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Between Sound and Vision

at University of Illinois at Chicago Gallery 400, through March 10

By Fred Camper

Avant-garde artists are often misrepresented in the popular press as nutcases or charlatans. John Cage and his chance music have been derogated in "my kid could do that" terms. Alan Kaprow's happenings were written up as sensational, unstructured novelties meant to shock. The Fluxus artists' attempts to blend art and life--Alison Knowles ate an identical lunch for months, declaring the act of doing so art--could easily be presented as merely silly.

But as the 53 works by 45 artists (another 10 contribute live or recorded performances) in "Between Sound and Vision" at Gallery 400 reveal, such artists were making work as thoughtfully considered as any old master, though their ethos and approach couldn't be more different. While this magnificent, enlightening, and just plain joyous exhibition concentrates on artists who came of age in the 50s and 60s, pieces by some younger and lesser-known artists show that childlike utopianism has at least a few heirs today.

The theme of the exhibit is work that integrates sound and images, and most of the artists chosen by the curators--University of Illinois art history professor Hannah Higgins and a group of her graduate students, who spent two years putting together the show--partake of a similar aesthetic. Key is the surrender of ordered perfection, and some degree of artistic control, to chance operations, the decisions of the performers, or both. Incorporating chance was not part of an attempt to épater le bourgeois but resulted from what Cage called an intent "to affirm this life...not to bring order out of chaos or suggest improvements to creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living." These artists create real or metaphorical frames that allow the viewer to focus, not so much obliterating the distinction between art and life as encouraging the viewer to have a deeper experience of life.

Higgins, the daughter of Fluxus artists Knowles and Dick Higgins, has wanted to do a show like this for years. Central to the exhibit are 26 original "scores" by various artists from the book Notations, which Cage and Knowles edited in 1969. Alan Kaprow's Self-Service (1966), written on scraps of lined yellow paper, describes events to be performed in three different cities (and they were performed, Hannah Higgins says). Kaprow's events start with the stuff of industrialized life--cars, subways, supermarkets, laundromats--and dictate actions that create a frame for the mundane setting, making the performers and spectators alike more aware of daily life. He suggests that participants "begin to whistle in the aisles of a supermarket," then "go back to their shopping." Torn paper is to be released "from a high window piece by piece, and slowly watched." The performers are to "watch cars pass," counting red ones.

Some of the other scores, such as Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra, are beautiful but more difficult to decipher. One of Dick Higgins's 1,000 Symphonies consists of three large pieces of preprinted sheet music, which he had a New York City police officer shoot through with a machine gun, and then spray-painted each sheet through the holes in another. The resulting colorful, notelike clouds could be interpreted as single notes or chord clusters; Higgins's symphonies have often been performed by percussionists, but he always hoped to have one interpreted by a full orchestra. For scores such as these the viewer must imagine the sound, just as one must imagine Kaprow's happenings--a process thoroughly consistent with these artists' desire to include the audience in the creative process. Charlotte Moorman's Shadow of My Cello (1987) is a flat Plexiglas cutout of a cello, a kind of conceptual score for the viewer.

Many other scores are accompanied by musical realizations, commissioned especially for this show, on CD. Philip Corner's Mississippi River South of Memphis (1954) consists of a grid of lines superimposed on a map of the twisting Mississippi. Performance instructions written alongside suggest that the music follow the line of the river, with the vertical lines representing time and the horizontal lines pitch. The score is visually striking, but the performance of the piece by the Guillermo Gregorio Ensemble, available on headphones, is spectacular: multiple instruments follow broad arcs of pitch but add tiny organic variations, musically depicting the complex flow of a rapid river.

The performances on CD here suggest the freedom and vitality, the mixture of structure and chaos, that these nontraditional forms of musical notation make possible. Corner's piece, and most others, may lack the careful ordering of great classical music, but in its place is a sense of untamed energy, reconnecting art and the world. I was reminded of this attitude when Knowles told me, "Mozart is a wonderful composer, but his music is enhanced by those little sounds in the audience such as a cough or sneeze here or there." But she agreed with a laugh that watch alarms going off and cell phones ringing did not enhance Mozart--these artists' openness does not mean that anything goes.

Knowles abandoned abstract expressionism in the late 50s--later burning her paintings--when she came in contact with the Cage aesthetic. Hannah Higgins recalls that, growing up in a Fluxus household, "there wasn't a perceivable difference between what most people would identify as an art context and what most people would identify as dinner." Her mom's identical lunches were around for other family members to eat, but "it wasn't all peaches. You would find your favorite T-shirt in an installation: 'Goddamn it! I've been looking for that for a month!'"

Knowles's use of found objects and her desire to involve the viewer are exemplified in Dark Red Calf Moon--February, Oglala Sioux (1996). Seven objects sit inside a circle drawn on a white table; each has a tag on it instructing the viewer how to use it to make a sound ("drop from shoulder height"). The tag on a piece of leather says "stroke someone elses cheek"; doing so reminds you of the connections between touch and sound, texture and sound--the rougher the cheek, the more audible the sound is. Other installations of this piece have included many more objects, and they were laid out on the floor, encouraging the interactions of a group.

A few glitches still trouble this exhibit. Though the show has an excellent Web site (at www.betweensoundandvision. org), the catalog won't be ready for a few more weeks. And there's little information on how works were made or what their marks represent. Hannah Higgins told me that adding explanations might have overwhelmed the show with text. True, but works such as Jack Ox's drawings, which include color-coded shapes mapping out Kurt Schwitters's studio, are simply mystifying without more information. Fortunately Higgins will be in the gallery on Tuesday afternoons from 1 to 2 and by appointment.

Still, the show's most moving lesson--making all of us creators through refocused and intensified daily experience--comes through again and again. And behind the utopian egalitarianism--the humblest discarded item is as interesting as any other object, the simplest sound is worth listening to--lies a respect for the world we've been given, the texture of a cheek, a river's unbridled flow. By contrast most other Western artists look like the Army Corps of Engineers, erecting monuments to the self or the culture.

Yet it seems the routes mapped out by Cage and the Fluxus artists in the 50s and 60s have largely become roads not taken, as the art world has increasingly returned to the manufacture and sale of objects. Two wonderful sound installations seem to acknowledge this fact: lacking the physical and philosophical scope of works by Kaprow and Cage, these pieces carve out a small part of the gallery in which to make their music.

Dan Senn, whose work was discovered on the Internet by a student curator, is represented by Vertical 'lyre I (1997). Horizontal strands of fishing line and piano wire are strung across a black frame, looking like musical staffs. The tension in the fishing lines is changed by inaudible low-frequency sounds, causing several thin rods attached to them to rotate and hit the piano wires, whose sound is then amplified. The result is a gentle percussive composition, accompanied by recorded music from a CD that also produces the low-frequency sounds. The frame provides a visual focus, and one quickly notices that the rods twist out of sync. Senn pointed out to me that he's placed tiny weights on them in different positions, resulting in a different center of gravity for each.

The resulting quiet mix of order and randomness makes one feel that this tiny machine isn't working quite right--and that's part of the point. It's hard not to see Vertical 'lyre I in the context of larger, more synchronized sound-and-image projects, such as Nam June Paik's giant banks of video monitors, which create a single image. Senn's piece is far less dictatorial. He makes no pretense of reordering the world; instead he directs the viewer toward the "lesser" goal of appreciating tiny sounds and small movements that don't quite come together, because daily life is quite unlike a classical symphony or military march.

Trimpin, a German native who now lives in Seattle, offers the playful computer-activated Bängtschbäng (2001), a title with no more meaning in German than it has in English. The piece consists of a dense cluster of children's toys--some musical (a toy piano, a xylophone)--lying on the floor. A sign on a box nearby tells the viewer that 25 cents will activate the work, driven by tiny motors (Trimpin says he was tired of seeing people push the button on one of his installations and walk away soon after it started). Inserting a quarter initiates one of 20 possible music-and-movement sequences lasting a bit less than a minute. A single sequence might include little drummers playing toy drums or a Barbie lunch box, a hula hoop girl exercising, the piano playing itself. Trimpin uses music ranging from Bach to Conlon Nancarrow to "Strangers in the Night," altering the originals' tempi or playing the notes backward or inverted.

The stylistic shifts over all 20 sequences are fascinating: viewing the complete cycle tends to reduce the history of Western music to child's play. The music is just out of sync enough to suggest a mildly subversive comment on the ethos of kitsch. And when the music plays, the colors "move" too--it's as if the whole hopelessly overdetermined realm of industrial culture had suddenly come unhinged, undone by the imperfections of Trimpin's small motors and irregular music. Opposing the grand tradition of Western art like Cage and Knowles and others before him, Trimpin discovers the beauties that can be found at its interstices, the unexpected small wonders that come from thinking of oneself not as a master but as another small animal in an incomprehensibly vast world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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