Background Noises—Institutional Sounds

Art gallery exhibition spaces are usually calm and quiet. Metaphorically, however, there are actually multiple soundtracks running inside them. In the foreground, there is the music of the artworks. This is a sound that tells stories about the exhibiting artists, about formal themes and special concerns or feelings. Then there is the soundtrack playing in the background. This second sound comes from art’s socioeconomic framework; it is what one might call the constant hum of the operating system. It is often overlooked, because it has been naturalized for so long. But without this institutional basso ostinato, art today is virtually inconceivable. It is hardly surprising, then, that when attempts are made to grapple reflexively with the institution of the visual arts and its power structure, which find expression primarily in spaces and their creative use, real sound often plays an important role; and not just because, as acoustics, sound reflects and thematizes the space, but also because invisible social conditions can be made audible in the space, because attention can be drawn to them through sound. Thus, this chapter focuses on a use of sound that seeks in various ways to demystify art’s internal conventions and connections by strategically causing its invisible or hidden framework conditions to reverberate. The examples range from experimental compositions of the early 1950s to the institutional critique of the 1990s. In this context too, John Cage’s 1952 composition 4′33″, which consists of three movements with the indication tacet (it is silent), may be seen as a pioneering work. Another way of making space audible is illustrated by Alvin Lucier’s work I Am Sitting in a Room (1969). Lucier made a tape recording of the sentence of the title, which describes the action, then played it back and recorded it again, and so on. As the cycle was repeated, the original sentence was eventually completely reshaped by the harmonic and resonant frequencies of the space. Thus, with I Am Sitting in a Room, Lucier thematizes not only the transition between language and music but also the site itself and its institutional dynamics. In her work Birdcalls (1972/81), Louise Lawler exploits the feminist potential of sound and its potential as an instrument for the critique of institutions. As her point of departure, Lawler took her frustration with the dominance of male artists in the American museum world as well as with the fact that, in public spaces, women had to arm themselves with police whistles to protect themselves against sexual assault. From this she developed a sound piece in which the names of famous male artists are tweeted or chirped like bird calls. With these Birdcalls, the territorial conflicts of the art world and their gender-specific connotations become audible in a telling and symptomatic manner. Michael Asher—in his exhibition at Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles in 1974—took an approach that is much more visceral as well as much more straightforward than that of Lucier and Lawler. In order to modify the conditions of visibility and audibility in the gallery, he had the wall that separated the office from the exhibition spaces removed. The exhibition’s visitors thus found themselves standing right in the office and were aggressively confronted with the daily business of the gallery and its conversations. The result was to make the social communications of the gallery owner, who, through her activity, plays an important role in defining art, the center of attention. Nearly twenty years later, other groups seem to have become decision-relevant. In Andrea Fraser’s work Dinner Party (1992), dinner conversation after an exhibition opening at a midrange American museum is played back next to a painting from the collection. Fraser, who constantly thematizes the conflicting framework conditions of the art market and her own role within it, presents the sound that calls the tune in the background of an art world that is oriented around prestige.

Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting in a Room, 1969

William Furlong, Audio Arts, 1973

Dennis Oppenheim, Echo, 1973

Louise Lawler, Birdcalls, 1972/1981

Andrea Fraser, Dinner Party, 1992

Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Mobile Unit for the Detection of Unknown Entities, 2001–2005