Once upon a time, art was art and music was music. The difference was simple: You looked at one and you listened to the other. Both, of course, were arts, but when you said "art" most people assumed you meant the visual kind. Today, art is still art and music is still music, but much has happened over the years to blur the boundaries between them.
Think John Cage, Yoko Ono, or even Alan Kaprow, the originator of those surreal, trippy '60s happenings known as "happenings." Even Kandinsky, that 19th century avatar of pure abstraction, used to say his compositions represented "music made visible," and Kurt Schwitters, the Swiss godfather of dadaism, did much to foster the visual-art-as-music movement he called "intermedia." Which brings us to Jack Ox, the New Orleans-based intermedia artist who seems to have taken all this a step further than anyone before her.
To enter the main downstairs galleries at the CAC is to step into a kind of parallel universe. Sure, the stuff on the walls looks like abstract conceptual art, but the tone is somehow unlike conceptualism as usual, suggesting instead an alien intelligence, familiar yet not immediately accessible. And if it's not the first time art has appeared to need a translator, the difference here is that Ox has pioneered a system that in fact translates music into visual art. A musician off the street might not be able to perform it right off the bat, but it would become possible with preparation.
Actually, this show is something of a retrospective for Ox, covering her work over the past two decades. One of the earlier pieces is Painted Visualizations of Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, which occupied her from 1983 to 1991. It's hard to know what it's based on just from looking at it; suffice it to say that bits of architectural elements from the St. Florian Chapel in the Austrian Alps, where Bruckner was the longtime organist, appear as oscillating abstract splash patterns.
If the choice of Bruckner, a 19th century romantic inspired by Richard Wagner, sounds odd, large works based on Swiss dadaist Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate and Merzbau suggest more contemporary origins even though Schwitters was also born in the 19th century, if a bit later. Ursonate was his dadaist musical score employing phonemes -- nonsense syllables based on the unique sounds of the German language -- seen here as sequences of gleaming abstract bar patterns. If figures such as Bruckner and Schwitters suggest extra layers of knowledge required of the viewer, her Virtual Color Organ audio-visual installation featuring a visual interpolation of a musical score by David Britton is more accessible. Translating musical timbres as shades of color imposed on moving abstract forms, this finally brings Ox's efforts full circle, from the doggedly esoteric, even counterintuitive, to something more intuitively comprehensible, if still esoteric. Viewers may leave not knowing exactly what Ox has been doing all these years, yet assured that she's been charting her own course through art's foggy frontier.
No less experimental are the Nouveau Techno video and computer pieces in the upstairs galleries by three French artists commissioned in honor of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial last year. You may recall that last year was also when the U.S. invaded Iraq amid much protest by the French, among other of the world's peoples, who may have thought we were daft for doing so (a conclusion now shared by most Americans in opinion polls).
Violently daft behavior tends to generate tension, and such tension may have inhibited execution of the two video pieces. Sylvie Blocher's Living Pictures was intended as a series of portraits that would speak, yet few volunteers were willing to stand before her camera, and those who did often look uncomfortable, as if the camera were trying to stare them down. Matthiew Laurette's video interviews of people on the streets responding to a fake news item about France trying to buy back Louisiana can seem a tad adolescent, and Claude Closky's computer projection installation offered participants only one option: to click the mouse on a digital counter. Yes, it may be the world's only manual site counter, a prankishly pointless, yet pleasantly Luddite, exercise in cutting cyberspace down to size.
- Jack Ox's Virtual Color Organ audio-visual installation is one of her more accessible works in a career retrospective that shows how Ox's efforts have come full circle.