Where were you when the Music Television Channel was first introduced in 1981? I was seven years old and had a babysitter who, in her early twenties, was the coolest person I had ever met. I would follow her around just in the hopes that this perceived “coolness” would somehow rub off on me. It was through her that I was exposed, for the first time, to the brand-new phenomenon of the music video. Her family had just gotten cable and we would sit around and watch this small American network running loops of film shorts that visually illustrated the concepts and narratives of song by popular musical bands at the time. What we didn’t realize at the time, was that visual and popular culture as we knew it was changed forever.
Looking at Music 3.0., now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York through June 6, 2011, is an in-depth look at this moment in time and its effect on our cultural history. The third in a series of exhibitions exploring the influence of music on contemporary art practices, Looking at Music 3.0, focuses on New York in the 1980s and 1990s and the birth of the “remix culture.” The exhibition features 70 works from a wide range of artists and musicians: Beastie Boys, Kathleen Hanna and Le Tigre, Keith Haring, David Byrne, Miranda July, Christian Marclay, Sonic Youth and Run DMC.
The exhibition begins with the German band Kraftwerk, positing that with tracks such as Trans-Europe Express, 1977, they had a large influence on the decades of music to come with their pioneering usage synthesizers and computer-speech software. It then expands into a wide array of issues and movements that were occurring during this time: the birth of hip-hop and its growing strength in voicing the ongoing discrimination against the black community; activist movements seeking to counteract the AIDS epidemic and the increasing drug usage that was threatening New York; the introduction of art theory to new music as well as the rise of the digital domain; and the growing voice of artists commenting on the complicated relationship between commercial entities and its control of mass communication and the shaping of modern culture.
A highlight of Looking at Music 3.0 is the in-depth look into the wave of Feminism that was grounded in the riot grrrl capital, Portland Oregon, in the 1990s. On display are photocopied zines and posters by artists Miranda July and Johanna Fateman, as well as audio tracks from the band Le Tigre. These recordings serve as examples of the impromptu punk bands that were forming all over and the band’s usage of humorous lyrics and electronic dance music to confront a myriad of social ills that existed in New York.
Anyone interested in the history of music and visual culture will enjoy this exhibition. But for those of us who remember where we were when the music video was first introduced, you will walk out asking yourself, “What happened to the revolution?”