Last night the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA brought art into the streets, though not necessarily with the exhibition, “Art in the Streets,” which, contrary to its title, shows art in a museum. Rather, with In Your Car, a participatory sound project by the art collective NPR (Neighborhood Public Radio), which managed to make, out of unpromising symbols of suburban isolation — the automobile and the parking lot — a sociable, freewheeling evening, and, more importantly, a wonderful racket.
Organized by Engagement Party, MOCA's arts-collective-in-residence program, In Your Car turned its audience into the performers of a polyphonic parking lot orchestra. Participants entered lot seven (free parking, by the way, and while NPR clearly encourages community-based practices, free parking verges on utopian) and drove past a momentarily confused parking attendant (why were these people coming to an “engagement party” so under-dressed?). The far edge of the lot, right in front of the museum, was reserved for the performance. First come, first chair.
The lot was divided into four sections, each assigned a separate radio signal in which NPR mixed separate channels of sound for each section. You tuned your radio, turned the speakers as high as they go, rolled the windows down, got out of the car and walked over to join the crowd in front of the Geffen to help contribute to the score.
The audience could contribute to the sound piece by participating in Ping Modulation, an homage to Robert Rauschenberg's 1966 work Open Score, which was staged during a tennis match inside the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Whereas Rauschenberg amplified the sounds of the tennis rackets, NPR used four miked ping-pong tables (a fittingly suburban alternative). The game was turned into an aleatory musical performance when the sounds from the ball hitting the ping-pong table were amplified, mixed mad scientist-style and sent out into the airwaves.
The second part of the project, Park Park Revolution, consisted of the sounds from the car radios. As you walked through the lot, chance collisions of sound from the four different sections would rise and fade in constantly changing relations. Percussive blips, whirrs, squiggles, drones and the occasional flute-like trill were derived from the random parries and thrusts of the four ping-pong matches, mixed and modified by NPR's three principals, Jon Brumit, Lee Montgomery and Michael Trigilio.
If someone was moved to sing along, well, they were in luck. The audience could call one of four 800 numbers (depending on which section you parked in), and sing into your phone. The phone numbers were linked (who knows how these things work) into NPR's consul, processed and manipulated, and then broadcast back out to the audience at large. The most persistent caller sounded like Gibby Haynes.
A MOCA staff member who helped coordinate the event described the difficulty art institutions are having with non-traditional practices like that of NPR. Museums tend to want to take messy art practices and codify them. Hmm, codifying messy practices — that could describe what MOCA did with “Art in the Streets.” Engagement Party, which is grant funded and scheduled to run for only another year, is an attempt to support the messiness. Let's hope it is able to continue.
The comparison to the cultural juggernaut next door is inevitable. NPR's Michael Trigilio pointed out that while what his collective did was not street art, it did engage with a form of public space. After all, the airwaves are public and the FCC has strict controls over who has access to them. The NPR collective's walls are the airwaves, and the public can write on them what they like.