Feb 26, 2013

"Blues For Smoke" at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney Museum of American Art's current exhibition “Blues for Smoke” first came to my attention when I overheard a conversation between a few colleagues, who were discussing their experiences at the exhibit. “I stayed and watched one television station for seventy-five minutes,” said one; the other said, “it's easy to do, they're showing all sixty hours of The Wire.” At that point, I knew I had to go and find out what exactly this exhibit was, and what on earth they were doing showing all sixty hours of The Wire.

“Blues for Smoke,” it turns out, is an exhibit that originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles which attempts to use blues music and the “blues aesthetic” as a lens through which to explore contemporary art, music and literature, as well as film and television. The exhibit makes use of a number of fairly standard curatorial techniques for including moving images – the small mounted wall screen in the corner of a room otherwise dedicated to paintings, the dark room with a single video projected at one end of it – and while I could spend several paragraphs talking about the choices made around these works, what I'd really like to focus on is the room that did, indeed, hold all sixty hours of The Wire.

Those sixty hours were being played on a small television on the floor of medium-sized room, with two headphones attached. There were two other televisions on the floor of this room; nine other television sets ringed the room at approximately eye level. Each television appeared to be of a different size, model and make, although all were flatscreens and played digital video images. Two sets of noise-cancelling headphones were hooked up to each television, and most of the sets were within easy reach of the benches that sat in the middle of the room, allowing the visitor to select the content that looked most appealing and spend as long as they wanted listening to it. In addition to the televisions, two of the walls also had videos projected onto them, and the soundtracks of these films were quietly audible to everyone in the room and in a certain degree of competition with each other. There was also a station of two headphones linked directly into the wall, for an audio-only experience.

After walking into this room, I walked directly out again to see if there was any curatorial note for the room as a whole. There was none; the room was not an exhibit in and of itself, just the format that the curators had chosen to present all of these audiovisual works to the viewer. Each television did have a curatorial note next to it to explain what it was playing, as did the projected videos. The full audiovisual contents of the room, starting from the corner directly to the right of the entrance and going around in a clockwise direction, included:
    • two blues performances from the sixties, “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “Ball and Chain,” on loop (eye-level television)
    • Cecil Taylor: All the Notes, 2004 documentary on the free jazz pianist (eye-level television)
    • Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, 1935 short film set to the music of Duke Ellington (wall projection)
    • R&B performances from the band Trouble Funk (eye-level television)
    • a performance of the song “Devil Got My Woman” (floor-level television)
    • Anything for Jazz: Jaki Byard, 1980 short documentary (eye-level television)
    • Art Ensemble of Chicago, 1981 documentary about the musical group (wall projection)
    • several Henry Flynt musical works on loop (audio-only station)
    • Henry Flynt in New York, 2008 web video profile on the avant-garde artist (eye-level television)
    • Space is the Place, 1974 science fiction musical film written by and featuring musician Sun Ra (large eye-level television)
    • The Wire, 2002-2008, five-season television program (floor-level television)
    • The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, 2007 documentary on the life of the science fiction author (eye-level television)
    • music videos by the eighties hardcore punk bands “Bad Brains” and “Minor Threat” on loop (floor-level television)
    • Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, 1979 recording of the stand-up comedian (eye-level television)
    • rap music videos “212,” “Get Got,” “Wut,” “Ellen Degeneres,” and “Are You . . . Can You . . . Were You . . .” on loop (eye-level television)
There didn't seem to be any particular chronological or thematic order to the arrangement of the selections, although the pieces that played on loop together on the same television set were usually short thematically linked. While I originally thought that the pieces projected on the wall might be film originals, which would account for the difference in their mode of presentation, a look at the curatorial notes revealed that, like the rest, they were being projected as video pieces. There was therefore no obvious rationale behind the choice to project these specific pieces on the wall with audible sound, instead of on a television set like the rest of the material; while Symphony in Black was shot on film, other film-original pieces such as Space is the Place were shown on television screens, and the other projected piece, Art Ensemble of Chicago, was shot on video.

Furthermore, I will note that it took me some research to discover what the original carriers were of any of these pieces in order to make comparisons – even for a piece like Symphony in Black, which was shot in 1935 and well before the invention of video, the curatorial note listed the piece as “video” with no reference to the fact that this was not the original medium. In fact, all of the pieces in the exhibition were simply labeled as “video,” with no distinction made between analog and digital, and no mention of whether any transfer had occurred in order to allow the work to be presented in the installation. This was despite the fact that several of the pieces, such as the 1960s recording of “Ball and Chain,” showed severe pixilated artifacts left over from the digitization process. Some of the curatorial notes did mention that the work was provided courtesy of a distributor – for example, Kino Video in the case of Symphony in Black – while others did not refer to the the origin of the copy of the work that was being presented. 

Title credits of Symphony in Black

To me, it seems clear from this that the exhibit has no particular investment in these works as artifacts in and of themselves. The first impression when I walked into the room as a visitor was of an overwhelming array of indistinguishable media, and throughout the time I spent there that didn't really change. While it's certainly possible for a visitor to personally customize their experience of the exhibit by putting on a set of noise-cancelling headphones and attempting to focus intensively on one piece alone – in fact, the friend I was with went straight to the documentary on Cecil Taylor and did just that – there is nowhere anyone can sit within the room without having at least two other works flickering in their peripheral vision. Viewed within the context of the curatorialstatement of the show, which says that “Blues for Smoke holds artists and art worlds together that are often kept apart, within and across lines of race, generation, and canon,” the spatial design of the room seems intended to remind the visitor that none of these pieces exist in isolation. They build on each other and echo each other, within the culture of the blues. As far as more direct relationships go, well, as the curatorial statement reminds us, “the expanded poetics of the blues is pervasive – but also diffuse and difficult to pin down.” Depending on your perspective, this is either an elegant way of encapsulating the complexity of the topic, or a cop-out that allows the curators to avoid drawing out the specifics of the deeper meaning behind their choices. 
Still, even if one takes this sense of overwhelming interconnectedness as the purpose of the installation's design, I'm not sure how I feel about the audiovisual media being essentially segregated away from the rest of the pieces in the exhibit. When the curatorial statement talks proudly about the heterogeneity of the works presented, it seems to imply that the connections it wants to draw out exist between all aspects of blues culture – it's not just the case that music affects art, film, television, and literature, but rather that all these different disciplines play into one another. A nod to the literary presence by including a documentary on Samuel R. Delaney in the “media room” just doesn't seem to cut it. There are a few audiovisual pieces that escape exile into the video room, but they tend to be works that are much easier to mentally categorize as “artistic” – the ones that spring to mind are video puppet show titled Fall Frum Grace: Miss Pipi's Blue Tale and a four-channel video installation by Jeff Priess titled “Stop, 1995-2012.” It's notable that “Stop” is the only piece of audiovisual media containing a curatorial note as to its original medium, which, for the record, was 16mm film. It's hard not to draw a connection between this extra attention to detail and the privileged status of the piece as a piece of art among other pieces of art, in contrast to the popular culture that's been consigned to the video ghetto. 

As a work originally intended for museum exhibition,
Kara Walker's Fall Frum Grace is one of the few audiovisual works in the collection to be displayed in a gallery among different mediums of art

Moreover, this particular choice in the architecture of the installation seems to be an innovation of the Whitney Museum's, rather than integral to the exhibit as a concept. Reviews of the initial incarnation of “Blues and Smoke” at the Museum of Contemporary Art mention that “at the entry, five flat-screen televisions display film and video clips that range from 1935 musical numbers by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to today's hip-hop performers” – a far cry from the fifteen different audivisual devices presented together in the reimagined Whitney exhibit. Meanwhile, The Wire seems to have had a small room to itself, tucked away behind a projection of a Kara Walker piece. It seems to me that treating the audiovisual media the same way that the rest of the works of art are treated and interspersing them throughout the exhibit is a better way of conveying the interconnectedness of blues and blues-inspire culture than by throwing them all together in one big pop-culture corner. If the goal is to show how the blues permeates our culture and our lives, then why put the parts of that culture that are most likely to be directly familiar and relevant to the audience – the films and documentaries, the music videos and contemporary rap – away in their own little corner where a visitor could easily get overwhelmed, or ignore them entirely?

On the other hand, some reviewers have found the entire concept of the exhibit somewhat problematic in terms of the blues aesthetic. One review of the Whitney version of the exhibit complains that “the allusions to jazz and blues are sometimes there, but conveyed in an art-gallery language that is alien to blues or jazz,” adding that the choices often come across as “esoteric and academic.” While I'm not really qualified to talk about what is or isn't inherent to a blues or jazz aesthetic, I will add, as a final note, that for an exhibit celebrating a musical form and culture so strongly rooted in African-American history and traditions, the audience that I saw viewing the exhibit was almost overwhelmingly white. And if I were in charge of curating this exhibit, I might find that fact a little concerning.

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