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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

P.S.1 MoMA (Fassbinder, Abdessemed, Bartók …)

P.S.1 MoMA is to museums what The Shining is to winter getaways. The Queens, New York, structure is a massive, three-story building of exhibit spaces, not counting a spooky basement area and a sizable rooftop. The grounds are encompassed by a concrete divide that brings to mind Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Like some outsized David Ireland project, the inside of the building, a former school, has been stripped of everything but its walls and floors.

The tall corridors and cramped stairwells have an institutional quality that makes most refined, white-cube Manhattan galleries seem like cozy suburban dens by comparison. And P.S.1 (ps1.org) is big enough that the security staff, so uniformly young as to be mistaken for students rather than hall monitors, can often be found consulting a fold-up map.

The museum is also consistently filled with works that appeal to enthusiasts of sound art, and more broadly of sound-in-art. It’s best to visit in winter, because during the summer the building’s rooms are cooled by individual fans, which can drown out all but the most demonstrative installations.

And just how much sound is there right now at the Queens museum P.S.1 MoMA? Suffice to say you’re greeted, at the front entrance, by multiple pairs of headphones, each assigned to one among a stack of video monitors, each monitor displaying scenes from the Performa 07 “visual art performance biennial,” which began on October 27 and runs through November 20. And those many listening options just hint at what’s inside the building. There were no performances slated Monday earlier this week, when I spent much of the afternoon wandering around the museum, but there was more than enough to keep my ears busy. What follows is a quick run through other audio-enabled work currently at the museum:

• The ticket area was filled with a rich ambient swell that suggested a continuous dawn. That audio comprised half of “Party With Us” (2006) by the duo Lovett/Codagnone (John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone). The other half of the work is the title phrase written in neon script on the wall. (I was disappointed that the tiny Pipilotti Rist video piece “Selfless in the Bath of Lava” [1994] that peeks out from the lobby floor was, in the word of the ticket person, busted.)

Adel Abdessemed‘s solo exhibition — a collection of videos and sculptures — would be one of the most aurally stimulating at P.S.1, even if it didn’t include “Trust Me” (2007), 30 minutes of unedited footage of David Moss singing a nonsense collage composition by Silvia Ocougne. In a small room just outside the main Abdessemed exhibit space sits “Dead or Alive” (2007), one of the briefest video works I’ve ever seen in a museum; it lasts all of two seconds, though those two seconds are looped endlessly. The image shows a man. The man is standing in the middle of a street. There’s a snake around the man’s neck and as a truck drives by in the background, he lifts the snake as if to take a bite out of it. The soundtrack is the raw noise of the street, and those looped two seconds take the form of an electronic score, the seam in the footage serving as a beat and the noise as ambience. Inside the main exhibit room, but almost inaudible, is another video, this one more than twice as long as “Dead or Alive”; at 5 seconds, “Foot On” (2006) shows a bare foot crushing a full Coke can over and over. The looped sound in “Foot On” doesn’t take on the musical quality of “Dead or Alive” — perhaps because the sound and image in the former are more clearly associated with each other, and perhaps because the crushing was almost impossible to hear with Moss screaming from across the basketball-court-size room. Also on view is “Birth of Love,” a five-minute piece in which a cat fills the screen while it eats a white mouse whole; its munching just about matched the recorded level of the nearby street traffic.

• In 1980, director Rainer Werner Fassbinder brought out his film Berlin Alexanderplatz, which runs for over half a day: 15 hours, 39 minutes. A new installation ponders the challenge of consuming such a work and suggests three different approaches. The movie plays in one room from start to finish. In another, individual TVs, each with its own headset, show brief segments that encapsulate the film’s many techniques. But the real triumph of this re-imagining of Fassbinder’s Alexanderplatz is a Panopticon-like rendering that divides the film into 14 sections and allows them to be viewed sequentially or — and this is where brilliance surfaces — simultaneously. There are 14 hut-like spaces set in a circle around the room. From within any individual hut, one can view an individual section, but in the center of that circle one takes them in as a panorama: all video, and all audio, circulating at once. (Within the hut, the simultaneous audio is mostly cut out thanks to speakers in the hut ceilings, but from within the center of that spectacle, the audio overlaps.) I’d really like an MP3 of that hour or so of multi-layered Alexanderplatz sound. It provides a cacophonic counterpoint to “40-Part Motet,” the Janet Cardiff installation that takes a choral piece and provides a separate speaker for each voice. (There’s a fourth way to view Fassbinder’s film: at home; it was released on DVD this week.)

Kris Martin‘s solo exhibit includes “Mandi III” (2003), a huge display board of the type that announces train arrivals and departures, each digit the result of a mechanical Rolodex-like wheel that makes a flipping sound as it rotates — the whole thing painted stark, matte black. (The work is about 63″ x 179″ x 8″.) The wall text describes it as a “signboard whose ever-changing face announces only its own futility.” That blank face also concentrates the audience’s imagination on the flipping sound, its sharp, precise “rat-a-tat-tat” echoing down the adjacent halls.

Manon de Boer‘s “Perfect Sound” (2006), which gets a room to itself, is the most traditionally musical of the works currently at P.S.1. It’s also the most subversive (for lack of a less histrionic word). A projection shows violinist George Van Dam performing the fourth movement of a Bartók sonata. In the production of the work, Van Dam played through the composition several times, and as in most professional recording situations, the best segments were later selected and stitched together into a natural-seeming whole. However, while the resulting audio easily tricks the ear into believing that the sonata was played straight through as is, the accompanying video evidences each occurrence of an edit; it exposes the sonata — or at least this performance of the sonata — as the patchwork it is. (The title “Perfect Sound” is likely taken from the advertisements for compact discs when the format had been newly introduced: “perfect sound forever,” a phrase used in 1991 by the rock band Pavement to name an album.) Hanging just outside the room, a piece of paper lists the timing of each splice, and I found myself wishing that de Boer had had Van Dam change shirts each time through, so as to make the individual performances more distinct from each other. The sound of the Bartók entices you in from neighboring exhibits, but you leave the room that houses “Perfect Sound” with the impact of its artificiality cemented in your consciousness — and because the work so elegantly illustrates such constructed realities, its effect lingered long after I’d wandered out of earshot.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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