November 30, 2012

Playing the Building, or how hipsters ruined another art installation

It's an organ that doesn't play like an organ, a building that doesn't sit still like a building, and a room full of obnoxious, grimy, giggling hipsters who make you want add the extra percussion of your head against a wall.

It's not standard to review a piece of art when it's moving out of town in the next few days, but there's probably no shortage of other reviews of David Byrne's giant installation Playing the Building anyway, and this isn't the first time its been installed. It is however the first time Playing the Building has been available in a U.S. city that isn't New York, and the first time in our glorious country since 2008.

For the uninitiated, Playing the Building, currently installed at the Aria building on 1st St North in Minneapolis (former site of Theater de Jeune Lune), is essentially a giant room hooked up via pressure controlled cords and wires to an old organ, which sits at the entrance. By depressing the keys on the organ, you can swing hammers at metal plates, blow air through pipes, and set off an ominous vibration that shakes the entire room (a favorite of my lady-friend, J).

The setting of the piece is the highlight of the entire experience. The room is essentially a giant box, but after climbing a staircase on the far side, you can sit in a couple of open rooms with fun couches, listening to records (chosen by whom, I'm not too sure) and experiencing the building coming to life around you. Because the banging and whistling is happening everywhere, the sound of the room is different depending on where you are. Certain things come out of the mix (when a surface is being hammered right behind your head it tends to pop out) while others die away completely. This aspect of the piece was by far my favorite. Beyond being a neat auditory sensation, I thought it reflected the experience of music overall, especially contemporary music, where any individual experience can be vastly different than that of anyone else.

Playing the organ itself was a bit of a frustrating experience (some reasons technical, some social, which I'll arrive at shortly). The hardware is fine, and the keys basically work. Basically. I know that Byrne has said he likes this piece because it "levels the playing field" meaning that an experienced musician will have has much luck poking and picking at the keys as a total newcomer. I have to believe that's partly true, and it is a neat idea. I had the experience though that this instrument (the instrument being the organ AND the room) did not work as well as it should. The sound is made purely electrically, not electronically, which meant that there was a slight delay between depressing the key and hearing the sound. Anyone who has played organ in a big space like the St. Paul Cathedral knows that this is standard for a non-electronic machine. What bothered me about the piece was the unreliability of the sounds (or notes, if you like).

When you play a note on an instrument, especially a keyboard instrument, you expect a sound to come out. Because the sound is being produced sometimes by a small but heavy hammer, it doesn't always make its way back to striking position before it can deliver the next blow. Therefore any rhythmic predictability flies out the window. I may just be a frustrated musically trained person, who to Byrne's delight has been reduced to the skill of a newcomer, but rhythm is so crucially important to music, that without any semblance of it, the installation turns into an amusement rather than any tool of artistic expression. J, who was playing next to me, was stuck on the pipes, which operated similarly to a normal organ, but was frustrated by the confusing mixture of wind sounds and mystery rumbling, as well as the inability to differentiate tones among the pipes, making them all sound essentially the same. Despite the frustrations, we both liked playing on it, even if I felt constrained.

The room had spotlights set on each of the elements that were making the sounds. I had mixed feeling about this as well. I liked being able to look at the soundmakers, but I couldn't shake the feeling that these spots were a way to say "look what I did here, cool huh?". A piano doesn't have a sign with an arrow pointing toward the double escapement saying "Pretty neat stuff over here!"

Perhaps my experience would have also been better in the midst of a more grown up crowd. No, we didn't visit during a middle-school field trip. That would have been a blast. Instead we played the building in the middle of a crowded pack of alternative-lifestyle'd bandanna-wearing, bulky coated folks that I suppose could be labeled hipsters. I'm not going to dive into an exploration of what makes a hipster, and these people don't really fit my normal description (I don't really have too much problem with hipsters, and I suppose I'm sort of one myself). They were less these kinds of hipster:

And more of this kind:

You know how your seven year old cousin acts when he knows a bunch of people are paying attention to him? Yep, that's it. We got to play on the organ, but only after waiting for a group of folks that looked like apocalypse warriors got done not only playing on the keyboard, but also running around the organ in circles, playing with stuffed animals, giggling like idiots, and acting in general like toddlers (drooling possibly included). Now I realize that I sound uptight here, and I can easily be dismissed by someone saying I need to loosen up and get in touch with my inner child. You know what? I stopped being a child...when I stopped being a child. There's fun, and then there's fun appropriate for my age and my setting, which, for the guy who looked to be in his 50's hanging out with this crowd was a very long time ago. David Byrne looks classy, you look like you wandered into an army surplus store with very sticky glue covering your body.

There were others at the piece that looked as bewildered as we did, and the two people who played the organ immediately before us also had a bit of the "this is so cool but I can't wait to the get hell out of here" look of panic on their faces that I felt. If the attention-needy antics of the stuffed-animal organists was all that I had to contend with I would have been perturbed but could have made suffered through for longer. But there was neediness all around. Maybe the guy on the floor staring at the ceiling was a having an intense revelatory experience. I'm sure some of the found object people were having a great time and feeling something they hadn't before. But the guy flinging a tennis ball up into the rafters? The people giving each other piggy back rides? The line of people stomping around the floor in rhythm? This wasn't an art installation, this was a carnival.

I'll try not to throw out the entire because of the weirdos in the crowd, but I felt like this is a sign of the state of art, especially a piece like this. The art itself (which I'm almost certain I would have experienced differently in a less crowded hall) has been lost in a noise of a conspicuous consumption, where it is more important to be seen enjoying the art than it is to actually enjoy it yourself. The level of ironic experience going on was overwhelming, and Byrne's piece became a backdrop to a view of the absurdism that has become our modern dynamic between art and audience.

UPDATE: 4:35 on 11/30/12
Here's a video that I found on City Pages, (but I'm not sure if they made it) of Byrne explaining his instrument:

David Byrne demonstrates Playing the Building from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

Playing the Building by David Byrne, presented by First and First

The Aria Building
105 North First Street in Minneapolis

Now through December 4th, 2012

$10 (plus I got a really cool free poster!)

Why should you go?
It's pretty fun to play on the organ for a bit, and walk around the room to experience the sound from all different areas. This only seems to play every couple of years and rarely in America. It's a piece that may well end up in music textbooks, in one of those lists of "crazy things that modern musicians do" at the end.

Why shouldn't you go?
The experience changes every night. You should go if you can, although some of the most obnoxious people there did have name tags, so either they work there, or as J said, "they might just be the kind of people who want everyone to know their names."

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty sure this is one of my favorite blog posts ever. And yes I realize I'm tardy to this party.