Sep 11, 2017

sound reflecions: observations from SF MOMA's Soundtracks exhibit

karthik and i went to the SF MOMA today to check out the last few bits of the soundtracks exhibit. we saw this great video work that i can't stop thinking about. the musical content itself was quite cloying but the technical set up of it was quite marvelous -- both in execution and in display. it was a large, dark room with many screens set up. each screen showed a musician, each musician had on a pair of headphones and had been set up before a video camera in a different room of a large mansion. this mansion was in upstate new york.  the music was the repetitive chordy folksy type that seems to be the exclusive purview of brooklyn types' pastoral imaginings.  there's a total of 10 cameras, some of which watch the actual house's occupants who are hanging out on the porch while the rest of their abode is transformed into a stage set for rural music cum art ambitions. only two of the participants on the porch have headphones on, the rest seem to run the gamut from gently enthusiastic to relatively uninterested. they're playing at dusk, and as the sun sets they wander outside to let us all see the stars.

the best part of the exhibit was the spatial organization of the video feeds. within the exhibit, one could wander between the large project screens (10 all told) and gain a different vantage point of the musicians and the house. it felt like a real re-enactment of a virtual reality trope of floating video screens that you can observe by moving yourself physically through space.

in some ways, this physical movement is something that AR (augmented reality, usually delivered via a cellphone app) gets right.  the recent apps i've seen being made with the ARKit that Apple has launched -- photos suspended in space based on where they were taken, physical sound clouds that you can move your phone through -- all of these give a physicality to digital actions.  unlike VR, where you're trapped in 4 foot by 4 foot snow-globe of visual and sensory delights.  i get it, they're different techs.  VR lets you completely create a new reality, but gives you a constrained box to experience it in; AR lets you work with the surrounding reality, superimposing a new world order atop the new.  it's like a superset of reality, as opposed to an entirely different universe.

the mounted video portraits were VR like in their suspension of reality, but AR like in the physicality that moving about the display room permitted.  eventually the musicians all assembled for a self-conscious cracking of champagne (what were they celebrating, other than an aspiration of display was left unclear) and then a maudlin parade out to the porch then down into a field, gathering everyone together into a destinationless jaunt through the field at dusk.  the sunset on something at that old mansion now overtaken by artsy, aspirational 'types'.  figuring out on what seemed to be left as an exercise to the viewer, such as we were.

other favorite parts of the exhibit: a 14" sphere entirely wrapped in audio recording tape, of the likes you used to be able to find in cassettes.  there was a wheel that spun the ball and a single cassette head that read the tape as it rolled past.  the construction of the sphere and its entirety of covering was impressive.

spheres seemed to be a theme for the last few exhibitions; someone had made a set of three spheres, suspended by a set of audio cables, each one plugged into a tiny, half inch speakers that thickly studded the outside of the sphere.  each speaker played a clip from the oeuvre of the composer that the sphere 'represented'.  by leaning in close and moving your ear over the surface of the sphere you could listen in to varying works by Mozart, Wagner and ... the last I can't remember. Really a stunning piece.

On a whole, the entire exhibit was more than worth the time; I highly recommend checking it out.

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