Shotgun Review

Music from the Mountaintops in “Alchemy”

By Victoria Gannon April 21, 2010

I’m not a cynic. I give hugs upon first meeting and later talk about how well I connected with someone. But I cringe at the overuse of the word community. So much Bay Area culture seems to traffic in the most superficial interpretations and selective applications of the term, favoring the performance of interconnectedness over actual connection. But Michelle Blade’s work makes me believe the pursuit of community is worthwhile, regardless of the outcome. Her latest piece, Music from the Mountaintops (2010), is on view at Southern Exposure as part of “Alchemy” through April 24. 

Neither naïve nor jaded, the piece seeks to create and document a collaboration among individuals while simultaneously questioning the effectiveness of its methods and the potential of all such quests. The piece consists of five monitors arranged in a circle facing inward. The viewer stands in the center, like the axis of a wheel.

Each screen shows a similar progression: a San Francisco street scene gives way to a shot of one of the city’s mountaintops—Twin Peaks, Bernal Heights, Mount Davidson, or Corona Heights. Each monitor follows one of five groups of individuals as they ascend the peaks and subsequently break into song. A lone young woman with a guitar starts it off, plaintively strumming and singing. Her steady ballad serves as a kind of soundtrack to the other, more disjointed, performances. A father and daughter—barely older than a toddler—bang on a drum. A group of men wearing togas, camouflaged in masks, with pantyhose pulled over their faces, creates a steady drone. Fellow hikers give them befuddled looks. A group of women starts and stops and restarts their song, resembling earnest, though awkward, Christmas carolers.

The performances build to a kind of crescendo: all of the voices and instruments, the interactions and intimacies within the groups, all of it happening at once. The circle of music embraces the viewer. But then the music ends, and the viewer exits the circle, alone.

Music From the Mountain Tops, 2010; video installation; installation view, Southern Exposure. Courtesy of the Artist.

As in much of Blade’s work, an ambivalent note exists beneath the piece’s seemingly earnest surface. While ostensibly about the search for a collective experience, Music from the Mountaintops foregrounds the singularity and isolation of the individual—in this case, the viewer. The viewer ties together the disparate performances, the only element of the circle that can see and hear all the other parts. But that relationship is unilateral; watching, one remains entirely invisible to the singers. Whatever intimacy might exist is fleeting, mediated by technology, and occurs only within groups, not among them. Although the piece is concerned with facilitating communion, it is equally concerned with the conditions—geographic, technological, and even existential—that impede us in our pursuit of collectivity.

This is how it worked for me: Music from the Mountaintops reminded me of our persistent isolation and our equally persistent and timeless desire to connect with something beyond ourselves. It suggested that this desire is worth acting upon, even if it doesn’t pan out. It made me want to go out and give everyone a hug.


Music from the Mountaintops can be seen as part of “Alchemy,” on view at Southern Exposure in San Francisco through April 24, 2010.

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