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Tuesday 04.21.09

« Rose City still watching The Rose | Main | community culture »

House of Sound, rest in peace


I've come to understand why I always wait till Vanessa Renwick's more recent shows are over …or nearly so to review them. They are essentially memorial services or wakes for those things past and for some reason it seems terribly redundant to review them while they lay in state.

Yet, House of Sound Portrait #3, which ended last weekend at NAAU was very different from Renwick's complicated and very polished architectural snuff flick Trojan Portrait #2 in the 2006 Oregon Biennial. In many ways House of Sound is less concerned with being an art or film piece than a private documentary screening or personalized theater experience.

Instead, of showing the House of Sound as a kind of iconic demise like Trojan it's an anthropological wake for a music shop as a community taste-making acculturation node. Installation-wise, the 70's style couch and orange shag carpeting cued the viewers, that the dial was definitely set to funky. While Renwick's grainy B&W film snippets of the now empty lot where House of Sound stood presented a wistful sense of nostalgia and loss.

House of Sound sign, Photo Susan Seubert

It was a welcome surprise then that the edited radio show audio didn't play the music the shop sold; instead it gave a flavor for the way they did business. To say it had personality is an understatement. For example, the shop staff sold you the music in life changing ways… for example, one staff member had an awesome sound system in a VW that after a drive around the block would leave the customers changed forever. That's an interesting recursive story to remember as the film literally retraces that history by driving the viewers around the block in a decidedly more sober and less funky way.

Overall, the discussion trafficked around how central the House of Sound was to the soul music of its time and linked it to programs like Soul Train. The impression I took from all this is that N. Williams avenue has now become gentrified, more white, more yuppie and less cohesive than it was. But that's just my impression, it's easy to look back at something and just assume it was better. In fact, I like hanging out on N. Williams these days… it has an interesting bohemian vibe during the day filled with artists, designers and small business people. While at night the infrequent but still there threats of gang shootings remind us that cruising with some tunes can have a more sinister side.


As a documentary installation House of Sound reminded me of Alfredo Jarr's The Sound Of Silence. In that piece, Jarr presented the details of Kevin Carter's life, including decisions surrounding his Pulitzer prize winning photograph of a young child and a vulture. Carter eventually committed suicide because of this photograph, and his own strong but unresolved moral thread to his work as a photojournalist.

The difference from Renwick is how Jarr's piece very heavy handedly implicated the viewers by flashing photographer's lights at the documentary presentation's close. Renwick doesn't do that, so in the end I felt like it didn't push back enough. It was more like theater, where the viewer is more passive.

So was House of Sound art? Sure… but it's documentary nature felt slightly exhausted after experiencing the show more than one time and that was probably by design. The thing to remember about Renwick is ultimately she's a filmmaker first …who occasionally crosses over into art. Unlike Trojan Portrait #2, House of Sound didn't seem to develop new angles… it stayed the same, a kind of time capsule and now that the show is gone all Im left with is the memory of the show. All of which is just fine, as going the Kevin Carter route would have overplayed House of Sound's cards. Carter ended his life to end a kind of moral torment; the House of Sound was simply a victim of inevitable change. How does the end of Music Millennium on NW 23rd stack up?


Let's just say House of Sound reminded me of all the American Masters shows I watch on PBS. It's history, I love it and it's extremely important but that's documentary entertainment. Though this was more than entertainment, I suspect House of Sound's installation still was less important as a historical document than the uncut version of the radio interview we were hearing (in cut form)... so in the end the art show version seemed to fetish it's nostalgia more as an installation tuned specifically to a Portland audience (more so than any of the other Couture shows).

Perhaps it's because my own love of soul music doesn't stem from the House of Sound but my interest in atomic power was directly related to Trojan which was Renwick's previous portrait project. Still, House of Sound was an effective show that understood its own limitations and brought them to life quite expertly. The House of Sound more than delivered, as expected.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on April 21, 2009 at 12:59 | Comments (0)


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