Listening to music and visiting an exhibition are two things that have long ceased to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they now occur with increasing frequency, not just in blockbuster shows like the Björk retrospective at MoMA in New York or David Bowie is in London and Berlin, but also in smaller formats like Wolfgang Tillmans’s recent three-part exhibition series Playback Room (2014–15) at his Berlin project space Between Bridges. Firmly anchored in Berlin’s club culture, the photographer said in an interview with Monopol that for him, as for many other artists of his generation, listening to music is an essential part of his everyday production routine. But unlike art, he went on, recorded music in the form of a standard-issue studio album has no gallery-like place where it can be listened to at levels of sound quality appropriate to its production (one might counter that Berlin’s club scene already offers such places). With the pervasiveness of compressed sound files, this aspect is now becoming increasingly relevant. Tillmans’s Playback Room was motivated by the wish to foster a critical discussion about this discrepancy. Realized differently each time, as well as asking how music might best be listened to, the exhibition series also raised the question of how it might best be curated.
The first installment, Colourbox – Music of the Group (1982–1987), took a relatively classical approach: the front room presented archive material relating to the English band known for its eclectic approach to mixing and who never played live on account of their complex production techniques, while in the back room a specially compiled tracklist played on a high-end sound system. The playlist itself was also available as a limited-edition CD.
Part two, American Producers, focused exclusively on sound. Visitors sat on rows of chairs in front of a sound system playing a set of mainly house, hip-hop and R&B tracks compiled by Tillmans in close consultation with his music-savvy circle of friends. This arrangement aimed for a kind of deep listening as a way of showcasing the various production techniques on the tracks, detached from the more informed context in which they originally appeared. No artwork was shown, while the accompanying folder (containing printouts of e-mail correspondence preceding the show as well as articles and interviews with the featured producers) gave a somewhat incidental insight into the curatorial concept underlying the playlist – a concept focusing not only on the music’s ‘American’ dimension, but in particular on political, feminist and queer aspects.
As guest curator of the third Playback Room, Yusuf Etiman (art director at Berghain and former director of Berlin event space Basso) took yet a different approach, devising a four-week programme of film screenings and listening sessions with Bring Your Own events on Saturdays opening the format up to contributions from the audience. In a cosy, almost private atmosphere with rugs, table lamps, plants and tea, this space explicitly fostered a collective experience where talking about and sharing music was almost as important as listening to it. At the end, all of the tracks from the four weeks were cut to vinyl. As well as countering the supposed immateriality of the music, this also created a final object with scarcity value (as with the Colourbox playlist).
With its emphasis on the best possible sound equipment, this series was the opposite of the ‘record art’ that has been the theme of numerous recent exhibitions. Although there have been isolated shows since the mid-1970s devoted to the interface of art and music (one pioneering example being Broken Music curated by Ursula Block and Michael Glasmeier at Berlin’s DAAD Galerie in 1989), pop-cultural themes have only become prevalent over the past 15 years. After a wave of shows focusing on specific music cultures and their relationship to art (Punk. No One is Innocent, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, 2008), individual bands and their milieus (Sonic Youth etc.: Sensational Fix, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 2009), or record labels (ECM – eine kulturelle Archäologie, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2012), there is now a clear trend towards rolling out the red carpet for iconic figures from pop music culture.
Such projects are not without their difficulties. Klaus Biesenbach’s Björk retrospective at MoMA, for example, aimed to give equal weight to all aspects of the Icelandic musician and performer’s work. If the poor reviews are anything to go by, including one by Roberta Smith in The New York Times, this went badly wrong. For Smith, the show was ‘noncommittal’, ‘cramped’, and a ‘logistical nightmare’ (which also offered a disappointing catalogue). Visitors to David Bowie is – the multimedia exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2012 that travelled to Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2014 – were given headphones to access the show’s sound elements; in spite of crowded rooms, this made the experience not so much individualized as isolated. In view of this development, it is also no surprise that Kraftwerk had an exhibition at Galerie Sprüth Magers in 2013 and have since toured through international art institutions.
What might be interpreted in the spirit of Tillmans’s series as an appeal for pop music to be recognized as art can hardly be separated from the increasingly event-like character of the exhibition business and associated visitor policies. This inevitably conflates fans with a broader mass audience. But precisely in cases where the focus is on the overall artistic output of figures like Björk or Bowie, the sound dimension tends to get pushed to the background. This cannot be said of Tillmans’s Playback Room, especially the second installment – although one might ask whether concentrating on a fixed playlist with no visual distractions is really in tune with today’s listening habits. Although streaming and MP3s have fundamentally altered the way we listen, artwork still plays an important part in our experience of music – be it a cover thumbnail, Soundcloud image or YouTube video. As Dominik Bartmanski and Ian Woodward demonstrate in Vinyl. The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (Bloomsbury 2015), the recent return to the format is by no means due only to the supposedly superior sound quality of the medium, but also to its materiality and the creative potential this entails.
Whether the various approaches tested in Playback Room are the future of presenting music in exhibition contexts remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: all three installments were not only well attended, but also much talked about – not least because they crucially, if momentarily, tried to redress today’s lack of communal experience in music listening as well as the quality of its reception.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell