The Marfa Sessions

Ballroom Marfa

On view through February 1, 2009
by Kate Watson

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      Deborah Stratman & Steven Badgett
      Caballos de Vigilancia
      Papier maché horses, audio
      Commissioned by Ballroom Marfa
      Courtesy Ballroom Marfa

      Kaffe Matthews
      Sonic Bed_Marfa
      4 panels of Marfan plywood reclaimed from vacant buildings, 4 caps of sanded clear Texan Plexiglas, 1 yellow felt covered foam mattress, 7 yellow felt covered cushions, 2 channel car audio sound, system, 1 Mac mini, Max/MSP+ Java patches, 1 webcam, Transformer to 110V mains electricity
      Commissioned by Ballroom Marfa
      Photo by Kaffe Matthews

      Marfa, Texas is haunted; Donald Judd’s ghost gets up early on Sunday mornings and surveys the streets that shine everywhere with his name. James Dean’s magnetic spirit might be having a drink at the Hotel Paisano; the Marfa lights may actually be twinkling if you look closely enough. Mysterious Marfa feels heavy with secrets buried in its breathtaking landscape, its whispers only interrupted by the freight trains that endlessly roar through the center of town.

      The Marfa Sessions, curated by Regine Basha, Rebecca Gates and Lucy Raven, seeks to serve as a “sonic portrait” of this strange destination. Installed throughout various locations all over town, this portrait consists of eleven sound pieces by fifteen artists; five of these pieces were commissioned by Ballroom Marfa and are site-specific. The curatorial vision for these works is ambitious to say the least. The project seeks to amplify the murmurs of the town’s history as a crossroads of nomads and immigrants, artists and ranchers, movie stars and UFOs. Marfa is a mythic site fraught with quiet discord—The Sessions asks what this discord sounds like.

      Many celebrities of the sound art community were present on its opening weekend, most notably Kurt Wagner of excellent alt-country band Lambchop, as well as sound scholar Josh Kun of the University of Southern California and British sound artist and writer David Toop. Sections of Kun’s book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (American Crossroads) (University of California Press, 2005) rang quietly in my ears as I explored the installations; he taps into the curators’ hopes for this project with his assertion that “audiotopias can…be understood as identifactory ‘contact zones,’ in that they are both sonic and social spaces where disparate identity-formations, cultures, and geographies are allowed to interact with each other as well as enter into relationships whose consequences are never predetermined.”

      With map in hand, I roved the town seeking these installations. The works occupy spaces as diverse as the Marfa Book Company, an empty park on the outskirts of town, an overgrown lot in a neighborhood dotted with public housing, the chic bar adjoining the Thunderbird Hotel. Arriving at the hub of the exhibition, the Ballroom itself, I was immediately drawn to Kaffe Matthews' Sonic Bed, a gloriously inviting over-sized bed inside of the gallery space made from wood Matthews found throughout town. Participants are invited to take off their shoes and climb onto the plush, yellow felt mattress. Once horizontal, twelve embedded speakers emitting strange vibrations rock visitors’ bodies. These vibrations are actually tones translated from sounds that Matthews collected during her stay in town.

      Sonic Bed is exemplary of many of the pieces in this exhibition—the object that Matthews has created (along with the experience of sound literally vibrating through my bones) was an honest thrill. But the original sounds that Matthews gathered in the town were obliterated in the conversion to vibrating tones. Randomly generated from a computer program, the experience is wonderfully unique but disappointingly enigmatic.

      The good news about Matthews’ piece is that she leaves her audience questioning, thirsting for answers. What sounds mattered to her as she wandered the town? What was her experience while collecting audio? We can’t know, but we want more.

      A majority of the installations fail to engage the body in such a simple, visceral way; this kind of approach is sorely missed. A few other pieces are whimsical explorations of personal and community identity but primarily provide humorous distractions from their ambiguous counterparts. One piece of the latter variety was Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s sound installation Sonambulo (Marfa Version), a work installed in the periphery of Fidel Vizcaino Park, a downtrodden public space that is a mile from town but seems to exist in another dimension. Driving to one end of the park, Sonambulo plays from speakers on the edges of a cracked and forgotten piece of asphalt. Wandering the vast, open space, a lulling recording emits sounds that seem to come from a summer rainstorm. Only by waiting until the violent beginning of the piece (and by reading the artist’s statement) does Manglano-Ovalle’s audience learn that the sounds are actually a deconstructed gunshot, “replicated through a series of fractal equations to become the 385,000 bullets that make up the sound of thunder-claps and lightening, raindrops and even chirping crickets.”

      Surrounded by Marfa’s breathtaking landscape, Sonambulo’s tempestuous but calming soundtrack momentarily lulls its audience into a reflection on the power of nature, but once listeners learn of the origin of the sounds, everything is altered. This piece of information shifts the audience’s experience dramatically but questions remain unanswered. Why here? The artist says that “the random act of violence unfold(s) itself as a natural event.” But a gunshot seems to suggest everything man-made, manufactured and modern. In a town rife with silent class conflict, this piece stands lonely and impenetrable, pushed to a largely abandoned public space.

      During my stay in Marfa, my innkeeper insisted that doors in town are never locked, that no crime exists here. When a constant stream of art stars and glitterati step off of their private jets and get herded into town, what do ranchers and great-grandchildren of hard-faced western pioneers think? Why this ambiguity, this shoving under the rug in a show that seeks to amplify the complex identity of this mystical place?

      The “audiotopic” possibilities of The Marfa Sessions are endless, but I wonder if the audience is ready to get their hands dirty. Listening takes time—it’s a messier sense than the ocular. On Saturday evening, I was lucky enough to sit on the floor of the Liberty Ballroom and watch Kurt Wagner play his songs: just a brilliant musician and his guitar. Many were in attendance but only about twenty fans chose to sit and soak up his intimate music. Others laughed and engaged with one another raucously; Kurt, pausing between songs, wondered aloud what the laughing crowd was discussing. No one responded. The necessity for open ears in this complicated environment is absolutely essential; unfortunately, many of the sounds in this intriguing and risky project left me straining to unearth the secrets of this magical if often impenetrable destination.

      Kate Watson is Coordinator of testsite, ...might be good's sister project, and an editorial contributor to ...might be good.


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