Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 12, 2015
Allora and Calzadilla: Intervals Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fabric Workshop and Museum, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, December 12, 2014–April 5, 2015
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Allora and Calzadilla. Raptor’s Rapture (still) (2012). Single channel video projection with sound. 23:30 minutes. Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Allora and Calzadilla: Intervals brings together new and recent work by the Puerto Rico-based artists whose interdisciplinary practice addresses the ethical and affective dimensions of political resistance. Working collaboratively since meeting as art students in 1995, the Philadelphia-born Jennifer Allora and Havana-born Guillermo Calzadilla are perhaps most widely known for their exhibition Gloria at the American Pavilion during the 2011 Venice Biennale. That exhibition’s memorably monumental pieces—an ATM machine built into a pipe organ or a treadmill on top of an inverted army tank—packed a spectacular visual punch, mordantly satirizing capitalism, religion, the military-industrial complex and U.S. imperialism without necessarily expanding or deepening an understanding of their interconnections. Despite its broad and somewhat ill-defined scope, however, the exhibition productively interrogated structures of socially engaged art practice and spectatorship. In particular, by emulating the grandiosity of nationalist rhetoric, the work in Gloria posed timely and trenchant questions about the kind of discursive context art opens up when its representational strategies embody the very tenor of authoritarian conviction it also seeks to condemn.

Intervals is more tightly focused on the environmental crisis, but it elaborates the artists’ meta-discursive commentary on contemporary art’s relation to political activism through works that resist an immediate or exhaustive parsing. Combining multichannel videos, sculptural installations, archival research, sound art, as well as live performance, Intervals spans two venues in Philadelphia—the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building (PMA) and the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM), as the curatorial work was shared between Carlos Basualdo and Erica F. Battle from the PMA and Stephanie Alison Greene and the recently deceased Marion Boulton Stroud from the FWM. The underlying dialogue between both institutions reflects the exhibition’s recurring motif of collaboration, as Allora and Calzadilla created most of the pieces alongside an eclectic group of artists working across different media—a chamber choir, a science-fiction writer, and musicians specializing in esoteric instruments. The exhibition’s dynamics of interaction and exchange, however, are not only relegated to artists but encompass multiple interrelationships between humans, animals, and the environment.

The show’s title, Intervals, refers not only to the central role music and sound play in the duo’s practice but also alludes to the space separating different entities and events in space and time. Given the exhibition’s interest in prehistoric artifacts, Allora and Calzadilla seem to conceive of the contemporary moment as a particularly charged interval that stands between the long history of civilization and a future horizon wherein the most extreme outcomes of irreversible climate change threaten the continuity of human life. By that same token, the current “interval” can also act as an opening for transformation, a brief window in which the worst outcomes of global warming might still be prevented. While the artists have made time-based art conveying the effects of global warming in the past, Intervals directs itself toward the discursive rather than the socioeconomic framework of the climate crisis. Connecting collective inaction regarding environmental issues to a larger ontological impasse, the exhibition strives to dislodge any belief in the physical world as an inanimate counterpart to human presence. Drawing from increasingly influential theoretical proposals considering nonhuman forms of subjectivity and the agency of inanimate objects, Allora and Calzadilla create assemblages between prehistoric artifacts and modern mediums—including rocks, dinosaur bones, plastic lecterns, and digital technologies—to acknowledge the active life-force of both organic and inorganic entities.

The performance piece Lifespan at the FWM, for instance, consists of a small stone estimated to be four billion years old which three vocalists stir into motion by blowing and whistling around it. As the stone swerves in rhythmic motions, the performance evokes ancient practices fetishizing objects with an autonomous, if not sacred, agency. But far from mocking the desire to imagine nonhuman or even inanimate subjectivity, the work’s almost alchemical animation of the inorganic seems to challenge established hierarchies between subject and object as well as human life and nonhuman things. The performance piece In the Midst of Things, on the other hand, reverses this logic by rendering the human voice—typically a signifier of a fully human presence—uncanny and machine-like. Staged in the Skylit Atrium at PMA, members from the chamber choir perform a drastically rearranged version of Joseph Haydn’s The Creation (1796–98), an oratorio based on the Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Countering audience expectations, the singers’ voices do not progressively intensify at the start of the performance but swell directly into the middle of Haydn’s arrangement, as if suddenly released from a pause in the music. Eventually the singers disperse around the atrium and begin to sing their lyrics backwards, challenging the linear continuity expected from live sound with the rewinding associated with mechanical recordings.

Interconversions between human and nonhuman are also at play in three alternating videos located in a darkened gallery adjacent to the atrium. Shot in 16 mm transferred to High Definition, the videos have a sharp, uniform aesthetic accentuating their thematic correspondences. In 3 (2013), the cellist Maya Beiser performs a piece by the post-Minimalist composer David Lang in the presence of the Venus of Lespunge, the twenty-five-thousand-year-old sculpture whose voluptuous proportions Lang attempted to translate into musical form. Previously screened at Documenta 12, Raptor’s Rapture (2012) features Bernadette Käfer, a musician specializing in prehistoric instruments, as she plays a flute carved from the bone of a vulture to its living counterpart. Apotomē (2013), the strangest and most interesting of the videos, has an equally compelling and convoluted backstory. The work depicts Tim Storms, a world-record holder for the lowest vocal range ever recorded, as he sings to the bones of two elephants brought to Paris during the Napoleonic wars. Storm reprises selections from a concert organized for these elephants at the end of the eighteenth century to determine whether music could communicate across species. Storm’s strange, reptilian-sounding intonations seem to extend the scope of the experiment’s desire for interspecies communication into the threshold separating the living from the dead. Cumulatively, the videos create a richly affective field prompting impossible fantasies of resurrecting deceased beings or animating objects into life. Tight close-ups of the musicians and objects fracture their sense of physical integrity while the camera’s continual alternation between shots of the musicians and the inanimate objects seems to blur their distinctions. The impression of interobjective and intercorporeal penetration these videos stage ultimately unsettles inflexible binaries between human and nonhuman beings as well as living and dead matter, allowing for a consideration of the potential linkages between these categories.

While the pieces in the PMA immerse visitors in a kind of sensual aural membrane, the sonic dimension of the works gathered in the Fabric Workshop takes on a more overtly ethical register, analogizing the capacity to hear and respond to crisis. This symbolism is most explicit in Intervals (2014), the installation that shares its name with the exhibition. Extending over an entire floor of the FWM, the piece assembles large dinosaur bones on disassembled acrylic lecterns in a series of different permutations. On first encountering the work, it is tempting to approach the dinosaur bones as an extravagant signifier for extinction that served no purpose beyond calling attention to plastic’s widely known toll on the environment. However, the work undoubtedly thickens with meaning when considered alongside the exhibition’s focus on the vitality and agency of nonhuman things. Mounted on the lecterns as if they were meant to speak, the inert muteness of these remains comes to acquire a kind of animistic presence, soliciting the spectators to speak or act on their behalf as a means to counteract self-protective positions of quietism or defeatism when faced with an impending menace.

This installation is the only part of the exhibition without an aural component, as the conspicuous absence of sound analogizes the inability to “hear” that which is radically other. This thematic recurs in the video The Great Silence (2014), although its looming scale and multiple channels seem to invite a prolonged and hypersensory experience. It takes place in Esperanza, Puerto Rico, where the world’s largest radio telescope is located inside a forest that is also home to an endangered species of parrots. The two peripheral screens show images of the telescope’s impressive architecture and the vibrant ecosystem that surrounds it while the central screen features a narrative text by the science-fiction writer Ted Chiang written from the point of view of the endangered parrots. It is initially difficult to pull away from the striking visuals, but Chiang’s precise and poignant prose proves to be equally immersive, plunging the viewer/listener into a moving monologue in which the parrots ponder their future extinction and imagine what it will be like to join “the great silence.” Chiang’s text draws out the tragic irony of a radio telescope designed to pick up sonic signals in outer space while remaining indifferent to the “intelligent life” of the parrots who share its habitat.

Both moving and visually arresting even as it considers unbearable outcomes, The Great Silence magnifies affective attunements to the physical world conjured by even the most abstract or indeterminate work in this ambitious exhibition. Informed by interdisciplinary scholarship, collaborative dialogue, and multisensory aesthetic strategies, the work in Intervals effectively permits us to experience our own precariousness in the beings and objects that surround us. In doing so, the artists widen our understanding of subjectivity’s codependence with the nonhuman world.

Iggy Cortez
PhD candidate, Department of The History of Art and Cinema Studies Program, University of Pennsylvania

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.