One of the great things about crazy art installations is that they stretch your imagination more than your wallet. As in: Yeah, I could have thought of that, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have done it, because it would have been too time-consuming, expensive, difficult, aggravating, dangerous, or ridiculous (take your pick).
It’s much better to let a guy like musician/artist David Byrne do all the heavy lifting, then pay your $10 and enjoy the results without all the attendant hassle of building the thing yourself. Byrne’s sound installation, Playing the Building, currently set up in the old Theatre de la Jeune Lune theater space (and now the event space Aria), is a perfect example.
What Byrne has done is take an old garage-sale-grade church organ, attach a bunch of pneumatic/hydraulic tubes to the keys, which are in turn attached to various pipes, beams, and other chunks of infrastructure throughout the building. When you press a key, something in the building either vibrates, whistles, or taps. That’s it.
Now, if it were me, I would have rigged it so that every time you press a key there would be explosions, shooting flames, squirting water, marshmallow guns, laser beams, and maybe a few confetti cannons. But this is art, not fun, so the aesthetic experience is a bit more subtle. Byrne says the device amuses him because it “democratizes” the music-making experience, such that a concert pianist can play the device no better than a four-year-old. In practice, though, this just means that everyone is equally lousy at it.
On opening night, one after another brave soul sat down at the keyboard and attempted to tap out something musically coherent. Most failed, but it is amazing how quickly an aesthetic of relative lameness develops. “That was a good one,” someone will say after some particularly energetic tapping and whistling. “Best yet,” people will agree, clapping. No one knows what “good” is supposed to sound like on this setup, so anything goes—and that is the fun of it. There are no expectations, so anything remotely melodic is a revelation. (If I may boast a little, my own composition—a 30-second tribute to cacophony—was a masterpiece.)
What’s equally interesting about this particular project is that it isn’t being presented by the MIA, Walker, or any other arts institutions for that matter. Rather, Playing the Building was brought here by the real-estate company First & First, which specializes in preserving and repurposing historic buildings. Since Theatre de la Jeune Lune folded, First & First bought the building and has been operating it as the event space Aria. So in one sense, this event is a clever marketing gimmick to expand awareness of First & First and Aria. But it is also an interesting experiment by a private company to present an artistically legitimate event outside the imprimatur of the art establishment. Byrne originally developed the piece for an art show in Stockholm. Other than that, it’s only been erected in New York and London, so Minneapolis is the fourth place in the world it has ever appeared. That’s special. Furthermore, neither the Walker, Weisman, or MIA could have pulled Playing the Building off quite like First & First has, simply because they do not have a gigantic cavernous space lined with bricks and pipes.
If you ask First & First founder and president Peter Remes, the man who brought Byrne’s installation here, what the project means, he’ll give you an artistically erudite answer like: “Playing the Building is deceptive in its simplicity; it’s layered with rich meaning relating to human nature, our contemporary relationship to place and sound, and considerations of shifts in culture at large.” But it’s really just fun to sit there and bang on the keys and see what happens. It might be crap, or it might be genius. Who can really say?
Playing the Building continues at Aria through Dec. 4.