The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts April 27, 2007

Slowly Adapting Art: Moving with the Times
Re-installing Originals

Conceptual art radically altered the contemporary art scene in the late 20th century. Born of Marcel Duchamp’s rather infamous Fountain piece in 1917 (which consisted of an old urinal), Conceptualism, Dadaism and Surrealism rose to prominence and, although still controversial, it gradually became publicly accepted by the late 1970s.

Installation art is a part of the Conceptual art movement. It consists of aesthetic objects created or placed within a specific place so that the relation of the art to its space creates an environment or experience for the viewer. When debating the merits and practicalities of such art the nature of art itself comes into question: Is it the aesthetic object that is art, or is it the concept or idea behind it?

Studio art major senior Nina Sarnelle experienced the limitations of installation art firsthand in her recent film project entitled I, Getulio Vargas. The project, which was critiqued in March by the Review, used a basement room in a West College Street house as an integral part of the installation. The film viewed in this environment forced the viewer to experience the art more viscerally.

“Art direction even went into the walk into the basement,” Sarnelle explained.

While Sarnelle created the piece with the basement space in mind, she did show it in West Lecture Hall and has sent it to several art festivals. She noted that while she is “partial to the installation, in the theatrical space you can see all the images.”

The proximity of the viewer to the film in its original basement space meant that it was impossible to take in the film as a whole, instead creating a visceral, lifelike experience — one that was entirely different from watching the film in a theater space.

“It was a learning process, letting it move — seeing what it can become,” said Sarnelle.

She experienced what many conceptual artists have noted before: While the space may change the ultimate message or conceptual experience of a piece of art, it doesn’t make it “wrong” or “bad.” In fact, it may expand the possibilities of interpretation and allow more people to experience it.

By allowing, even embracing, the changes that space makes to the experience of a piece of installation art, artists can show their installations in far more places and even use the change in space as a mode to explore the interpretive possibilities that their work may hold.

“I feel like art in any space is an installation—it’s just whether or not you choose to see it, ” Sarnelle commented.

“In Conceptual art, the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work&hellip;all planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes the machine that makes the art,” Sol LeWitt wrote in 1967.

Part of the drive behind Conceptual art’s inception was a rejection of the contemporary art world’s often-lamented commodification of art. Artists such as Yoko Ono and Lawrence Weiner invented pieces that were never actually created, but rather consisted of detailed instructions and lists of materials necessary to make them.

Weiner himself said, “Once you know about a work of mine, you own it. There’s no way I can climb inside somebody’s head and remove it.”

If the idea behind it is what makes art what it is, then the artist can remove him or herself from the actual process of creating it. The wall drawings in the current Sol LeWitt exhibit at the Allen are a prime example of the mobility of conceptual art.

The drawings were created with assistants from LeWitt’s drawing studio in New York and by the grunt-work of eight Oberlin students over Winter Term. The only connection the late artist had to these pieces was that they were created in accordance with his directions by artists under the direction of his assistants. The LeWitt exhibit is an extreme example of the mobility found in contemporary art. Other artists who work with installations (which comprise a majority of the work in galleries today) often use “art handlers,” who are employed to create the installations in galleries far removed from, and perhaps never seen by, the artist himself, based on the artist’s ideas and instructions.

Along with those issues, another problem that comes into play with reproducing such art is the relationship of the space in which it is shown to the art itself. In creating an “experience” for the viewer, the space is an integral component of the work. Thus, by removing him or herself from the process of its installation, the artist may produce art very different from his originally intended idea.

This may not necessarily be a problem.

Creating works for a specific place or gallery space, as installation artists often do, necessarily limits their scope and can actually further the hierarchical stereotype of the art world. While the art world is largely seen as an educated, elite social scene — a view that those who partake in it dislike — installation art can continue this alienation of the wider public through its lack of reliance on a particular place.

“Installation art attempts to create an interactive environment for the viewer, but it’s often alienating. It is such a non-traditional, unfamiliar art form that people don’t have a basis of understanding,” said sophomore studio art major Savannah Mirisola-Sullivan.

Perhaps LeWitt’s and other conceptual artists’ self-removal from the creation of their art isn’t as terrible as many critics have thought. While the separation of artist from art may go against what we as viewers know to be art, it does allow those artworks to be seen in many different spaces and produced and seen by far more people. The experience of producing it and viewing it becomes one of many people, rather than that of the single, isolated artist.

Art, as an idea, simply travels better.

Taping it Together

The world of technology is a metaphorical illustration for the duality of man. When looking at music, both the art and the industry, the technology that surfaces in and around it has long lists of pros and cons.

Oberlin has a unique area of focus on this matter with its Technology in Music and Related Arts Program (TIMARA). The study of electronic music inherently consists of the issues arising with the digital age, in addition to the media on which the music is created and performed.

Looking back through the formats of recorded music, one might start with vinyl records, then move on to reel-to-reel (magnetic) tapes, then cassettes, 8-tracks, compact discs and finally, MP3s. It is common knowledge that many young adults have never even used a record player, a good example of how culture changes with its technology.

Senior TIMARA major Andrew Clark illustrated his own argument in defense of the analog world with the concept of “actually holding something.” Simply, the idea is that some like the process of finding, purchasing, owning and loving recorded music. People who prefer analog over digital tend to agree that physically holding what one is listening to is a factor in the listening experience.

Pro Tools, the music production software of choice these days, is a computer program that lets one edit and mix music much like one would in a recording studio. It allows its users to record outside the studio. While the program’s accessibility is beneficial in many ways, it takes away from several things, including the skills of studio engineering and studio recording and general music production know-how.

Of course the real issue TIMARA deals with is technology used in musical composition, not just recordings. For example, composers began writing music for prerecorded reel-to-reel sets in the earlier part of the 20th century. Not only do those tapes become damaged over the years, but the scarcity of reel-to-reel players inhibits any desire to perform such music.

John Cage’s music is some of the most interesting and forward-thinking ever created. Much of it is improvisational or left to chance, but one piece in particular, his “Williams Mix,” is written specifically for eight different tracks of reel-to-reel. The piece contains approximately 600 different prerecorded sounds, and that, on top of the phasing-out of reel-to-reel technology, makes the recreation of this music difficult.

Composers sometimes write to avoid this. Composition might merely be a set of instructions on how to manipulate particular sounds, when to change tapes, or which aspects of the piece are improvised. One such example is “In C” by Terry Riley, which consists of 53 phrases that each performer (or any number of performers) reads through at his or her own pace. Thus, the recreation of this piece can be easily performed and it will survive the test of time as it can be played on nearly any instrument.

“There are quite a few people who like to make music site-specific,” said Clark, referring to Oberlin’s composition and TIMARA programs. The fact that TIMARA has its own style of composition, writing music for a specifically designed setting or instrument, presents challenges in the future for its recreation and accessibility.

“I like to point at the fact that things are changing,” Clark continued. He described how writing for a specific instrument, though it is a creative enterprise, comes down to how interested the composer is with having his or her music reproduced.

Distinguished TIMARA professor Gary Lee Nelson is known for his MidiHorn, a unique electronic wind-driven instrument. This is a prime example since it is his artistic right to have music only performable by him, but this limits the number of performances and the audience that will be exposed to it.

Artists, beware. Given that people will always choose new and improved technology when faced with the choice of buying something new or old, the pace of technology will never be hindered. It is important for musicians and other artists to consider this point when creating. How accessible is my work? How accessible do I want my work to be? Will my pieces withstand changing technology or will they be phased out with it?


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