Jeff Donaldson, "Jampact and Jelly Tite (For Jamila)", 1988.
At last year's “David Bowie Is” exhibition, the Museum of Contemporary Art provided headphones for each attendee, so they could experience the accompanying audio on an individual basis. “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” dispenses with those pretenses entirely—the exhibit is filled with music and noise that viewers experience collectively. It’s a bit disorienting for those used to silent appreciation of art, but the sonic elements of the collection are as vital as the pieces on display.
Organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a Chicago-based organization that supports jazz musicians—“The Freedom Principle” explores the legacy of the avant-garde jazz and experimental music that originated in Chicago’s South Side during the 1960s. By connecting this music to the visual art that was birthed from the scene and the experimentation it continues to inspire, the exhibit positions musicians like Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill as radical art innovators.
Split between historic and contemporary works, “The Freedom Principle” does an excellent job of connecting each piece to its foundations in avant-garde expression. In the first gallery, visitors view a collection of ephemera sourced from collectives like AfriCOBRA and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, organizations that found ways to encourage the cross-pollination of art and music. The ensuing galleries focus on work by contemporary artists that are rooted in the spirit of jazz and improvised music, including pieces like Nick Cave’s bedazzled sculpture and Lisa Alvarado’s intricate tapestries.
A series of installations in the exhibition that blend music and visual art exemplify how intertwined the two disciplines truly are. Douglas R. Ewart’s and George Lewis’ “Rio Negro II” invites visitors to sit in an immersive percussion soundscape, observing bamboo shakers, rain sticks and drums being methodically triggered by a computer program. Similarly, a posthumous contribution conceived by Terry Adkins called “Native Son (Circus)” displays an assembly of cymbals that are randomly (and unexpectedly) hit by a hidden mechanism.
In the coming months, a coinciding series of workshops and live performances will bring even more noise to the galleries housing the exhibition, realizing the curators’ vision of a coalescence of art and music. Those hoping for a quiet, introspective look at the legacy of Chicago’s avant-garde innovators will have to look elsewhere. “The Freedom Principle” is a loud, brash but sophisticated look at art forms colliding and evolving through the decades—and it comes with a killer soundtrack.