Walking into the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, museumgoers are treated to a wall plastered with the mural work of street artist Shepard Fairey. From the get-go, then, visitors are told they are entering into a world with its fingers on the pulse of the latest trends in contemporary art.
The Fairey foyer was not what brought me to the CAC, though. I was brought by a friend to see the museum’s Spectacle: The Music Video exhibit, something I was nervous about, thinking I would be spending the next few hours fixing headphones to my head after approaching the TV atop the next pedestal. But as one heads up to the second floor to check out the stellar sculpture work of Francis Upritchard, one begins to hear murmurs of music.
On reaching the top two floors of the museum, you are definitely not in a contemporary arts museum any longer. Music instantly bombards the room. Above it all, Junior Senior’s Europop jam “Move Your Feet” rises, as the speakers playing that song face out to the atrium in the center of the exhibit.
Spectacle is an ambitious exhibit curated by the team behind the online entertainment hub Flux, Jonathan and Meg Grey Wells, the two of whom have a long history working with music videos and went to great lengths to make sure Spectacle was a museum experience unlike any other.
When Jonathan Wells was in high school, he began his long relationship with the music video when he hosted a music video show on cable access. “It was a show that looked at the cutting edge of music videos,” Wells tells Indiewire. “What I loved about the music video [in the 80’s] was that it was an amazing combination of music and filmmaking. When I started the film festival RESFest [a touring festival for digital filmmakers], we always had music video programming in addition to short filmmaking. That’s becoming more common, but I think we were the first.”
From there, Wells developed relationships with music video directors like Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze.
The exhibit is a grand tour of the music video form, stretching from early experiments with music and film content, including early Betty Boop cartoons, to the proliferation of YouTube recreations of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance and Arcade Fire’s interactive “The Wilderness Downtown” browser-based video.
“Since MTV launched,” Wells adds, “some museums have done exhibits. Usually with monitors on pedestals or screening a program in a theater. We really tried to capture the magic of music video, in a way that you wouldn’t experience a music video on TV. We sought out to find, from around the world, artifacts and props, creative assets that still exist from music videos. You could put together something like the 100 best music videos online, but we wanted to make an experience that would be unique to a museum.”
The show is essential for filmlovers of all stripes. Luckily for those unable to trek to Cincinnati before it closes in September, the show will be announcing an international tour in the coming months.
Below is a photo tour of eight of the nine sections of the exhibit. Missing is a photo from the Remix section, which looks at remix, mashup, remakes and YouTube tributes.