younger than jesus

on wednesday i finally got around to checking out the younger than jesus show at the new museum for contemporary art.  i’d like to go again, as it’s a big show and i can only really take in so much at once, but it’s not to be as i’m away next week and the show goes down the day after i get back. some really wonderful pieces, though.  if you have time, it’s worth the $12 admission price (less for students).

my favorite piece was a video piece up on the fifth floor by james richards called active negative programme.  i looked for a few minutes to see if any clips were uploaded anywhere, and came up empty, which is a shame because i think it would still be very communicative without the whole installation (basically a small stage with 12 chairs, a large tv, and headphones playing noise).

the video cuts together clips of people listening.  imagine your typical televised interview.  they often cut away to the subject of the interview a few seconds before the questioner finishes up his question.  there’s a look of anticipation as they mentally prepare their answer.  you often see the same look on the faces of people who are listening intently to someone speak, even if it’s not a situation where they will have the opportunity to respond, such as members of studio audiences for talk shows, etc.  active negative programme is a string of these moments from television, shots of people listening, either about to speak, or at least in the act of formulating a response were they given the opportunity to speak.  all sound is removed, and if you want the full experience, go to the show and put on the headphones with the noise, to block out even ambient sound.  i was quite on the edge of my seat, anticipating what all these people were about to say.  the piece puts the viewer in a very – and i mean this in the best sense – uncomfortable position.  it’s very provocative, actually.  an relentless series of inhalations.

it reminds me of a performance of 4′33″ that a friend described to me (i didn’t see this performance myself).  the performers took the approach of standing for the duration of each of the three movements, with their hands, mouths, etc positioned as though they were about to play the loudest note they could.  i’m not sure that adding that level of theater to the piece is really in keeping with cage’s intentions (the mental energy expended on anticipation probably distracts from one’s attention to the silence, which was cage’s real interest), but taken on its own merits, it sounds like a very interesting audience experience.

more than that, though, the piece was a reminder of what a creative activity listening is.  we tend to think of the consumption of information, whether heard, watched, or read (or even remembered) as, if not passive, at least receptive:  we are not making anything, but rather absorbing something that’s been made.  check out richards’s piece, though, and see if you don’t think the faces of the people listening betray minds engaged in creation, formulation, filtering, relating.  listening – real listening – is in a very real sense speaking.

i’ve always felt i did my best composing while seated at other people’s concerts.

posted on 06.26.09  |  category: art, i go to things, sound art

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