Sound Institutions: Art Podcasts, Part Two

"Raw Material" host Jessica Placzek gathering tape in El Mirage, California. Photo Maddie Gobbo.

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With artists, critics, and curators starting their own podcasts in droves, it was only a matter of time before larger operations joined the fray. Over the last few years, the field of art-centered podcasts has become crowded with institutional entries. In January, e-flux announced the launch of its podcast by saying: “In 2018 we are coming out from your screen and getting in your head.” Online publications, museums, and even commercial galleries are pivoting to audio. But have they been getting in our heads?

The institutional influx has brought budgets to a domain that is predominantly shaggy and DIY (see part one of this series for more). These shows are polished, with good-quality audio, sound effects, and edits; some even have ads. A few outlets have caught onto the concept of seasons—common in the podcast mainstream—as a way of organizing episodes. Still, the presentation often feels tentative. Listening is like eavesdropping as each institution enters the recording booth, taps the mic, and asks “Is this thing on?” as they try to find a suitable voice. This auditioning can be somewhat boring, but my curiosity has also been piqued. Who is going to try something new? Who will figure this thing out?

Similar shifts happened before, when organizations first got websites, then blogs. Then, as now, newness has a leveling effect. Episodes tend to run either twenty or forty minutes. Formats are conventional; interviews predominate. The important differences are in content and tone, which track closely to the host organization’s profile.

Momus, the Canadian online magazine whose tagline promises “a return to criticism,” produces “Momus: The Podcast,” which foregrounds critics’ voices by inviting two writers to engage in discussion for each episode. “The Artsy Podcast” and “e-flux podcast” are as similar to their parent organizations as their names suggest, with topics, texts, and guests drawn directly from the eponymous publications. For Hyperallergic’s podcast, “Art Movements,” editor and host Hrag Vartanian reads news and headlines directly from his site.

Reading digital content aloud may not be a terribly original approach, but it’s not bad, either. Listeners might appreciate the audible version for reasons of convenience and comprehension. If you like an online publication, its podcast will probably enhance your commute. But that simple affinity also seems like part of the problem. These young, digital publications have taken to podcasting almost too smoothly, seeing audio as a logical extension of online publishing and using their shows as a way to build their audiences, rather than committing to the medium itself. I don’t fault them for it, especially because they probably lack the resources to develop innovative audio content. Though I wonder if this limited approach will eventually limit their reach.

Frieze puts out audio in the form of recorded dialogues from the affiliated fairs, and ARTnews has a podcast where the stories from their morning newsletter are read aloud. But that’s the extent of the glossy publications’ commitment to the medium thus far. Museums are the only older institutions taking a robust approach to podcasts. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York partnered with WNYC to produce “A Piece of Work,” a poppy, informative podcast. The host is Abbi Jacobson, once an aspiring illustrator, now famous as co-creator and co-star of the TV show “Broad City.” The show bridges the gap between the wide-eyed artist she used to be and the confident comedian she is now. Most episodes begin with Jacobson voicing incredulity or confusion about an iconic artwork. To further explore the topic, she enlists her “friends,” who bolster her initial befuddlement. Like Jacobson, these friends are experienced performers and inexperienced analyzers of art. As a result, everyone seems a bit out of their element. Hannibal Buress cracks uncharacteristically flat jokes about Duchamp’s Fountain. RuPaul makes uncharacteristically bland observations about Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy. I suppose the idea is that if a celebrity can be confused by art, then so can we.

Things usually clear up mid-episode, when Jacobson gets the historical context and critical tools she needs to understand the work from a MoMA curator. Then, like a travel writer or recent vegan, Jacobson assumes a position of sudden, didactic expertise. To close out the episode, she offers a greeting-card insight about the nature of say, Minimalism, which, it turns out, “is about everything.” Cue a coda of triumphant, jangly chords from an electric guitar.

Jacobson is a magnetic host, and the show’s goal of converting people to the appeal of contemporary art is laudable. But these strengths also create serious structural problems. Everything revolves around Jacobson’s perspective, and her “aha!” moments lose their charm once you start expecting them. What if, as a plot twist, our host, once informed, persisted in her cold ambivalence toward Minimalism? What if RuPaul talked to the curators directly about performance art? I found myself asking these kinds of questions more and more as the season went on, imagining scenarios that didn’t fit the format. It was also hard to imagine a second season of the show. Would Jacobson encounter, and be won over by, another group of canonical works from MoMA’s collection? The producers are apparently befuddled by this question as well; it has been over a year since the last episode was released.

“Raw Material,” a podcast by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has a more flexible format, with a different host for each season. The first one, Otherworld, hosted by writer Ross Simonini, explores occult influences on art making. The witchy approach is surprising at first, but you come to learn how well it vibes with the history of art in San Francisco. In the second season, Manifest, audio producer Geraldine Ah-Sue guides listeners through artist-activist projects of cultural resistance around the Bay Area. The third season, Landfall, has two hosts, multimedia journalist Jessica Placzek and fiction writer Madeline Gobbo, who employ a wide variety of tactics to explore Land art, very broadly defined, in the West. Combining travel reportage with interviews, historical writing, and some creative writing interludes, episodes in the third season capably link a variety of seemingly disparate issues and styles. Visiting sites as varied as Spiral Jetty and Disneyland, the show is able to illuminate contemporary art with insights from everyday experience and vice versa—no simple feat.

After season three, “Raw Material” put out a mixtape of episodes from other podcasts about the hidden histories of woman artists, called “Meeting in the Ladies Room.” SFMOMA’s podcast team is not just leading the way, but studiously monitoring the field as they go. As other arts organizations plan their own forays into podcasting, they could do worse than to follow this example.