by Justin Manley
I live 2,000 miles from my sister, 3,000 miles from my parents, and almost 5,500 from my boyfriend. On weekends, I speak to each in turn on the phone — I in my bedroom, my mom in the kitchen, my boyfriend lying on his own faraway bed. During these conversations, our hands fuss with the tangible, visible world around us, folding clothes, chopping vegetables, or sweeping the floor, while our ears strain across the dividing distance. We project our listening selves over the wire, and the rest stays behind. We spend much of our time divided and dislocated. Distance allows each of us to pursue opportunities that are starkly individual. In exchange, we give up the feeling of community that comes from sharing a space and its sensations.
One bright November Sunday, I sit in Yerba Buena Gardens staring idly at the fountains as I talk to my mom on the phone. Afterwards, I wander over to SFMOMA to see The Visitors, a nine-channel video installation by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Over the past 15 years, Kjartansson has orchestrated a series of long-duration musical performances, including hours-long performances of rock music, operatic arias and Beat poems set to music. The Visitors is one such performance. The installation appears at SFMOMA as part of Soundtracks, an exhibition exploring the role of sound in contemporary art, organized by Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling and Assistant Curator of Media Arts Tanya Zimbardo.
The Visitors is filmed at a dilapidated 19th century manor in upstate New York. Eight screens show rooms inside the mansion, each occupied by a lone musician. A ninth screen shows the residents of the manor gathered outside on an imposing front porch. As the musicians begin to play, their scattered solos join to form the harmonies of an hour-long song. The music blends indie folk, jazz, and orchestral styles as the performers murmur the refrain: “once again I fall into / my feminine ways” (the lyrics are from a poem by Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir, Kjartansson’s ex-wife). Though the musicians are in separate rooms, there is a powerful sense of community. Video of the house and performers generates a parallel space and community in the gallery. Yet the reality of the gallery is never allowed to collapse into the illusion of the represented performance, for the performance and the formal structure of the installation push viewers to balance representation against reality.
There is a powerful sense of spatial overlap between mansion and museum. Spatial audio and carefully configured screens create zones in the gallery which parallel the rooms in the house. The rooms are projected close to life-size, and they are immersive. I feel the coziness of the bedroom and the gracious expanse of the drawing room. One corner of the gallery becomes an annex of the kitchen, while another patch of floor admits me to the reception room. A speaker above each screen plays only the sounds from the corresponding room, and the localized
sound fools my ears as well as my eyes into believing that the house extends into the gallery. The stability of the images helps, too: across the nine video channels, there are no cuts and only one pan in the entire installation. The representations of rooms never flicker or switch places. In another video piece, such restraint might reflect a lack of cinematic imagination. In The Visitors, it is essential. The persistent presence of the images and the continuity of their configuration give the all-purpose black box a remarkable feeling of spatial differentiation and specificity.
Indeed, moving is the only way to fully experience The Visitors. The two back-to-back screens in the middle of the room ensure that there is no place in the gallery from which every screen is visible at the same time. Furthermore, there is always more to hear than can be seen, and unusual sounds (splashing water, a cannon firing) fade away before their sources can be located. People make slow circuits around the gallery, trying to grasp The Visitors over time, since it cannot be entirely seen from any single point. Yet the fading sunlight and the sequential trajectory of the music frustrate these efforts. Though the words of the song repeat, each moment looks different. Music heard from behind reminds us that the installation is always showing more than we can see. The knowledge of these unseen images heightens the sense of realism.
By demanding that viewers move around the gallery, The Visitors also fosters a sense of community. The performance is long and tantalizingly slow, and people tend to linger; many even sit on the carpeted floor. There are moments when all the musicians I can see are idle, listening to another performer play a solo or simply respecting a lull in the music. In these moments, I feel permission to let my attention wander from the screens to the half-dark room around me, and to people-watch. As I make second and third circuits around the gallery, I begin to recognize familiar faces. There are people of all ages, including many young children: I see three girls, all younger than six, promenading arm-in-arm around the gallery, while another young girl crawls underneath the screens in the middle to crane up at Kjartansson in the bathtub. A little boy breaks the silence with a surprised “Oh!” when Kjartansson strips off his towel to mop up spilled champagne; everyone around me chuckles. In a way, the gallery feels more like a public square than a museum. As the melodic line moves from one musician to another, the audience follows. The crowd crystallizes into a semicircle around one screen for an instrumental solo, then dissolves as another musician takes focus. People swirl, disperse, and regroup like iron filings under a changing magnetic field. In mirroring the same music, viewers also become synchronized with each other.
Popular virtual reality blurs the lines between the virtual and the real, and is most successful when distinctions between the two are fully erased. In The Visitors, the rich illusion of space and community is punctuated by lacunae that push viewers to balance the difference between representation and reality. These lacunae are puzzles whose exploration requires viewers to alternately imagine the experience of the musicians, then attend to the sensations of the gallery, passing back and forth between virtual and actual experience. The pursuit of these puzzles is one of the great pleasures of The Visitors.
One such conundrum prompts me to wonder what each musician can hear and how they coordinate with each other. Tightly-wound black cords trailing out of sight are clues to the connections between the musicians. Yet their headphones are inscrutable. Unlike flesh-and-blood performers whose sounds are intimately connected to movements (plucking, strumming, tapping), headphones make no visual disclosure of their sonic discharge. (This is purposeful: designers typically conceal the movements of headphones and speakers under masks of mesh
and fabric, divorcing the aural from the visual). I wonder what these electrical umbilicals convey — a click track, perhaps, or a pre-recorded studio track. Headphones form a barrier between me and the musicians, making it impossible for me to know what they hear. The sound in the theater is localized, so the mix I hear depends on where I stand and which screen I am facing; I never hear the idealized track, but always a contingent collage of sound.
Midway through the piece, in an instrumental lull, Kjartansson places his guitar gently on the floor, removes his headphones, and leans his head back in the bathtub. As Kjartansson relaxes, I tense up. Without his headphones, Kjartansson appears vulnerable and alone, and I worry that he will miss his cue and fall out of the music. A few moments later, the boom of a cannon echoes through the theater and Kjartansson slumps down as if shot, then straightens and picks up his headphones again. He’s back in the music, and all is well. Still, the brief disengagement is destabilizing. In taking off his headphones, Kjartansson seems to join the viewer in the shared aural space of the bathroom projected on the screen. Yet, in the gallery, music from other screens — kitchen, bedroom, library — surrounds me, filling his quietness. Kjartansson, in turn, is immersed in the ambient sounds of the house. I wonder whether he, too, can hear his fellow musicians playing from adjoining rooms — or whether he hears only silence.
Outside by the porch, where the cannon was fired, I notice that only a few of the residents are wearing headphones. The rest participate at a remove. Sometimes, they add their voices to the music, keeping time with a headphoned woman singing enthusiastically and a man playing the guitar. As the music dies, the two cannoneers wait for a wordless signal to ignite the cannon. I wonder what it is like for those bare-eared participants, sitting on the porch as the sun goes down, listening to crickets and perhaps the faint strains of an accordion coming through an open window. As with Kjartansson in the bathtub, I try to imagine myself sitting in silence, waiting for a cue. It is a strange exercise, for in order to project myself onto the porch, I must “unhear” the music in the gallery.
Connecting the rooms and piecing the house back together is another of the great puzzle-solving pleasures of The Visitors. For much of the hour-long performance, each room appears as an island, unmoored from the rest of the house. Occasional fleeting movements across screens offer tantalizing evidence of proximity. For a brief moment, we can see through the window of Kristin Anna Valtýsdóttir’s reception room a man leaping backwards from a cannon explosion (the same as in the outdoor view of the porch). When Kjartan Sveinsson crosses screens to join Davíð Þór Jónsson at the piano, we realize that the two men share the same
drawing room. These moments of synchrony build to an accelerando climax as the song nears its end and the musicians wind through the house to gather in the drawing room. Each musician’s journey through the house traces a path across the screens: Kjartansson passes Gyða Valtýsdóttir in his red towel, heading downstairs; drummer Þorvaldur Gröndal stops by the bedroom where Ólafur Jónsson plays the electric guitar. At the end of the piece, recording director Christopher MacDonald walks back through the house, turning off the cameras. These tours are satisfying, for they join the disparate rooms into a unified whole. Yet they are also jarring. As they move between rooms, the performers jump erratically around the gallery. In struggling to reconcile these ping-pong paths with the smooth continuity of walking, viewers confront the tangled and fragmentary nature of the mapping between rooms in the house, and zones in the gallery.
The Visitors depends on two types of artistic artifice: that of performance (musicians playing to a predetermined score, acting out a script), and that of representation (on screens and through speakers). At the end of the piece, these two types of artifice diverge, leaving me longing for the authentic immediacy of embodied participation. As the musicians assemble in the drawing room and then spill out onto the lawn, the spatial and aural complexity of the piece collapses. All of the action is concentrated on a single screen, all sounds issue from a single speaker, and the
representation becomes flat and conventional. At the same time, the activity on screen becomes less like performance, and more like living. The musicians open a bottle of champagne and light cigars. Earlier in The Visitors, although the residents of the house are physically present with the musicians, they seem far away. As the musicians move outside, the residents join their parade, and we exchange places in the analogy. The residents become full participants in the music and merrymaking, and we become merely the audience. The camera turns to follow the group trooping down a gentle slope: an inflection point.
From this moment on, the musicians and residents have their focus on the horizon and their backs turned to the camera. The singing becomes raucous and joyful; they swing their instruments and chase the dogs in circles. Sveinsson steals Kjartansson’s towel and swings it gleefully over his head. Finally, they recede to mere blobs in the distance, and their movements are lost. The music fades with the group’s retreat, giving way to the soft sound of crickets and
the breathing of bystanders. In the hush, I realize that I am straining to hear and see nothing. It is a foolish feeling, and with it, I become suddenly aware of myself as a passive spectator. Faced with the insufficiency of this representation, I yearn not for the earlier immersive experience of video and hi-fi sound, but for the fullness of reality. Just as on the phone with my boyfriend, I project myself across the distance separating me from the musicians.
The Visitors is an experiment in virtual reality. Kjartansson’s representation of the house-bound performance demonstrates a thrilling depth of immersion, a triumph of technological illusionism. Yet The Visitors also proves its own limits as the sound and image of the musicians contracts to a single point at the end. This contraction is the antithesis of the earlier experience, and yet it is accomplished with the same technical apparatus. The trajectory of the piece testifies that representation is suitable for performance, but when real life hits, there is no substitute.
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“Soundtracks” @ SFMOMA through January 1, 2018. The exhibition also includes works by Guy Ben Ner, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, Paul DeMarinis, Brian Eno, Bill Fontana, Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, Chris Kallmyer and Mark Allen, Christine Sun Kim and Thomas Mader, Christina Kubisch, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Amor Muñoz, Camille Norment, O Grivo, Susan Philipsz, Amalia Pica, Anri Sala, Sergei Tcherepnin, Richard T. Walker and Lyota Yagi?.
About the author:
Justin Manley is a Bay Area writer and engineer. He writes about architecture, technology and art.