Christian Marclay, Manga Scroll (detail), 2010, lithograph on paper, 1' 4“ × 65' 7 1/2”.

Christian Marclay, Manga Scroll (detail), 2010, lithograph on paper, 1' 4“ × 65' 7 1/2”.

Christian Marclay

Christian Marclay, Manga Scroll (detail), 2010, lithograph on paper, 1' 4“ × 65' 7 1/2”.

GOOD DJS TREAT THEIR RECORDS BADLY. The more you mix other people’s music into your own, the more you have to exploit vinyl’s stubborn physicality, pushing the bounds of that analog zone where ephemeral sound solidifies into plastic. In the 1980s, the Swiss American artist and influential turntablist Christian Marclay smashed his records with a hammer, glued the shards together, and played that chaotic assemblage—offering a punk-inspired take on 1970s performance art refreshed by the then-emergent figure of the disc jockey.

Much of the work in the exhibition “Christian Marclay: Compositions” at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona stemmed from the artist’s application of turntablist strategies to various corners of pop culture, as well as from his interest in the visual residue of sound. The DJ ethos is founded on the assumption that no song (or object) is ever complete, and that crowds, not individuals, create the meaning of whatever narrative is spit out of the speakers—a narrative that one builds by rearranging other people’s sounds. Throughout the museum’s spacious top floor, “Compositions” presented a selection of installations, graphic scores, collages, performance documentation, prints, and videos from Marclay’s four-decade career.

Taken as a whole, his works are relentlessly legible. His ideas are taut and clear, the videos montage pop clips from past decades, and the prints reward fast readings. A wry humor lurks throughout. His conceptually elegant twelve-inch Record Without a Cover, 1985, is precisely what the title says it is: a record without a cover. Although nowadays it’s easier to find this work in a museum collection than a record shop, once upon a time the LP’s counterintuitive instructions—DO NOT STORE IN A PROTECTIVE PACKAGE—brought a Fluxus-flavored surprise to the “Experimental/Avant-Garde” bins. Marclay also altered album covers to create the long-running series “Imaginary Records” (1988–97), materially remixing album jackets he found in thrift stores to create visual and textual puns. Printed at the top of a pea-green one at MACBA was the record’s catalogue number and the words IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES. Marclay covered the rest of the artwork and text with a faded green paper—presumably the disc’s sleeve. The joke gets funnier if, like a bona fide crate-digger, one does enough research to learn the title of the original vinyl beneath: Unforgettable Voices in Unforgotten Performances from the German Operatic Repertoire.

Video Quartet, 2002, is an editing tour de force in the form of a fun, visually dense run through last century’s cinema history. Its fourteen-minute loop across four screens presages Marclay’s most famous work, The Clock, 2010. For Video Quartet, the artist stitched together clips from more than seven hundred (mostly) Hollywood films, extracting instances when the on-screen action produces moments of sonic interest. Viewed with one’s eyes open, the piece is a game of recognition and attribution: Name that movie! Spot the star! There’s Sam, playing piano again in Casablanca. That’s Ella Fitzgerald, whom Marclay edited to perform a duet with herself across two screens. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are intercut with close-ups of high heels anxiously tapping. Marclay also includes a painfully predictable clip of Julie Andrews strumming a guitar atop the Alps in The Sound of Music.

Taken as a whole, Marclay’s works are relentlessly legible.

The sheer recognizability of much of the source material reminds us that the museum may be the last refuge for copyright infringement: Streaming platforms’ automatic content filters now flag work like this. The iconic movie clips command your attention, but close your eyes and Video Quartet transforms into a cohesive yet shifting aural landscape. This is how sound draws experience closer: Eyes perceive a world of edges, but ears reverberate with all the vibrations in- and outside of themselves, as diverse audio waves melt into overlapping, interdependent layers. Video Quartet’s sonic composition is fast but not dizzying, noisy but not aggressive, dissonant but never reckless. Images deliver adjacencies, whereas sound immerses us in singularity—if we let it.

Christian Marclay, Chalkboard, 2010/2019, paint, chalk. Installation view. Photo: Sílvia Poch.

IN CONTRAST TO THE DJ’S anti-essentialist formal play, other works relied on the oddly dour logic of onomatopoeias. The sound-word images presented in the nearly sixty-six-foot-long print Manga Scroll, 2010—like FISSS, SPRANG, SKRASSHH, all lifted from English-language translations of Japanese manga—doubled as a score debuted in 2010 by trailblazing experimental vocalist Joan La Barbara. And an extensive selection of prints across several galleries depicted onomatopoeic words in cartoon fonts with expressionistic splashes of color, revisiting the “action painting” joke that Roy Lichtenstein made with early canvases such as Whaam!, 1963, and Bratatat!, 1962.

For the video installation Surround Sounds, 2014–15, Marclay animated sound-words he scanned from comics. Across all four walls of the gallery, SPLOOSHES undulated like a string of buoys; BAMS, BANGS, BLAMS, and BOOMS strobed. Exhibition texts repeatedly stressed that this thirteen-minute piece was “silent,” and that Video Quartet was “the only work included in the exhibition that uses sound audibly.” But this was inaccurate. Each of Surround Sounds’s four powerful projectors has a noisy fan; a quadraphonic buzzing filled the room. For a show by an artist whose early works presented vinyl’s surface as something to be contemplated, held, and heard, the curators’ insistence that we ignore our ears and embrace the fiction of silence was a terrible gaffe.

Despite its popularity in comics and its associations with toddlers learning language, there’s something distinctly unfun about onomatopoeia. If DJing tweaks signifiers into new signifieds by playing up the arbitrary and highly contextual nature of the relationship between sound and its significance, then onomatopoeia pulls language in the opposite direction, forcing words to transcribe the sounds they represent. Dog is arbitrary; woof, less so. Of course, the sound of barking will be inscribed differently in every human language, yet onomatopoeia’s underlying principle remains: The word must articulate its sound. Deterministic, onomatopoeia births language at its least free, its most one-to-one vis-à-vis the world—and these works by Marclay can’t quite shake its lack of play. Their didacticism goes against the groove he set up for himself as a mischevous bricoleur, yet it also demonstrates his DJ-like ability to “move the crowd,” to reach a wide audience, precisely because his work is powered by the pleasures of instant recognition.

In the case of his graphic scores, images deployed as nontraditional sheet music, Marclay challenges the musicians who perform them with a pointed illegibility. Viewers of Chalkboard, 2010/2019, are invited to make marks on a gigantic rendering of fourteen staffs. Once a month during the exhibition’s run, a solo musician played the wall-cum-score (which, when I visited, was mostly made up of crude drawings and social-media tags). Afterward, the board was erased so the process could begin anew. Explanatory texts praised the “freedom” Chalkboard offers to both the public and the performers, yet the setup also outsources the artmaking for Marclay. When a musician is presented with a score as idiosyncratic and unreadable as a month’s worth of museum-goer graffiti, she must draw entirely on her own creative sensibilities to perform what is nevertheless promoted as, and bound to, someone else’s work. Music scholar Kirsten L. Speyer Carithers terms this “interpretive labor,” with the composer acting as CEO. It’s an overlooked paradox in certain experimental-music performances: Composers offload creative responsibility by providing highly indeterminate scores—while retaining stewardship over a work and its realization.

Given the urgency of understanding how everyday media manipulation is rewiring the relationship between popular imagery and power, Marclay’s strategies feel at best outdated, like holdouts from an era that believed itself to be simpler; at worst they feel thin, unequipped to reflect on our present mess. Marclay takes in methods that have been radical and surprising in decades past and transforms them into the stuff of mainstream dreams. Yet the era when remix referred primarily to dance-music reworkings or cut-and-paste collages is long gone, and the ease with which digital media can be remixed has given us fake news, real news, and deepfakes, not to mention globalized white-nationalist ideology in full drag as kid-friendly memes. If you want a vision of the future as it looks now, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—remixed forever. 

Jace Clayton is an artist and writer based in Manhattan. His book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.