Groove is in the art

At the ICA, 'Record' tracks the unlikely harmony between vinyl and contemporary art

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By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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On the screen, a man with a sharp knife taped to his face chops an apple on a moving turntable. It’s an odd and twisted moment. So is another, of the same guy, burying a record player in a shallow grave. The dirt suffocates a syrupy, candy pop song.

“I only use records I hate,’’ said the Japanese artist Taiyo Kimura, explaining the contents on the screen as he stood in the Institute of Contemporary Art earlier this week.

“Haunted by You,’’ his short film, is just one of more than 100 pieces in “The Record: Contemporary ART and VINYL,’’ which opens today at the ICA. The show features the works of established artists such as Laurie Anderson and Ed Ruscha as well as creations from the lesser-known, such as Satch Hoyt and Xaviera Simmons.

The exhibit originated at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. It is, Nasher curator Trevor Schoonmaker says, designed for art lovers as well as record geeks. Accompanying the show, the ICA’s shop will be stocked with used vinyl courtesy of Nuggets, a local record store. Some of the discs will be playable, while others, scratched and damaged, are meant to be bought on the cheap by people inspired by the show to experiment with them as an art supply.

Over the months the show is open, the ICA will also hold a series of related events and activities, ranging from an April 27 talk by renowned record designer Vaughan Oliver to an appearance by rap pioneer DMC on May 14 and a DJ class in May.

“The hope is that pulls in new people,’’ said Schoonmaker. “Either way, people who feel they don’t like contemporary art should come because they like records or like music. Or the other way around, people who don’t necessarily care about records but they know these artists.’’

Though the ICA didn’t create the show, “The Record’’ does have a connection to the museum’s recent past. Back in 2007, the ICA commissioned DJ-turned-artist Dave Muller to turn its art wall into “As Below, So Above,’’ a rock ’n’ roll-inspired mural that came with a 136,125-song soundtrack. (Other examples of Muller’s work are featured in “The Record.’’) Shepard Fairey’s smash 2009 show featured posters with such music luminaries as Joe Strummer, Jimi Hendrix, and Public Enemy.

The work in the show ranges from folk art to sound collages, photography, and paintings. David McConnell, who worked closely with late singer Elliott Smith near the end of his life, created a more than 20-minute song and has it set up to play through six different portable record players. And then there is Satch Hoyt’s “Celestial Vessel,’’ a 16-foot-long boat made up of more than 200 red vinyl records put out by RCA in the 1950s. The piece, hung from the ceiling, is accompanied by a six-minute loop created by the musician and sometime DJ that mixes, among others, James Brown, Sonny Terry, and Franz Liszt.

The “boat’’ is meant to be a metaphor.

“The vessel represents the journey, the beginning of slavery to the Atlantic crossing over the Americas and what held the whole culture intact was music,’’ Hoyt said in a phone interview in Berlin, where he was working on a piece involving Hendrix.

The red vinyl, he says, is meant to link the piece to Sango, an important god in Haitian voodoo. The color is associated with him.

Schoonmaker wants to make one thing clear: He’s no record geek. Not that he doesn’t love vinyl. It’s just that the curator doesn’t spend his days scouring eBay for that ultra-rare “White Stripes 7.’’ In fact, it wasn’t until recently that Schoonmaker acquired a turntable.

His wife bought it for him. She figured the guy organizing an exhibition called “The Record’’ should be able to listen to LPs.

“I’m not precious about records nor do I fetishize them,’’ said Schoonmaker. “I’m just a music lover who in addition to new music appreciates things that are obscure, overlooked, historical, or idiosyncratic. For me the greatest beauty in records is that they are etched with history and function as repositories of cultural memory.’’

For Schoonmaker, the path to the exhibition started with a pair of earlier exhibitions. In 2003, he organized “Black President’’ for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, exploring the art and music of the late African singer Fela Kuti. Later that year, in the Gigantic Art Space gallery in New York, he created “D Troit,’’ in which he recruited New York writer Mike Rubin to create a playlist of relevant songs ranging from the Stooges to Motown to Eminem.

Laid out on half of the ICA’s fourth floor, “The Record’’ is, spiritually, a kind of mixtape.

“There’s no clear angle or intention to create a singular narrative,’’ said Schoonmaker. “For each artist, there’s the intention to either include their very best work they produced with records, the rarest work, or something brand-new.’’

Dario Robleto, who will give a talk at the ICA on May 7, has four pieces in the show. These include shirt buttons and matches made of records that have been ground down, melted, and reshaped. Robleto also created three fictitious record labels, focused on religion, science, and folk music, respectively. The Pilgrims of Mortality, a made-up quartet, are featured on an album called “We Walk Among Future Fossils.’’ It’s another moment when “The Record’’ embraces humor.

“A key point of my work is this idea about whether alteration equals destruction,’’ Robleto said in a phone interview. “For me, as an artist, whenever I alter something, it’s always a constructive act. You get more than what you put in. If I alter a Billie Holiday record, I still get her voice, but in addition I get this new metaphor that’s built by turning her voice into this button. For me, it’s never a destructive act.’’

Xaviera Simmons, a Brooklyn-based photographer, took another route with her work, “Thundersnow Road, North Carolina.’’ She and an assistant jumped into a Jeep and took a two-week road trip through the state. She photographed old houses and farm equipment and posed people in different spots with a guitar. Then she went to a group of musicians she calls friends — including My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe — and asked them to write and record a song inspired by the image.

She had 1,000 copies of the record pressed and given to people who purchased “The Record’’ catalog.

“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Can we download these songs?’ ’’ Simmons said in a phone interview from her studio. “The show is called ‘The Record.’ Please enjoy it as a record. Not as an MP3.’’

Of course, in the process of her creation Simmons has tapped into one aspect of record culture. She’s created an artifact for the collector. The limited-edition pressing, available to catalog-buyers at the Nasher show, won’t be available at the ICA. There simply aren’t any left. The only way to hear the music will be to see the show.

One local who wants that record is David Bieber, the director of special projects at the Phoenix Media Communications Group. He’s got about 60,000 vinyl discs in his collection, so large he has to rent warehouse space to store them.

“The music business has been transformed from having a 12-by-12 cover as a companion piece to the compact disc size to the absolute disappearance of graphics to accompany music to emphasize whatever music is being made,’’ said Bieber. “It’s a sad loss. But this show is the elevation of the art form and the permutations that can take place.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at


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THE RECORD: Contemporary ART and VINYL At: Institute of

Contemporary Art,

Friday through Sept. 5.