The multilayered contexts and playful durations deployed across a new generation of video albums such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade and gallery installations including Ragnar Kjartansson’s Take Me Here By The Dishwasher recreate the quirks and tensions of old school listening habits.
In an age of infinite, easily accessible music, is it harder to really pay attention? This isn’t some nostalgic moan about wanting to go back to the days of fruitless quests to track down elusive cult albums, and coming face to face with the contempt of record store clerks. But there is a lost pleasure in spending time in deep with a piece of music, gathering clues from obscure record sleevenotes, making connections, solving puzzles, building an understanding of how the parts fit. In the video album, by way of the gallery, it lives on.
The music stream, on Spotify, Mixcloud, SoundCloud or YouTube, stands in for the endless present, forever scrolling like a social media feed. These streams are infinite, and every element – artist names, track titles, durations – is modular, with a few details changed, but otherwise interchangeable. Nothing breaks the flow beside the occasional obnoxious advert voice, or unrelated track that a malfunctioning algorithm has bungled into an autogenerated playlist.
With physical media, something disrupts this flow and demands attention – a needle hitting the locked groove, a click at the end of a reel of tape, even an annoying CD skip. Net labels frequently put out releases on cassette, the most labour-intensive of all physical formats for the listener – perhaps a recognition that at least some of the value of music comes from having to physically engage with it as a material object, a frozen, discrete slab of time.
That said, I’d argue it’s not the physical format of any recording itself that is important, but the disruption it provides. Any format or presentation mode breaking the flow forces engagement and interaction with its content. Artists who combine music with video in gallery settings, and artists who use the tactics of the gallery to produce video albums, are on to something here.
The Icelandic performance and video artist Ragnar Kjartansson reconciles the stream and the slab in his recent retrospective show at London’s Barbican gallery. Most of his work resolves the contradictions between the infinite loop of the stream and smaller time scales of forms of media from the LP to the gif, and the tension between the infinite now of the stream and the choice any listener or viewer has to make to offer their finite time to a given work, to commit.
Take Me Here By The Dishwasher: Memorial For A Marriage fills the main gallery with ten guitar-playing troubadours strumming looped fragments of a folk rock melody as they loll about on stained mattresses and thrift store armchairs. Meanwhile, a short loop of Kjartansson’s parents in a love scene from a 1970s softcore film of the visit from the plumber variety, repeats on the gallery wall. While the troubadours’ performance continues through the gallery’s opening hours, with individual performers taking roles in shifts, their languorous poses and the empty beer bottles suggest hours, days of lazy inactivity, even as their song and the film repeat every few minutes – time expires outside the stream, never to be regained.
There’s also an effort required to visit Kjartanson’s exhibition, and paying money to see it ensures it demands your attention. Travelling to see something, whether a gig or an exhibition or a performance is a commitment, a decision to dedicate a chunk of time to concentration on one activity, and foreclose other options. The stream promises endless time, as songs and messages scroll by forever in an infinite parade of options – why choose, more will float along soon? – but ultimately, not choosing to engage also becomes a choice.
Even The Infinite Mix, The Hayward Gallery’s free show dedicated to the intersection of video art and music at The Store, carries a sense of cinematic event, not just in travelling to the venue, but wandering through the space. Kahlil Joseph’s overwhelming collagist split screen tribute to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, MAAD City and Ugo Rondinone’s four-wall surround staging of John Giorno’s epic kiss-off speech “THANX 4 NOTHING” could exist nowhere else. What’s really special, though, is Cyprien Gaillard’s otherworldly Nightlife with 3D, drone-filmed visuals of trees beating against chain linked fences in slow motion, like doleful aliens, and fireworks set to a thunderous single-phrase dub loop with the vocal “I’m a loser” from Alton Ellis’s “Black Man’s World”, which becomes “I’m a winner” in from Ellis’s follow-up “Black Man’s Pride”. This level of immersive experience is technologically only available at the gallery, and well worth the trek.
Stan Douglas’s Luanda-Kinshasa, however, is a six-hour reimagining of a 1970s funk recording session that noodles its way to nowhere. There’s no progression, no details to latch on to apart from some jarring non-period props (supersized coffee cups), no patterns to recognise. It’s nothing but stream, and deliberately frustrating: with no one going to watch all of it, there is no event. Long duration films were events, back when Andy Warhol was making Empire and Sleep, but these days such films are more likely to be clicked on and off, dipped into for seconds, seen as stills in some arty twitter.
This is the thinking behind successful video albums: they use presence, detail and multiple timescales to their advantage. To monetise a video album, viewers have to go back to an older, pre-internet LP model – offered bits of information until they give in and pay to enter the walled gardens of iTunes or Tidal (or work as hard to hunt down a decent, malware-free torrent). Like singles, short loops of a dance sequence from Beyoncé’s Lemonade spread through social media and encourage you to leave the stream to check out the whole thing. Small gifs and teaser images of celebrity cameos work more like puzzle pieces, or clues. Beyoncé’s baseball bat swinging, car-window smashing video “Hold Up” riffs on a two-screen video installation by the artist Pipilotti Rist, and delivers the shocking impact of the original; it becomes more powerful as part of Lemonade’s curated suite of images. It’s the frame of effort of the gallery, the cinema, the event applied to the laptop screen, now adopted by video albums: a decision to break from the stream and commit to an artist’s world for an hour or so.