Composer John Cage often spoke in Zen-inflected terms about the mindless beauty of the myriad city noises that filtered into his old Sixth Avenue loft.
frieze, Issue 64, Jan/Feb 2002
Composer John Cage often spoke in Zen-inflected terms about the mindless beauty of the myriad city noises that filtered into his old Sixth Avenue loft. The steely crashings of unloading delivery trucks blending with fragments of rushed sidewalk conversation; the muted staccato rhythms of high heels over the dingy buzz of neon; the whole vast, rumbling ebb and flow continually creating, destroying and reconstituting the only true epic song of New York. ‘Everything we do is music’, Cage once said, and something of this grateful acceptance of the ephemeral sonic grace of the world runs through the work of Paris-based artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. A composer by training, Boursier-Mougenot does not so much make music as set the ground rules for musical situations to generate and sustain themselves. In recent years the artist has experimented with the acoustic potential of ordinary objects, environments and activities, and with Videodrones (2001) he turns to an unorthodox use of video to elicit the hidden patterns - aural or otherwise - that exist all around us.
The installation consists of five live video shots of the streets, avenues and pavements in the gallery’s immediate neighbourhood, broadcast onto large contiguous screens within the exhibition space. Like jumbo security monitors, they depict a banally disjunctive and obliquely overlapping survey of the vicinity, revealing in real time the comings and goings of pedestrians and traffic. While the video feed is silent, its sonic aspect derives from the curious technical fact that, when connected directly into an audio amplification system, any video signal will produce an audible humming sound. Sufficiently boosted and manipulated, this signal creates a drone that constantly modulates in pitch and frequency in accordance with the amount of light reaching the camera lens. The unconventional coupling of distinct technologies results in a transmogrification of visual information into a continuous, quasi-musical sound, growing increasingly complex and polyphonically layered depending upon the activity occurring within camera range. Less a harmonious composition then a dirge-like jam session with a darkly solemn basso continuo, Videodrones permits viewers to witness the humdrum details of a familiar environment transformed, not through subjective interpretation but via direct translation. Bike messengers wend their way between taxi cabs nervously jockeying for position at street corners; truckers shove bundles onto loading docks; pedestrians navigate pavements with their infinite variety of gaits and gestures. All these cumulative and soon-to-be-forgotten actions unwittingly trigger a fugue-like cascade of sounds that build, cluster and die out accordingly, the cadences, interludes and codas of an infinite number of non-events describable as music.
If there is a model for Boursier-Mougenot’s operations, it is perhaps to be found in natural systems. In one past work, From Here to Ear (1999), the artist memorably used a flock of finches corralled within a framework of amplified steel piano wires to build an acoustical structure whose form was determined by the behavioural patterns of the birds. His use of finches was not as fortuitous as it might seem; it was Galapagos finches that elegantly demonstrated Darwin’s theories of evolution. As with the biological processes of natural selection, the sonic patterns of Boursier-Mougenot’s systems branch and divide, randomly mutate, dissolve and reform in a potentially open-ended flow. The symmetries of greater complexity arising from pure simplicity are always possible - although never assured. Whereas Cage’s practice was imitative of chance operations found in nature, Boursier-Mougenot’s method lies primarily in the transliteration of natural structures, revealing to the ear certain realities that remain invisible to the eye. The artist acts as the ‘first cause’, putting certain laws and systems in motion which he then allows to exist and evolve autonomously, rather than merely using chaos and dissonance as compositional models.
In this city, stilled and oddly transfixed by the events of 11 September, Boursier-Mougenot’s hypnotic work could not help but assume an elegiac quality. Like Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s momentous street portraits of anonymous passers-by caught unawares in the human tide of Times Square (serendipitously shown back in September), Videodrones endows the inhabitants of the gallery’s neighbourhood with a somewhat heroic pathos. But the mundane and inconsequential have become precious commodities in a town trying to give form and meaning to its present condition, and the continuing rhythmic drone of its mechanical and flesh-and-blood inhalations and exhalations may be one of its few possible reassurances. Arising out of impermanence and chaos, it may not be a completely harmonious consolation, but it is not without a certain sombre and epiphanous beauty.
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