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Visual Music @ MOCA, L.A.

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles ended its Visual Music exhibit on May 23, 2005, closing the same weekend that George Lucas debuted his latest Star Wars film, The Revenge of the Sith. It’s unfortunate that MOCA couldn’t have extended the exhibit, and not only because it was a fascinating display of sounds and images, loaded with information about the artists who inhabit the realm between the two.

MOCA could have capitalized on the curiousity of Sith-goers intrigued by the movie’s so-called “opera” sequence, which Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, aptly described as “a cross between Cirque de Soleil and an ultrasound scan of an unborn baby.” In the Lucas movie, members of the Imperial Senate are seen entering a grand hall, sort of like Lincoln Center expanded to the dimensions of Madison Square Garden (or, in Los Angeles terms, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, which sits just a block down the steet from MOCA, enlarged to fit the footprint of the Staples Center). Lucas’ Sith opera (that is, the CGI opera within his CGI space opera) looks like some enormous blob rippling in time with the music, a three-story-high, three-dimensional screen saver.

Attendees of MOCA’s Visual Music exhibit came to understand that such audio-visual synaesthetic art (that is, art that confuses or conflates various senses) has been created in a galaxy much closer to home, and that in technological terms such experiments were underway a surprisingly long, long time ago. MOCA displayed early-20th-century filmmakers’ efforts to explore what sound “looked like,” including that of Los Angeles natives John and James Whitney (born 1917 and 1921, respectively), who worked both with raw footage and, later, with computer-generated material. Also prominent in Visual Music is German artist Oskar Fischinger, born in 1900, whose abstract shorts prefigured Walt Disney’s Fantasia, on which he worked. Fischinger’s visual filigrees, swooping curves and darting lines, all precisely timed to various classical music pieces, also oddly resemble the contorted shapes of Gehry’s nearby concert hall.

I had the opportunity to visit the exhibit twice at MOCA: once with a friend, to get the lay of the land, and a second time alone, during which I watched all the movies and read the text I’d missed the first time around. It really didn’t feel like revisiting a temporary show so much as going back to a permanent exhibit. MOCA’s Visual Music, which next moves to Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, doesn’t just validate synaesthesia as a substantial subject; it suggests itself as a prototype for a museum, like the Exploratorium with adults, rather than children, as its intended audience. As sound art becomes a more common fixture in galleries and museums, curators will no doubt refer back to Visual Music as a role model, in particular for how it balances a wide range of media and ably sums up complex ideas in plain language, thus celebrating the idea rather than the complexity.

Moving images occupied much of the MOCA exhibit. There were several hours’ worth playing simultaneously in various rooms (not counting, of course, the numerous works that took the form of short, infinite loops). There were many still images, both paintings and photographs, though anyone who’s been distracted by a television in a bar knows that familiar works by Kandinsky, Man Ray, Klee and Stieglitz aren’t going to hold your attention for long when the astounding “color organs” of Thomas Wilfred (born 1889) are nearby, projecting milky visions that move like dreams.

Among the more contemporary artists included were Cindy Bernard and Joseph Hammer. Bernard’s warm, slowly shifting color fields were accompanied by Hammer’s music. The piece was dedicated to, and perhaps drew from works by, John Fahey, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Hermann, Mike Watt and others. A long hallway painted by Jim Hodges (the piece is titled “Corridor”) was striped with bright vertical lines of colors, like one of designer Paul Smith’s signature fabrics (a couch in the downstairs MOCA library also has this kind of design, by coincidence); its soundtrack was a montage of song snippets, edited with a similar interest in bright, narrow slices.

The exhibit opens at the Hirshhorn on June 23, and will run there through September 11. The Hirshhorn has several special events scheduled, featuring artists Gary Panter, Lee Pembleton, Leo Villareal, Joshua White and others. (MOCA sponsored a number of events, including musicians Throbbing Gristle, William Basinski, James Elaine, Carsten Nicolai, Olaf Bender and Frank Bretschneider.) There’s also a sizable and richly illustated book, Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900 (Thames and Hudson), with essays by the exhibit’s curators, Kerry Brougher, Jeremy Strick, Ari Wiseman and Judith K. Zilczer, and by musicologist Olivia Mattis. More info here:,

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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