PRINT May 1991



SINCE THE BEGINNING of our century, music and its reproductive medium, the record, have constantly challenged artists to create new forms. László Moholy-Nagy saw the potential of scratching the wax plate to produce new sounds and sound relationships,1 and Piet Mondrian called for the creation of a new system of “tones and anti-tones” in order to achieve a “universal form.”2 When, in 1913, the Futurist Luigi Russolo issued his manifesto L’arte dei rumori (The art of noises), he set up one of the most crucial guideposts for avant-garde music.3 The inclusion of real noises—“the voices of animals and men,” “the coming and going of pistons,” “the crashing down of metal shop blinds,” etc.4—advocated by Russolo, became intrinsic to the work of composers like Edgard Varèse, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky, and George Antheil. However, it was John Cage who in the early ’50s first linked this innovative inclusion of natural sounds to the use of records, making the link itself part of the music. Instead of considering a record “a kind of portable museum or a portable concert-hall,”5 Cage suggested using it to create a new musical piece through the deliberate incorporation of the noises produced by the interaction of record and record player.


For Theodor Adorno the meaning of the record lay not in its function—at the time of its playing—as a surrogate for live music, but in the existence of the record itself as a “thing.”6 Such an insight inflects the work of the Swiss artist Christian Marclay, who utilizes the vinyl disk not only to reproduce the musical information it contains but also to produce objects, installations, and new records. This process transcends the gap between materiality and music, between direct and indirect, and between “thingliness” and immateriality. Marclay’s artistic and musical production cannot, in fact, be pigeonholed as either music, performance, or art. For just as sounds are a third element between record and music, and records as objects are a third element between music and auditor, Marclay’s oeuvre marks the location of a third factor between music and art, a site on which conventional uses of the record medium may be circumvented and new systems of relationships become possible.7

Accordingly, in contrast to a composer or musician, Marclay uses the record as a starting point rather than as an end product. He began using the record player as a musical instrument in the late ’70s, first with his duo The Bachelors, Even and then with his band Mon Ton Son (a French pun meaning “Mine yours his,” or “My tone sound”). Over the years Marclay has performed in solo gigs and in improvisations with other musicians. During these performances, records that he has previously transmogrified into newly shaped objects—by pasting things to them, marking them with strips of paper, scratching them up, or cutting them into pieces are transformed by use to release newly “shaped” sounds. The value of these items derives not so much from the musical information reproduced as from the interactions of the four turntables that allow these objects to “become” music.

During his early performance period, Marclay was enrolled at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, and his training as a visual artist is obvious both in such details as the allusion to Marcel Duchamp in the name of his first band and in his entire attitude toward music. His choice of the record as medium was, in fact, artistically motivated: the record, for Marclay, is a form in which music is visualized, becoming an object that can be shaped and formally manipulated.

Marclay has melted down records into cubes or long sticks, transforming them into art objects whose only relationship to the music-playing originals is in their paper labels, which appear throughout as specks of color. He has formed floor-length curtains from transparent Plexi singles and has glued together record fragments of different colors. Turning to the packaging in which the record is sold, he has reworked and collaged record jackets—on which musical information is converted into language and image—using them as a medium for commenting on, among other things, divisions between high and low culture.

While, for example, concerts of classical music belong to high culture, the technological reproduction of such music is understood as belonging to low culture. Conversely, pop music is part of low culture, yet some rock musicians have had visual artists design the jackets of their albums in order to enhance their cultural value (e.g., Andy Warhol’s jacket for the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers). In the 1989–90 series “Abstract Music,” Marclay exposed the absurdity of such classifications (and attempts to circumvent them) by painting over the mostly Abstract Expressionist paintings reproduced on a group of record covers, by this act transmuting them into “real” artworks, and, not incidentally, obliterating any information about the record—the music—that the jacket might be expected to provide.

Recently, Marclay has seemed more concerned to show just what kinds of (extramusical) information record jackets do, in fact, convey, revealing, in a group of new works, the ideological assumptions encoded in these seemingly neutral fields. It is no secret, of course, that in the marketing of music, sex sells, but Skin Mix I and Skin Mix II, both 1990, rock ’n’ roll Frankensteins composed of the stunningly hard and glossy body parts of the known (Madonna, Diana Ross, Annie Lennox) and the less so, reveal the terrain as close to pornographic. Nor is the realm of classical music immune from gender politics. Looking at the pendant pieces Incognita and Dictators, both 1990, it is interesting to compare the anonymous female sex kittens of the former, shown in close up or full-length provocative pose, with the prominently named male conductors of the latter, pictured in half-length as they actively perform their craft.

Audiotapes and sound speakers also figure prominently in Marclay’s work, used less to transmit sound than as formal, often silent, sculptural components that provide a commentary on the invisibility of the music that the tapes or the speakers “contain.” He has woven a net of magnetic tape (Net, 1990) or allowed tape to fall endlessly through a reel-to-reel tape player emitting the endless sound of dripping water (Tape Fall, 1989). A 1990 multiple punningly offers glass bottles stuffed with the recorded magnetic tape used in Tape Fall—Bottled Water. Cross, 1987, turns the silence of six speakers into the religious symbol of the crucifix, while, in a more profane mode, the two cast-silicon rubber speaker cones of Breasts, 1989, specifically allude to Duchamp’s 1947 Prière de toucher (Please touch).

Marclay has recently expanded his repertoire of sound/silence with Bouche-oreille (Earplug, 1990), two terra-cotta telephone receivers that again deliberately allude to Duchamp (to his two-sided lead Bouche-Évier [Sink plug, 1964]), and Boneyard, 1990, a scatter of 1,000 telephone receivers cast in bone-white hydrocal that, still as a city of the dead, perform an elegy for failed communication.


Production is growth, increase, expansion; production within Marclay’s oeuvre signifies transformation—of one object into another, of sounds into other sounds, of one set of relationships into a multiplicity of others. The unexpected deviation from prescribed use makes the relationship of misuse the new system of order. In 1989, for example, the floor of Zurich’s Shedhalle was covered with 3,500 copies of the same recording, in black vinyl with yellow labels, for Marclay’s installation Footsteps. Viewers were literally forced to walk over the discs in order to experience the work, and the sounds of their footsteps became part of that experience. Once the show was taken down, the records, marked by the visitors’ footprints, were individually packaged and offered for sale as unique artworks. By having people step on the records, Marclay not only elicited specific perceptual responses but also turned the visitors into accomplices: they stepped on the records instead of handling them with kid gloves and protecting them against dirt and scratches. A similar attitude is manifested in Record without a Cover, 1985, Marclay’s first single, which was distributed minus a jacket—yet another ironical blow at the fetishism of record users.

In his attitude toward the apparatus of music making, Marclay seems to be attacking the rituals of maintenance associated with its products, the music industry’s normal distribution methods (Record without a Cover, for example, was sold as a multiple in record stores), and the transformation of musical material into objets d’art (viz., Marclay’s The Beatles, 1989, a pillow crocheted of magnetic tape of Beatles’ songs). But whatever his target, the artist resists the view of the record as a fetish, as an object evoking nostalgia, reminiscence, or sentimentality (although that may become increasingly difficult as the CD medium renders the record more and more an anachronism).8

We are, therefore, only infrequently able to identify the names of the songs or performers on the record covers Marclay uses, a concealment of data that is crucial to his metamorphoses. A second interference factor is provided by the secondhand nature of the records themselves, which carry inscribed on their worn surfaces the individual traces—the deviations—of years of play by earlier consumers. It is these alterations that result in the imbalance, the asymmetry, in the exchange relationship between record (performer) and listener, thus opening the system to a multiplicity of unexpected interactive relationships. The openness of this systematic change is particularly obvious in Marclay’s collaborations with the musician Ron Kuivila. Kuivila has developed what he calls a “guatari” (the reference is to the French theorist Felix Guattari and to Atari, the computer technology company), a mouse-controlled real-time sampler in a guitar-like form. In their performances together, or “live samplings,” as they call them, Kuivila “samples” Marclay as he scratches at his four turntables and then plays the sound in variation.

It can be seen as well in Marclay’s White Album, 1990, a multiple of the Beatles’ famous 1968 album of the same name. This album, issued in millions of copies, is already located in the intermediary area between art and music—even without Marclay’s intervention. Its vacant jacket, devoid of any information about the album’s contents, was designed by Pop artist Richard Hamilton. Numbered and thereby declared a—million-fold—multiple, every single record declared its mass-produced identity simultaneous with its preproduced individual character as a work by the Beatles. Marclay’s reuse of the album cover—minus the music, the record—creates a further doubling, since he, in turn, declared his selection of 17 worn, used covers to be his multiple, marking them as his own by splaying them open and embossing each with a different Beatles’ lyric. This love of multiples turns mass products, through misuse, into individual works—and then again declares them to be objects of (limited) mass production. In this way, Marclay questions not only the immutability of the record, but also where its value lies.


Few aspects of Marclay’s work are unique to him. In some pieces, we can detect Cage as the father; other features are familiar from rap music (scratching) or from the work of other visual artists concerned with the medium of the record (for example, Milan Knizak’s collages).9 Still, Marclay is innovative in his understanding of music as collective unconscious, as language, and as sound. For him, it is in equal parts a medium, a material, a product, and a reference. Accepting the “thingliness” of the apparatuses of sound, he subverts the unidirectional arrow conventionally drawn between active producer and passive listener. A closed system becomes open to the third—to chance, to direct intervention, to immediate experience.

Sabine B. Vogel is a critic living in Düsseldorf.

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.



1. Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, “Production—Reproduction,” 1922, in Andreas Maus, Moholy-Nagy: Photographs and Photograms, trans. Frederic Samson, New York: Pantheon, 1980, pp. 46–47.

2. Piet Mondrian. quoted in Broken Music, exhibition catalogue, Berlin: Daadgalerie; The Hague: Gemeentmuseum; Grenoble: Le Magasin, 1989, p. 28.

3. Luigi Russolo, “The Art of Noises (extracts) 1913,” in Umbra Apollonio, Futurist Manifestos, Ness York: Thames and Hudson, 1973, pp. 74–88.

4. Ibid., p. 85.

5. John Cage, quoted in Broken Music, p. 73.

6. Theodor Adorno, “The Form of the Phonograph Record,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin, October 55, Winter 1990, pp. 56-61.

7. Michel Serres first used the term “the third,” which he explicitly defines as a “parasite,” understood as the basic element of all communication, the general operator of any kind of relationship, a relational element—whether physical, biological, or societal. (Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.) Here, in contrast, the term is intended to designate the place between fixed things, understood as a factor of expansion not interference.

8. It should come as no surprise that Marclay has no use for the virtually indestructible medium of the CD, a system that has no weak points, allowing for no interventions by either user or external phenomena.

9. See Broken Music for an in-depth discussion of Knizak’s work, as well as that of other artists confronting the medium of the record.