According to family lore when I was a little girl growing up in New York City in the late 1970’s, I would eagerly belt-out a show tune to any willing listener in falsetto worthy of Ethel Merman—at least in decibel. There is no record to verify this domestic mythology, but I do recall the thrill of being able to command the attention of strangers. In most social encounters today I am more comfortable learning about others than being the focus of conversation. A similar transformation took place in my art practice when I was in my twenties. The paradox of this equivalency has always puzzled me. How could the desire to captivate a room morph into the satisfaction of observing it? Like most unresolved riddles, this personal mystery occasionally resurfaces with an unexpected urgency.
One of these occasions was only a few years ago as I began working on Tuning the Room, an exhibition commissioned for the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, which was on view from January 28–April 16, 2017. As the director and curator Kate McNamara showed me around during my first site visit, I was instantly transported to memories of my time as a student. Although I have visited many college campuses over the past twelve years working as an adjunct art professor, this was the first time that the nostalgia stirred in me felt tangibly unsettled. I recalled having the expectation when I was in art school that I would find my voice as an artist. Precisely what I had envisioned in those days was unclear, but I had the recollection that it was supposed to be singular and signed with a bold signature. As this memory flooded back to me with all its naïve aspirations, I was surprised to discover myself still wanting. This want was both intriguing and confounding. In the twenty or so years since I had graduated, I thought my work had come to celebrate the artist’s voice as something that was porous and variable. Why the sudden need to hear myself more definitively?
I have always considered identity to be something mutable, impressionable, and dependent on others. In order to have an art practice that can support this, I work with existing vernaculars rather than aspiring to invent new ones. I am as interested in the ecologies of ideas as I am in the social fabrics into which they are woven. This necessitates being transparent about the influences and contributors in my work. I do not think of this as appropriation or collaboration. It is a means of sociality, a way of taking in, living with, and learning from the knowledge of others. Each project is founded in existing scholarship and innovation. Every exhibition is an engagement with the history and community of a given site. To try to isolate my voice in the chorus would miss the point.
As I began developing Tuning the Room, I was also working on a different research project on photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991) for The Earth is a Magnet,which was commissioned by ICA Boston for The Artists Museum (November 16, 2016– March 26, 2017). Each of the two projects had a unique set of criteria. The Earth is a Magnet was a room-scale museological representation of my research into the work of others. The installation showcased the artworks of nine contemporary artists alongside Abbott’s photography, correspondences, artifacts, and ephemera from her archive. Tuning the Room, on the other hand, was a conversation I was having with myself. It was an effort to answer epistemological questions through material production. The research for this show was not as much on display as it was embedded within the objects and imagery that I created for the gallery.
As I worked on the two shows concurrently, a dialogue grew between them. The personal questions I was asking in Tuning were expanded by the historical perspective of Magnet, and vice versa. Their relationship came into even sharper focus against the background of the 2016 presidential elections. While many grassroots political movements were gaining stronger footholds in mainstream media, voter suppression loomed ominously on the horizon. My sense of urgency to reconsider how I made myself heard in my work was heightened by my reactions to what was happening in the political landscape of the time. I wanted to find a connection between the right of the citizen to use their voice and role of the artist in having one.
Abbott presented an interesting historical model of the artist as citizen. I was curious whether I could apply this model to the questions that were coming up for me today. Abbott’s longtime partner, writer Elizabeth MacCausland, had used the term “art worker”1 to describe the civic engagement that she believed was the responsibility of the artist. Abbott was exemplary of this moniker. She had received federal funding for two of her most significant bodies of work. Her photography was a humanist and unflinching documentation of subjects that were often underrepresented. However, Abbott was not forthcoming about her own political views. She disguised her perspective and beliefs in a deft approach to representation that focused the viewer’s attention squarely on her subject, not on her. I was drawn to Abbott’s act of witness as a possible way to translate her twentieth-century civic engagement into a contemporary strategy. Bearing witness means bringing an event into one’s body through one’s senses. It is a gesture of paying attention rather than one of commanding it. As a citizen Abbott stood at the center of what was happening around her. As an artist she used photography to embody this experience.
I wanted to apply a similarly embodied voice to Tuning the Room, but Abbott’s techniques were bound up with the rules of photography. Focusing instead on the relational constructs of her process, I looked to her inventions. I was drawn to Super Sight, the device that Abbott invented for macrophotography. Super Sight’s two-room design provided the architectural layouts for both Tuning the Room and The Earth is a Magnet. The device is made up of photography’s basic mechanics: light and darkness, projection and refraction, interiority and exteriority. But unlike standard photography in which the image is captured within a small box-like apparatus, the photographic event happens across the architecture of a bifurcated room. Instead of the photographer and subject being situated outside the device, Super Sight locates both players inside the body of the camera. Together they create and embody the photographic event. I imagine being inside Super Sight to have been a powerful perceptual phenomenon.
Tuning the Room drew from Supersight’s architectural design to establish a set of conditions that drew attention to perception itself. There was no sound played or electrical lighting to focus one’s gaze. The room was illuminated only by daylight, and orchestrated only by the bodies that moved within it. Nonetheless these effects were hardly incidental as the fourteen foot ceiling of the gallery’s four-thousand-square-foot space was both cavernous in scale and awash in the Southern Californian sunlight that poured in from the skylights. A partial wall divided the room into two equal spaces. One side was made dark and acoustically absorptive. The other side exaggerated the light and acoustical reflectivity. This binary logic became unmoored in the architecture of simultaneous contrasts. Feeling the space act on one’s body disconnected perception from expectation. The bright half of the gallery was optically open yet crowded with acoustic reverberations. The darker half cast a dim haze of visual sameness yet was audibly crisp and clear. Depending on the direction of movement as one transitioned between the two sides of the gallery, the perceptual adjustment registered on the body like either a drop or a release in pressure. Even if one was alone in the exhibition, these varying resonances made the space feel infinitely full.
The show’s title refers to the acoustician’s craft of tuning a room: measuring the acoustics of a theatre or recording studio to create an optimal sonic balance. Rather than setting ideal listening conditions, the exhibition was designed to highlight the elusiveness and mutability of perceptual phenomena. In each side of the space furniture and wall treatments exaggerated the acoustical and optical contrasts. The bright space was filled with smooth-surfaced reflective chrome murals and aluminum furniture. The darker space was paneled from floor to ceiling in dark grey absorptive materials. The patterns that decorated each component of the exhibition mapped the acoustical contrasts of the divided space. Their graphics were based on acoustical analysis that had been performed in the gallery with the aide of an acoustician and sound designer. But sound waves are impossible to definitively measure. They are continuously adapting to the changes of an environment just like the people that circulate within the given space. These approximate diagrams were a testament to how one perception cannot accurately represent another.
Wall didactic and calendar of events for Anna Craycroft’s Tuning the Room, 2017 (photograph provided by Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design)
The shortfall of translating experience into language was also integral to the social engagement of Tuning the Room. My initial site visit to the campus had provoked questions not only about my own search for a voice, but also about the role that an art school was supposed to play in such a search for all members of its community. To help consider this question I invited students and teachers from Otis to use the space for their work in the school. Because I live in New York I couldn’t be present for all of the classes and activities that took place in the gallery. Most of what I know about the effect of the show is anecdotal. However what I did experience first-hand was as varied as the personalities that occupied it. For some classes the ideas and form of the exhibition were deeply embedded in the curricula. For others it was a background, offering an indirect contribution. I consulted with some of the teachers on the structure of the classes they would hold in the space. I was audience to student work inspired by their time spent in the space. I walked in on a few naptimes or reading sessions taking place in between classes on the impromptu soft sculptures that students constructed with the furniture.
I designed Tuning the Room in the hope that its shifting phenomena would augment the role that bodies play in the sociality of teaching and learning. The exhibition’s perceptual effects marked the interdependency of sensation and interpretation, of self and other. As the dim lighting in the darker half of the gallery softened visual shapes and clarified audible sound, were we alone together—each more aware of ourselves than of others? As sunlight and echo ricocheted off every surface in the lighter half of the gallery making distances easy to see but hard to sonically measure, were we so consumed by the awareness of others that we lost sight of ourselves? Negotiating these social conditions was an exercise in paying attention with one’s body. This was how I applied Abbott’s act of witness to my search for voice. If the impression of finding one’s voice was perceptually indeterminate and socially variable, then the act of listening could be synonymous with the impulse to make oneself heard.
Anna Craycroft will be the the artist-in-residence at the New Museum through the Department of Education and Public Engagement’s Spring 2018 R&D Season. She has had solo shows at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland, Oregon; Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles; Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas; Tracy Williams Ltd in New York; and Le Case del Arte in Milan, Italy. She has had two-person exhibitions at Redcat Gallery in Los Angeles, Sandroni Rey in Los Angeles, and Fundacio Miro in Barcelona. In 2016, Craycroft debuted a major new commission, The Earth Is a Magnet, as part of the ICA Boston exhibition, The Artist’s Museum. Other notable group exhibitions include Champs Elysees at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, France, and MoMA PS1’s Greater New York 2005. Craycroft has also received commissions for public sculpture from Art in General, New York; Socrates Sculpture Park, New York; Lower Manhattan Cultural Center, New York; and Den Haag Sculptuur, The Hague, Netherlands. Artist’s website: http://annacraycroft.com.
See Elizabeth McCausland’s published books in early 1950s, on this topic and the economics of art practice. ↩