At the Seattle Art Museum, listening to old records is the show

Dec 18, 2011

The newest show at the Seattle Art Museum features thousands of records, a DJ booth made out of an old church pew and a hands-on record player.

The installation is called "The Listening Room" and it's the latest work by Theaster Gates.

"I want folk to slow down when they come in the space. Take pause and the way you might take 6 or 7 seconds in front of a painting, I’m hoping people might spend 20 minutes to a half-hour listening," he says.

Gates wants the show to examine the legacy of these records, in terms of where they came from (a Chicago record store that's now gone) as well as some of the political messages they contain.

"There’s also an opportunity to say these albums are potent. They carry really important political and social implications. ... Nina Simone. 'I’m Feeling Good.' She has a way of just making the hardship of everyday black America something worth celebrating and something worth kind of overcoming."

It's not easy to label Gates. He's a sculptor, potter, urban planner and community activist whose work often weaves in ideas of race, politics and class. 

In the past, Gates has taken decommissioned firehoses and turned them into wall hangings (two of these are featured in the SAM show). He's also invited audiences to share in the ritual of getting their shoes shined. And he's sung with The Black Monks of Mississippi, a group that mashes up Buddhist chants with slave spirituals and the blues.

Gates grew up and lives in Chicago. He pays special attention to the notion of "space." Space as in a place that is either changing or no longer there. Space as in time. Or the spaces we go to lose -- or find -- ourselves.

One of his favorite Chicago haunts used to be the Dr. Wax record store in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. The store, owned by a Jewish man in a black neighborhood, celebrated vinyl from an era acutely important in black and civil rights history.

Gates viewed the store as a place "for cultural exchange" and a place that allowed you to go back in time.  The R&B, soul, jazz and disco records transported you and when you were willing to listen closely, were deep with meaning.

When the store announced its closure, Gates bought thousands of records (only a portion of them are on display at SAM). There's a soundtrack from the collection that plays over speakers in the third-floor gallery space. Professional DJs will occasionally be in the room spinning live. But Gates wanted to make sure this museum space could feel like "a home."

To that end, he set up a record player in the middle of the room and invites visitors to flip through albums and play something (listening on headphones).

SAM has also launched a second pop-up installation called "Record Store."  It's another kind of listening lounge (no actual records are for sale) where visitors can practice the art of looking and listening to albums. It's located in a Pioneer Square storefront at 406 Occidental Ave.

"The Listening Room" continues at the Seattle Art Museum through July 2012.

Artscape” is a weekly KPLU feature covering Northwest art, performances and artists. The feature is published here on Sundays and airs on KPLU 88.5 on Monday during Morning Edition, All Things Considered and on Weekend Saturday Edition.