- Listening at the Biennial
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For the first half of its now eighty-two year life, the Whitney Biennial was split into two medially distinct exhibitions, one dedicated to painting and another to sculpture, prints, and other works on paper. Forty-one years ago, in 1973, the two were united, forming a single exhibition unconfined to any medial specificity. That year, video art made its entrance into the Biennial with works by pioneering figures such as Joan Jonas and Peter Campus. In the next exhibition in 1975, a separate video program was established. In 1979, film was added too. In the late 70s, alongside moving images and installations, sound began to populate the galleries: both Dennis Oppenheim’s Lecture and Vito Acconci’s Tonight We Escape from New York from the 1977 edition featured strong audio components. In 1981, the Biennial featured its first self-described “sound installation,” by California-based artist Michael Brewster. Surrounded: Sharp Points Ringing (1979) is what the artist terms an “acoustic sculpture,” using pure frequencies and tones in combination with the structure of the exhibition space to shape the viewer’s phenomenological experience of that space. One of the important figures in the development of site-specific sound installation, Max Neuhaus, was represented in the 1983 exhibition with Time Piece ‘Archetype,’ an audio work designed for the museum’s sculpture court. Time Piece used recordings from the actual site to augment the listener’s typical sonic experience of the court, which, sunk below a busy stretch of Madison Avenue, echoes the noisy traffic, construction work, and street life above. Like a clock, every fifteen minutes, the recorded sounds would cease, creating a palpable silence that quickly filled with the actual sounds of the environment.
The 2002 Biennial responded to a revived interest in sound art at the turn of the millennium. Curator Debra Singer converted the lobby gallery space into a multi-channel black box acoustic theatre and programmed an eclectic intergenerational cast of artists including Maryanne Amacher, Stephen Vitiello (where his now iconic World Trade Center Recording: Winds After Hurricane Floyd premiered), [End Page 58] Marina Rosenfeld, and Meredith Monk. Sound also permeated the galleries and was featured heavily in the accompanying performance program.1 As curator Lawrence Rinder noted in the introduction to the catalog for the 2002 exhibition, the choice to create a gallery dedicated to sound reflected the fact that “an increasing number of artists are exploiting the capabilities of surround sound technology to create immersive, multichannel aural environments.” 2 In 2002, “sound” was having its moment, much like video in 1975. However, this medial ghettoization was short-lived, as larger questions began to emerge in artistic discourse: does a media technology possess a set of intrinsic qualities? Is an artistic use of these media technologies solely defined by these qualities?
Today, these questions persist, especially as art museums ask: what do you do with sound? Perhaps the answer lies in how some institutions have begun to think about performance as a way of rethinking transdisciplinary art practices. The most successful works in the 2012 Biennial were those that conceded to performance, especially its axes of duration, action, and viewer engagement. Sound could be another way to cut across the messy field of the contemporary, except along a distinct set of axes, some shared with live performance and others not. While the stated curatorial vision of the current Biennial did not foreground sound, the exhibition offered a good testing ground for this theory.
For this final Biennial in the museum’s iconic brutalist fortress, the organization was left to three outside curators: Michelle Grabner, an artist and professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago; Stuart Comer, the chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA; and Anthony Elms, the associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. As a farewell gesture, a handful of works engaged the museum’s rich architectural setting, designed by...