Cover Story: Cut-and-Paste Culture

Look and listen at these local museums shows

Sep 14, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Doug Coombe

DJ Clark Warner curated the original exhibition of Sacred and Profane, opening at the CAC, Oct. 1.

People tend to relegate sensory experience to specific settings — concert venues for listening, museums for looking. But two fall exhibitions in Cincinnati probe this often-ignored concept with a question: How do sound and sight interact within the context of aesthetic perception?

The most minimal (visual) spectacle so far to come to the Contemporary Arts Center appears next month in the form of nine headsets on a wall. The show, Sacred and Profane: A Collection of Sonic Art, originated at the Detroit Artists' Market and is the joint curatorial effort of a radio host, Liz Copeland, and a DJ and record label manager, Clark Warner.

CAC Associate Curator Matt Distel has something to do with it, too. He found a news release about Sacred and Profane and said his first thought was: "I wish I could have seen that." An interesting impulse — to see the show — considering it's completely aural.

Distel does one better, though, by bringing the whole gig to Cincinnati. He's altered it in a minor way, adding some local musicians, but hasn't touched Detroit's core group of artists.

What comes through these nine headsets is a scale of emotions that will affect each listener differently.

The sounds range from the pleasant and entertaining to the discomforting and noisy. The artists involved spread across generations and locations: The youngest is 23, the eldest is 72 and they come from everywhere. Representing the sounds of such different minds suggests, according to Distel, how generations and disparate cultures impact each other.

Sacred and Profane will doubtlessly generate questions in Cincinnati, and Distel likes that idea. He wants his viewers to think critically about aesthetic experience. How do we define art? Does the way we hear affect the way we see?

There are no right or wrong answers. Distel just wants to challenge our minds as well as our attention spans, blurring boundaries and making our brows furrow in genuine thought.

He sees no reason to differentiate between art forms. They all impact — and are impacted by — contemporary culture in the same way.

Take DJ Olive: Part of Brooklyn's active "illbient scene," he's a musician engaged with the visual art world, aware that his mixes aren't separate from other art forms. Ours is a "cut-and-paste culture," Distel says, and DJ Olive echoes this notion by making music that's a lot like collage — pilfering bits and pieces of the past and in a quintessentially postmodern way smashing them together to create something new.

Around the same time as the CAC show, the Cincinnati Art Museum offers another exhibition focusing on the connection between sound and sight, albeit in a completely different way. Borrowed Time: The Photograph as Album Cover has been assembled by Dennis Kiel, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs, as a collection of album covers to examine how musicians use visual art to connect with their audiences.

Each album cover appropriates a previously taken picture, a photograph whose conception had nothing to do with the music it came to represent. Sometimes the picture was cropped, distorted or repositioned to fit the cover, and Kiel will hang the original photo next to the cover so viewers can get a better sense of the borrowed imagery, the borrowed time.

The postmodern quality of appropriation — the filching of past work — is what makes Borrowed Time so interesting. Why didn't these musicians commission their own photographers to explain their work visually? Why would they prefer pre-existing images? What makes these photographs important, or even relevant, to music?

As viewers, we must believe that there exists a connection between the music and the image on its cover — the image that eventually will become as recognizable as the tune. According to Kiel, sometimes that connection is obvious, but more often it's a complete mystery.

That mystery has intrigued Kiel enough to contact musicians, record companies, artists and album cover designers for several years. Some tell elaborate stories about why musicians chose particular images. Some don't even remember what photograph Kiel asked about or why a particular photographer sold the rights to his or her work. Could something like this really be so arbitrary?

The way Kiel explains the music/photograph connection is deceptively insightful. He speaks specifically about the vinyl record cover but grants that the same thing happens with a CD.

"When you put the record on, you hold the sleeve in your hands, staring at it," he says. "You imagine the musicians singing."

There's a message between song and image. It's a language, a kind of mind-manipulation, that makes each person react to the music according to what they see in its cover.

But the connection between photo and music goes both ways. Borrowed Time stresses that back-and-forth relationship and, while offering suggestions to fill the mystery, still asks viewers to make their own connections. Along with the pictures and the covers, Kiel has designed four listening stations for this purpose.

Borrowed Time has been several years in the making, involving much research. Expect to see artists you know well, from Led Zeppelin and The Beastie Boys to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. There are also some you might not know, like Jim Camilongo & the Ten Gallon Hats, Joe Henry and Bill Frisell.

Most importantly, though, listen, look and make your own assessment.

SACRED AND PROFANE: A COLLECTION OF SONIC ART will be exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center Oct. 1-Jan. 1. BORROWED TIME: THE PHOTOGRAPH AS ALBUM COVER will be exhibited at the Cincinnati Art Museum Oct. 22-Jan. 29.