The ambient noise of common machines and the unexpected sounds that come from familiar objects have been a part of music for some time, but over the last fifteen years French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has been joining the two, using instruments and objects to construct complex, apparently self-sufficient systems that play music without any beginnings, endings, or performers. Videodrones (2001) isolates and amplifies the hum that all video signals make when hooked into audio systems. From Here to Ear (1999) now showing at the Barbican in London, is an aviary that resonates when its finches alight on electric guitars. In Harmonichaos, which was on view at Paula Cooper Gallery until this weekend, Boursier-Mougenot affixes the grooves of harmonicas to the mouths of vacuum cleaners, and the staggered grid of thirteen pairs produces an undulating, reedy drone.
The set-up of Harmonichaos could only be the product of a playful mind, even though its appearance deflects suggestions of human involvement. Both the vacuums and harmonicas have an assembly-line sameness, and while they perform according to design, their functions have been diverted away from the needs for clean homes and entertaining song that they were intended to meet. As a viewer and listener, you're made to feel like a confused outsider: a system of switches modulates the intensity of the air flow, as well as the sound emanating from the vacuum cleaners, but it's nearly impossible to identify the source of these fluctuations. False clues are sent by a randomized blinking of bulbs on the vacuums' bodies. As usual, Boursier-Mougenot brings a sense of humor to his work, from the irony of the hokey harmonica becoming eerie when forced to drone (like the accordion in the music of Pauline Oliveros) to the punning title. He finds both harmony and chaos in the harmonica's name, and the unlikely pairing of the vacuums and harmonicas mirrors the forcible verbal junction of two incongruous elements. While the vacuum is missing from the title, this, too could be seen to figure in the artist's wordplay, given the vacuum's double meaning as both a void and a device that operates by creating a partial one. Bouriser-Mougenot's combination of domestic and folksy objects is an eccentric, room-sized model of the universe--one that exaggerates the invisible friction of matter and its absence by making it more plaintively and strangely audible.