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Seeing Music / Project Description

Bringing the Phonographic Collection to Life as an Art Installation

by Elke Moltrecht

The Ethnologisches Museum’s outstanding collection of historical audio documents prompted the exhibition titled “Seeing Music” within the framework of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem. With 150,000 recordings on various sound carriers, such as wax cylinders, tapes, cassettes, records, CDs, and also numerous film materials including video tapes and DVDs, as well as around 2,000 musical instruments from around the world, the collection is the largest and most important of its kind. This was one reason for the UNESCO to list the distinguished historical audio documents in its “Memory of the World” in 1999.

We raised the question of how the future Humboldt-Forum can succeed in exhibiting and visualizing music and audiovisual material in a convincing way. This resulted in two exhibitions in adjacent and acoustically open rooms of 150 square meters each displaying what could be heard.

A Stock of Ideas

Our intention was to address a broad range of creatives who might be interested in approaching the collections with a view diverging from that of scientists or ethnologists. We organized a two-stage concept competition calling on international artists from the fields of visual art, design, architecture, music, sound and video installation, media art, performance, and exhibition design to conceive and produce scenographically convincing exhibition formats in individual teams. Music was to be made visible not as a carpet of sound, but in impressive and atmospherically challenging installations demonstrating how something immaterial can be exhibited. We received 80 concepts from Germany and abroad in three weeks. During the entire competition procedure, the candidates made intensive use of the consultation and viewing offer with scientists in the museum and the phonograph archive. This was accompanied by an exciting survey of the collection stocks.

In a selection meeting of the Humboldt Lab, 11 teams were commissioned to develop their projects in four further weeks. A jury then decided in favor of two exhibitions that stood in a complementary and yet meaningful relationship to each other:

“lichtklangphonogramm – an exhibition of historical and invented, optical and mechanical sound machines from the era of the wax cylinder phonograph” and “participants and objectives – 8 takes on filming music.”

“lichtklangphonogramm – an exhibition of historical and invented, optical and mechanical sound machines from the era of the wax cylinder phonograph”

The team of artists, Melissa Cruz Garcia, Aleksander Kolkowski, Matteo Marangoni, and Anne Wellmer, selected wax cylinder recordings and experimental cylinders from the phonograph archive and focused on the materiality and mechanics of the devices. They developed an impressive cabinet of curiosities consisting of familiar and entirely invented apparatuses that, with a view to the present, simultaneously offered a look back to the past.

For example, a magic lantern brought the physical texture of the wax cylinders to bear. Visitors could use a crank to set images of cogs in motion. A newly invented “Gramoscope” used a gramophone funnel to light a historical, manually operated film projector. A self-designed “Mutoventilatoscope” made reference to the mutoscope, the Kinora, and the flip book. In the “Hornbostelheterophony” one could hear the voices of Carl Stumpf, who founded the phonograph archive in Berlin in 1900, and Erich von Hornbostel, its first director from 1905 to 1933. A “Waxcylinderphonograph” enabled up to 15 visitors to simultaneously listen to a sound collage of the archive material using stethoscopes. And visitors could individually choose from 50 sound recordings in the “Archivophone.” At the closing event, the audience and the four artists tested the objects, instruments and mechanisms—resulting in a live audiovisual installation and concert.

“participants and objectives – 8 takes on filming music”

The team of artists, Daniel Kötter, Julian Klein, Juliane Beck, and raumlaborberlin, examined the following questions: How do ethnologists actually visualize past and present music with their recording devices? How can this visualization simultaneously alter the ethnological view of how music is played in different cultures? When does the camera change from an observing to a creative tool? And: How do visitors regard the filmic documentation of music? Daniel Kötter recomposed and staged found video material from the archive of the ethnomusicology collection and made eight short films out of it. The group of architects, raumlaborberlin, designed corresponding participatory situations for the viewers.

In the film sequence “Pre Roll,” Kötter focused on the before and after of the actual musical performance, for which raumlaborberlin chose the ambience of a living room. “Recording” concentrated on the mobile recording technology that enables field recordings in the first place. raumlaborberlin designed a classroom for this sequence. The captivating view through a camera on a tripod (“Set”) was situated in a kitchen. Panned motifs (“Panning”) could be viewed on a staged fairground. Visitors could watch “Zoom,” approaching an object without reducing the distance, in a waiting room, while the “Close up” could be experienced lying in bed, and “Flashback”— the gaze of the other into the camera — in a bar. For “Editing,” the view of the scientists’ uncut film material that could be selected by the visitors, the architects’ group built an archive room.

The artists’ collective was interested in the gaze as an element of artistic design and reinterpreted the historical documentary material. The installation set the scientists’ ethnographic cinematography in relation to the artistic treatment of original ethnographic material. This resulted in a field of tension between the (seemingly) neutral documentation through the camera lens and the (evidently) individual perception of the listening subject.

Potentials and the Possibility of Building on the Results

From an artistic perspective, both teams invented novel exhibition designs to be experienced with the senses that, in an exemplary manner, shed new and contemporary light on the museum’s acoustic and visual collections of global cultures — beyond the usual expert circles and formats. They created methodical instruments to establish something new beyond speechlessness. Their dialog can give rise to deeper layers of interpretation, different levels of understanding, and participatory formats. A potential that both exhibitions revealed. The Humboldt-Forum can build on this — and on the idea of using exhibition spaces and objects for audiovisual installations and live performances.

Elke Moltrecht has been the CEO of the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne since March 2014, and was previously the managing director of the national Netzwerk Neue Musik “Musik 21 Niedersachsen” and of the “Hybride Musik” project. She studied musicology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and was the director of the music section of Podewil – Zentrum für aktuelle Künste as well as director of Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin. In 2013 she founded the Ensemble Extrakte für transtraditionelle musikalische Praxis und Forschung.

Melissa Cruz Garcia works with optical means to create new versions of historical projectors.

Aleksander Kolkowski uses Edison phonographs, gramophones and funnels to produce acoustic and sound objects.

Matteo Marangoni invents and develops devices to explore the qualities and perception of sound.

Anne Wellmer works with analog and digital media as an artist and composer of electronic and experimental music.

Julian Klein is a composer and film director, the artistic director of the group “a rose is” and the director of the Institute for Artistic Research.

Daniel Kötter works as a director, filmmaker and video artist with a special interest in multi-channel video installations and alternative concert formats.

Juliane Beck, Berlin, is a cultural scholar and dramaturge who has worked as assistant director and dramaturge in several (music theater) productions by Daniel Kötter/Hannes Seidl.

raumlaborberlin is a group engaged with architecture and urban planning working with cross-genre and interdisciplinary methods. In specific projects, the members collaborate with specialists from other professions.

You can find further reading on this project here.