I had never seen the works of New York-based artist Tom Sachs in person before walking into the Brooklyn Museum to see Boombox Retrospective, 1999-2016. The artist is known for his reinterpretations of consumerist fetishization. His sculptures conflate the luxurious and the tacky: a cardboard toilet with prada stamped all over it, a giant bronze Big Mac box.
Lately, he’s been fixated on bricolage: objects constructed of random or found material. What drew me to the show, however, was not an informed opinion of his work, but my personal, fickle relationship with sound. I have Meniere’s disease, a condition that affects the inner ear, causing tinnitus, vertigo, and intermittent and eventually permanent hearing loss. When I click-opened the sleek Brooklyn Museum press release and saw that the blurb promised eighteen boomboxes and a “scheduled series of eclectic sound experiences,” I was morbidly intrigued. The email—which was paired with a tiny thumbnail of a pseudo space satellite assembled from a vintage boombox and two desk lamps—nudged my proclivity for the unknown. I imagined that I would be assaulted with noise, immersed in fades and jams and screeches, warm and cold frequencies and static. I imagined my aural anatomy would feed off of and reinterpret the dissonant sounds.
I visited the exhibition early on a Saturday, with a friend who had never been to the Brooklyn Museum before. We talked about the week’s debaucheries while meandering around the sculptures, which were cobbled together with vintage speakers and objects including an arcade machine and animal horns. I’d been to my first Passover just that Friday, an event that, for a British-born Chinese girl who had spent the last four years in Asia, was outrageously novel. I described the naked lamb shank bone and the sprinkling of dictations from a pamphlet distributed by Maxwell House Coffee, which had been as curious to me as the sculpture we were looking at: a series of boomboxes and a mixer on a luggage cart shielded by an umbrella.
My friend interrupted me with a request for caffeine; we sidled up to a compact booth-slash-shack with transparent windows. It was touting such wares as tins of Heinz baked beans, Café Bustelo coffee, Chiclets, Top Ramen noodles and Swiss “citizenship,” which was a mere $20. Flicking through a pamphlet, I realized that the fully operational stand was actually one of Sachs’s works, titled Bodega (2014). The absurd pretentiousness of ordering a latte from a piece of artwork made me want to mess with it more. And Tom Sachs delivered: An ATM machine jutting out from the side of the bodega functioned as a real cash dispenser and also spit out a zine related to the exhibition (that is, if you paid the extortionate “$5 transaction fee”). As I needed cash anyway, I slotted in my debit card—an instruction the machine cheekily reinterpreted as “insert penis and remove quickly.” The screen text was juxtaposed with dissolving slides of salacious imagery: a Japanese girl licking a doorknob, a nude lady from behind. My cash and a meter-long “receipt” shot out the machine. Scissors and a stapler hung down by the ATM, as well as directions for how to cut, valley/mountain fold, and staple it together to make Issue 12 of Sachs’s own Ass to Mouth mag. The zine contained captions and hand-drawn illustrations of the works on view at the Brooklyn Museum, and an essay by the artist.
Tom Sachs, Bodega , 2014
photo by Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum
I didn’t hear any recorded sound and music anywhere in the bright conservatory or around the sculptures. People were mostly buying Swiss citizenships or mochas from the bodega/work, or lazily drifting around, studying the seemingly silent boomboxes. I was afraid of asking my friend or a security guard whether or not there were actually high-pitched frequencies emanating from the sculptures, as I knew those were sounds I wouldn’t be able to hear.
In his essay in the zine, Sachs mentions the difference in how our brains log sensory data in absorbing movies and boomboxes. Often, in films, what we see is influenced by what we hear—the electric screech of a subway car tunneling into a station heightens your impression of the huge, dirty, busted train. With these boomboxes, it’s the image that influences the sound. “We spend with our eyes,” he says.
I spent ten minutes staring obsessively at Phonkey . The sculpture sat on a red platform, recalling a landing pad on Mars or another distant planet; the aesthetic of the solar panel wings and boombox body mimicked that of Kubrick and other dystopian sci-fi cinematography from the late twentieth century. I became convinced that a faint eerie drone, similar to a theremin or a waterphone warble, was streaming from the speakers. I couldn’t decide whether Sachs had taken his theory further and wired in a soundtrack that directly related to the boombox sculpture’s look and feel, or if the sounds I thought I was hearing were being influenced by my visual perception of the sculpture.
Tom Sachs, Phonkey , 2011
photo by Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum
My friend walked up to me and wondered aloud why there wasn’t any music playing yet. “Yeah . . . funny,” I said, silently freaking out a little. This confirmed that the sounds I heard a second ago were either completely imagined or that my tinnitus was playing up again.
But then the music did start—all the way over, it seemed, from the largest boombox in the front conservatory. (The exhibition was split into two halls, separated by columns.) Toyan’s , the 8-by-12-foot mega sculpture made of twenty-nine speakers, began churning out a sleepy and funky mix. A wide panel of dials and knobs on the piece presented a tactile temptation, only to be interrupted by Sachs’s note, in all caps on masking tape, that read “DON’T FUCKING TOUCH!”
When I walked around to another side of the piece, the music transformed dramatically, sounding disembodied and hollow to my ears. I saw the source of the noise: an old-school iPod encased in a plastic box with two heavy padlocks guarding the playlist. A tiny object powering a gigantic behemoth of a sound system.
Tom Sachs, Toyans, 2002 photo by Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum
I regretted deleting Shazam from my phone; the app was made for moments like this. I was proud of myself when I recognized a remix of Christina Aguilera’s classic “Genie in A Bottle,” but I had to consult my friend for the next song, also a remix, of Gwen Stefani’s “Luxurious.” Sachs’s playlist favored slow and deep beats, amplifying the generous vibrations from vintage tweeters. Walking around, I realized the same song was being streamed from every boombox in the room, although it also seemed as if the entirety of the hall’s music was being played from Toyan’s .
The disconnect and confusion continued into the second hall housing the exhibition. In the center of the space was a fully stocked bar (between the bottles was propped a record, Prince’s Purple Rain ) attached to a DJ booth, where two stationary decks sat invitingly. This was placed between two other sculptures—monstrous, funnel-shaped speakers, each with a television screen monitoring the sound waves being emitted from them. When I put my head in one of these speakers, the song—the same one being looped throughout the entire show—pounded in my skull.
The one sculpture in the entire exhibition that didn’t appear to have any speakers was the DJ booth, although, walking around it, I heard the same streams of music that were being emitted from all the other boomboxes. Was it playing music? my friend and I wondered. Again, source and sound were confused. We came to one theory: that the huge speakers on either side of it, which were both facing towards the booth, were producing soundwaves that converged right in the middle. Even if there was no music playing from the DJ booth, it sounded like there was. It felt like an inside joke, albeit one that we were somewhat privy to: The silent DJ booth that usually produces sound instead collects it, while the speakers, which usually blasts it, were the producers of the sound.
installation view, Boombox Retropsective (2016)
photo by Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum
A disturbing aspect of my deteriorating hearing condition is the unknown—not knowing whether a sound is phantom or real, or not being able to locate where a sound is coming from. And because noise arrives to my brain semi-muffled through my less-than-perfect ears, it is already separated by a degree from its source. But often, when I am able to locate a sound, it gives it context, and helps me decipher and understand it.
With Sachs’s bricolage boomboxes, the whole point was that there was no way of telling which speaker was functional and which was not, and where the sounds I was hearing were coming from. In life outside of the exhibition, my misunderstanding of sound can be infuriating, distressing, or sometimes hilarious. But here, my experience amplified the truth of what Sachs pointed out in his essay—that we all “spend with our eyes.” We all forge internal connections between image and sound, which can influence what we think is happening externally.
My friend knew about my Meniere’s disease but didn’t know how hearing loss informed and confused other senses, and vice versa. As we left the exhibit, I found myself discussing this at length with her. And over the course of the next few days, I would continue to intercept light conversations—about the weather, or New York’s real estate market, or Donald Trump—with statements that demanded serious inquiry into how we perceive the world around us. I went to an art exhibition that fucked with my hearing , I’d say. Aware of my condition, friends and acquaintances would lean in, indicating sympathy or interest. And I think that was the point; I think it was wonderful. I think we all see things faster than we hear them. I’d inevitably end up recommending the show to them, hoping they’d come back to tell me that they were surprised, disturbed, unsure—all things I feel often in my daily life—or, at the very least, amused by the confusion of sound and sight, enough to make them consider just how dependent each and every sense is on the others.