Everything old is new again in “Chorus for Untrained Operator” at Union College.
The installation, featured in the Crowell and West Galleries, brings together dozens of discarded objects and turns them into instruments or sound makers. Visitors complete the recreation process by controlling the instruments using a 1940s telephone switchboard.
“As with Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Readymades,’ the functional utility of the objects is discarded to reveal new ideas and sonic lives,” wrote David Ogawa, an associate professor of art history at Union.
The switchboard, made by Western Electric, features dozens of spots to plug patch cords into and make the instruments “speak” to one another. Plug one in and you might hear the sound of a song blaring from a nearby boom box. Plug in another and you might hear the sound of ping pong balls and Lego pieces being pushed around or the sound of a wooden foot tapping out a rhythm across the room.
Created by Peter Bussigel and Stephan Moore, “Chorus for Untrained Operator” has gone through a few different iterations. It was first installed several years ago at the Creative Arts Council at Brown University and this installation at Union College is the fifth time its been shown, with some objects/instruments added and others removed or altered.
It’s an experimental installation that relies on attendees to help reimage the objects, many of which were made several decades ago (the record player, the tape player, the keyboard, etc.).
Centered at the heart of the installation, the switchboard gives new meaning to the term “plugged in," and reminds viewers how much communication has changed over the years.
Plugging in several cords creates a cacophony that attendees can't entirely comprehend, just as we can only listen or read and understand so much at one time even in this age of digital communication.
By plugging in different cords on the 79-year-old switchboard, each visitor creates a sort of composition. A stack of paper is positioned on the switchboard’s desk so visitors can copy what cords they plugged in and leave the composition for the next visitor, so they can experience the installation in the same way.
When the Gazette visited, the top composition was titled “Symphony from Philly,” and when "played" featured the sounds of zip ties flicking against fan blades and a bell hitting a spice rack.
Making and leaving those compositions is a way to connect with other viewers. The exhibition also provides a way to connect generations.
As odd as it may seem, children growing up today might not recognize some of the objects in the installation that were once considered ubiquitous, like the cassette tape player, movie projector or boom box. While the installation pushes viewers to discard their understanding of what these objects do, it’s nearly impossible to forget about our experiences with each of the familiar objects-turned-instruments. In that sense, the exhibition becomes a platform to discuss the past, as well as the future, with both older and younger generations.
“Chorus for Untrained Operator,” is on exhibition at Crowell and West Galleries in the Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts (807 Union Street, Schenectady) until December 6. For more info call 518-388-6785 or visit union.edu/visual-arts.