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Playtime at the Whitney Museum

Cutely named “Festival” (or, more precisely and more cutely, “Christian Marclay: Festival”), the art installation and music series at the Whitney Museum this summer has a festiveness, a block-party atmosphere, rare in the contemporary avant-garde. Musically, Marclay’s work is lightweight; but so is a birthday balloon, and both are fun, if susceptible to over-inflation.

A dilettante of near genius, Marclay has for three decades now been dabbling ambitiously in places where music, the visual arts, and performance art overlap. The Whitney show, a breakthrough for Marclay, deals playfully with the relationships between music and its representations, between the aural and the visual, between the fleeting and the durable. Marclay has prepared several sets of materials that incorporate graphic symbols of music: garments with notes printed on the fabric, record jackets, and picture discs, as well as toilet paper from the chain store Spencer Gifts, souvenir pencils, and other found objects that employ musical staves or notes as visual elements. These all serve not only as exhibits in the show but as scores, of a sort, for the musicians participating in “Festival.”

The objects aren’t the only aspects of the exhibit intended for direct use. On a long wall in one room, rows of staves are painted on a floor-to-ceiling blackboard, and chalk is provided for visitors to write whatever they’d like—notes, words, doodles, their names and phone numbers. Each day during the run of the show, a different musician or group is being given a set of these materials and called upon to “play” it. The musicians include many of the most prominent figures in the avant-garde, such as the sound artist Marina Rosenfeld and the guitarist Elliott Sharp.

So far, I’ve been to two of the “Festival” events, to see the pianist Rob Schwimmer improvise off the scrawls on the chalkboard (an event Marclay calls “Chalkboard”) and to see the pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and the violinist Mark Feldman work off of sheets of musical ephemera (which Marclay has titled “Ephemera”). I’m planning to go back for more, and I’m not a masochist. The duo performance by Courvoisier and Feldman was spirited and, at points, exhilarating, despite the tenuous relationship between the tearsheets of magazine ads on their music stands and the sounds they made.

Indeed, the music in “Festival” is not so much the work of Christian Marclay as it is music inspired by the work of Christian Marclay. What Marclay has presented is a source of creative inspiration, though it should not necessarily be taken as a product of it.

It is obvious, if not the main point of his work, that Marclay rejects traditional conceptions of authorship. Still, his music doesn’t demean the idea of authorship; it’s not good enough to do that. Marclay, like his idol Duchamp, is a gamesman, and “Festival” is playtime so fun that my seven-year-old son (here, on a video I took with my iPod) enjoyed it as much as I did.