Review: Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room
Some might say Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room is not art by any means. But it is certainly right to say that it’s art by other means.
The Connecticut-based Lucier’s uncanny project—in the cutting-edge UMMA Irving Stenn, Jr., Family Project Gallery at the University of Michigan Museum of Art—is likely to be as underwhelming in its appearance as it is overwhelming in its accumulative cacophony.
The Stenn Project Gallery space has been stripped of everything except a few panels of soundproof insulation against its walls and armless couches for listeners to sit upon. Standing aside in the dimly lit gallery—and standing alone on a strategically placed black pedestal—is a single audio speaker. The only other thing left—as is sometimes said—is art.
Well, that’s to say, what’s left is a particular application of 20th century modernism because I am sitting in a room is as much creativity for the mind as it is an increasingly out-of-tune artful melody for the ear.
Lucier’s artistry—as minimalist in its execution as it is complex in its single-minded commitment—is analogous in spirit (though differing in execution) from the ambient replication of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and La Monte Young. It’s an enigmatic industrial drone that has as much of an equal footing in proto-electronica as it does abstract conceptualism.
Originally crafted in 1969 at Brandeis University’s Electronic Music Studio as an experimental echo installation, Lucier’s intent was— and still is through its systematized multiplication—to scramble the physical property of soundwaves through the interrelationship of automated media and our human ear.
Composed in such a way as to make stumbling upon it a matter of chance, Lucier’s words unfold repeatedly upon themselves until their recurrence becomes indistinct. Increasingly incomprehensible as a verbal congruence steadily replicating itself, the result is a sonic environment whose totality is the aggregate of its texture.
Lucier narrates the following text:
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.”
That’s it, folks. Could anything be any simpler than this?
Well … the difference is in the details. After all, the Brandeis’ Music Studio in 1969 is not the same place as the UMMA Stenn Project Gallery today. And this means the work’s resonance will differ from the recording’s original acoustic setting.
Just as likewise, the sound of the recording will differ ever so slightly from the center and corners of the gallery depending on where you listen. There will therefore always be a subtle differentiation between each recipient of the source, the source of the transmission, and the transmission of the text itself.
An existential soundscape conditioned by its increasingly blurred repetition, the milieu plays a major part in the art itself. Lucier’s fragile reading—he has a discernible stutter—becomes progressively indistinct as his utterances are gradually blurred beyond recognition. But the cadence of his discourse also creates a peculiarly boisterous harmony through its replicated duplication.
It’ll admittedly take a bit of patience to sit through this masterwork, yet the experience is also going to be singular. Hovering uneasily somewhere between real-time and canned reiteration, I am sitting in a room is phenomenology as art gone nearly amok.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: “Alvin Lucier: I am sitting in a room” will run through May 22, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.