Discovering the Intersection Between Moving Image and Sound in Video Art

Musical Thinking features some of today’s leading contemporary artists who use music framework to understand the histories and traditions that inspire them

A person walks holding a radio near her face. A group of people follow.

Cauleen Smith, Sojourner, 2018, digital video, color, sound, 22:41 minutes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase made possible by the SJ Weiler Fund, 2020.54.1, © 2020, Cauleen Smith

Video and music have been sister art forms since the 1960s, when musicians were among the first to take up video cameras and define a new creative field that also shapes experiences over time. Today, artists from all backgrounds use musical strategies to create powerful video artworks that address personal as well as shared aspects of contemporary life. Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies explores the powerful resonances between recent video art and popular music, focusing on recently made works by some of the most important voices in contemporary art today. The exhibition celebrates major new acquisitions to SAAM’s media art collection, pairing recently added video works by ADÁL, Raven Chacon, Mariam Ghani, Martine Gutierrez, Arthur Jafa, Erin Ellen Kelly, Christine Sun Kim, Liz Magic Laser, Simone Leigh, and Cauleen Smith with related photographs, sculptures, prints, and immersive installations by the same creators. As SAAM visitors make their way through the installation, they can see, hear, and feel how musical thinking animates these artists’ interdisciplinary practices.  

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Martine Gutierrez, Clubbing, 2012, HD video, color, sound, 03:06 min., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 2021.23.2, © 2012, Martine Gutierrez: Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York

As the title suggests, music is more than a formal element in these works; it is a framework through which these artists understand the histories and traditions that inspire them. Music amplifies and assists with storytelling as one of the most emotionally connective, popular means of speaking directly to audiences and acknowledging long-standing or spontaneously emergent communities. Using the strategies of musical creation — scores, improvisation, and interpretation — as well as musical styles, structures, and lyrics, the artists speak to personal as well as shared aspects of American life. 

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Arthur Jafa’s powerful video examination of Black life in America, Love is the Message, The Message is Death, was streamed for the first time for 48-hours from Friday, June 26 to 2 p.m. ET Sunday, June 28.

The artworks in Musical Thinking reflect on the vast cultural influence that music has had on American life and global soundscapes. They showcase how innovative forms and iconic talents inflect key chapters of the American story. These artists do not shy away from charged subjects, including contested histories and long-forgotten traditions within music itself. Their work often has implicit or explicit messages that are intensified, rather than replaced, by musical analogies. Beyond selecting songs for mood or structure, these artists think deeply about the traditions and ideologies of various musical forms; the methods of composition and remixing that translate between media; and the spiritual, communal, and political purposes that music has served. Early American hymns, classical opera, avant-garde composition, Broadway musicals, movie soundtracks, jazz and its various fusion forms, gospel and hip-hop, and even lullabies — all are considered for their unique contributions and evocative powers. Connecting innovative forms, past and present, to the American experience, these artists emphasize that our national story has always been complex, multivocal, and set to music. 

Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies is on view at SAAM June 16, 2023 through January 29, 2024. This story is drawn from the exhibition catalogue, which will be available as a free digital download when the exhibition opens. To view selected clips of featured video artworks, visit the exhibition's online gallery.


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