Listening for the Details
FraenkelLAB, San Francisco
May 18–June 17, 2017
Is listening a luxury? This question has plagued the Los Angeles-based sound artist and performer Chris Kallmyer for years. For the title of his 2017 show at FraenkelLAB, he turned the question into a statement: Listening is a Luxury. This is a medium specific version of the debate that surfaces time and again across all of the arts, especially during periods of economic and social instability: Is art a luxury? Is art frivolous? Can artists do something more forceful, and more effective, in response to crises?
In a review of Taryn Simon’s Paperwork and the Will of Capital, author, photographer, and The New York Times photography critic Teju Cole wrote of his own struggle with the art-as-luxury question in late 2016. “On those immediate postelection mornings in November when I lay in bed aphasic and estranged from myself, whatever did not address the current predicament seemed unworthy.” Cole praises Simon’s Paperwork, for which the artist reconstructed and photographed the flower arrangements that have been ubiquitous at international governmental meetings since the 1960s. Her seemingly innocuous flower photographs are captioned with not only the official name of the accord signed but also a clear description of its impact. Cole credits Simon’s meticulous attention to historical detail with inspiring him to continue making and writing about art in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Cole concludes, “[W]hat became clear was that ‘the current predicament’ was precisely this condemnation of detail [that Simon’s work challenges]. This erasure of historical nuance can be the anteroom to hopelessness.”1 Cole argues that the questions asked by artists and the careful attention required of critics are worthy, even necessary, political responses.
The central work on view in Kallmyer’s Listening is a Luxury is part of his Commonfield Clay project, a group of clay bells the artist made while an artist fellow at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. Kallmyer was asked to create a piece for the foundation’s newly expanded Tadao Ando building. Many of Kallmyer’s previous projects have been site-specific, but this one is made, literally, of the site. With the help of the St. Louis ceramicist Dan Barnett, Kallmyer gathered red clay from local sources to fashion a collection of clay bells, including wrapped cone-shapes and thrown bells, which resemble wide, shallow serving bowls. The bells are a toasted orange color, partially glazed in abstract swathes of deep red. In places the red drips, tracing the bowls’ contours. In their presentation at FraenkelLAB, six triangular bells hung head-high from the ceiling above two low supports. Four of the bowls were suspended from the long crossbar of these three-legged racks, inverted so that their sound echoed off the floor. At events throughout the duration of the exhibition in San Francisco, Kallmyer performed on the bells, bringing the typically hushed space of the gallery to life with sound.
St. Louis presented a particularly charged context for site-specific work during Kallmyer’s residency in the late summer of 2015. Just a year after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb barely ten miles north of the Pulitzer, Kallmyer struggled to make sense of his role in the city as an outsider and as an artist. Thus, he began his residency by listening to others. Kallmyer invited a group of St. Louis artists, activists, and preservationists to meet at the Pulitzer and share their historical knowledge and present experiences of the city—from its nineteenth-century prominence to its sharp decline, starting in the 1970s, which has had a disproportionate impact on the city’s black residents. The group then collaboratively authored and performed a composition using the clay bells.
Analysis of structural injustice doesn’t typically focus on listening, since more physical consequences are often at stake. But one could describe the imbalance of power in Ferguson also as a failure of communication. The need for empathetic listening by people in power to historically disenfranchised populations is urgent both in the machinations of the political process and on an individual level, especially in interactions between police and citizens. In Ferguson, at the most basic level, the police department did not listen to the citizens it was sworn to protect. Instead, as described by the Justice Department’s later inquiry, the Ferguson Police engaged in ongoing civil rights abuses.2 In the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, the militarized police force denied citizens the right to congregate and provoked the otherwise peaceful protesters. On the second day of protests, the police used teargas without warning to break up crowds. Using brute physical actions rather than words, the possibility of listening was foreclosed by force.
Prior to the grainy news footage of protests in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, some of the most widely seen images of St. Louis emphasized its depopulation. For example, St. Louis-born photographer Demond Meek’s images, tagged #slumbeautiful, attracted significant attention on Instagram in 2012.3 Although Meek’s images were not the first examples of the widespread photographic trend that would come to be known as ruin porn,4 they were emblematic of its characteristics: crumbling buildings pictured from street level, isolated on overgrown lots and centered in the square frame. Instagram’s filters provided moody atmosphere through heavy vignetting, high contrast, and desaturated colors that mimicked old film. The positive aesthetic responses from international journalists and bloggers complicated Meek’s intent to bring attention to the problems of St. Louis’s ongoing deindustrialization and population decline. The photographs seemed old, the city already depopulated; it was easy to appreciate the pictures for their romantic beauty rather than see them as a call to action. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1973, “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a good picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that’s the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.”5 Regardless of Meek’s intentions, casual viewing of his photographs renders them metaphoric, at a geographic and temporal remove from the reality of contemporary life in St. Louis.
Despite decay, many of St. Louis’s buildings are still standing, indicating the resilience of the city’s red brick architecture. Some of these buildings have suffered from an insidious form of vandalism, particularly in the Old North neighborhood. Brick theft has been a problem in St. Louis since the first major waves of depopulation in the 1970s. Thieves chisel away at buildings’ corners, or even set fire to them to collapse their walls and separate the bricks.6 The bricks are then trucked away and sold at recycled brickyards. For decades, the onus was primarily on the brickyard owners to confirm that bricks were obtained legally, which was hard to accomplish in a city with such a vast supply of similar brick. Although recent legislation has made it necessary for brick “rustlers” to obtain permits, enforcement still presents a challenge for a city facing ever-declining federal support and local tax revenue.7
In a pamphlet produced for the exhibition, Kallmyer alludes to the synecdochic relationship of the distinctive red clay to the city by including writings by St. Louis residents that describe the geologic history of the city alongside personal memories. Using red clay as the core material of his art, Kallmyer signals this historical continuum: the local clay deposit predates the city by more than 200 million years. According to Michael Allen, a St. Louis preservationist whose remarks Kallmyer reproduced in the Commonfield Clay pamphlet, the city’s high-quality clay derives from part of a subterranean fold that runs north to south where the Mississippi River cuts through the metropolitan area. This central location in the city meant that clay could be harvested, formed, and fired close to building sites during St. Louis’s boom years in the mid-nineteenth century, making bricks accessible and affordable, as well as durable. Stately homes, civic buildings, and small cottages all used brick and terra cotta decorative elements drawn from the local clay source. Following a large fire in 1849, the tendency to build using fire-resistant brick was legislated by the city government, further solidifying the city’s distinctive architectural character. The deep red bricks can also be seen throughout the Midwest, as the St. Louis brick industry sold to other rapidly growing cities, such as Chicago, which lay far from natural clay deposits.8
Like many Rust Belt cities, St. Louis experienced a period of sharp population decline with the departure of manufacturing in the 1970s. The city’s population peaked in 1950, when it was the eighth largest city in the nation. At the time of the 2010 census, it had shrunk by nearly 63%, a drop slightly greater than the more widely publicized population decline in Detroit.9 The architectural character of what remains in the city of St. Louis differs from Detroit, in that much of the construction in the latter city was timber framed, which decays quickly when not maintained. The brick buildings in St. Louis remain standing, even when there are few people to fill them. The fate of these empty buildings is an ongoing question. Some residents, including Cheeraz Gormon, a St. Louis-born poet and activist who worked with Kallmyer during his residency, decry the demolition of the old houses. In a spoken word performance, titled “Who Moved My Memories,” Gormon describes the unsettling experience of driving through her old neighborhood, only to find empty lots where her friends’ and family members’ homes once stood.10
Today, brick rustlers in St. Louis cart off bricks and resell them to luxury developers as a charmingly distressed vintage building material. In this act of spoliation, the victors’ racial and economic advantages dismantle the history of the defeated, brick by brick. Like the medieval appropriation of ancient marble from that convenient quarry—the Coliseum—these bricks go on to lead other lives, with little to identify their origins. Recycled brick, prized for its patina, is cleansed of any specific history and instead summons a generalized aura of the past. What was once indigenous and utilitarian is now an imported luxury item. The problem is not limited to St. Louis. Advocates for Houston’s historic Freedmen’s Town have also been working to protect their neighborhood’s streets, whose bricks were formed and laid by freed slaves and their descendants more than a century ago, when the city refused them such basic infrastructure as street paving.11 Despite years of negotiations with the city and the intervention of preservationists, the Freedmen’s Town bricks are still at risk.12 By transforming raw clay dug from the banks of the Mississippi into a sonorous form, Kallmyer allows the history of the city to resonate in new sites, without destroying its material past, as an artwork made of recycled brick would have done.
What is unique about this contemporary pillaging in the United States is our response—or, rather, lack of response. Accelerating the decay of these buildings makes them more photogenic, their crumbling facades ripe for reflection on the passage of time and the ephemerality of humanity’s presence on earth. Like Nathanial Hawthorne, who, in the Italian Notebooks, denounced the damage done to the Coliseum, criticism of this practice of pillage is often less for the sake of the historical record than for preserving a suitably Romantic ruin. Hawthorne wrote, “The general aspect of the [Coliseum], however, is somewhat bare, and does not compare favorably with an English ruin both on account of the lack of ivy and because the material is chiefly brick, the stone and marble having been stolen away by popes and cardinals to build their palaces.”13 Whereas Hawthorne takes aim at the looters, today there is little condemnation—and even less visibility—of those involved in the pillage of brick. On the market, these bricks are paradoxically “vintage,” but without identifiable history.
During the first Bourbon Restoration in France, crown-commissioned paintings depicted Revolutionaries carting away treasures from royal palaces and churches as foolish and barbaric. Only years prior, Napoleon’s armies had greedily made off with art and architectural fragments from Western Europe and Egypt. Needless to say, these were not returned after Napoleon’s defeat by the Bourbons. Such appropriation was already a widespread practice among wealthy “antiquarians” of the eighteenth century, whose personal acquisition of antiquities found in the Roman world led to their subsequent dispersal throughout the West. The French painter Hubert Robert (1733–1808) depicted many such acquisitive travelers, though his stance on their activity is not always clear. As the official perspective on the looting of national or religious monuments changed during the tumultuous post-Revolutionary years in France (from Revolutionary fervor for dismantling the old regime to later calls for its resurrection), Robert’s perspective, too, may seem flexible.14 Clearly there is an appreciation for the ruin, as the great quantity and popularity of Robert’s paintings suggest. Still, in Robert’s late painting Demolition of the Château of Meudon (1806), he depicts not a raucous scene of looting, but an organized destruction of a once-great French monument. In Meudon, an artist surveys the scene, preparing to record it. What of this practice does he (and by extension, Robert) wish to represent: the lost, elegant ruin or the industrious, forward-looking pillagers?
These are pictures we don’t see of St. Louis brick. The crumbling corner of a red brick building is easy to read as simply the process of nature taking over, in the grand Romantic tradition. We don’t have a contemporary photographic equivalent to Château of Meudon, which shows workers, overseen by a gentleman, deliberately preparing marble for removal. There may, in fact, be many images that feature new, decorative uses of pillaged brick in shelter magazines, such as Dwell, but the bricks’ origins are never so clearly identified as they are in Meudon. Kallmyer’s clay bells emphasize the silence of these inert materials. By starting with fresh material dug from the banks of the Mississippi, Kallmyer’s bells summon these layers of history without fetishizing either vintage bricks or decrepit houses. Putting contemporary brick theft in conversation with the history of spoliation in the ancient world or Revolutionary France—all of which is now universally condemned—is exactly the kind of historical perspective that we lack in contemporary discussions of brick theft and ruin porn. The great strength of Kallmyer’s work is its openness to this long view of history. And when the bells are played, they seem to sing the entirety of this history in a way that a more representational work of art could not.
While the bells may be owned individually (most of the original series was distributed among the participants in the Pulitzer workshop), the music they make is meant to be shared. As Kallmyer said after one of his performances at FraenkelLAB, “Music is interesting because it’s invisible and it surrounds us and it takes up space. We also take up space, but [that’s] a lot more confrontational. Music is a way we can bump into each other and negotiate our presence with one another.”15 If the story of the bricks is predominantly one of loss—the city’s history being disassembled and sold off piece by piece—Kallmyer’s objects create something new, in the form of a communal musical experience. Unlike the bricks, which are rendered anonymous when stacked in new construction, Kallmyer’s recontextualized use of the original material invites explanation, making room for history to be remembered, whether in the St. Louis workshops or in the San Francisco performances and pamphlet. Kallmyer’s Commonfield Clay project brings together two prevalent images of the St. Louis area: the streets crowded with protestors and the crumbling houses void of residents. Hanging in the gallery, the clay bells are empty and silent, but they come to life when played by Kallmyer and his collaborators. That the bells are silent without human intervention is a poetic reminder of the need to listen to the world around us, perhaps especially to those things—and people—whose voices have historically been silenced.
Listening is a Luxury also includes All Possible Music (2017) a large, clothbound book with three separate sets of pages that turn independently of one another. The top page generally offers an adjective; the middle and bottom pages describe a type of sound or situation. In various combinations, the book’s pages describe music that is not only “country western music” or a “choir,” but may also be “distant,” or “beautiful,” or “preachy,” and is as likely to be found in an “orchard” as in a “busy farm-to-table restaurant.” It’s revealing of Kallmyer’s approach that both assessment and place are built into the understanding of music. In a performance using the book as a score, Kallmyer and six other musicians rang their handheld ceramic bells continuously, rapidly striking the inside, outside, or rim of the bowls to create a bright mosaic of tones. One by one, the performers stepped up to the large book, turning its pages to compose their music, then reading aloud: “Distant herd of sheep set in a fragrant orchard,” and “Beautiful choir with very good vibes.” One of the spoken word pieces, “Preachy conceptual art for an audience of careful and devoted listeners,” inspired laughter in the gallery audience.
It’s true; Listening is a Luxury is conceptual art, and we were a stereotypical art gallery audience, wearing mostly black, Levis, and leather. But the abstraction of the music made on the bells, as well as the collaborative and fundamentally open nature of Kallmyer’s practice, saves it from preachiness. All Possible Music aptly raises the question of just how much the performance and its audience can change a work’s tenor. How important is it to activate the music of Commonfield Clay, to transform the bells from objects of sculpture into tools for conversation? How does the experience of the bells, in a white-walled San Francisco art gallery across the street from the farm-to-table pioneer Zuni Café, differ from the experience of the St. Louis collaborators for whom the red clay is central to the visible and tangible qualities of home? These questions, and the histories to which they allude, are central to Kallmyer’s work. As Teju Cole contends, this criticality and attention to historical detail is an essential activity, one that promotes hopefulness and aids in resistance. In practice, the bells propose a response to Kallmyer’s question: Listening is not a luxury. Listening is a necessity.
Kim Beil is the associate director of ITALIC, an interdisciplinary arts program at Stanford
University, where she also teaches courses on the history of photography and modern and
contemporary art. Her writing has appeared in Afterimage, Art in America, Artforum.com,
Museums and Social Issues, and Visual Resources, among others.
- Teju Cole, “Capital, Diplomacy and Carnations,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine, December 4, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/29/magazine/taryn-simon-capital-diplomacy-and-carnations.html?mcubz=1&_r=0.↵
- Office of Public Affairs Department of Justice, “Justice Department Announces Findings of Two Civil Rights Investigations in Ferguson, Missouri,” March 4, 2015, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-announces-findings-two-civil-rights-investigations-ferguson-missouri.↵
- Laura Pullman, “City of Ghosts: Haunting Abandoned Buildings of St. Louis after the City’s Population Fell by 70% in a Century,” Daily Mail, July 6, 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2169773/Stunning-photographs-transform-St-Louis-landscape-crumbling-buildings-abandoned-homes-slum-beautiful-art.html.↵
- For an analysis of the term’s original coining, by the Detroit-based blogger James Griffioen in 2009, and its subsequent use, see Richard B. Woodward, “Disaster Photography: When Is Documentary Exploitation?,” Artnews, February 6, 2013, http://www.artnews.com/2013/02/06/the-debate-over-ruin-porn/. For an excellent investigation of the significance of contemporary ruins in Detroit, see Dora Apel, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).↵
- Susan Sontag, “Photography,” The New York Review of Books, October 18, 1973.↵
- Malcolm Gay, “Thieves Cart Off St. Louis Bricks,” The New York Times, September 19, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/20/us/20brick.html?mcubz=1.↵
- Chris Kallmyer, “Commonfield Clay, Or How I Came to Wonder If Listening Is a Luxury” (FraenkelLAB: San Francisco, 2017), exhibition pamphlet.↵
- United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: St. Louis City, Missouri,” n.d., https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/stlouiscitymissouri/PST045216.↵
- Who Moved My Memories: TEDxGatewayArch (St. Louis, MO, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swwZWt8IiTg.↵
- Florian Martin, “Preservationists Upset About Accidental Damaging of Freedmen’s Town Brick Street,” November 23, 2016, https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2016/11/23/178487/preservationists-upset-about-accidental-damaging-of-freedmens-town-brick-street/.↵
- In 2016, a City of Houston contractor accidentally tore into the bricks and removed them from the site, leaving residents fearful of their disappearance (the bricks have since been returned). See: Florian Martin, “City of Houston Reinstalls Misplaced Freedmen’s Town Bricks,” April 28, 2017, https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/articles/news/2017/04/28/198349/city-of-houston-reinstalls-misplaced-freedmens-town-bricks/.↵
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun and the French and Italian Note Books (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1888), 135.↵
- I am grateful to Issa Lampe for sharing her insights into this period by email. Any errors of interpretation are my own.↵
- Fraenkel Gallery, Chris Kallmyer: Listening Is a Luxury—Solo Performance, 2017, https://vimeo.com/221821400.↵