Visualize: Watching Music

As declared by the magazine’s name and symbolized by its eye-shaped logo, KALEIDOSCOPE is all about “ways of seeing” and decoding our times through the political act of vision. In this issue, Alessio Ascari explores the visual album trend and the very idea of “watching music.”

Last July, senior editor Jillian Mapes wrote an article for Pitchfork titled, “Is 2016 Music’s Biggest Year in Decades?” Barely past the first semester, this year has already proven to be a momentous one, punctuated by an impressive string of major releases (all the way from Drake’s VIEWS to Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool) and tough losses (David Bowie in January, Prince in April). Although one may rightly be allergic to the media’s tendency to stick 140-character labels on everything, it’s a fact that this year music has slayed the stage of culture with exuberant energy—powered by new streaming services such as Apple Music and Tidal, both launched in 2015.

With the latter coming to full force as audiovisual platforms—entertainment hubs devoted to sound just as much as to video and curated content—one of the things 2016 has admittedly been memorable for is the reaffirmation of music as a full, muti-sensorial experience and a powerful form of visual culture in its own right.

Kanye West’s Madison Square Garden event last February—combining the launch of his new album, The Life of Pablo, with a presentation of the Yeezy Season 3 fashion line and an art performance by Vanessa Beecroft, all of which streamed live on Tidal—may be one of the most striking examples of this “total” approach to music.

Right at that time, one of Beecroft’s iconic polaroids featured on the cover of KALEIDOSCOPE #26, so I flew to New York to meet the controversial VB and attend the show. Devoid of the frontality typical of any music concert, the event felt like being inside an image—the main inspirations behind the performance being a photograph of refugees escaping the genocide in Rwanda and the dense palette of Baroque painting. We were all high on synaesthesia, with all of our perceptual and sensory receptors stimulated at once, the visual and the sonic chasing and intensifying each other.

But when you think of this year’s synergy between music and the visual reign, another occurrence is even more eloquent. Two of 2016’s most outstanding releases, Beyoncé’s unannounced new drop and the highly-anticipated-and-forever-postponed prelude to Frank Ocean’s new work, both took on the format of the “visual album.” Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an ambitious, opera-like, big-production film, counted numerous collaborators including filmmaker Kahlil Joseph (who had previously created a video installation set to Kendrick Lamar’s breakout album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and is also featured in this issue on p. 182), while Ocean’s Endless, on the other end of the spectrum, consisted of a fixed-camera “mapping the studio” scene shot in severe black and white, yet encapsulated special featurings by artists Tom Sachs and Wolfgang Tillmans.

 

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Across the media, these releases were often presented as groundbreaking innovations, revolutionizing the experience of music through such a strong integration with video. But let’s be real: a relationship between music and visual arts is far from being a new thing. One should look back to the Los Angeles MOCA 2005 exhibition “Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900” for a reminder of how deeply rooted it is; nor would it hurt to brush up on the most significant experimentations with the videoclip format since the MTV revolution (from Michael Jackson’s thirteen-minute horror-themed music video for “Thriller” to the iconic 1990s collaborations of Aphex Twin and Chris Cunningham under the helm of Warp Records).

Even the format of the “visual album” itself is not really a new idea. Rather, these releases should be seen as continuations of a long legacy of musical films. The Beatles did it twice, with the comedy Help! in 1965 and the animated fantasy Yellow Submarine in 1968; in both cases, the album was first presented to the audience as a cinematic experience; only afterwards was the soundtrack released as a studio album. Prince’s Purple Rain (1984), a rock musical drama which preceded the album of the same title, even won an Academy Award. When you think about it, the mid-‘80s were a golden age in this respect, giving us both the hip hop magnus opus Wild Style and David Byrne’s surreal True Stories. Without even going so far back in the days, the second studio album by Daft Punk, Discovery (2003), was accompanied by the animation film Interstella 5555, realized in collaboration with cult manga and anime artist Leiji Matsumoto. And in 2010, Kanye was the one to officially bring back the trend, with the 35-minute short film for his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

 

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So what is so exciting about the visual album, here and now? Mainly, that Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Ocean’s Endless were both conceived to be experienced not in a cinema theater, but rather online, on the notebook-size screen of a laptop, or more realistically, on the pocket-size screen of a phone. Beyond the artists’ noble intentions, and the undeniable credit of bringing the user back to listening to the full record instead of fragmented tracks on YouTube, the resurgence of the visual album is above all an expression of a music industry that’s adapting to the behaviors of digital natives.

It’s a crucial junction. One should be relieved when a huge industry morphs to the needs of consumers in order to survive instead of the other way around, but it’s still difficult, if definitely interesting, to imagine how this will go down. We can hope for the best, and predict that the efforts of these mainstream figures will be followed by more independent, experimental acts.

The potential for innovation is already all there: one almost can’t think of the music of young Venezuelan producer Arca discerned from the disturbing visuals of London-based artist Jesse Kanda; and someone like the eclectic British singer/producer/performer/director FKA Twigs has already released M3LL155X, a creative package consisting of her 2015 EP accompanied by a 16-minute self-directed video, and most recently Soundtrack 7, an “abstract autobiographical” film composed by dance pieces shot at last year’s Manchester International Festival. On the other hand, Tyler the Creator’s Odd Future Records has structured itself as a Tumblr-generation movement, encompassing TV, radio, photography and merchandise. In its own way, Odd Future is picking up the interdisciplinary legacy of punk, one of the first movements to ever conceive music as inseparable from film, fashion, publishing and design—all integral parts of an aesthetic and lifestyle firmly grounded on an unapologetic DIY attitude.

 

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When it comes to technological breakthroughs, honorable mentions go to Massive Attack and Björk. The politically savvy Bristol trip hop group has an ongoing artistic synergy with UVA – United Visual Artists, who has created complex kinetic installations for the band’s tours (simultaneously developed on their immersive website), including a collaborative multi-media project with documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis in 2013. And Björk, a trailblazer of visual music since her 2005 collaboration with Matthew Barney on Drawing Restraint 9, followed by her 2011 first-of-its-kind interactive app-album Biophilia, recently launched a new virtual reality project, Björk Digital, featuring seven 360-degrees videos to accompany each track from her latest album, vulnicura.

So how does contemporary art’s role play out in this equation? All eyes and aspirations are on it, as per usual. (An interesting reference is the exhibition “The Infinite Mix” currently on view in London, organized by the Hayward Gallery with record label The Vinyl Factory, which investigates the interplay between moving image and sound.) But once again, it so happens that, paradoxically, pop culture seems to be more avant-garde, more future-ready then the conservative art system when it comes to opening up to new generations and formats. As Jeffrey Deitch stated in the opening article of “Renaissance Man,” his ongoing column in the pages of this magazine, “It will be fascinating to watch how the next artistic generation deals with the new audience’s openness and fluency in visual culture.” Not the strong suit of the art world, too often self-referential and keen on the old distinctions between academic languages, but hybridity and boundary-pushing collaboration will most likely be the answer, and young artists understand it. The title of a recent book/manifesto on creativity by Dazed’s legendary publisher Jefferson Hack resonates here and may serve as a vademecum: We Can’t Do This Alone.



Images in order of appearance: FKA Twigs, Soundtrack 7, 2016 (video still); Frank Ocean, Endless, 2016 (video still); Beyoncé, Lemonade, 2016 (video still); Prince, Purple Rain, 1984 (production still); Arca & Jesse Kanda, TRAUMA Scene 1, 2014 (video still)