15 January 2004 - 21 February 2004
Opening Reception 15 January 2004 8pm
A functional object can be easily passed around and given to someone else to operate. Although it is the borrower’s knowledge of how to operate that object that may seem to be at issue, a deeper concern exists: the transferal of ownership. A level of trust is implicit in this exchange: because I lend you my car, I trust you know how to drive it, and that you will use it how it is meant to be used. Even if I, the owner, impose limitations, (Don’t take the car on the highway), the nature of the functioning object will restrict its use (You can’t fly my car). Yet within these limitations there exists a level of freedom to act: one can control speed, direction and distance. In both Mark Leckey’s sound sculpture Soundsystem and Tony Romano’s exhibition Playtime and Songs of Love and Ornament, a similar exchange takes place. As part of exhibiting their work, each artist passes his work, the functional object, over to someone else to operate, whether it is to Mercer Union’s general audience or select guests. And it is this exchange rather than the mechanism’s use value that elicits meaning—a meaning that is generated by the object’s design and informed by the user, but is ultimately controlled by the conditions under which the object is given.
British artist Mark Leckey’s Soundsystem is a direct reference to the culture of Jamaican Sound Systems, which marks the beginning of the remix, dj crews, and live vocals over recorded music and is cited as the origin of rave and hip hop cultures. This referral and appropriation of the Jamaican Sound Systems isn’t a recontextualization of another genre into the gallery but is a way to look at the system of contemporary art production and exhibition. The sculpture itself becomes a means of representation in which Leckey’s own video and sound work and work by others, both historical and contemporary, are reconfigured.
In conjunction with the Soundsystem exhibition is a weekly series of film and video screenings, and live and recorded music and sound-based performances. See below for a calendar of events.
We would like to acknowledge the British Arts Council and the Canada Council’s Music in Alternative Spaces grant for their generous financial support of the Mark Leckey exhibition.
Brochure Text by Jenifer Papararo
Mark Leckey activates his sculpture, a functioning tower of custom-made speakers, through live performances and recorded sound mixes, but he also leaves it open for others to use and as such depends on the work of others to build meaning. He invites local musicians and sound artists, and programmes film and video screenings, which all use his Soundsystem in some way. The initial simplicity of the work, its physical structure, gives way to a network that solidifies an ongoing building of meanings, references, and histories.
Leckey’s Soundsystem is a direct reference to the culture of Jamaican Sound Systems, which marks the beginning of the remix, dj crews, and live vocals over recorded music and is cited as the origin of rave and hip hop cultures. In the late 1950s and 60s, an underground movement of Sound Systems blared in the streets and dancehalls of Kingston. A team of players from record selector and MC (mike chatter) to system technicians and the equipment owner would ignite heavy wattage sound systems, which varied in size and equipment, and were often compiled from a hodgepodge of self-produced and professional equipment. Public competitions, Sound Clashes, were an important part of this practice where opposing systems would set up facing each other, baiting their opponents while also pumping up the audience who decided the winner through the magnitude of their enthusiasm and the boisterousness of their dancing. Inversely, Sound Systems often collaborated, sharing equipment and team members, and compiling larger systems to produce even bigger sounds.
This referral and appropriation of the Jamaican Sound Systems isn’t a recontextualization of another genre into the gallery but is a way to look at the system of contemporary art production and exhibition itself. For Big Box Statue Action, a recent performance at the Tate Britain, Leckey staged a Sound Clash between one of his Soundsystems and Sir Jacob Epstein’s 1940s alabaster sculpture Jacob and the Angel. Leckey set up his piece to directly face the Epstein sculpture, and then blared it with a sound piece composed of sampled music and archive material that responded to Epstein’s work and the acoustics of the exhibition space. With this somewhat tongue–in-cheek Sound Clash or conversation, as it was framed by the Tate, Leckey recodifies the art historical reference. He draws attention to the generally ignored work of Epstein, the Tate’s eclectic collection, and the detached timeframes between the two works while using the earlier sculpture to create a new piece.
As much as Leckey’s sculpture refers to the culture of Sound Systems, he also relies on it to situate his own art practice, one that is directly influenced by music culture and production. The sculpture itself becomes a means of representation in which his own video and sound work and work by others, both historical and contemporary, are reconfigured. Leckey’s structure is always present whether it is used to screen the 1967 film London Nobody Knows with James Mason, or handed over to a local musician for a live performance, or used to play Dubplate, a looped soundtrack played on Soundsystem in lieu of performances and screenings. The sculpture and the history it references turns in on itself in a manner that is primarily about Soundsystem. And Leckey further insures this internal reference and invariably draws parallels between his own interests and the development of Sound Systems by incorporating more emblematic programmes within an open schedule of activities. His interest in appropriation and how the development of sound systems have played a major role in this phenomenon of contemporary music is reflected in his Soundsystem performances of his own solo compositions or the music of his band Donatella. Some of his film and video choices directly represent histories of music like the documentary Babylon, which is a detailed look at Sound Systems in Brixton, or his own video Fiorucci, Made Me Hardcore, 1999, which draws a loose visual history of dance and club culture in London. Obvious in some of Leckey’s programming choices is an interest in the city of London and how people move through it. His choices, Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s House & Garage, 2000 and Patrick Keiller’s London, 1994, to name only two, show a particular type of Situationist-like drifting through the city. This movement, for me, resembles the chaotic and multidirectional way in which Sound Systems influenced the production of music from double decks to dub and conveys the happenstance yet conditional method with which Leckey offers his work to be used.