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Now hear this!

Audio art sparks Tang's inaugural exhibit...
...and Scope eavesdrops on the curatorial process behind the scenes

by Barbara A. Melville

The first artwork to arrive for the exhibit: Annette Lemieux's Broken Parts.

     Take one umbrella, two stuffed armadillos, three ventriloquist's dummies. Add a pay phone, a bathroom, oystershells, a suitcase, handcuffs, lots of electronics, and the trademark roar of the MGM lion. What could they possibly have in common?

     For starters, they're all part of SOS: Scenes of Sounds, the entirely uncommon inaugural exhibition that opened in Skidmore's equally uncommon new Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery in October. On view through January (along with Vik Muniz: A Retrospective and a show of recent additions to Skidmore's permanent collection) SOS offers some fifty works that reflect-from startling and witty angles-how sound enters and alters contemporary art and culture.

     The range and multidimensionality of S.O.S. actually makes extraordinary sense if you take a look at the Tang itself. Massive and graceful, sculptural and seminal, the innovative $10 million museum was created for precisely this, "a vivid combination of artworks, academic disciplines, and popular culture that will stimulate people to think differently about art," according to Charles Stainback, Dayton Director of the Tang and professor in liberal studies.

     Determined to introduce the Tang with a bang, Stainback reasoned that "to open a radical new art museum, you have to do something radical." So he assembled a provocative panoply of works from emerging artists as well as art superstars like Laurie Anderson, Barbara Kruger, Alan Rath, and Andy Warhol-all tapping a rich vein of media and cultural artifacts and running from painting to performance to electronics to photography to pay phones.

     But, say--hold the phone. How exactly does a curator shepherd and shape such a complex multimedia exhibition? Especially when its venue--the museum itself--is so new it doesn't have all its roofs and doors yet? To find out, Scope tagged along with Stainback for ten months as he ushered both the art and the architecture toward its grand opening.

DECEMBER. Roofs cap only two of the five museum wings now rising--a few weeks behind schedule--in South Park. The soaring Wachenheim Gallery, in which SOS will be displayed, is a windy cavern.

     "Organizing an exhibition for a museum still under construction is like having this beautiful, empty house," muses Stainback, from his interim office in a Skidmore-owned house near campus. "Your job is to order and arrange complete furnishings to work perfectly together in rooms you've never seen, in time for a crucially important party." Lights strobe in the next room as a photographer documents the permanent collection. A skeleton staff-the collection's Robert Carter, his assistant Barbara Rhoades, Stainback's assistant Gayle King, and a gang of Skidmore student interns-has staked out workplaces in the living room, kitchen, and bedrooms.

     Stainback was chosen as Tang director for the curatorial breadth and imagination he demonstrated in exhibitions like the award-winning 1999 Vik Muniz show at the International Center of Photography, where he was director of exhibitions. He had also twice before worked closely with architects and construction crews to open new gallery spaces, in San Francisco and New York City.

     Years before the Tang even broke ground, Stainback had begun to imagine Scenes of Sounds, sparked by edgy new artworks he saw in gallery trips, studio visits, and exhibit catalogues. For instance, an installation ten years ago at the Brooklyn Museum-Stephanie Rowden's elegant picture frames around small doors that you open to hear intimate spoken words-spoke out loud to Stainback, who says his exhibitions "start with an idea and a passion for the idea."

     "Many curators are trained art historians, and museums often plan exhibitions driven by their collections," he explains. "But I was trained in art- painting and photography. For me, making a show is like making an artwork." It's a sometimes hair-raising adventure of imagination and discovery, where "things go wrong, other things emerge, and I discover what the show is going to be as I go along."

     Cutting-edge soundworks began to emerge as his spark for a new show--one he hoped would establish the new Tang as more than the sum of its amazing architectural parts. It haunted Stainback that when the stunning new Guggenheim museum opened in Bilbao, Spain, "Everyone raved about the architecture, but no one said anything about the art, the exhibitions! I want to be sure we do something inside the Tang that people will talk about."

FEBRUARY. A yellow bulldozer is parked in the lobby amid tangles of block, wires, and metal both underfoot and overhead. "This place is dangerous," warns Stainback cheerfully.

     Stainback is beginning to pick out artworks and approach artists, museums, and collectors to borrow them. This, however, takes chutzpah. "Museums ask me, 'Are you an accredited museum? What have you done?' " says Stainback. "Right now, nobody knows us. We don't exist. Yet we're asking people to trust us with very valuable artworks."

     He's also courting artists he'd like to commission for site-specific sound pieces-for example, Stephanie Rowden flies in from Michigan to tape a Saratoga sound essay. One blustery day, New York City sound artist Jeff Talman tours the Tang-"on a 'first-date' basis, to see if we're compatible," explains Stainback. Snow blows through the gaping walls and settles on his shoulders as he sings the splendors of the Tang-to-be: "Glass doors and windows inside the building will let you see through spaces where walls would usually block the view; the building will be full of light." Then the pièce de resistance: "All the galleries are wired with a built-in techno-closet for audio, video, and computer equipment."

     "It's fabulous," says Talman. "It would be a dream to work in this space."

MARCH. Fully roofed at last, the Tang reverberates with the rumble of heavy machinery, the whine of electric tools. Outside walls are being sheathed in gleaming split-face rock.

Christian Marclay's Tapefall gradually builds into a mound of unreeled audiotape.

     Stainback makes one of his frequent forays into the New York City art world, planning to visit half a dozen artists. By 10 a.m., he has visited two studios. Neither artist pans out, but that's OK, says Stainback in the taxi: "The artists understand; we're just dancing."

     At 11:30, in his handsome Chelsea warehouse studio, Alan Berliner plays back one of SOS's must-have works. Audiofile consists of a set of waist-high office file cabinets; pulling out each of its dozens five-by-eight-inch drawers triggers a recorded sound. Berliner pulls out a drawer labeled "Wit's End," triggering a maniacal scream. He leaves that open to repeat its scream and pulls out a drawer marked "Cymbal," quickly followed by "Full Moon" (dogs howling), "Crescendo" (five piano notes rising and falling), and "Three Minute Egg" ("- ding!). Played out together, at randomly repeated intervals, the sounds are hilarious. "If five or six people play it," Berliner says dreamily, "you can get serendipity."

Alan Rath's Ejector includes four speakers in a wooden cabinet.

     "I am so happy with this piece," says Stainback warmly. "I just want to be sure we can have it." They talk about art-shipping specialists.

     Taxiing back uptown, Stainback is mentally laying out his show. "You'll walk into the lobby and hear Jeff's piece, then you might hear some of Alan's. There will be a certain rhythm to the show, like a carnival-something tantalizing will lure you to something else. What is the next thing you see and hear? With all those sounds inside the space, I want it to be engaging but not over the top."

     Shortly after noon, a promising young artist comes for lunch in a West Side restaurant. Stainback hopes Rafe Churchill will create a piece based on those familiar museum headphone tours--but this one with stuttering, a condition both Stainback and the artist have experienced. But Churchill has a different idea: he wants to install a real bathroom, complete with toilet, vanity, lights, towels, and fit it with an audio CD of "my practicing, in this very private environment, the words I'm unable to say smoothly in everyday life -like asking directions, ordering things."

     Pecan pie arrives with coffee. Without a trace of visible disappointment, Stainback asks, "So the museum-headphone piece isn't in the works?…Eat some of your pie." He leans forward, nudges the new concept a little. "I'm trying to imagine how someone would interact with this piece." Pause. "We don't want people to think we're making fun of people who stutter." They exchange ideas. "Maybe a clue written in steam on the bathroom mirror, something like 'Things I can't say out loud.' " Stainback pays the tab, looks pleased. "I think we've got a plan."

     The next day he's off to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. "Warhol did a series of paintings like the famous soup cans, only of telephones," and Stainback badly wants one. How cool would it be to say, "The most traditional artist in this show is Andy Warhol"? Then he adds, his eyes brightening, "I'll find a contemporary artist who's done a telephone piece, which will be displayed next to an actual Princess phone. This is how it works: You get together these very different pieces that deal with the same issue, then tell the story through juxtaposition"--an intuitive, associative clustering that opens whole new creative and intellectual pathways. In that case, one more must-have: Javier Tellez's Long Distance Call. It's two stuffed armadillos, plus two tin cans connected by twine -the old tin-can telephone trick from childhood, performed by deceased thick-waisted toothless mammals. Stainback beams, "I hate shows that only have serious stuff."

Javier Tellez's Long Distance Call puts a twist on the old toy telephone made of tin cans and twine.

APRIL. A concrete staircase now sweeps dramatically up the outside of the Tang, straight to its peak. A Schenectady Gazette columnist writes: "The Tang looks like a cross between a hyacinth bulb just breaking ground and a temple transplanted from ancient Mexico."

     The tempo is quickening. Stainback is getting excited. He nailed the Warhol in Pittsburgh, met with two cutting-edge artists in Germany, lined up local sculptur Beverley Estabrook Mastrianni '76, and scored a terrific piece by a major artist: Christian Marclay's Tapefall consists of a tape player to be installed fifteen feet up the Tang's lobby wall and emitting watery droplet sounds. But instead of spooling onto the takeup reel, the tape spills onto the floor. "Every two hours someone climbs up a ladder and installs a new tape-for three months. Eventually you have a visual waterfall: a giant, slithery mound of audiotape." Stainback is also eyeing Bruce Nauman's Reel to Reel Tape Recorder Encased in Concrete, which is . . . um . . . exactly what the title says. Stainback is tickled pink. "All these pieces are coming together, making wonderful connections even I didn't expect."

MAY. The Tang has a working elevator. Its rooms and halls are taking smooth and startling shapes. Temporary plywood walls still seal off the permanent collection area.

     "Watch your step," Stainback tells the tours he leads several times a week. "There are things you can cut yourself on or trip over."

     Troupes of faculty, administrators, donors, corporation reps, local and state officials, and employees follow him through the loading dock and into the workrooms, the permanent collection's rolling-rack storage area. "In most museums," he notes, "you don't even know where the collection is. Here, thanks to architect Antoine Predock's passion for transparency, you can see the collection." On to the lobby, galleries, print-storage room, classrooms, and rooftop patio-a sunny, sheltered hollow in the craggy top of a mountain. "This museum has the potential to be world-class," Stainback announces. "We will have Picassos, and artifacts from the Smithsonian." Awed, someone murmurs, "It's not just the students who will get a whole new handle on how to look at art and museums. We in the faculty will too." Someone else asks, "But will it be ready?"

     "Oh, sure," says Stainback nonchalantly, ankle-deep in construction rubble. "By October, it will be alive."

JUNE. Fresh landscaping banks up against dramatic down-sloping walls; the Tang seems to surge out of the earth. The Wachenheim gallery's big metal roof shines like fire in the summer sun.

     "The next step is laying out the show to see if it fits, before I make any more firm commitments," says Stainback, still in his interim office. He holds up scale photocopies of each artwork: "This is the show." Tang intern Michael Flanagan '01 sets up a one-foot-to-one-inch model made of sturdy plywood painted white: the Wachenheim Gallery writ small.

     Stainback climbs right into it, and-Gulliver in a Lilliputian gallery-sets out miniature moveable walls. "The real walls are plywood on casters," he explains. "One person can move them." Crouched in the model, he measures and mutters: "This doorway has to be handicapped-accessible- 42 inches wide. And, oh, gimme the Warhol." He sticks it on a wall that should be instantly visible to gallery visitors. Flanagan hunches down, squints through the entrance, and reports, "I can see it."

     "Building this model is a hell of a lot easier than shipping that big Warhol here and finding out it doesn't fit," says Stainback, "or discovering that the only place for a work is jammed in a corner somewhere and having the artist be mad." He puts up a large work by Annette Lemieux, a magical view of a piano surrounded by a crowd of children. He moves a few more pieces around. "This'll stay up for a day or two, then we'll mark the positions."

JULY. The museum staff-including newly hired curator Ian Berry-moves into the Tang offices. White sidewalks now skirt the building. Inside, floors are still awash in wallboard wrappers, gypsum splotches, empty paper coffee cups.

     The months are flying off the calendar and "Right now, I'm numb," Stainback admits, his eyes red-rimmed from long days and 10 p.m. nights. "The logistics of moving our offices, the unexpected problems with the construction, and SOS being at the administrative stage . . . It's endless details." And endless paperwork, for each and every piece of art. "After we saw Alan Berliner, I sent him a contract, a loan form. We started a file with his response, his vita, visuals, and a video of his piece. Next, we have to get his piece from there to here. And I just learned it will cost us $3,000 to build a crate for the Warhol, let alone the insurance."

     Then he brightens. "But the show is looking very good." He pulls out a giant blue binder (Barbara Rhoades, newly appointed as museum registrar, has one just like it), in which each page represents one artwork, such as the "muttering machine" developed by the BBC to broadcast a conversational hum into too-quiet new offices. (Stainback wants it for the Tang's elevator.) Another page-"We can't get this one." Another: Churchill's bathroom piece, complete with caption: "Things I Tell Myself." Pages flip: Rebecca Horn's Oyster's Piano, a motorized structure of fine wires and jangling oyster shells that will hang near Lemieux's large piano piece; and a Christian Marclay video of old-movie clips of people on telephones-"Very humorous, very smart," says Stainback.

Alan Berliner's Audiofile houses a veritable orchestra of various sounds.

AUGUST. A metallic, space-age staircase descends to the lobby. The concrete floors are clean; the heavy machinery is neatly parked in a hallway.

     One muggy night Jeff Talman returns to record one second of absolute silence, "or as close to that as possible." Stainback has arranged a brief shutdown of the Tang's computerized power, air-conditioning, and climate-control systems; at 10:30 p.m., it goes eerily quiet. Talman puts a plank across a stepladder, sets out mixing board and digital audiotape recorder, and swaddles them in a large blue towel. Stainback sets off with a flashlight to hunt down a persistent little hum somewhere, as Talman hangs an ultrasensitive microphone and puts on earphones.

     The little hum stops. Silence. "That's it," Talman says happily. "I'm going to get this before something else comes on." A moment later, he flashes a big grin, whips off the earphones, and snaps his equipment back into cases.

     Now, he says, "I'll digitally amplify and analyze the tones inherent in this space, find out which are tuned with the resonant properties of the space itself, and then isolate those frequencies." After a return trip for sound checks, he'll compose the isolated frequencies into a 3D sound installation called Radiant Point One, "whose sonic architecture will resonate perfectly with the Tang's visual architecture." Critics say his work is "like listening to your own molecules" or "the breathing of the cosmos," but Talman, who has worked mostly in domed spaces like chapels, can't predict what this piece will sound like. "The Tang has all these weird angles, lots of metal xing me big, meaty, juicy tones to work with. Still, every time you get a piece running, you get surprised."

SEPTEMBER. The pine-shaded plaza at the Tang's main entrance is paved with square stones in bright green strips of fresh sod. The building's edges stand crisp and clean against the sky.

     Lemieux's ten-foot-tall piano-with-children piece, Broken Parts, arrives at the Tang, shipped up from a New York City art warehouse (Rhoades doublechecked that the truck was big enough). Now it towers against a wall in the heavily secured prep room, swathed in the thick, clear plastic it traveled in, with protective blocks at each corner. "As each piece arrives," Rhoades explains, "we photograph it and fill out a condition report. If there's any damage, we document that. We'll do another report on each piece before departure."

     Stainback and the Tang's new building manager Christopher Kobuskie-his first day on the job-don white gloves, climb ladders, and peel down the plastic, going over every inch of the canvas as Rhoades jots notes. Then they very carefully wrap it all up again and take off for the next stop on crammed schedules. No celebration, not even a quick high-five. "They're all 10 p.m. days now," says Stainback.

     Still, there it is, standing quietly against the workshop wall-drum roll, please-the first work, on site and ready, for the first exhibit in the first art museum in Saratoga Springs.

     Let the MGM lion roar. -BAM

Staff writer Barbara Melville was a newspaper arts-page editor and reviewer before she came to Skidmore.

Editor's note: Tang exhibits are open to the public; admission is free. SOS and concurrent exhibits run through January 28. Museum hours are Tuesday- Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., closed on major holidays.
For information, call 518-580-8080 or check www.skidmore.edu/tang.

 


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