- Art | 40 | Basel: Media Art with Music
In 1999, the New York Times called Art Basel the "Olympics of the Art World" (J. Dobrzynski, 17 June 1999, www.nytimes.com), and ever since, superlatives about it have buzzed across the Atlantic. This year, from 10–14 June 2009, the art world met in Basel, Switzerland for the 40th time (Co-Directors: Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler, artbasel-online.com) and demonstrated a slower, more deliberate pace of transactions, but no reduction of volume.
Music at the world's largest art trade show—is this a topic that makes sense for a scholarly journal on computer music? In view of the unbroken burgeoning of art commerce and the collapse of the music industry, it would seem to make at least economic sense to cast a look at music's place in the growing world of media art. With unbroken growth in all manner of crossover media works and a lagging theoretical evaluation to accompany this phenomenon, the matter merits our attention, at least so far as to discern the contours of what is taking place. Whether we are finally interested in the goings-on, and what value we ascribe to them, are secondary questions.
Today, many of us welcome a multidisciplinary orientation toward works of art and their study. But what credentials might a computer-music junkie such as myself have to weigh in on such art-heavy matters? At the height of the technology bubble, when I was working in what some called Germany's Silicon Valley (Munich), a media art gallery in my neighborhood piqued my interest. After a long stay at the underground Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/ Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, what was I to make of this aboveground, converted store-front gallery with its darkened rooms, computers, projectors, joy-sticks, rudimentary sound systems, and quirky, interactive moving images? Those first timid steps into the world of media art whetted my appetite for more, and soon I was doing the circuit: Art Basel yearly, the Venice Biennial, the quinquennial "documenta" in Kassel, as many lectures as my free time permitted, and I even wielded a paint brush.
During these activities, I divided my concentration between becoming acquainted with a new world of art and trying to understand how music was perceived and practiced within it; for it was soon obvious that the rules I had learned as a musician did not adhere. I have written—and sometimes complained—in these pages about what I saw, and recently I completed a dissertation presenting my view of emerging technologies and aesthetics. I have found, however, that the theory surrounding this kind of art is still pretty ephemeral stuff, so writing a music review of an art show is terra incognita for me today.
But I was reassured; it was evident that this year Art Basel was working on similar questions concerning mixed media art. Art Basel's brochure promised that "the most spectacular event" of the year would be Il Tempo del Postino, a "group exhibition that would occupy time rather than space" ("wie die Zeit doch vergeht"). The work, first given at the Manchester International Festival in 2007, "was to be presented sequentially on stage . . . just as in a play or opera" (R. Dorment, 17 July 2007, www.telegraph.co.uk; c.f., J. Griffin, September 2007, www.frieze.com). Moreover, the entire second half was given over to "one of the most influential artists in the world today, Matthew Barney" (whose phenomenal Cremaster Cycle is arguably a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk comparable in scope to Richard Wagner's Ring cycle).
After I had registered, fought my way through the long lines of visitors (a record-breaking 61,000) to the press entrance, and unpacked my 750-page glossy catalog, and after being sent from one sales point to another, from Hall 1 to Hall 2 and back, I was sadly confounded to discover that this spectacular event was being offered off-venue, it was entirely sold out, and no standing room was available. Not even YouTube can...