‘Organizing Chaos’, curated by PS1 Senior Curatorial Advisor Neville Wakefield, spanned a period from the early 1950s to the present day with 11 works ranging from photographic installations to film and music. As its title suggested, the show investigated the relation between order and chance and the ways in which randomness, when given a particular frame, often reveals a kind of emergent orchestral or dramatic experience. The selection of works included touchstones from the cultural canon – foremost among them the ‘score’ for composer John Cage’s seminal 4’ 33” (1952) – as well as lesser-known pieces that benefited from a sort of associative resonance. Perhaps predictably, albeit sensibly, the show opened with Cage. In an entryway buffeted by a cacophony of competing audio tracks, the five pages of 4’ 33” discreetly lined the wall. First performed by pianist David Tudor in Woodstock, New York, in 1952, 4’ 33” is a composition divided into three movements wherein all the notes are silent and the musician is instructed not to play. The initial recital lasted little over four and a half minutes, but the piece can go on for any duration and be (not) played on any instrument. In this case the sounds of 4’ 33” were produced by the overlapping roar and chatter of other neighbouring installations. Let the chaos, and the bracketing of chaos, begin.
The loudest of the lot was unquestionably Christian Marclay’s seminal Guitar Drag (2000), a 14-minute video of literal and sonic destruction. Marclay ripped sound from the surface of a country road by tying a Fender Stratocaster to the back of a truck and dragging it through the dusty outskirts of San Antonio. As the axe skips, slides and grinds violently along the asphalt, the amplified pick-ups produce increasingly dissonant but mesmerizing evidence of the musical patterns hidden in seemingly arbitrary topography.
Around the corner, Steven Vitiello’s Dogs in the Yard (2005–6) used five loudspeakers to amplify field recordings made across the state of Virginia, picking up baying hunting dogs, firework explosions and gunshots. Through pauses and shifts in recording distance the noises suggested one of many possible routes taken through a sonorous, vaguely threatening dreamscape. Its volatile netherworld aura was lightly echoed in Rivane Neuenschwander’s ethereal collaboration with Cao Guimarães, Inventory of Small Deaths (Blow) (2000), a five-minute Super-8 film documenting the transitory life-cycles of drifting soap bubbles as they dreamily float, sway in the breeze and unceremoniously pop over a lush Brazilian landscape.
Other stand-outs were Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2000), the printed log of each sound and random non-event occurring during the six-hour duration of his better-known video installation of the same name. Next to nothing may have happened in Nauman’s studio during the wee hours, but faithfully cataloguing it imposes an impression of order over the void. Elsewhere, the entropic ghost of Robert Smithson was invoked in Jane Crawford and Robert Fiore’s short documentary film Rundown (1994), which presented Smithson’s various ‘pours’ in 1969. Using dump trucks filled with viscous asphalt, cement and glue, Smithson unleashed lava-like messes on the slopes of abandoned quarries and dirt cliffs. From the eco-conscious vantage point of the present, the film provides a guilty sense of fascination akin to rubbernecking at a traffic accident.
Less successful was Luke Fowler’s documentary Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (2006), a desultory 45 minutes of archival footage about British composer Cornelius Cardew’s avant-garde Scratch Orchestra. In the 1960s the experimental band and its adherents ‘jammed’ in shopping centres, churches and on street corners with invented and somewhat dubious instruments. In staccato fashion the film combines video clips, musical snippets and scraps of interviews, but lamentably much of the soundtrack was lost to the drone of Marclay’s Guitar Drag close by.
Finally, Tomoko Takahashi’s photocollages and Hans-Peter Feldmann’s Sonntagsbilder (Sunday Pictures, 1975) were two installations that felt slightly out of place, perhaps meriting an exhibition of their own. Takahashi amassed hundreds of snapshots into attractively cluttered, if obvious, wall reliefs, and Feldmann arranged photocopies of various genres of kitschy imagery and happy memorabilia from the 1970s. For both artists the focus appeared to be more on process, appropriation and (in Feldmann’s case) taxonomy than the operations of chance. But given the cacophony of ‘Organizing Chaos’, with its confusing, disturbing and inexplicably satisfying jumble of images, sounds and ideas, method amid the madness may have been just the point.