By Alissa Funderburk, Oral History Master of Arts Class of 2018
Known for "breaking the mold" throughout his career, Robert Rauschenberg and his work make for the perfect subject for a wide-ranging exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). That exhibit, "Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends" (May 21–September 17, 2017), the very first 21st-century retrospective of the artist, chronicles the evolution of Rauschenberg's career in over 250 works spread out over almost an entire floor at MoMA. The pieces range from those created during his years at the experimental Black Mountain College, through to the "Combines" (combinations of painting and sculpture), and on to his experiments in radical dance-theater, all accompanied by an oral history component. The entire exhibit is accessible on MoMA's website, including the audio and transcripts of the oral histories selected by the curating team, many of which come from the Rauschenberg Oral History Project, undertaken by CCOHR with support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
The audio pieces curated for this exhibit mean that patrons walking through it have the option of listening to interview clips and other explanations of the artwork on display. In a sense, the audio pieces used throughout the exhibit are like a performance in and of themselves, a work of art in their own right. These recordings capture breaths, sighs, laughter, silences, emphases, repetition, and diction working almost like a staged production wherein which each voice is just one of many actors. The narrators seem to play with one another as in a dialogue, some providing context for the artist’s life, others explanations of his technique, and even his own voice giving insight into his inspirations, all expertly crafted together as if scripted.
The wide array of voices featured in the exhibit include those of friends and collaborators from throughout his career, like artists, choreographers, dancers, engineers, lighting and sound directors. The narrators whose voices and words were chosen for use in "Among Friends" include Rauschenberg's family, his former wife, artist Susan Weil and his son, photographer Christopher Rauschenberg. These voices give the exhibit a touch of nostalgia, like watching an old home movie, due to the familiarity with which each of the interviewees speak of Rauschenberg. Such voices are introduced and contextualized by members of the curatorial team like Ellen Davis, a paintings conservation fellow at MoMA, and Leah Dickerman, the Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art. Their behind the scenes knowledge and expertise play a role in the exhibit similar to the role the chorus plays in a Greek tragedy: illuminating details invisible to the layman’s eye.
The use of oral history makes this exhibit a unique and immersive experience. For instance, the piece entitled “Charles Atlas. 9 Evenings: An Installation, 2017,” is made up of six minutes of 16mm black and white film transferred to video. With edited portions of footage from the 1966 event projected onto screens in various locations of the room, the audio component of three narrators, including pioneering video artist and renowned filmmaker Charles Atlas, draws the viewer into the installation. The goal, according to Atlas, is “instead of the dancers moving around the audience, the audience is moving around the dancers.” His hope is for patrons to be more than just viewers and “get that feeling of experimentation and rawness in technology.” Hearing the voice of the creator of the installation helps you to feel a part of the creation in that moment, which is a goal Rauschenberg shared in his art making process.
Incorporating this audio greatly impacts the immersive effect of the installation by not simply stimulating more of your senses, but by drawing the attention of the viewer to each of the individual elements of the piece. Walking through a white room filled with pipes and screens mounted in unexpected places, you don’t know where to look first. But with the audio, not only do you get additional background information and context for the original work, but you are affected by the language of the narrators. Their choice in words, like “flooded with infrared light” is much like Rauschenberg's choice of a particular paint color in another piece, vividly illustrating something you might not otherwise be able to see. Now not only can you experience this new piece, but you can more creatively imagine what the original performance must have felt like.
The marriage of visual and audio in this exhibit also changes the listening experience of these oral history interviews. As opposed to focusing on an individual story, as would be the case when listening to a single person’s interview, the audio here pieces together the voices of multiple people like a conversation. It gives one the sense of being behind the scenes and a part of the artist’s process, part of the planning and brainstorming that went into all of the projects Rauschenberg worked on. As if you too, are among friends.
Alissa Funderburk is a New York native, having been born and raised in the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island, New York. As a lover of the fast paced global power that is the City of New York, Alissa attended Columbia University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in anthropology as a John W. Kluge Scholar. While in the college, Alissa dedicated herself to a number of organizations including the Multicultural Recruitment Committee, Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters, Black Student Organization, and Sexual Violence Response Program.
Her studies focused on race, culture, education and religion, particularly those of the African-American diaspora. After her graduation in 2012, Alissa relocated to her mother’s hometown of Decatur, Alabama where she spent her time pursuing two of her favorite interests: family history and children’s ministry. After a year’s time, Alissa returned to New York and began working with Hope Church NYC as the director of kids programming and as an assistant at York Preparatory School.
In the past three years Alissa has been a dedicated alumna and devoted member of her Astoria church community. Her oral history research will focus on exploring the religions and cultures that make up New York City, recording the stories of those communities. A haven for immigrants and people from multitudinous backgrounds, New York presents an ornate tapestry of religious tolerance. Alissa will ask the question, “What do you believe in?” and uncover the many ways how religion, either belief or disbelief, impacts the lives of others.