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

Images of the Week: What the Room Looks Like (Bruce Nauman)

These two photos accompanied the December 17 review in the New York Times of the Bruce Nauman exhibit currently on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

They show the rooms in which the exhibit’s two pieces, “Days” (bottom) and “Giorni” (top), are installed, and the text, by Times critic Roberta Smith, describes the sound as follows, at nytimes.com:

They are accidental choral works, reflective of Mr. Nauman’s interest in John Cage’s ideas about chance, it would seem, but also of the repeating musical structures of Philip Glass. Each consists of recordings of seven people reciting the days of the week and the equipment necessary to make them heard, either in English (“Days”) or Italian (“Giorni”). Both create corridors of sound and deliver epiphanies about time, space and humanity.

That’s just the start of a lengthy depiction of what one hears in the presence of “Days,” which is housed at the museum, and “Giorni,” which is at the museum’s Perelman Building annex.

It’s unfortunate that the websites of neither the paper nor the museum (exhibit details at philamuseum.org) take the opportunity to reproduce the sounds of the Nauman pieces. What’s unclear is whether this absence reflects an exalted or diminished role for sound in the institutional fine arts.

More questions are asked than answered by the circumstances. Are the images intended to stand alone, the silent rooms as a kind of sculpture? Is the sound more highly protected in regard to copyright concerns than the site in which they are presented? Was a decision made, by the artist or the paper or the museum, that a fixed stereo recording of the sound doesn’t do justice to the work? And if that’s the case, do the images do much service to the work? And even if such a decision was made, is it the correct one?

In the end, the question that seems most rhetorical is: Does the system by which fine-arts institutions regularly promote their works have too fine-tooled and routinized a routine for representing the visual but not an equally well-developed means for representing the audio?

(Photo credits: top by Jason Wierzbicki, bottom by Constance Mensh.)

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com 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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