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Listening to Les Levine’s Wire Tap

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“Listening is not a natural process inherent to our perception of the world but rather constructed by the conditions of the spaces and times that engulf us.”
Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Les Levine’s work Wire Tap (1970) is currently on view at Oakville Galleries in the exhibition Les Levine: Transmedia. The work is presented in a dedicated room, where twelve speakers encircle the space’s three walls. The speakers play a loop of twelve hours of telephone conversations recorded by Levine from his personal phone conversations about the production of artwork over a yearlong period. The work was originally presented at New York’s Fischbach Gallery in 1970, and was acquired shortly thereafter by the National Gallery of Canada in 1971.

Levine’s description of the work, excerpted in the exhibition label, from a press release for the work sheds light on the artist’s approach: “Wire Tap deals with the non- physical aspects of art activities. It exposes publicly the mental process or software involved with art production. [...] The telephone has destroyed any notions of privacy society has had. Wire Tap is like spying on yourself to find out how information effects the operation of your brain.”

When Wire Tap was originally installed it used recorded cassette tapes. Cassette tapes first emerged in the 1960s but rose to prominence culturally during the 1970s and 1980s. Curator Barbara London has noted that because their relatively low cost, audiocassettes brought new possibilities for presenting and sharing sound and rap art. Despite that accessibility in recording and sharing as well as portability that the cassette offered, it was gradually crowded out by CDs and more recently digital technologies. There has of course been a localized reemergence of cassettes in certain genres, but for the most part it has been steadily on the decline. In 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary even attempted to remove the word “cassette player” from its 12th edition Concise version.

This situation presents an interesting scenario for artists and museums, of whether to continue presenting a work in a format that is becoming obsolete for continuity, or whether to make the shift to a technology that can be more readily conserved for the future. For a fascinating account of the research that can be required for making this type of change, Conservator Ben Fino-Radin’s gave an in-depth account of MoMA’s restoration of Teiji Furuhashi’s Lovers (1994). In the case of Wire Tap, it still uses the work’s original speakers, and the National Gallery of Canada’s team transferred the original work to digital media players, but it hasn’t lost the ambient sounds of the original recording.

In Fino-Radin’s piece, he writes about a relationship that is common to galleries and museums:

“Two of MoMA’s most important mandates are related to its collection: exhibition and preservation. It may then come as a surprise to some that these two aspects of the Museum’s mission are often in opposition to one another, and must be kept in a careful balance. Physical objects are all, to varying degrees, subject to change. […]Time-based media artworks also face this fundamental balancing act of exhibition and presentation. For example, the longer a video projector runs, the shorter its life will be. Every second a cathode ray tube television displays an image, its screen dims just so slightly, eventually rendering it dead forever.”

As technology evolves ever more rapidly, contemporary artists and conservators both find themselves tackling challenging questions of exhibition and preservation within the span of an artwork’s life, questions that will need to be addressed for time-based works in the years to come.

There will be an opportunity to listen to Les Levine in conversation with curator Sarah Robayo Sheridan on Thursday, March 9, presented in partnership with the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

Image: Installation view of Wire Tap, 1970. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.