As you enter the gallery, there is a neon sign and the exhibition title printed large on the wall to your left. On the wall to your right is a large introductory text. Here and for all future wall texts, there is a QR code at the bottom center of the text block.
Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies
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.
Music is central—not an afterthought—to the moving-image work of the twenty-first-century artists featured here. They bring musical thinking to their creative process—employing scores, thematic improvisation, and performer interpretation—and to their selection of songs, styles, and structures that embed meanings from musical traditions. Rich with cultural references, their works use music to call up memories, provoke insight, and invite embodied engagement. By weaving visual and sonic layers, the artists draw out connections between ideas, histories, and people. Designing soundscapes that wrap around the space, their music-infused works transform individuals into communities that share a moment, move in sync, and feel their way into complex topics through senses that exceed words. In the galleries ahead, artists explore foundational ideas of the United States and contemporary understandings of identity through rhythm, counterpoint and a chorus of voices, casting the interrelation of past, present, and future as a form of remixing.
Musical Thinking celebrates recently acquired video works by Raven Chacon, Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly, Martine Gutierrez, Arthur Jafa, Christine Sun Kim, Simone Leigh and Liz Magic Laser, and Cauleen Smith, plus existing holdings by ADÁL, which are paired with related prints, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and sound art by these artists. As you move through the artists’ distinct spaces, we invite you to experience musical thinking across their many forms of creativity.
On the same wall as the intro text, about seven feet further along, there is the Gallery Experience description, with a QR code bottom center for a sensory map and access resources.
A Note on the Gallery Experience
Just as there are many ways music informs art-making, there are many ways music reaches into our lives. The Museum partnered with Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University to create a layered experience of this exhibition available to all, including Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Single benches or those to the right in each gallery, indicated with blue light around the base, and the central dance floor conduct enhanced vibrations to allow physical appreciation of each video’s unique soundtrack. Audio notes on the wall or open captions below the projection are included for each installation. QR codes offer ASL translations for the interpretive texts and written verbal descriptions of that section for those who use screen readers.
Please note: Artworks in the show include mature content and evoke a wide range of emotions. Interpretive texts have individual content alerts so audiences can determine their preferred path. The enclosed galleries may also have significant volume and light-level shifts; the dance floor pulses light.
Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by Michael Abrams and Sandra Stewart, Aida Alvarez, Candy and Michael Barasch, Carolyn and Mo Cunniffe, Roger S. Firestone Foundation, Ed and Kathy Fries, Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, Pamela and David Hornik, Maureen and Gene Kim, Nion McEvoy Publications Endowment, Victoria McManus, V. Joy Simmons, MD, Smithsonian Accessibility Innovation Fund, Lucille and Richard Spagnuolo, Helen and Peter Warwick,and the SJ Weiler Fund.
This exhibition received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and the Asian Pacific American Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
The first work hangs high on the wall to the left when facing the exhibition title wall.
The neon alternately highlights “I will light up your life,” a play on the title refrain from a popular 1970s ballad, or “I will light you up,” warning words from the Texas trooper who pulled Sandra Bland from her car during a traffic stop in 2015. When Bland, a Black woman who had been on her way to a new job the morning of her arrest, was found hanging in a jail cell days later, authorities ruled it a suicide. Depending on which phrase is most familiar, some audiences may first be charmed, others immediately disturbed. How does Smith play on our expectations and emotions by threading romantic lyrics and a violent threat?
Cauleen Smith, born 1967, Riverside, CA
Light up My Life (For Sandra Bland), 2020, neon, MDF, paint, faceted hematite, and aluminum
New Britain Museum of American Art, 2021.3, General Purchase Fund
A wall-mounted sign with neon words that flickers between two phrases: “I Will Light You Up,” and “I Will Light Up Your Life.” Vertically arranged, the words “I will light” and “up” shine a bright red light. The words “you” and “your life” alternate in blue light. A tangle of wires comes out from the black background panel and loops to a plug on the wall.
As you continue into the exhibition, the entrance to the first video room is on your left. The wall texts and QR code are located to the left of the entryway, approximately four feet into the room.