What a musician's major museum debut can tell us about the art of muzak
James Ferraro (b. 1988): musician, jokester, conceptual artist. Currently “on display” at MoMA PS1 in Queens is Ferraro's installation, 100%. “On display” is in scare quotes because of the fact that you won't see, or even necessarily notice, a single component of Ferraro's work when you visit the Museum of Modern Art's outer borough outpost for contemporary art. The same man who once set out to make an album full of ringtones (Far Side Virtual, more on that soon) has provided a 19-minute piece on loop for PS1's elevator, scored the hold music for PS1's phone line and, of course, posted a suite of ringtones on the museum's website. Each piece of music is discreet from the next, and even though some of them share titles with older Ferraro work, these compositions are heretofore unheard.
Ferraro's humor is broad, and his jokes are brazenly dumb. I am partial, and was very much into the idea of an esteemed, moneyed art institution commissioning work from the guy with a booming fro and missing tooth who I once saw perform in front of a muted projection of the Michael Jackson documentary, This Is It. Ferraro lent PS1 a gag. Elevator music, hold music, ring tones—the quotidian music that we actively ignore. You’re probably tempted to ask, “What is this guy’s deal?” You suspect an ulterior motive, since the joke is seemingly so simple. He is not Walter De Maria, trying to harness weather and craft beauty with a Lightning Field. He is not John Baldessari, singing Sol Lewitt's Paragraphs on Conceptual Art as a simultaneously faithful and irreverent recapitulation of a radical text.
But what is Ferraro up to? Is he asking us whether a work’s presence in a museum is enough to consolidate its status as high art? If so, then Ferraro is a boring artist asking trite questions that no one—not even art critics at this point—really cares about. Is he just fucking with the Museum of Modern Art, committing an act of charlatanism to drum up attention? If so, then why did he craft a new, intricate "Dubai Dream Tone" for the elevator instead of just recycling the original version from Far Side Virtual? Well, if 100% is nothing more than a joke about elevator music, then Ferraro’s PS1 debut is about as infantile as conceptual art gets, with its nearest parallel being the primordial plumbing fixture from which this whole tradition evolved, Marcel DuChamp's Fountain. Is he simply playing a joke on hapless museum goers?
My take, developed over the course of a few years, is that James Ferraro heard “Weird Al” Yankovich's “Dare To Be Stupid” and took the advice to heart. I started out as a Ferraro fan when he was a member of the primo noise band, Skaters. As that band came to a slow halt around the turn of this decade, Ferraro made a few albums of pop music using the crudest consumer electronics of the ’80s and ’90s. Works like On Air made him one of the darlings of the lo-fi movement, thanks to his thrift shop synthesizer and keen sixth sense for cultural detritus. See Last American Hero, one of his best albums from this period, which was adorned with a photo of a Best Buy.
In 2011, right around the time that people were getting worn out by lo-fi, Ferraro went high gloss. With an arsenal of canny samples (the Skype dialing ditty, iPhone tics) and Garage Band presets, Ferraro molded Far Side Virtual. Conceived as an album of ring tones, Far Side Virtual sounded like prefab music for a doctor's office or a car dealership or an instructional video. Songs like “Google Poeises and “Tomorrow's Baby of the Year” used the cleanest, most insipid-sounding synth and drum sounds in existence to channel the collective unconscious of late capitalist America. This work singlehandedly spurred the genre vaporwave, a kind of widespread investigation of post-internet society's beige incidental music. Ferraro's masterstroke on the album was simultaneously making a bunch of tunes you wanted to whistle, lending the music the same quiet horror as a really friendly sociopath.
It's easy to picture Ferraro snickering to himself as he banged out the melody for the album's single, “Condo Pets.” The point was to make bad music, or at least music that bore all the conventional signifiers of bad music: cheese, mildness, unpleasant sounds. It also lacked any humanizing element, as all voices on the record were derived from a text-to-speech computer program. So why should you, a listener, bother listening to music intended to be awful? Why should you shell out ten bucks to stand in an elevator and hear work that only realizes its full potential when people are ignoring it to check their smart phones between floors?
I rode that elevator for the entire 20-minute run-time of the installed composition, the new version of “Dubai Dream Tone.” When I asked a PS1 employee on the elevator what people thought of the music, he had to think for a while. No one had ever asked him that question before. Most people, he told, didn't even notice it. Indeed, the elderly couple that took the elevator twice during my time riding were totally ignorant of the sounds above them. There was one Australian gentleman who rode the elevator for a bit. He eventually got fed up with the experience of listening to music on awful speakers in a moving metal box. Before exiting, the Aussie declared 100% to be just a “clunky joke.”
When you dare to be stupid, you make clunky jokes. You post ring tones on PS1's website with titles like “Abs,” “Dianetics 1,” “Saint Prius” and “The Warming Planet.” You intersperse your elevator composition with computer voices professing “brought to you by AT&T” and “super high definition rain forest.” People pay ten dollars to wander around and feel smart for a few hours and you implicitly ask them to think critically about elevator music. It's like, what's next, Ferraro playing fart sounds from his iPhone for a room of seated attendees?
I think it’s the difficulty of responding to Ferraro’s work that makes the guy such a compelling figure. If anything threatens his credibility as a conceptual artist, ironically, it's the fact that the on-display “Dubai Dream Tone” is really nice to listen to. The loops are delicate. The synthesizer figures employ a placid beauty. The bird sounds, ostensibly the empty signifiers of the “super high definition rain forest,” are actually very pretty and soothing. Just like Far Side Virtual, the ring tones on PS1's website are actually really catchy, and the fact that they automatically loop gives them a self-generating pop song structure.
If anything, this is where Ferraro's work gets messy. Far Side Virtual's success as pop was rooted in a perverse injection of catchiness into typically soulless, commercial background music. In the time since, on albums like Sushi and NYC, Hell 3:00 AM, Ferraro has skewed closer to pop, even hip-hop. The tendency toward enjoyable sound is evident in 100%, and the earnestness puts him in a sticky situation. The music in the elevator, on the phone line, is decidedly not muzak. It's too complex, too weird, too ultimately endearing. The thing that makes DuChamp's Fountain flawless is it's absolute lack of craft, the fact that it was ready-made. In a surprising negation, Ferraro's background as a musician, and his instinctual desire to make things people like listening to, seems to mitigate his desire as a conceptual artist to shine the mirror in overstimulated society's bored face. But then again, maybe that's not the point. Maybe he just wants to give those bored, overstimulated masses a good chuckle and a tune to whistle.