Anne Pasternak, curator of Playing the Building, talks with artist David Byrne about the ideas behind this installation, and his other work.
Playing the Building is deceptive in its simplicity. Sitting in the middle of a vast 1909 municipal ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan is the most basic church organ—a little wooden one that looks well worn. Visitors are invited to take center stage and tinker with the organ’s black and white keys, which in turn ping, tap, and blow air through the building’s columns, pipes, walls, and windows through a series of low-tech cables and wires. The project is in no way grandiose; on the contrary, it has a humble presence within a formerly grandiose building. Despite its apparent modesty, Playing the Building seems to be layered with rich meaning relating to human nature, our contemporary relationship to place and sound, and considerations of shifts in culture at large. How did the idea for this work evolve?
David Byrne: A few years ago I was invited to do an exhibition at a place called Färgfabriken in Stockholm—a Kunsthalle in a former factory. I went and looked at the space and later made a menu of proposals that ranged from conventional stuff on walls to a giant microwave oven to a facial recognition software piece to the project that got presented—Playing The Building.
Being an old factory, Färgfabriken has the typical physical structure of that kind of architecture—metal supports for the roof, plumbing and, in this case, cast metal columns for support. I had an idea that these typical parts of buildings could be used to produce (interesting) sounds. Everyone is familiar with the fact that if you rap on a metal column, for example, you will hear a ping or a clang, but I wondered if the pipes could be turned into giant flutes, and if a machine could make some of the girders vibrate and produce tones. After thinking about how girders vibrate when a truck or a train goes over a metal bridge, it seemed just a matter of working out the mechanics of playing a building.
Jan Aman, the director of Färgfabriken liked this idea best, or it seemed the most feasible to him, so I proceeded to see what might be involved, and did some research back in New York with my team. I discovered that some of the arrangements for mounting the machines on the parts of the building would have to be fabricated, but most of the other materials could be obtained off the shelf. I happened to have an old pump organ in my studio that I’d inherited from Jean-Yves Noblet’s former print studio. It worked well enough as an organ but it’s tuning was slightly off from 440, so it wasn’t destined for a recording studio. I realized that its antique body and keyboard would make the perfect controller for this piece—it would emphasize the Victorian Steam-Punk technology at work here, and the simplicity of the completely mechanical acoustic piece. There are no microphones, no amplification, and none of the sounds are synthesized or altered electronically. The organ keyboard basically serves as a series of switches at the back of the organ, which is left open so people can see the workings.
AP: What was the experience once the organ was installed? Were there any surprises for you?
DB: Well to be slightly immodest, I was surprised at how successful it was, especially socially. The Swedish public of all ages had no trepidation about playing the thing, and those waiting their turn wandered around the space to see how the sounds were being made. Some of the amateurs got quite into it and were applauded after their short performances. It became a kind of social apparatus as well as being an installation. It became a shared communal experience—which was very moving for me to witness.
AP: I was impressed recently with a quote from Alvin Lucier that stated, “Careful listening is more important than making sounds happen.” Does this sentiment play a role in your approach to Playing the Building?
DB: This piece makes the act of “careful listening” incredibly easy. There’s almost no effort involved except going to the space. One doesn’t have the same experience when reading a description of it—one has to be physically present to really listen.
AP: I find it really interesting to consider that humans are exposed to more sounds than ever before. With this project, you seem to advocate that people pay attention to the sounds inherent in everyday surroundings and materials. Why?
DB: I’d like to say that in a small way it turns consumers into creative producers, but that might be a bit too much to claim. However even if one doesn’t play the thing, it points toward a less mediated kind of cultural experience. It might be an experience in which one begins to reexamine one’s surroundings and realize that culture—of which sound and music are parts—doesn’t always have to be produced by professionals and packaged in a consumable form.
I’m not suggesting people abandon musical instruments and start playing their cars and apartments, but I do think the reign of music as a commodity made only by professionals might be winding down. The imminent demise of the large record companies as gatekeepers of the world’s popular music is a good thing, for the most part.
AP: With Playing the Building, you seem to imply that everyone can take center stage, perform, and compose with their everyday surroundings.
DB: I’m not advocating a kind of “Wiki” world of culture; but I guess I am advocating less separation between cultural producers (the artists, writers, musicians, dancers, singers) and cultural consumers.
AP: New technologies make it easy for anyone to be a “musician” or “composer.” Though he criticized the authority of the composer, I suspect John Cage would cringe at how music is being produced with off-the-shelf composing software. Those programs don’t allow for real experimentation with sound.
DB: I think there is far too much music everywhere. I don’t mean music in the John Cage sense of car horns and cell phones ringing: I mean recorded music. I find it hard to concentrate on a conversation when there’s music playing in a bar, club, or office. I understand why it’s there, but it turns music into a space filler.
Sometimes I wonder if Cage, and others, really wanted to challenge authorship as much as wanting to shift it to the curator. By setting up a situation or system by which a machine or anonymous people produce the music or art, the person who sets up the situation becomes the author. Did you see the Berlin Alexanderplatz at PS1? It was a show by Klaus Biesenbach, the curator, more than it was a Fassbinder show if you ask me. And that’s okay.
It’s partly a Wiki way of making art, though there are strong guidelines that make the work come out within invisible parameters. Self-generating work, it’s sometimes called. It’s using a sort of cybernetics-type phrase to reference biological systems. It’s like the idea that DNA is our author, but it is not the iteration of the work—the “work” being ourselves.
I like exploring the idea that pretty much anyone can be a writer, artist, or musician if they want to. It’s essential to me that this piece is to be played by people of all ages and abilities. Artists, musicians, kids, and grandmas. It’s not art or music that is presented to you, played by experts for you to simply consume. There’s nothing to consume—you have to make it yourself.
AP: Cage also talked about his passion for the entire range of sound. Playing the Building zeroes in on the sounds we tune out, take for granted, or never even notice. Why did you want to emphasize the invisible acoustic qualities of architectural sound?
DB: My favorite acoustics at the moment are the many varieties of increscent electronic chatter that surround us. I sometimes sing along with these sounds—though I’m not always aware that I’m doing so. I remember driving around Iceland and whenever we stopped and I took a picture the camera would go bleep-doop-bleep and I would unconsciously mimic these sounds, quietly, almost under my breath, as well as the car warning beeps, door chirps, and odd cell phone rings. My travel companion asked me if I often talk to machines. I guess I do.
AP: It seems to me this piece has a fundamental relationship with the idea of “ambient music”—a term coined by one of your collaborators, Brian Eno. He shares your fascination with focusing attention on the sound qualities of space. However Playing the Building seems to have some dramatic distinctions from his practice, as you maximize our sensitivity to the “background” noise, highlighting the nuance and quirks of space. Would you illuminate us on this?
DB: Brian has also been fascinated by self-generating and somewhat authorless music and art. Though Playing the Building is authorless, it’s strongly directed, so the results usually end up within set parameters. It takes a specific kind of system to generate interesting things—and not devolve into a random free-for-all. The Bush Of Ghosts record we did years ago upset some people partly because we, as the work’s authors, didn’t use or speak in our own voices. It was early days for that kind of thing, but we were essentially curators of the sounds and voices and the authorship lay there, not in the actual vocals. Now those techniques are so common as to be banal and not even worth commenting on. The idea that the artist’s hand must be evident and visible isn’t as crucial anymore.
As far as space goes, I sense that different architectural spaces “want” to have specific kinds of sounds inside them. The space creates a hole for sounds to fill, psychologically and physically—but only specific sorts of sounds seem to “fit” in each kind of space. The inherent acoustics of a room have far-reaching effects: they make you walk different and talk different. They make you feel different.
AP: Throughout modern culture, singular senses are privileged. Marshall McLuhan wrote about Western culture’s focus on the visual, and posited that the auditory was taking over visual sensation. Playing the Building seems to represent a convergence of the auditory and the visual, as well as touch.
DB: And smell! (Just kidding—the building will be cleaned out.) I love McLuhan. I sense that we are a culture dominated by text—we are mainly people of the Book after all—but emotionally and spiritually we are moved more by images and sounds. It seems that, as in advertising, the text can say bank or computer but the image of the sexy girl (or of the sexy car or landscape) provides the emotional hook. That’s kind of duh, obvious, but that’s just a simple, blatant example: most of the time the “language” of images is more subtle and complex. We “read” them constantly, and unconsciously for the most part. Ditto with sound. Sound, like images, can also have an emotional “message” that is parallel to, or even contradictory to, the associated text.
I’m aware that this piece works, if it does, as much because of the context as because of anything I’ve put in there. You and I looked at a lot of spaces, and the Battery Maritime Building helps to visually tell the story of what this piece is about in a way that not every place can.
AP: You are known as a musician, but you are also a writer, a visual artist, and a director. You resist categorization, play around with grey zones, and favor a life of broad creativity. In fact, from listening to your lyrics, I suspect you feel very uncomfortable with traditional social constructs that define who we are and how we behave.
DB: I seem to have fallen into a place where my role is somewhat undefined and loose. I like that. I can follow what interests me, and if that leads to some unexpected places, then that’s all the better.
AP: We’ve had the pleasure of working together before, also on a sonic installation: a year after 9/11, you created a sound installation called “I Love This Crowd” in the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, as part of Creative Time’s Sonic Garden show. But most of what people would think of as your “visual art” practice has nothing to do with sound.
DB: To be honest for years I tended to segregate my artwork from my music work. I had good reasons to do so. Early reactions to my visual work tended to be couched in “rock star makes art!” sort of terms, so any serious intent in the art got steamrolled by the baggage I carry—at least in many people’s minds. Lately though, I’ve stopped worrying about such nonsense and now I feel freer to mix sound and image when appropriate. It’s a big relief. The fact that my PowerPoint “films” are set to music is irrelevant for most who see them, which is fine by me.
AP: You often choose to create art through popular (a.k.a. “low”) culture. Why is that?
DB: That’s partly due to my upbringing. I was taught that elitism is bad, and though I’m not sure I believe anymore that all bits of specialized knowledge or appreciation are bad, I realize this pushes me to democratize what I do. So I often make things out of low, or at least not luxe or precious, materials (like pop music, PowerPoint, an old organ, and empty buildings) that are accessible and approachable to all sorts of people.
AP: No matter what art form you chose, you seem to reflect on timely social issues. Recently I heard a riveting presentation by theater impresario Peter Sellars who insisted on the notion of the “citizen artist,” and that “art brings justice into the world by giving insight, beauty, provocation, heightened awareness, and change.” He went further that “art envisions and insists upon the long-term vision of a better, generous, ethical world.” How do you see your role in society?
DB: I might disagree with Sellars about art making a better world. I don’t think art or music has any intrinsic moral value. The idea that looking at art or going to theater or listening to music makes you and therefore society somehow better is just bunk. Plenty of monsters like great music and art.
To me this is no big loss. No big deal. It doesn’t diminish art or theater or music in the slightest. I am prepared to believe that making and participating in making art, theater, and music might serve some therapeutic end and therefore have some social value.
AP: Spirituality also seems to be an undercurrent in some of your work. In this project, for example, the simplicity of this little wooden organ might represent “low” art as opposed to the more esteemed classical art, that might be symbolized by a more glorious, gilt, gigantic church organ. Whether humble or grandiose, both are fit for reaching the ecstatic. I think most folks would dismiss the possibility of the ecstatic in modern-day public life, yet popular music like trance, psychedelic, etc., sought new methods of reaching ecstasy. Do you believe we can have ecstatic experiences through popular culture?
DB: I didn’t expect it to have quite as strong an effect, but when the project was installed in Stockholm people who played the machine, the building, often got silly, ecstatic grins on their faces, and they’d tend to gaze upward—as that was where the sound-producing elements were mounted. So they did appear to be deeply moved. Yes, this humble “trick” seemed to touch something in the visitor-participants. Part of that is, I think, due to its transparency and simplicity—everyone can see exactly how it’s done, but it’s still slightly marvelous.
I believe we have an innate longing for the spiritual and ecstatic. If we’re not getting it in church, synagogue, or temple then eventually we’ll locate it elsewhere: at a concert, a rave, Burning Man, or through sports or drugs, or even through some kinds of art.
AP: I’m curious what you think about the massive globalization of the art world and its markets right now?
DB: The art world is having quite the seizure right now, eh? As someone who is a fan and sometime participant I see two things happening simultaneously. I see art becoming mainly a status item, quality baubles for the moneyed set, and at the same time I see it becoming more generally popular. There is more truly interesting and incredible work being produced than ever before. The two (or was that three?) things are probably related—the Venn diagram would show them overlapping too. It’s a weird moment. I often find that I am excited, inspired, and cynical all at the same time.
AP: David, are there projects you have dreamed of realizing?
DB: Oh yes. This is one of them.
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