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When you hear the word “snap” without the “chat” part, it’s overtly musical. Leave it to Christian Marclay, a maestro of found sound and image collage, to highlight the musical element of Snapchat, the ephemeral video app. For his solo exhibition Sound Stories at LACMA, presented “in collaboration” with Snap Inc., Marclay has repurposed thousands of anonymous users’ Snapchat videos into five immersive, experimental audiovisual arrangements. His proposition seems deceptively simple in format, except that it required the services of a team of Snap engineers to design unique algorithms and apply speech-detection software that allowed Marclay to edit and rearrange millions of publicly shared social media posts. However, tech corporations are not neutral, and Marclay’s collaboration with engineers from a multi-billion dollar tech company responsible for designing software that triggers social recognition behavior and encourages addiction is problematic. Marclay, nonetheless, succeeds in creating captivating artworks using this technology.
Compared to Marclay’s monumental 24-hour film, The Clock (2010)—for which he sourced all imagery from already-highly-produced mainstream films—the audiovisual installations in Sound Stories are charmingly banal. All Together (2018) is a 4:30 minute audiovisual composition that plays across ten synchronized smartphones arranged in an intimate half-circle. Marclay seamlessly sequenced hundreds of Snapchat videos of people performing everyday tasks like walking, practicing an instrument, making dinner, or riding the subway. The effect recalls ASMR videos, the sensorial pleasure of mundane where repetitive acts take center stage. Even the most interactive installation of the show, the more technically complicated The Organ (2018), feels surprisingly elemental, despite its high-tech programming. Viewers are invited to play a keyboard algorithmically programmed to match musical notes with sounds from Snapchat videos—pressing a key prompts a column of videos to flash across an enormous screen. The most amateur keyboardist can thus create an impressive fluxus composition. In both works, however, the original source of the videos is uncredited, raising questions about appropriating users’ footage without consent, particularly given the legitimate concern around social media companies and data ownership.
The exhibition appears to unironically endorse Snap’s stated mission to “empower people to express themselves” through highly programmed, interactive technology. Though, Marclay’s collaboration with Snap Inc. falls short in works like Talk to Me/Sing to Me (2018), in which dozens of iPhones hang at eye level with text on each screen announcing, “Sing to me.” When prompted by speech activation software, the devices flash snippets from Snapchat videos that mimic the sound of the viewer’s voice. Similar to the way Siri technology converts human speech into textual form, Marclay’s work matches the viewer’s pitch with analogous tones from Snapchat videos. But installed in a setting normally reserved for quiet reflection, the work puts too much expectation on the viewer to perform, and watching other visitors talk into a smartphone, instead of with each other, reinforces the feeling of distraction and disconnection that social media so often already induces. In lacking a critical perspective of how these technologies negatively affect social behavior and covertly control personal information, Marclay is, by extension, complicit with the corporations which, for better or worse, have come to redefine our social landscape.
Christian Marclay: Sound Stories runs from August 25–November 11, 2019 at LACMA (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036).