Tom Sutcliffe: Art that hits all the right notes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I think the best thing I've seen recently was a label. It read "Please Play" and it was painted in yellow letters on the scuffed concrete of the Roundhouse in London.

It wasn't exactly an assertive element of the installation I'd gone to see, which was fitting really since this art work had been designed by David Byrne – a name that I doubt has ever occupied the same sentence as the word "assertive" without some kind of negative interposing its body between the two. Byrne had turned up for the press opening of Playing the Building, an installation which converts the old engine shed into a giant musical instrument, controlled from an old chapel organ – and his introductory speech was a charming exercise in awkwardness, full of hesitant (but rather good) jokes and yawning oratorical gaps.

Playing the Building is a similarly retiring kind of art work. You can't miss some elements of it, obviously. The chapel organ, for example, is spotlit from above and sits squarely at the very centre of the space. From its rear, an orderly spaghetti of cables rise up and then out to the circumference of the space, connecting the organ's keyboard with the hammers and blowers and motors which stir the structure into resonance. Press on the keys and you'll hear a clang as a solenoid whacks one of the iron pillars, or an eerie architectural hoot as compressed air is blown across one of the building's pipes. But the sounds aren't amplified – and if no one dares to approach the keyboard you may get the sense of a largely empty and silent space. Of something waiting to happen.

Hence that yellow instruction. It's intended to reassure the nervous – and, to a degree, pretty much everybody over the age of eleven is nervous when sharing space with a work of conceptual art. We're aware that something is expected of us and we assume that certain rules are in place, "Don't Touch" being the obvious one. I remember a while ago a Hayward show included an exhibit which positively required members of the public to get hands on, and they'd had to station an attendant there to nudge visitors into action. Without the "Please Play" on the floor it's possible that the sophisticated art lover would inspect the organ in silence and construct a mute sculptural work which was only meant to make you think about sounds rather than produce them.

What's lovely about the instruction, though, is its ambiguity. "Play" obviously means "perform" in this context, but it also invites you more generally to frolic, and that instruction seems to reach out beyond this particular work to anything else in life. During the question session, Byrne was asked what I took to be a hopelessly amorphous question which actually provoked a crisply defined answer. Was there a single theme he could identify running through all the work in his career, he was asked. That nobody should be intimidated by art, or put off by the belief that it wasn't intended for them, he answered. He didn't want people thinking they didn't know enough or weren't smart enough to get something out of what he did. It wasn't an exam you could fail. It's an important truth about conceptual and modern art that often gets overlooked. It isn't work, and you're not going to get sacked if you don't come up to scratch. Please Play.

Sound picture of youth

Film Theory for Beginners, Module One: Diagetic and Non-diagetic sound, which is the deep-dish way of distinguishing between music and sound that is "in" the story – part of the fictional world being created – and music and sound that is applied from the outside – and which is understood not to be present in the imagined scene. So, lonely sophomore is studying by an open window listening to her radio (diagetic sound) when viewpoint cuts to shrubbery-cam and ominous strings start up (non-diagetic). Sometimes, though, the most exhilarating film scenes blur this distinction. Hearing of the death of John Hughes this week, I thought immediately of the sequence towards the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off when he hijacks a Chicago parade to lip-synch to "Twist and Shout". Diagetic, of course, since the parade is part of the story. But surely a little non-diagetic, too, given the completely arbitrary intrusion of this scene and the fantastical way in which the entire city happily take up their roles as Ferris's support act (including, incidentally, several bystanders who just went with the flow and were included in the final cut). Is there any better representation of teenage solipsism and teenage high spirits – or that peculiarly teenage belief that there is no part of life that can't be improved with a pop soundtrack, preferably loud enough so that everyone within a six-block radius can hear it?

Sometimes you read a passage in a book and shiver because it perfectly encapsulates a thought that has lain unshaped, and unexpressed, in your own head for years. It happened to me this week while reading Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist – the story of a poet with writer's block. At one point, the hero expresses his anxiety about the sorcerer's apprentice nature of literature – the fact that you can never catch up with the quantity that's being produced. Being an anxious poetry anthologist he concentrates solely on that form, suggesting that everybody just stop producing new stuff for a year. "If everybody was silent for a year", he argues, "if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress – wouldn't we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art." I think it was the word "silent" that got to me – the sense that the chattering engine of publishing would fall quiet and an enormous tranquillity would steal over you as you realised how tense that continuous noise had made you. And suddenly you would be able to hear the compelling whisper of the old stuff.