Tracks and Traces

A report from Marfa Sounding

To borrow Edward Strickland’s words on Alvin Lucier’s seminal sound work I Am Sitting In A Room (1969), the minute you drive into Marfa, you are no longer an ‘I’ but a ‘town.’ The breezy, dusty atmosphere of the city swallows you in its pervasive sense of community, where self seems little more than a ‘ghostly existence within its resonant frequencies,’ as Strickland put it in Minimalism—Origins (1993). This ‘I’ is absorbed into Marfa’s history: the Donald Judd estate, stories of art world heavy-hitters at local saloons, adobe architecture, Chris Wool’s studio and, of course, the concrete and aluminium variations of the Judd-founded Chinati Foundation.

In this sense, the idea of Marfa, not unlike Raymond Williams’s idea of the rural, is based predominantly on social and cultural residue, which is continuously incorporated into its development. It builds on a mythology of exit from noisy urban capitalism but markets this as an experience you can be guided through before grabbing a cocktail. With the distinctions between urban and rural becoming increasingly meaningless, whatever specificity ‘site’ once possessed now seems a catchphrase for local tourism.

listening_station_for_alvin_luciers_sferics_1981_marfa_sounding_2016._courtesy_marfa_sounding_photograph_sarah_vasquez

Listening station for Alvin Lucier's Sferics (1981), Marfa Sounding, 2016. Courtesy: Marfa Sounding; photograph: Sarah Vasquez

Listening station for Alvin Lucier's Sferics (1981), Marfa Sounding, 2016. Courtesy: Marfa Sounding; photograph: Sarah Vasquez

This waning notion of ‘site’ was tackled over Memorial Day weekend in May through a series of performances, installations and talks considering the relationship between architecture and electronic music, particularly during the emergence of minimalism. Organized by Jennifer Burris-Staton in collaboration with Fieldwork:Marfa and Marfa Live Arts, the events of Marfa Sounding took place across ‘sites’ as different as a hotel bar and dusty fields, beginning with a dusk-to-dawn excursion to a lone hillside, where a listening station for Lucier’s Sferics (1981) was installed. The piece converts the notion of long-term observation into sound, with wooden antennae relaying atmospheric interference into headphones. Listening at night, ones body seems detached from ones self, allowing you to focus on sounds as if they are small, abstract thoughts or whimsical notations. Like poetry, Sferics claims its dramatic poise by tuning in to material resonances and impulses..

Performed by cellist Charles Curtis, Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak (For Charles) (2006) takes its audience into a similarly indeterminate space – aided, no doubt, by the sweltering hot, dreamlike setting of Chinati’s Chamberlain Building. With the cello tuned to a ‘wolf tone’ (‘the natural frequency of the instrument’s resonating cavity1’), the piece hones in on those affective spaces caused by oscillating tones, conveying with each note a particular intimacy that the audience is invited to dwell in. You are not in the music when you are listening to Naldjorlak, but at its edges, observing without judgement and allowing the effects of the piece to be felt.

Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting In A Room (1969), performance documentation at Marfa Sounding, 2016. Courtesy: Marfa Sounding; photograph: Sarah Vasquez

Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting In A Room (1969), performance documentation at Marfa Sounding, 2016. Courtesy: Marfa Sounding; photograph: Sarah Vasquez

Alvin Lucier, I Am Sitting In A Room (1969), performance documentation at Marfa Sounding, 2016. Courtesy: Marfa Sounding; photograph: Sarah Vasquez

Fragility was also central to the following day’s performance of Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room, a work that breaks apart everything but rhythm, deconstructing the performer’s voice into anonymous feedback loops of speech. Experience segues into science fiction, as Lucier eliminates his voice via a repeated process of recording a phrase and replaying it, until all that is left is an echo. The voice, or what is left of it, consigns its personal expression to common ownership, replacing the pressures of poiesis with pure, unfiltered communication. According to the composer, the idea was to ‘smooth out any irregularities’ in his speech, giving rise to a fantasy of assimilation on par with the desire to simply disappear in a room. Acquiescing self into synchronous vibrations sounds like breathing a sigh of relief. It also prods at an escapism not unlike Judd’s: the break made is into a site that dominant culture cannot, as of yet, quite comprehend.

Still, whether avoiding the burdens of subjectivity or signification, Lucier, extant only in acoustics, reminds of utopia’s more totalitarian ideas, such as the hive mind, as it replaces individualism with the dream of a collective voice. That is: not ‘I’, but a ‘room’; a communal consciousness, minds coalescing in cultural legacy. The murky distinctions between self and other, work and leisure, idealism and authority seem here to fit into a single sentence, which in all of its abstraction is mesmerizing to dwell in – not unlike Marfa itself, whether browsing through an art bookshop in a boutique hotel or star-gazing from a picnic blanket at the Judd Foundation.

Most Read

From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
In the Rocky Mountains resort town, boutique facades hide the remnants of a surprising counterculture 
Pussy Riot members detained; Pope.L launches ‘Flint Water Project’; Ghetto Biennale participating artists announced
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017