Go back to article: Towards a more sonically inclusive museum practice: a new definition of the ‘sound object’

Problems with sound as a collectable object

While a materialist view towards sound might help inspire new ways to display sound objects within a museum context, it may take some convincing for sound to become acceptable as a collectable object. In 2015, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the wake of the above-mentioned Soundings exhibition of 2013, announced their acquisition of a seminal piece of sound art, composer Alvin Lucier’s ‘I Am Sitting in a Room’. The piece includes a text which is performed by the composer reading it aloud within a space, recording that speech, playing the recording back into the space, recording the sound of that replay, playing that recording back, and so on; as each recording is played back, the sound of it degrades, gradually merging the speech with the resonant frequencies of the room itself until the words of the performance disappear into a wash of abstract noise. How, then, is a museum to collect such a piece?

According to a MoMA blog post about the acquisition, no physical object was acquired – the acquisition consisted of a recording of Lucier performing the piece at MoMA (made especially for the acquisition), a set of instructions for future performances of the piece, and permission for other artists to perform their own versions of the piece (Joseph, 2015). In the blog post, MoMA’s Chief Curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art addressed the issue of the significance of MoMA’s acquisition of the piece in this manner when there are many previously existing recordings of the piece (such as the original album version released in 1980), stating that the acquisition’s permission for other artists to perform the piece ‘allows it to exist in a constant state of imminence’.

The validity of this argument is a question for another forum, yet it appears that the ephemeral nature of what was acquired – permissions, instructions, and a digital recording – poses a challenge for the museum. With sound works being acquired at ever-increasing rates by an increasing number of museums, is there a method by which such acquisitions could be in any way standardised across the discipline? Can clear standards be established in the case of sound art objects, whose forms and formats are almost as diverse as the pieces themselves? How will this piece be integrated into MoMA’s own sonic spaces if and when it is displayed? Would less debate over the validity of such an acquisition occur if museum professionals identified sound as an object? What if museum objects didn’t just resonate against each other in a conceptual sense, but also a physical sense, sounding against visitors and each other in ways that told stories the way that physical objects do? Even with so much potential, museums still tend to hold back when it comes to the collection and display of sound as an object itself (rather than as an illustration of a visual concept, or merely as sonic wallpaper tangentially related to physical objects on display).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170805/005