Chacon “Gauge” (2013–2015), three-channel video with 5.1 audio (image courtesy Demian Dineyazhi)

Lightning Speak: Solo and Collaborative Work of Raven Chacon continues at the University of New Mexico Art Museum (1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM) through May 14.

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...