With the support of BCU, I travelled to Rotterdam for the Kunsthalle for Music (KfM). The Kunsthalle is hosted by Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, based on three floors of a former school, which also houses another gallery (TENT),  in the increasingly fashionable cultural quarter, sharing the same bars, cafes and restaurant hang-outs with artist-led spaces like Mama, WORM and the denizens of local boutiques and artisanal shops. Yet the area retains its rough edges, a sense of independence, with communitarian, freeconomic and anarchic tendencies. The red lights have been moved on (along with its traffic) as the green light came to traffic different but equally complicated forms of display and their economy of desire.

KfM is housed on the second and third levels, with symmetrical floorplans divided by a central stairwell. The front-facing spaces are windowed, veiled to the street below, and the rooms at the rear are divided by walls at their mid-point; a corridor runs laterally, dividing front and back. All the areas are whitewashed, with matt-grey concrete floors. Some black square seat cushions are made available, but most visitors choose to do without, squatting on the floor or shifting upright, and shuffling between the rooms. Each space is ‘allocated’ specific works-to-be-performed, with minimal wall-affixed texts providing bare information on each and a simple floor-plan summarising the overall distribution of pieces across the galleries.

As I arrive, a humming piece is in play which I recognise as the Tuning Meditation by Pauline Oliveros. The eight performers (three women, five men; two violinists, cello, piano/keyboard, percussion, guitar, and two saxophones (doubling clarinet and flute)) are lying on their backs and sides, sporting off-white denim-style jackets branded for the project and each uniquely detailed. Dark(ish) trousers and white trainers complete the effect of musical notes, living sculptural keys, ivoried liveries. This is the beginning of a four-hour programme, running Thursday to Sunday each week from 26 January to 3 March 2018.

I find a space by one of the walls, but this becomes the ‘stage’ for the next piece, a sung rendition of motifs from the ‘manifesto’ of KfM, written by its composer-artist director, Ari Benjamin Meyers. From here, the evening’s programme flows, the ensemble dividing and re-forming at various points, the players sometimes on a break, at times performing different pieces simultaneously in different rooms. The oblique link to Charles Ives (of simultaneous and heterogeneous musics) is referenced by the inclusion of The Lost Chord, though his celebrated successor in this approach, Cage, is everywhere present by his absence, sublimated in the choreography of the galleries, the flow of musicians in a meta-composition determining the rules by which the spaces and their designated works are performed. No pieces are announced, and no participation is invited or required. No explanations are given, other than a ‘Reader: not to be removed’ at the reception area that few have time to review.

I note that all of the works performed are scored on the stave or the page, textual, with the exception of Christian Marclay’s Shuffle. Even here, though, the common practice of displaying the playing cards – on which photographs of ‘found notation’ are printed on the ‘playing’ side of the deck (from tattoos to door furniture, a cowboy shirt to pieces of graphic design) – is held back. Aside from the musicians and wall-affixed texts, all signs of visual display have been removed.

The absence of ‘things to look at’ and the emphasis on temporality has a curious effect both on the visual apparatus of the gallery and on the character of musical performance – it’s precisely this ‘schism’ between music as a contemporary art and the gallery as a system for identifying and displaying contemporary art that the KfM is designed to exploit. In this, it reflects the shift in my own research away from thinking about the curation of music and towards the ‘musicality’ of the curatorial. It invited me to consider: the means by which the viewer-auditor is imagined or attended to; the structuring of affect; the (meta-)composition – rather than curation – of the exhibition form and the articulation of differences (between pieces performed, between visitors, spaces and so on); the significance of exhibiting time; the ‘medium-specificity’ of ‘music’; and – especially – the theorisation of music as sculpted time through a process of ‘casting’ performers.

When we meet, Benjamin tells me that he’s a composer, not a curator: “I don’t have those skills, that experience.” He has composed this exhibition of durations comprising pieces that influenced him or that he finds interesting. In contrast with what he sees as conservative practices of concert rituals and conventions and classical music pedagogy and theory, he experiences the gallery system as permissive, flexible, open. Yet significantly, he insists on defining his practice as music, separate from ‘sound art’, resisting the temptations to employ the visual arts’ expanded lexicon of sound, noise, silence, aurality, and sonicity.

Benjamin’s creative journey to the KfM goes back to his role as music director and conductor for Il Tempo del Postino (2007), a curatorial conceit by the artist Philippe Parreno and curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist initially produced at the Manchester International Festival, an ‘opera’ in which artists were given a block of staged time rather than a space in which to present their work.[1] It was a group show in which artworks were temporally mobile before a fixed audience, rather than the gallery arrangement of fixed objects before mobile spectators. “What I created was a sort of meta-score, which became very important not only for the show but as a concept for my own thinking and practice.”[2]

His collaboration with the artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster followed (her work features in the KfM also), growing out of the show in Manchester first for NY.2022 commissioned by the Guggenheim (NYC), and their joint commission for Performa 09 (one of my other research case studies) at the Abrons Arts Centre, K.62 and K.85.[3] Defne Ayas, one of the curators at Performa, later wrote about the performance as one of her favourites from the biennial, and after her move to become director of Witte de With in 2012 she would become an obvious collaborator for Benjamin to make a reality of the KfM.

His own practice from this time on became more conceptual and found a home in the gallery more than the concert hall, with installed performances and other events leading to his conceptualisation of the KfM. This included pieces using the conceptual space of the gallery to deconstruct musical practices, such as Symphony X in collaboration with Tino Sehgal, performing a reduction of the concert environment by gradually removing lighting, music stands, chairs and other structured elements that separate audience and performers. Other works extracted audition from performance, leaving only the observation of gesture, as in The Lightning and its Flash, and Chamber Music.[4] Perhaps the most significant precursor to the KfM was Benjamin’s installation at the gallery Raeber von Stenglin, Zurich, a former garage. The Name of This Band is The Art ran for a month, for which he created and displayed a rock band that would exist only for the duration of the exhibition, which created songs in the space using basic lead sheets he provided and song scenarios developed by a writer. A designer made the band’s outfits and merchandise, though the group would leave no recording (other than documentation).[5]

The New York Times headlined its article on the exhibition ‘Gallery’s bare walls showcase musical art’.[6] In fact, as Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy (Defne Ayas’ successor as director of Witte de With) put it the Times article: “The walls are empty, but the space is full.” In an interview with Benjamin, Hans-Ulrich Obrist offers up the same paradox of the exhibition here operating as something between Yves Klein’s La Vide (‘The Void’, 1958) – in which the artist famously emptied the gallery of all but its white walls (and white soft furnishings) – and Arman’s ironic response, Le Plein (‘Full Up’, 1960), in which he filled a gallery space to the brim with found objects, such that viewers could only look at the display from outside, through the window. In his response, Benjamin sidesteps the paradigm adroitly to return to his process of composition (the score, the ensemble), yet by reducing spaces of viewing to duration and the structuring of intensities within this temporal flow, this is precisely the problematic that he manifests. Music in the KfM is everywhere and nowhere; the exhibition is both empty and full, void and plenitude. What is significant is precisely that he does not put music on display – there is nothing to see, as such. Rather, with the KfM he begins to draw out the music of display.


[1] Obrist interviewed Benjamin about the KfM on 8 February 2018 in Rotterdam, see https://www.facebook.com/wittedewithcontemporaryart/videos/10155379613563105/, accessed 22 February 2018. He was introduced to the project by the artist and former dancer Tino Sehgal, with whom he’d collaborated for a production of Glass and Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach.

[2] Rafael, Marie-France with Ari Benjamin Meyers, Ari Benjamin Meyers: Music on Display, Cologne: Walther-König, 2016,pp.24-25. The idea of the exhibition as a meta-score owes a debt to Cage, and a Musicircus Benjamin experienced in Philadelphia in the 1990s. It’s a trope that Obrist would later employ in his concept for 11 Rooms, which also made its debut at Manchester International Festival.

[3]  Goldberg, RoseLee (ed.), Performa 09: Back to Futurism, NYC: Performa, 2011, pp.98-103.

[4]  ‘I’m asking: is there a place for music that exists beyond what we actually can hear?’ Music on Display, p.42.

[5] See https://vimeo.com/166565368, accessed 22 February 2018. See also Ibid., pp.70-73. Artangel’s project with PJ Harvey offers an interesting comparison, in which the singer and her band created an album in a studio created for her at Somerset House whilst visitors could view the process behind a half-silvered mirrored wall, as if it were an exhibition.

[6] New York Times, International Edition, Monday January 29, 2018, pp.1-2.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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