Documenting DOCUMENTA: A haudenschildGarage Project with Matthew Schum

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Susan Hiller’s Jukebox World

A jukebox installed in the white cube makes for an exciting, if predictable, sight. These relics of the post-war baby boom have an anomalous luster. Ready for your musical command, the light and rhythm break up the visual envelope of the gallery. It is an icon suited for the enjoyment of all ages.

Susan Hiller, ‘100 Songs for the 100 Days of DOCUMENTA 13’

An Adornian ( yawn ) idea of mindless music providing empty consumers with canned emotions and thoughts frames the critique one could make of Susan Hiller’s work quite well; this refrain was also listed when Phil Collins’ 2005 karaoke videos took a musical route through the black box by reactivating the band The Smiths. The latter was a surprisingly penetrating way to localize international subculture in a pop music stage set. It took the monotony of the screening room from the 1980s discotheque to the museum and back again. The World Won’t Listen came at the tail-end of the “relational art” fad and, like it or not, it did critique the inclusiveness of that curatorial genre by not limiting itself to just being a karaoke party: accompanying music was recorded by professionals, singers were auditioned, backgrounds were selected, videos were made and happy events were performed in social club settings.

Hiller’s jukeboxes could fit into a relational art niche—and probably were done before—but curators are now grouping her work into the broad category of “artistic research.” A self-conscious need to embed history into the jukebox trope is one telltale sign. The 100 tracks found in each jukebox are, according to the wall text, “utterances haunted by the past. Constituted in a public forum as a restless and incomplete archive that strategically opposes society’s constant revision of its recent history.” That is a lot of work for one jukebox containing 100 songs. Selections in Hiller’s playlist are nonetheless exemplary in their international range, while sharing in scope the general theme of social commentary and/or rebel songs.

They are great songs.

Susan Hiller, ‘100 Songs for the 100 Days of DOCUMENTA 13’

There is little doubt that a lot of research went into amassing this impressive compilation, but “reactivating” transnational history in the form of an “artistic archive” is a very generous way to characterize a jukebox – even for the iTunes age. It is nostalgic in kind and clearly meant to be a transcendent example of a popular database, one that nearly everyone has in their possession on their PCs nowadays, reverse engineered to be outmoded analog technology. Would an iPod plugged into the wall carry the same weight?

Artistic selection largely explains the difference between mine and yours. This elective aspect can come off as an homage to the sourced material or it can confront the researcher with the dreaded noblesse oblige of a musicologist rediscovering less-known creative products for the pleasure of the biennial tribe.

To my mind, this is where artistic research can cross the line from creative stockpile to dubious or self-congratulatory intellectual property taken from authentic and unassuming sources. When the equivocal act of arraying information automatically equals the hard work of experiment and synthesis that is at the heart of research ( or songwriting for that matter ), ones eyeballs might just begin turning upwards from the ambient glow of the 1950s version of the iPod towards their brow involuntarily furrowed beneath the headphones strap—even as their foot taps along to the “technological ghosts, temporarily captured in a heterogeneous collection.”

I bet Phil Collins has a great record collection.