“Musiques en Scène”

In the Lyons subway station, the wait is enlivened not only by music playing supermarket-style over the platforms but also by a mini-slide show—projected onto billboards between the tracks—of ads for the likes of McDonald’s and local drop-in centers. This no-frills approach to media technology might well go unnoticed were it not for the unwitting commentary it offers on the far more ambitious display of multimedia prowess recently presented above ground at the Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with the “Musiques en scène” (Musics on stage) festival of contemporary music. Now in its seventh year, the festival has always included an exhibition exploring the relationship between music and other contemporary arts, through the common denominator of sound and/or electronic media, but this installment marked the first time that the museum served as its principal site, accommodating not only the exhibit but concerts, performances, film and video screenings, lectures, and a conference on music and the visual arts.

In a sense, this is the kind of event the barely two-year-old building was waiting for, with its modular structure designed by Renzo Piano to adapt to the circumstances at hand—in this case the presentation of nearly two dozen sound sculptures and installations in the first- and second-floor exhibition spaces, live events in a third-floor concert/conference hall, and films and videos in the screening room. But if it is hardly a novelty for a museum to host nonexhibition events, what was striking was how little suited the anonymous space turned out to be for the exhibition itself. To begin with, most of the “sound works” (the generic title allotted to the twenty-odd objects, installations, and videos) were meant to be heard in some way or another, but unlike the performances and projections scheduled in specific time slots at the museum and elsewhere, the exhibition pieces were condemned to share the same space, time, and listening frequency. From one side of a (temporary) wall, for example, visitors could hear the sensor-captured phone conversations of Pierre Huyghe’s Daily, 1996, and, from the other, the ear-piercing tone of Agnès Geoffray’s video Cristel, 1997. Likewise, the live and recorded chirps coming from Paul Panhuysen’s giant aviaries (Here I Am, Where Are You?, 1998) were accompanied by the sounds emanating from the works of three other artists in the adjacent corridor (and vice versa).

This ambient cacophony was symptomatic of a more fundamental problem: the inherent resistance of contemporary art, in its time-based, dematerialized, and/or site—specific forms, to conventional, object-oriented exhibition structures. At best, a work like Peter Vogel’s Schattenorchester (Shadow orchestra, 1990) managed to impose its own environment and create a kind of Platonic cyber-cave out of sounds and shadows emanating from a bank of percussion instruments made by the artist but “played” by the public via a light-sensitive touch screen. At worst, Rebecca Horn’s Room of Lovers, 1992/98, originally part of a seven—room installation in a former bordello in Barcelona, was reduced to five self—playing violins gesticulating on the pristine walls of yet another modular space.

The exhibition’s most notable and probably unnoticed work was Gérard Collin-Thiébaut’s Le sujet laisse la place aux decors de sa vie (The subject defers to the surroundings of his life, 1982). Best known for the ongoing series of images he reproduces on public transport tickets, parking meter receipts, postcards, and the like, here Collin-Thiébaut used an ordinary slide projector mounted on an equally ordinary tape recorder to resuscitate the tiny image of a hobby horse taken from a 1949 snapshot, combining it with the sound of a creaking swing. Unobtrusively placed on the landing outside the exhibition spaces, this resolutely low-tech piece went back and forth—as effortlessly as a hobby horse wagging its tongue from cheek to cheek—between high art and popular culture, individual memory and collective history, Marcel Proust and Marshall MacLuhan—not to mention the museum and the metro station. As the Lyons subway reminds us, modem media allow the artists not only to record the surroundings of life but to remain a part of them.

Miriam Rosen