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Ron KuivilaVisitations

  • Exhibition

  • May 28, 1999 - April 30, 2007

The industrial complex now occupied by MASS MoCA laid fallow beginning in 1986 when employees of Sprague Electric vacated it. These people once filled the buildings with sounds of industry, conversation, joking, and complaining — in other words, the “voice” of the now-quiet company. Charles Babbage, the father of the digital computer, conceived of sounds as immortal, diminishing in volume but eternally reverberating within the space where they were made. This notion inspired sound artist Ron Kuivila to undertake an imaginary excavation of the “voice” of Sprague Electric in Visitations. “The history of a place is hidden,” he said, “in the gentle murmur of its room tone — a din too soft and too subtle to discern with the human ear.”

The relationship of space and place to sound is the common denominator of Kuivila’s work, a relationship manifested in Visitations through the incorporation of layered visual components within the former Sprague machine shop. At select windows of the shop, the viewer saw a number of commemorative Sprague “5 Year Pins,” awarded to employees for accumulated service time. Simple rotary motors, powered by capacitors much like those manufactured in Sprague’s heyday and accompanied by empty chairs, spun in the middle ground. Finally, orderly regiments of over 4,000 capacitors, standing in for the number of individuals employed by Sprague at its peak, were placed on long workbenches that formed a spine down the center of the room. This pastiche echoed Kuivila’s layered soundscape emanating from the walls outside.

Visitations’ sonic component was comprised of oral interviews, readings, radio broadcasts, Sprague advertising video soundtracks, found industrial sounds, and computer-generated noises. Through the incorporation of living memory and voices, however, Visitations illustrated the influence of John Cage’s modern musical theory. Cage’s work has been described by Joan Retallack as acknowledging the “fact that we don’t live our lives in orderly tenses or monotonic modes. We live in messy conversation located at lively intersections of present, past, and future.” Visitations embodied this sentiment, incorporating Cagean interest in the contribution of random and unrehearsed circumstances to the evolution and completion of a work of art.

Visitations mined memory for its source material. This fact, coupled with the difficulty inherent in navigating the past through oral history, was central to the organization of its “narrative.” Through the tradition of oral history, people, knowingly or not, recreate and reshape their own and others’ histories. Visitations offered a glimpse of the complex relationships among the past and present incarnations of the buildings on the MASS MoCA campus.

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