Discussion of The Kiss, by Rafael Montanez Ortiz

Discussion of The Kiss
by Rafael Montanez Ortiz, 1985
Lolly Lincoln   8/8/12

When The Kiss was exhibited at The Netherlands Media Art Institute in 1986, Rafael Montanez Ortiz described his intentions in its catalog:  ‘In my video work, I seek to suspend time, to magnify beyond all proportion the fantasy, dream, or nightmare I glimpse in even the most realistic straightforward documentary footage, in even the most innocent storyline.’ (Rafael Montanez Ortiz).  The Kiss is a 6’17” video created from 7 seconds of original film footage from the 1947 Hollywood film Body and Soul, starring Lilli Palmer (a painter) and John Garfield (a boxer).
In the seven seconds of original film we see the street outside briefly, the man comes to the door, which opens, the couple kisses(initiated by the woman), she pushes him away, the door closes.   The director uses only seven seconds to portray the restraint expected by the Academy when depicting a couple’s new found passion in 1947.  The woman initiates the kiss, but then quickly, and properly, pushes him away so we can still see her as a “good girl” and our protagonist.  Ortiz slows the kiss down by chopping the original film with rough rhythmic edits, we see the street outside again before the loop repeats seamlessly.   The reconstruction exposes us to a slow, anticipated, and then sustained kiss, far more overtly sexual than Hollywood censors would have allowed in 1947.  MacDonald goes on to suggest, “Although they are standing up, their reconstructed motions suggest sexual intercourse and the flailing movements of erotic abandon and orgasm.” (p.191).
It is helpful to look at an earlier work by Ortiz to gain further insight into The Kiss.  In 1958 when he was a student at Pratt, Ortiz made a series of 8mm films that critic Scott MacDonald describes as constructive “deconstructivist” artworks.  Ortiz used images of chickens in a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn which were partially decapitated and twitching in the throes of death.  During this time he also did a performance which used a live chicken to clean a piano – in Henny Penny:  The Sky is Falling – killed the chicken and destroyed the piano with an ax, then scattered the feathers on the audience.  The sacrificial chicken would seem an obvious reference to Ortiz’ native Puerto Rico’s Santeria rituals.  And like the magical death in the Santeria ritual, there is a constructive aspect to the destruction, as MacDonald describes from Ortiz’ own explanation of the chickens’ death spasms.  Ortiz explains they are “a clinging to life, a positive thing, a life reflex like the heartbeat.” (p. 185, MacDonald).  This life-affirming spasm, this heartbeat investigated by Ortiz in Henny Penny, is further investigated in the spasmodic editing beating through all six minutes, seventeen seconds of The Kiss.    MacDonald further argues that the chickens’ “…very real spasms are a metaphor for the “spasm” caused by this filmmaker’s interruption of the smooth predictability of our pleasures.” (p. 186, MacDonald).
When Jacques Derrida describes the paradox of achieving construction in deconstruction he could be describing The Kiss:  “…they (Deconstructivists) are not simply reproducing, that they are trying to open something new and something original, something that hasn’t been done in that way… [it] is violent in a way, violent because it has no guarantee.” (Caputo, p.6).  Clearly Ortiz belongs to a line of artists descending from Cubism and Minimalism, who see new worlds in the breaking down of the old worlds.  The Kiss, and its slowed motion, pay visual tribute to works from history, like Nude Descending a Staircase or Muybridge’s series of action photographs.
Paul Wood’s description of the ‘conceptualism’ starting in the mid-1970’s might also be applied to The Kiss:  “… this had turned outwards to address the faultlines of contemporary society:  principally class and gender division, though extending also to questions of race (or ethnicity) and the environment.”  Ortiz grew up hispanic and poor in the Lower East Side, watching the Anglo protagonists reach happy endings in Hollywood movies like Body and Soul.  The first chaste kiss inevitably lead to marriage, and ultimately, to the sun setting on a happily-ever-after scene.  Was it even possible that these stereotypes could be applied to the hispanic experience, or as Ortiz had experienced American culture?  Clearly, as the founder of El Museo del Barrio in 1969, Ortiz acknowledges the cultural context in his work.  As Freeland describes the revolutionary process in art, “… it provides a point of critical resistance, building a new national identity by evoking cultural roots.” (Freeland, p.82)  Similar to Cindy Sherman’s photography later in the decade, Ortiz uses The Kiss to deconstruct traditional gender roles and the assumptions made about them in class-conscious American culture, particularly in the narratives of Hollywood culture.
In 1986, when The Kiss was made, pre-digital video technology was an evolved media from the mechanized production of the cinematic films of Hollywood.  Marshall McLuhan asserts that our technologies, being extensions of ourselves, evolve as we do.  As each new technology emerges, it “…creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading.  Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.” (McLuhan, p.13).  Ortiz uses new technology to turn the old one into an art form that finds the ‘faultlines’, and the metaphors attached to them, like the fairy tale notion of happily ever after, or that film is the ultimate truth.  The “content” of Ortiz’ piece in the new media environment of 1986 is the old mechanized media of the Machine Age.  By using quirky sustained and repetitive edits (albeit via primitive technology by contemporary standards), he calls attention to them, and makes the droning beat of edits themselves, at least partially, the content of The Kiss.
The Ortiz video is installed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in a carpeted dark black box space, including a two-person bench, and an opening adjoining two other separate video artworks.  The nearest of the other pieces includes headphones, which isolate its sound.  The third piece, however, is an artwork using steady swishing digital static, and its sound bled into The Kiss heart beat rhythm.  The impression created by the two blended soundtracks was different from what each might be alone.  The swishing sounded like the blood from the heart, and called the viewers attention to the curation of the work.  Was the sound space discourse between the two artworks intentional, or is the black box presentation meant to represent a vacuum in which the work exists, in which case the viewer is expected to ignore the competing sound.  Seth Kim-Cohen critiques Kubisch’s Electrical Walks, and the critical discussion of the art work, as neglecting peripheral contextual sounds; that art is “an activity that does not perform in a vacuum, but that necessarily interacts with culture, politics, commerce, and sociality-constitutes and is constituted by a vast meaning-making structure functioning in the manner of a text.” (Kim-Cohen, p.115)  In this sense, the video moves into the realm of installation, as the context can not be ignored.  The definition by Bishop in Installation Art applies to The Kiss, “the type of art into which the viewer physically enters, and which is often described as ‘theatrical’, ‘immersive’ or ‘experiential’.  Another theatrical discourse occurs in The Kiss every time a side door into the dark gallery was opened by a visitor.  By creating a jarring sound, a beam of light and a startled individual who then created a new narrative with the other viewers.  Intentional or not, the relation of the viewers to each other, and each individual’s decision to stay, watch 6’17” and “own” the viewing or to move quickly through, also became part of the work.  In that small space it was impossible to ignore “the others” viewing the art work.  Unlike in John Cage’s silent work for performer and piano, 4’33” the role of contingent phenomena was apparently not intended to have significance.
Like John Cage’s work 4’33”, The Kiss, at 6”17” tests our endurance.  The monotone drone opens a negative space that expands and allows new perceptions to arise.  In his book Silence Cage tells us, “In Zen they say:  If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four.  If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on.  Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.”  (Cage, p.93)  As the sound track of The Kiss dominates the gallery sound space and surrounds the viewer, perhaps synchronizing with pulse and breathing, this sound becomes an artwork itself, almost separate and phenomenological, from the video.  The sound text/content of The Kiss is as important as the conceptual, symbolic visual text/content.  The synchronization of the visual edits and the heartbeat sound seem more incidental than causal.  The uneasy friction between pounding-heart drum beats, threatening the viewer with an altered perception, and the visually frustrated stutter of a conceptually postponed, overtly sexual Kiss fulfills Richard Anderson’s definition of art, “culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium.” (Freeland, p.77)

Bishop, C. B. (2005). Installation art. London: Tate Publishing.
Cage, J. (1961). Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Caputo, J. D. (1996). Deconstruction in a nutshell: A conversation with jacques derrida.     Fordham University Press.
Freeland, C. (2001). But is it art?. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kim-Cohen, S. (2009). In the blink of an ear: toward a non-cochlear sonic art. New     York: Continuum International Publishing.

MacDonald, S. R. (1996). Media destructivism: The digital/laser/videos of raphael     montanez ortiz. In C. Noriega & A. Lopez (Eds.), The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media     Arts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Canada:     McGraw-Hill Publishing.

Posted in Aesthetics, Coursework | Comments Off

Hooks Project: concepts and contexts

The idea of being hooked can have both negative (ie. on drugs) and positive (ie. “Hooked On Phonics” – positive engagement in education) connotations.  Actors, song-writers, comedians and teachers all speech of using hooks to engage their audiences.  My challenge with Chimelu was that I could not hook him with anything.  I was inspired by the myth of Inanna: bared, no access to tools or support; a descent into the unknown; fear at rock bottom, hanging from a meat hook; a return to light and to gained wisdom.  The darkness and lights, the subterranean atmosphere and the various hooks and eyes used throughout the installation reference these ideas.


This installation is a 4×4 grid of 16 1950′s little boy shirts hanging on hooks on the wall.  There is a spotlight on them and no sound.  This installation represents the culture of engagement of the past.  The Child Study Era, where the mystery of engagement was effectively solved, and good pedagogical practices yielded results.  These shirts represent neuro-typical children and neuro-typical learning through neuro-typical engagement.  The grid is a reference to Joseph Cornell’s sculpture of a grid of bouncy balls confined to boxes.

1. The Museum Display Case:

The first sound installation is lit by a spotlight and is inside a museum display case from Harvard.  Small speakers will produce a 1989 interview I did with Donald Burgy about teaching.  The volume will be very low, or varying, and only partially audible.  Inside the case are various hooks and eyes and an assortment of found scientific objects in states of decay.  The case is locked, representing the knowledge of teaching that I thought had, the science I thought I grasped, and how it was now inaccessible or useless to me as a teacher of students with autism.

2. The Sound Column:

The second sound installation represents the mimetic engulfment that took place for me when I first listened and heard the sounds of the elevator as Chimelu heard them.  The sound column installation will use sound shower speakers to produce elevator mechanical sounds.  The sound space is a narrow column can be entered and exited by stepping to one side.The column of sound will be lit from the sound source above, aiming straight down.  A large hook will hang in the light stream.  The sound and light from above will be intense and focused, temporarily transporting the listener to a self of aural engulfment.  I am inspired by the light work of Olafur Eliasson and the brilliant sound work in Emeka Ogboh’s “Lagos Market”.  Readings by John Cage and Jacques Attali influenced my learning and this sound installation, stressing the value of listening for humans.  Perhaps even to elevate sound culture as superior to the tyranny of our dominant visual culture.  Chimelu would undoubtedly agree with John Cage if he could.

3.  The Exit Curtains:

The third sound installation fills the space with sound.  Sensitive amplification will make small sound details seem profound.  Omni-directional speakers will produce sounds made by Chimelu himself: singing, breathing, making various sounds and some words. Orange scrim curtains cover the exit, they are bottom lit with orange light, and perhaps they beckon fluttering with air.  The curtains symbolize the return, reentry to the world, armed with new information.  I want to create a sense of being engulfed by Chimelu’s world, perhaps expanding perception by acknowledging his unique perception of sound, but not to stay for long in that way of being for long.  The curtains represent an ascent from the underworld with gained information.  Suzi Gablik stresses that art can be a critical pedagogy; that art can be a way to look critically at the world and it can be used to teach. Why orange?  A reference to The Gates, perhaps, orange is also a holy color in Buddhist culture, and it happens to be Chimelu’s favorite.


Posted in Hooks Project: concepts and contexts, thesis proposal | Comments Off

Why sound installation?

Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote “the medium is the message” is one reason.  Everything I learned about Chimelu indicated his intense sensitivity to sound.  He processes the world aurally.  The medium itself is chosen to represent what I learned doing art practice as research.

His positive behaviors in art class (quiet hands, quiet voice, safe feet) earned him the reward he most loved:  to listen with an ear pressed to the closed elevator door to the sounds within.  I stood with a stop watch, bored and watching the seconds pass before his reward was over, and we could return to art class.  Chimelu’s eyes were not on me as he listened, until I chanced to press my own ear against the closed elevator door.  It was a moment of understanding when both the deep vibrations of the moving elevator and the lyrical mechanical sounds resonated through me as intensely beautiful and FASCINATING.  Our eyes locked in a protodeclaritive gaze that proclaimed, “yes the sounds of the elevator are indeed beautiful and fascinating, don’t you agree?!”  It was the first moment of engagement, first real moment of communication between us, and the beginning of a shared connection that might lead to further engagement and future learning.  That day, Chimelu introduced me to the beauty and power of noticing sounds, and to imagining sound as the primary sense.

Posted in Hooks Project: why sound installation?, thesis proposal | Comments Off

first proto-declaritive gaze

Protodeclarative Gaze
a case study

series of 7
inkjet prints
by Lolly Lincoln

Protodeclarative gaze is used to draw someone’s attention to an object to comment on it or share interest in it with another person. Simon Baron-Cohen speculates that the inclination to spontaneously reference an object in the world as of interest and to likewise appreciate the directed attention and interests of another may be the underlying motive behind all human communication.*

This work documents the instance of the protodeclaritive gaze that was shared in the boiler room of the Fletcher-Maynard Academy.  It was through his sense of sound that I was first able to engage with my autistic student.  We listened together to the sounds of the boiler room and shared a protodeclaritive gaze for the first time.  I understood that it would be through his sense of sound that I would engage with this student.

*Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). Precursors to a theory of mind: Understanding attention in others. In A. Whiten (Ed.), Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development and simulation of everyday mindreading (pp. 233-251). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

title accompanying each print:

I. Orange

II. You

III. Glad

IV.  I

V. Didn’t

VI. Say

VII. Banana

Posted in Gallery, protodeclaritive gaze | Comments Off

The Sound Art of Emeka Ogboh

The Sound Art of Emeka Ogboh
by Lolly Lincoln

Walking through the “Invisible Cities” exhibit currently displayed at MassMoCA the viewer encounters a variety of large-scale multi-media sculptural pieces depicting cities or aspects of cityscapes.  The gallery is an access route to the main gallery in Building 5, exhibiting Sanford Biggers’ ‘Afrofuturistic’ work.  Ascending the stairs leading from the first floor of the museum, the viewer walks through the ‘Invisible Cities’ to reach the entry doors to Building 5, the major gallery at MassMoCA.  The artworks are installed at the sides of the space, leaving an open throughway for visitors to pass through, en route to the doors of the main gallery.  There is some sound emanating from back galleries, creating a modest, and easily ignored, din of sound.  Crossing this gallery of invisible cities(of the past), approaching a gallery of afrofuturism, suddenly and unexpectedly from nowhere you are surrounded by the loud, multi-layered noises of a busy modern city marketplace.  Voices shout in an unknown language, but the honking, mechanical engines, and city sounds are unmistakeable, and then it stops as you continue forward.  This is a startling moment of uncertainty, for, nothing has changed visually, yet the soundscape has been radically altered in this small area of the gallery.  Your first reaction is to look around and attempt to locate the source of this sudden shift in perception; and the sense that you had walked through something.  This is the antithesis of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc sculpture, which forced travelers to move around the artwork.  MassMoCA has used the placement of Nigerian sound artist, Emeka Ogboh’s work in the gallery throughway as a separate, but connected, narrative to his own work.  To travel from the past to the future museum visitors must pass through a montage of both; like the vision of something new that Ogboh creates in his work, in our imaginations.
Emeka Ogboh is currently showing in America and Manchester, England, as part of that country’s 2012 Olympic celebration.  His work offers the listener a transcendental journey which narrates a fresh, immersive index of life in modern Lagos.  Index, in Ogboh’s work, suggests an imprint or physical impression that is left by the original; his sound recording is this type of index.  Through the medium of sound, and with this specific urban narrative, the artist addresses larger issues of globalism and the connection and disparity between East and West.  With technology, Ogboh opens up and holds open a space for the listener to step into and experience a perceptual shift.  It is a moment of perceptual confusion, where sounds are heard out of context and suddenly do not match information from the eye.  The boundaries of time and space are momentarily blurred.  Reality is fractured, the world is “destroyed,” leaving open the possibility of envisioning a different -new- reality.  His marketplace recordings conjure both visions of the triangular slave trade of global history, along with visions of a multi-cultural interconnected global present.  By altering the listener’s perceptual boundaries, he opens up a space for the listener to be the visionary, imagining a global future.
Emeka Ogboh has worked in other new media, but sound is his primary medium.  Described by The Telegraph in the UK, “Ogboh is Nigeria’s – possibly Africa’s – first sound artist, and his works, which transplant what he calls “field recordings” into radically different locations, are designed to disconcert.”1   Ogboh uses an omni directional microphone to harvest his field recordings in the capital city, Lagos, Nigeria.  The recording field of the microphone is circular.  The recordings are subjective, non-discriminatory and egalitarian, giving all sounds equal value.  Ogboh then uses both omnidirectional speakers, as he does in his We Face Forward soundscape, and unidirectional speakers, as he does with the Invisible Cities work.  The effect of the omnidirectional speakers bleeding into and blending with the ambient sound around it is to create a larger soundscape, and the origin of the sound is unclear, seemingly everywhere around the listener.  Ogboh’s unidirectional speakers aimed from the ceiling to the floor create a different type of sound environment – a column of sound-space that is distinct from the ambient sounds around it, as in Invisible Cities.  The origin of the sound is obviously from above the head and rains down around the individual standing listener.  The difference is the intimacy the sound column creates, in the small space.  It may be a curatorial decision in a crowded indoor gallery.  The sound column does not bleed sound into the surrounding environment.  Is more passive; it waits to be found.  The outdoor omnidirectional sound space announces its presence with volume.  It bleeds and blends much more with the environmental sound, and creates a large sound space.
Jacques Attali writes that music, and by extension sound, represents both intuition and a path to knowledge.  Attili’s writing about music representing a path to knowledge could be generalized to include all aural experience.  Ogboh uses sound to index contemporary Lagos and it becomes a tool of understanding Lagos in the context of the Western world.  Attali asserts, “By listening to noise, we can better understand where the folly of men and their calculations is leading us, and what hopes it is still possible to have.”2  With the aural experience, it is through our body and its resonance that we feel what we hear internally.  The sounds are in us and become part of us and are understood on an intuitive level.  Ogboh’s index of external reality is personalized and owned, as the art enters our personal space, it becomes about us too.
Marshall McLuhan describes all electronic technologies as basically extensions of the human nervous system and our electronic “implosion,” as he describes it, has ushered us into an Age of Anxiety.  We shape our tools and then afterwards our tools shape us.  The user (both artist and audience), at least partially, becomes the content of the artwork.  There is a feedback loop between technology and subjective perception of it.  By reaching out into the world and making a sound index Ogboh extends his own perception of his city with electronics.  When he creates and exhibits a soundscape that extends the listener’s perception of their own ability to perceive, as well as what they think they understand about contemporary Lagos.  McLuhan explains this fluid nature of sound in his “Visual and Acoustic Space” essay, part of Daniel Warner’s book, Audio Culture.  A boy who was blinded as a child describes his perception of sounds as “neither inside nor outside, but were passing through me.  They gave me my bearings in space and put me in touch with things.  It was not like signals that they functioned but like replies…”3  Ogboh’s work functions in this ‘blind’ way because the artist provides nothing to look at.  His work is only sound.  Yet in our culture, sound tracks are often associated with film or other visual imagery.  It is impossible to turn off vision.  Even with the eyes closed, we “see.”  The listener’s “vision” is activated inward, in the images conjured by Ogboh’s sounds.  Ogboh leaves it to the imaginations of the listeners to fill in the visuals of Lagos market.  In this way the images and sounds of the artwork occur and develop inside the listener.  The human ability to visualize and make connections is exposed for us to recognize in ourselves.  Ogboh reminds us of our power to envision new realities.  Being irrational, this is a kind of magical power.
Both McLuhan and Attali stress the importance of acoustic space over visual space, for its ability to enhance our perception and what that teaches us.  “We who live in a world of reflected light, in visual space, may also be said to be in a state of hypnosis.”4  Ten years later Attali restates this preference for our sense of sound.  He starts his book, “For twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world.  It has failed to understand that the world is not for beholding.  It is for hearing.  It is not legible, but audible.”5  These two theorists attempt to challenge the cultural hegemony of sight over hearing that began when the linear written word replaced the spoken word as a means of transmitting knowledge.  Since the rise of human literacy, knowledge was attained through the eye rather than through the ear.  They call for a renewed respect for the type of learning that takes places through the ear.  The power of Ogboh’s Lagos cityscapes lies in this assertion, that the ear is the seat of our balance, both physically and perceptively.  By using aural engulfment as a tool, and having our sense of  what is reality jolted, we can be altered.
John Cage’s influence is clear in Ogboh’s work.  Since the twentieth century, John Cage has emphasized the virtue of sound for sound’s sake.  In the book, Silence, Cage stresses that sound has a new role to play in the history of experimental music.  Cage claims that the time has come (in 1960) and “that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order.  Among those actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen, actions resulting from chance operations are useful.”6  Ogboh’s field recordings are unedited and purely indexical, allowing ‘chance’ to be part of the work.  The context for exhibition of the sound recordings is carefully selected by the artist, however.  The unedited recordings blended with the unedited sounds of a new context (the exhibition space) is a metaphor for the cultural blending taking place in Lagos and around the globe.  Both chance and control are factors.
Claire Bishop dedicates a full chapter of her book on installation art to the idea of ‘mimetic engulfment’ relating to all the senses at once.  This is described as the loss of sense of the body in relation to the environment.  She begins by discussing the blinding work of Lucas Samaras and the installations of James Turrell.  She writes:  Rather than heightening awareness of our perceiving body and its physical boundaries, the dark installations suggest our dissolution; they seem to dislodge or annihilate our sense of sense – albeit only temporarily – by plunging us into darkness, saturated colour, or refracting our image into an infinity of mirror reflections.7
The mimetic is decentered and loses its awareness of being distinct from the external surroundings; it is engulfed.  While she is addressing visual art in this quote about mimetic engulfment, aural engulfment is specifically discussed by Bishop in the sound work of Janet Cardiff.  Cardiff uses three levels of sound to disorient the viewer, to the point where they lose sense of themselves, becoming a disembodied ear, similar to the effect of Ogboh’s disorientation of the viewer.  Cardiff uses imagery, unlike Ogboh, and her own words to actively control the viewer’s perception.  She leaves no room for the fantasy projection of the viewer.  This differs greatly from Ogboh’s soundscapes.
Bishop makes the claim that mimetic engulfment creates passivity, which indeed it does in the works she cites.  A calmness and dissolution of the self takes place in engulfment.  She writes, “the ego is ‘penetrated’ by sound(rather than space), and is dissolved, as a discrete entity, into its environment.”8  Bishop suggests that this deactivation and passivity run contrary to the “activated spectatorship” which exists in the historical roots of installation art, and asks how this contradiction can be reconciled.  What Bishop underestimates is the psychic mobility that arises with the dissolution of the ego.  It can travel anywhere.  “When our normal perceptual filters, which form a kind of barrier around us, are transcended, or simply drop away, then our senses can begin to receive an amplified vision of the world, and we can see the universe, thus, as an unbroken whole.  We can see ourselves as stardust”9,  states Suzi Gablik, a theorist calling for a renewed sense of interconnectivity in the art world, across the global community, and indeed to even the stars we are connected.  Thus, the decentered, deactivated ego is poised and naturally open to new information and new learning.  New learning can be a catalyst for the activated spectatorship Bishop outlines.  Ogboh’s work connects disparate places, physically with montaged sounds.  The listener’s ability to make new connections in meaning is enhanced due to a deactivated ego and an opened mind.
Mimetic engulfment, as a means of attaining a deactivated ego, is merely a tool.  John Cage was able to facilitate aural engulfment in his audience, but the content of the work was often the audience themselves, and the immediate environment around them.  They were engulfed in the momentary experience in such a way that everything else became irrelevant.  It was an apolitical experience; disconnected from the rest of the world.   In defining modern music, similar to McLuhan, Cage has said, “form is content.”10  In the 21st century we ask ourselves, is this enough?  Cage’s work seems isolated and solipsistic, “idealistic and teleological”.11  Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that contemporary art goes beyond modern rationalism.  He states, “Art was intended to prepare and announce a future world;  today it is modeling possible universes.”12  The connection to the greater community and web of life is ignored by the form-is-content modernist art of the 20th century.  Today, global warming and the internet are daily reminders of contemporary humans’ interconnectedness.  In her chapter entitled, “Making Art As If The World Mattered” Suzi Gablik champions “another kind of art, which speaks to the power of connectedness, and establishes bonds, art that calls us into relationship.”13  In the current sound work of Emeka Ogboh we are engulfed by sound, decentered, thrust into a montage of new worlds.  These worlds are characterized by interconnectivity: between the cultural markets of east and west; between the past, present and future.
A collection of essays, entitled Art, Activism and Oppositionality, include David Trend’s “Cultural Struggle and Educational Activism.”  In this essay Trend presents cultural activism as a moral imperative for artists.  Writing in 1998, he is critical of contemporary art practices, seeing them as merely negative demands: “the solipsistic nihilism of much of the avant-garde practice is both defensive and counterproductive.  We need a positive plan.”14  Trend discusses the importance of pluralism, stressing the radical nature of decentered authority, and that no single social group or set of attitudes should dominate the culture.  “Groups defined by gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, or occupation need to recognize their unique roles in the social totality….We should work toward a worldview that is horizontal rather than vertical.”15  Trend calls for a critical pedagogy, which is a practice larger than the classroom, (including the office, the church, the museum) through which people are socialized to recognize and validate power.  Trend includes contemporary artists among those he calls cultural workers.  He calls on all “cultural workers” to fulfill this pedagogical imperative.  The technological tools needed are already at our disposal.  “Forging this vision is simply a matter of faith.”16  Emeka Ogboh’s two exhibitions this summer seem to answer Gablik and Trend’s calls for activism and vision in art.
Emeka Ogboh harnesses the power and politics of public space in his sound works.  This is the general content of his art work.  Public parks and squares in Helsinki, Cologne, and Manchester, England are some of the settings for his sound installations.   His current work at MassMoCA is set in an open main thoroughfare through the gallery; a sort of public space within the private space of the museum.  These settings are a canvas onto which Ogboh adds his soundscapes.  This creates a juxtaposition of two dissimilar realities.  One reality is the ordered, well-mannered atmospheric sounds of the galleries or public squares of Europe or America.  The sounds of Lagos market are a cacophony of activity and disorder.  The contrast between the two provoke discourse.  In many ways Ogboh does with sound what Krzytof Wodiczko does with his images projected onto the architecture of public squares.  Wodiczko turns public sites into sources of critical evaluation and public discourse.  Peter Boswell explains, “His use of montage – the bringing together of separate components to form an evocative composite image – holds the promise of both threat and seduction…”17  While Wodiczko’s works involve the composite of dissimilar images, Ogboh compounds two dissimilar place’s sounds.  It is the sounds of Lagos that he montages with sounds of Western European and American cities.  The volume of noise and the urgent, chaotic mix of sounds from Lagos have a threatening effect on the unsuspecting Western listener, who is often unable to identify the source of the sound, or the language.  In Cologne passersby complained about the unbearable noise from the Lagos market recording disturbing their European lifestyle and park square.  “The noises disturb the local acoustics of the mannered districts of a European metropolis to highlight the skewed socio-economic relationships of the global south and the north.”18  Ogboh’s use of historically Western new media montage, and his use of Western public spaces, is political because these are being used by a non-Westerner.  He is Nigeria’s first sound artist, seizing the media, means, and the setting previously held exclusively by Western society.  He does not represent all of Africa, but Ogboh himself is making a political move.  One critic did describe Ogboh as making a symbolic trip from Africa to Europe “no longer to deliver plunder from the colonies… (but) disturbing the mannered districts of European cities the Frankenstein of empire returns to haunt the crown.”19  The theme of a new world order of globalism and tourism is present in Ogboh’s visceral overwhelming sound-space, inserted into Western sound-spaces, where they blend.  The description Wodiczko has used for the public spaces he creates, “epic theaters,” could also be applied to the spaces Ogboh creates.  City squares become public political art galleries, merging with the vast ecology of the world.  This is a world that can not be controlled and therefore signifies the artists’ comfort with uncertainty, ability to deal with reality on its own terms, and a commitment to create new realities. The ‘Epic Theater’ invites the public to engage emotionally, through the senses and aural engulfment, and then to critically disengage in order to investigate the work’s narrative content.  Simply by embracing the audible world as his world of choice, Ogboh rejects the visual hegemony of twenty-five centuries of Western art.  Invisible by choice, yet making his presence undeniable through sound, Ogboh has rebranded the notion of Ralph Ellison’s disempowered 1952 “Invisible Man”.  Today invisible means adept, like a ninja.  While the artist remains a neutral presence, subjectively indexing the sounds of the city, the sounds themselves are not neutral.  The Lagos Market is abuzz with the mechanization and sounds of modern urban capitalism.
“Nothing exists outside the marketplace.”  -Barbara Kruger
The narrative content of Ogboh’s work is his native city, Lagos, Nigeria.  Specifically the content of his recordings are indexes of city life, made in the busiest sections of the city: bus stations and marketplaces.  The current sound installation at MassMoCA is titled, “Lagos Market”.  His marketplace undoubtedly references the complex urban market, the art market, and more broadly, the global marketplace of world capitalism.  The current We Face Forward show takes places in Manchester, UK, an industrial city which grew wealthy producing textiles with cotton imported from the Colonies.  Lagos, too, was renowned for its textile industry.  Cotton was the oil of its day.      Ogboh’s Lagos Market conjures for the listener the colonial triangular slave trade, in which Nigeria played a key historical role.  His soundscapes also challenge the Western stereotype of a third world under-developed Africa.  Instead, he records the thriving post-colonial oil-rich ‘Afropolis’ of  21st century Lagos, an international marketplace and crossroad of the world.  Ogboh’s montaging of sounds at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester suggests a shared past, present and future between the two cities.  The exhibition’s title is taken from the Pan-African Congress held there in 1960.  Kwame Nkrumah’s speech at the Congress addressed continuing African independence from imperialism.  Africa, he famously asserted, should “face neither east nor west: we face forward”20. Ogboh’s sound work calls upon the listener to consider both the inter-connection and the economic and socio-political imbalance between East and West and between the past and the present.  Lagos’ sounds of industrialization contrast as more energetic, urgent and chaotic than the refined sounds of the European settings Ogboh chooses.  Emeka Ogboh facilitates for us both a temporal and spacial shift.  He calls upon us to envision a new world metropolis that integrates and interconnects what has been hierarchal and unequal in the past.

“It’s very easy, anyone can fly.  All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.  The next thing you know, you’re flying among the stars.” –Faith Ringgold21

Ringgold describes a non-rational belief system in this quote, which celebrates the powerful ability of the human imagination to manifest new realities in the material world.  The ability to clearly see a non-existent world, past and present, has historically been the gift of a visionary few.  For the visionaries, the boundaries between real and imagined worlds are permeable.  Visionary artists’ work often transcends time and space.  Many fantasy artists might be called visionary  Emeka Ogboh doesn’t just depict a transcendent experience, he facilitates that temporal and spacial shift in others for them to experience personally.
Ogboh’s work is invisible and unexpected.  Its boundaries are unclear.  Once inside the sound-space of his work, participants are engulfed and surrounded by something both tangible and intangible.  They are transported, and the formation of an image, the vision of the artist’s subject, takes places in the listener’s imagination.  The participant is offered an experience of being in another time and another place from where they are standing.
In her 1991 book, The Reenchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik discusses the value of magical thinking:  “One of the peculiar developments in our Western world is that we are losing our sense of the divine side of life, of the power of imagination, myth, dream and vision.  The particular structure of modern consciousness, centered in a rationalizing, abstracting and controlling ego, determines the world we live in and how we perceive and understand it;  without the magical sense of perception, we do not live in a magical world.  We no longer have the ability to shift mindsets and thus perceive other realities–to move between the worlds”22
Western thought has been moving away from magical thinking since the Enlightenment.  Westerners are far more concerned with the material world of capitalism, and the empirical quantifiable world it commands.  Leaps of faith, conjuring impossible visions, the ability to “fly” with Faith Ringgold – all are considered either childish imaginings or adolescent vampire fantasies (interesting that supernatural fantasy narratives are ubiquitous in 2012 pop culture) by mainstream political and academic culture.  “Our prevailing sense of disenchantment, a legacy from the modern industrial age, is not simply a matter of the intellect; by now it has been woven into our personalities, attitudes and behaviors.”23  The sense of disenchantment has been woven into our perceptions as well.  We experience stress when what we perceive does not make sense.  The aural engulfment of Ogboh’s work is outside of perceptual understanding.  It confuses and pushes sensory boundaries beyond the disenchantment of predictable daily experiences.  In the confused moment when we become aware of our own perceiving, we step away from it.  At that moment, when the rational world we know is destroyed, anything is possible.  This is when visions occur.  Having visions is irrational, magical thinking.  In this way Ogboh is reenchanting the world with his work:  giving listeners a space and the tools for envisioning a new reality.
Upon discovery of the column of sound-space at MassMoCA, directed downward from the ceiling speakers, it is possible to step in and out of the space, stepping into and out of an invisible city.  Indeed, Ogboh’s “Lagos Market” is the only truly invisible city in the “Invisible Cities” exhibition.  When standing inside the sound-space, surrounded on all sides by the art work, the listener is truly in the piece.  Lagos Market becomes a sort of supernatural destination, a magical realm, reached by transporter beam or tardis of sound.  It moves us out of the material world and into a fantsy.  Ogboh’s beam of sound creates a real space and place, but whose images we can only envision.  By stepping effortlessly into and out of real and imagined worlds the participant in Ogboh’s artwork becomes a sort of magical act.  This disconnect from the comfort of reality creates a sense of unease in “Lagos Market” for the Westerner who is not accustomed to any type of illogical sensory or magical experience.
Helsinki was one location where many Nigerians have found work and new lives as immigrants since 2004, when immigration laws were revised by Finland.  A soundscape of Lagos was installed by Ogboh in three locations around Helsinki in 2007.  In an interview Ogboh describes his intended audience, who he supposed would be Western foreigners, or non-Nigerians.  But a young Nigerian, who had not been home for three years, waited for a bus in a busy square in Helsinki, in 2007.  He did not see the speakers and thought he was going crazy, texting to his friends that he was hearing Lagos(!).  “I’m hearing Lagos and I’m looking around and seeing white people everywhere…I thought, maybe I’m going crazy…or maybe my family is doing some magic to try and send me back home or something.”24  The young Nigerian used magic as one explanation for what he was perceiving.  Ogboh describes in an interview how the experience was very emotional for the young Nigerian when he persisted and discovered the sounds of Lagos he was hearing was an artwork.  For Ogboh, whose arms the emotional young man fell into inside a Helsinki gallery that day in 2007, claims it changed his art practice.  He since has had a greater awareness of the unusual magical aspect of spacial and temporal fluidity in his soundscapes, and the powerful effect this can have on the audience.25
Gablik calls for a “reenchantment”  of art in her book of that title.  Gablik’s book discusses a framework for modern aesthetics that includes a sensitivity to the psychological conditions of individuals and society, to ecology, and to the process character of the world.  Perceptual shift, as occurs when one steps into Ogboh’s cone of sound, can trigger a new perception of the world.  In it, attention is called to our selves in relation to others.  Perhaps Ogboh would say that by calling attention to our sense of our own perception, we see the power it has over us, and somehow separate ourselves from it.  Thus, Ogboh moves the audience into the realm of meta-understanding of perceptions, self, time, and space.  Gablik writes, “the rational framework of modern aesthetics has left us with an ontology of objectification, permanence and egocentricity…as exclusively fixed forms.”26  Ogboh’s work seems a response to Gablik’s concerns from 1991; in the new millennium the Western disenchanted paradigm is only one among many others from around the world.  Nicolas Bourriaud notes this aesthetic paradigm shift in the seminal 2002 book, Relational Aesthetics.  He describes, “What used to be called the avant-garde has…developed from the ideological swing of things offered by modern rationalism; but it is now re-formed on the basis of quite different philosophical, cultural and social presuppositions…today’s art is…coming up with perceptive, experimental, critical and participatory models”27  Ogboh’s success (two major shows this summer), is due in part to his ability to push our perceptual bounds into magical irrational territory.
In conclusion, Emeka Ogboh is an important contemporary sound artist.  He has found a way to examine and critique capitalism and Western imperialism without contempt or irony.  His work seduces us into listening, and then suspends us, with its powerful technological message.  In that moment of suspension of confused senses, when the reality we depend on is destroyed, a new shared reality is conceivable.  Suzi Gablik’s 1991 book can be read as a lament for art practice of her day.  She condemns the contemporary art of her time as “often ironic or parodic modes that do not criticize, but simply declare art’s pointlessness openly, and bait us with its indifference.”28  Twenty years later the work of Emeka Ogboh assures us that she is wrong about some contemporary artists.  Ogboh’s work exemplifies Gablik’s ideal:  “Art moved by empathic attunement, not tied to an art-historical logic but orienting us to the cycles of life, helps us to recognize that we are part of an interconnected web that ultimately we cannot dominate.”29  His work reminds us of our interconnectivity, and invites us to envision a global future.

The study of this artist has been important to me as a teacher of autistic students.  Many of my students are dominant in one of their senses.  Sight is rarely the dominant sense.  This created a crisis for me as a visual art teacher.  Studying Ogboh has helped me understand the value of experiential knowledge vs. declarative or shown knowledge.  His work stresses the importance of working with the realities at hand, and how our senses inform our of understanding the world.  Through a sensory shift, learning possibilities arise.  By limiting sensory input to one sense by overstimulating that sense, there is a calming that could be useful the students with autism.  McLuhan’s Age of Anxiety is real for Ogboh and for my students.  Autism is one of the symptoms of this age.  Technology can be both the problem and the solution.  Ogboh demonstrates that the medium is the message, but the narrative message is also the message; both general and specific can contain meaning.  Finally, Ogboh reminds me as a teacher how important it is to “reenchant” art for my students. References:
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Listening. Manchester: Manchester     University Press ND, 1985.

Bishop, Claire. Installation Art. London: Tate Publishing, 2005.
Boswell, Peter. Krzysztof Wodiczko: Art and the Public Domain. Public Address:     Krzysztof Wodiczko. Edited by Kathy Halbreich. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center,     1992.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. France: Les presses du reel, 2002.
Cage, John. Silence. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1960.

Gablik, Suzi. The Reenchantment of Art. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1991.
Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991.
Trend, David. Cultural Struggle and Educational Activism. Art, Activism, and     Oppositionality. Edited by Grant Kester. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

Warner, Daniel. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: The Continuum     International Publishing Group, Inc., 2006.






Posted in Aesthetics, Coursework | Comments Off

The Hooks Project: technical thesis proposal and presentation of inquiry results

I propose to create a sound installation for my final thesis work.  It will feature three separate sound sculptures, and a silent prologue sculpture, that incorporate found objects, photography, light and text.  These four sculptures will be light/sound-activated by a motion detector as viewers approach. The installation will present the narrative of my experiences, and the growth of my new understanding.

Fall ’12 semester I am working on the three sound pieces in an independent study with Eric Freeman.  The SIM dept. is supporting me with technical advice and equipment.  The first sound piece will be installed in a display case, which creates a muffled-effect sound.  The second piece will use “sound shower” speakers, which create a unique “column” of sound.  The third sound piece will use omnidirectional speakers, filling the space with sound.  A location for the installation site is yet to be determined.  A subterranean space would be ideal.  Any non-traditional exhibition space would also be ideal.

Guidelines for the installation site are the following:

1.  darkness:  The space will be dark, with lighting focused on featured elements.

2.  space: The viewer will move through each sound installation following a narrative, linear path.  A larger space is necessary.

3.  awareness of sound bleeding:  The work will mix various sounds into the space. An awareness of its potential to effect the surrounding space is crucial.

4.  power:  Access to electricity is essential to the installation.

5. safety. and this should be first.

Posted in Hooks Project: thesis proposal, thesis proposal | Comments Off