Many might wonder what processes we “art handlers” go through to recreate a famous piece of art that is part performance. My latest experience installing the microphone in the tree for his 1971 Microphone/Tree Piece in the current Walker Art Center exhibition The Quick and the Dead, made me hark back to my earlier experiences with the Nauman camp. Me and Nauman, we go way back. This piece calls for sinking a microphone deep inside a tree sending the audio signal back to the gallery. Back in the early nineties, when I was still fairly new to gallery AV installations I was faced with the planning and execution of a major Bruce Nauman retrospective. I was younger then and less experienced but I was excited by the challenges of working with this major artist in an exhibition personally curated by our new director Kathy Halbriech. Because the show would travel internationally I had to design a rather lavish technical manual clearly outlining all the details of numerous complex AV installations. While supervising and participating in the installation I also had to produce the multi-screen slide show that used to accompany each major exhibition and welcome visitors in the now nonexistent “Information Room” off the main lobby.
The Nauman studio had made a request that was very difficult to fulfill. He wanted to inspect and approve of the various types of monitors we would be using. He was trying to achieve a somewhat vintage look. I had to search to find boxy looking models (this in the days before “searching” was possible via the Internet). I had to cajole my vendors to secure demo models and practically assure them that I would be buying from them (while keeping my fingers crossed that that would in fact be the case). Once I assembled all that and presented it to Mr. Nauman, I found him refreshingly decisive. Or maybe I was just relieved he approved all my selections on the spot.
One of the pieces I worked on back then resonates with Nauman’s mic-in-a-tree piece in the current show in several ways. I refer to the Audio-Video Underground Chamber which actually came later in 1972. This piece called for the sinking of a tomb-sized concrete box buried underground at a location in the Sculpture Garden across the street. It was to have a camera at one end and a microphone at the other. I was to somehow channel the live audio and video signals back to the gallery. In that case we were able to piggyback on an unused security line through the security office to the gallery.
There are intriguing parallels between these two pieces. As in the case of the Microphone/Tree, the Underground Chamber had been done only once before. Just as the Underground Chamber still resides under the surface of the garden, the microphone will remain inside the tree (on the advice of the tree expert) in a sense listening silently for the rest of the tree’s life. With both of these pieces I felt imbued with a historic responsibility! As I’ve since learned it is typical to receive only sketchy information from artists and their galleries. I only had some photos to go from, which I studied intently. As I looked a question began gnawing at me. Yes, I can see the microphone in the image from the video camera. But what is providing the light.? Nauman’s sketch and brief instructions didn’t account for that. I sent the question back to the artist through his very astute assistant Juliet Meyers. I have since run across descriptions of this piece which include mention of a lamp, but at that time they said they couldn’t remember. It was up to me to figure out some way to provide a light source at six feet under. I came up with numerous ideas including fashioning a light fixture which would slide down a tube – retractable in case the bulb needed changing. But our security camera expert suggested we try a camera that probably didn’t exist the first time this piece was installed – an infrared camera. It required no actual light but used it’s own array of LEDs which ringed the lens. The image looked natural. Seemed to work. Okay we’ll go with it. Its downside didn’t become apparent until a month or so into the show, but it wasn’t too critical a breech of accuracy when condensation formed on the mic which interacted with the infrared camera in such a way that each water droplet appeared as a tiny bright light. It kind of compromised the piece a bit.
At that time it occurred to me that no one but technicians were present at the actual burying of the chamber. No members of the public or media. It would have been very easy (and much less costly) to fake it; to “bury” it, say, in the basement and just announce that it is in the garden. Who would know? But in working on “The Quick and the Dead” one thing becomes clear about conceptual art: it’s all about the going through with it. Even if it’s only a contraption that only works for a brief time (see Michael Sailstorfer’s yarn device, “800M, or Steven Pippin’s “Fax69””), you must expend the energy to actually make the attempt to make it happen. You must put aside your feelings that you are engaged in an absurd spinning of wheels.
My ability to shake off that feeling was stretched with Microphone/Tree. I was skeptical that you would hear ANYTHING from a mic buried deep inside a tree. I would be doing all this work for the sound of NOTHING. Although I could see the Yoko Onoish poeticism in this action it seemed there was a joke, and it was on me. As with the chamber the temptation to fake it again presented itself. I could just shrug and say, yes, I plugged it in but hey there’s nothing to hear. Save a lot of trouble. Again, who would know? But I was determined to make sure it happened.
When this piece was conceived I’m sure Bruce Nauman was probably thinking there’d be a tree right outside the gallery. The expanded Walker sprawls out over a city block with the only mature tree at the far southeastern corner of the property. This posed a logistics problem. I conceived a plan to relay the signal through the nearby security office converting the audio signal to tap into the cat-5 network wiring system serving other needs of the building. This plan ran into a snag when we discovered the zigzagging between various control rooms would extend the run beyond the 1000 ft. minimum for this method to succeed. We had to switch strategy to a much more complicated and expensive method of encoding it from analog to a digital signal, which would eliminate the distance issue altogether. It struck me as particularly ironic that we were forced to use 21st century technology for a piece conceived in 1971. The signal is there. And by George if you can’t hear some vague traffic noises emanating from within that tree!