by Ian Benson
Ragnar Kjartansson was born in Reykjavik, and went to the Iceland Academy of the Arts where he studied to be a painter before switching instead to performance art. He was fascinated by the mundane, and began staging pieces where he would sing one line over and over or spend two days as a plein-air painter. His work always focused on repetition, and he took his time, testing the limits of endurance for himself and the viewer. His masterpiece is his 2012 video installation entitled The Visitors. Named for the last ABBA album, the piece consists of nine screens showing a variety of artists and musicians coming together to perform an hour-long song based on a poem written by Kjartansson’s ex-wife during their divorce. They are all packed into this old mansion in upstate New York, each in different rooms, each room getting its own screen. There’s Kjartansson playing acoustic guitar in a bathtub, a drummer in the kitchen, a guitarist in a bedroom that features a woman who appears to be sleeping, a cellist in another bedroom, a pianist in a dining room, and so on and so forth. Above each screen is a speaker playing the audio recorded in that room, so the balance of voices and instruments shifts as you walk around. This setup helps replicate the environment the video was recorded in, so even the simple act of moving to interact with the individual pieces creates a feeling of active participation.
The song itself is rather unremarkable, though still admirable, feeling like a particularly long Sigur Rós track (which makes sense since a former member is one of the musicians), with other general indie influences throughout. But the triumph of it all comes from the combination of this song and the visuals. Somehow, these inconspicuous images and this derivative song positively ache of longing and love, and the entire performance in its brilliant simplicity becomes a portrait on the power of nostalgic. When I saw the piece in Cleveland in 2015, I was overwhelmed and spent weeks thinking about it, humming a bit of the melody while picturing the artists coming together in one room at the end.
I thought about it again last week when I was watching Frank Ocean’s recent visual album Endless for the first time.
Visual albums are truly nothing new. Remember, at one point we were all obsessed with Trapped in the Closet and the Beatles’ turned quite a few of their albums into movies. Kanye got even got in the game when he released the Runaway short film, which was mostly greeted with a chorus of confusion. And then Beyoncé released Beyoncé, which was dubbed a “visual album,” a term we are all still grappling to unpack, but the focus was firmly on its surprise nature, and the visuals took a backseat. Then she followed it up with Lemonade, which managed to be nominated for an Emmy as a special and at the MTV VMAs as music videos. And now Ocean has released Endless, another visual album where the focus is firmly on the music half of the equation.
Defining the difference between a music video and a “visual album” is still a grey area. Justin Bieber might release a music video for each song from his album, Purpose, but they lack a cohesive vision that differentiates them from a visual album. Music videos were given a new lease on life with the rise of YouTube, and what started simply as a continuing the practices of the MTV-era slowly morphed as the potential represented in the internet was unlocked. This has mirrored the rise of video art in the contemporary art scene, where access to greater technology has created a boom in the medium. While previous decades featured artists pushing film to the limits, digital formats allowed for projects that previously seemed impossible. Sites like Vimeo came about as a space for video art. Collaborations between artists and musicians became inevitable in this exploration of video art, giving way to high profile pairings like Jay Z and Marina Abramović for “Picasso Baby.” Kjartansson even teamed up with the National for a six hour rendition of their song “Sorrow” at MOMA PS1 that was later released on vinyl. Both performances stretched a single song to its breaking point in the name of art, all in their own way harkening back to the early YouTube experiments that showed that there was still an audience for music videos and performances that felt artsier than what was the standard.
To that end, Endless provides a more complete picture of Frank Ocean as an artist than even the best songs on Blonde can. No matter when or how you first heard Blonde, it was shaped in some way by the environment and the visuals. I heard it from a car stereo at a cabin in nowhere Ohio where I was with a few friends when we saw it had been released. We plugged it in, opened the doors, and sat around a fire barely speaking while letting the music wash over us. I took in what I was hearing and projected it on the environment around me, well beyond any control that Ocean could exert.
Endless is different. If you’ve experienced it in full, you’ve listened to the half-finished snippets that Ocean’s voice glides over while he builds a staircase that ultimately takes him nowhere. You follow him on this journey he directs, experiencing the songs in the setting he envisioned. The visuals are simple, a black and white, widescreen account of Ocean in a work room. The camera is usually placed at a distance and the contrast is so high that oftentimes he becomes a silhouette in the background. Occasionally Ocean is joined by another version of himself, working on other tasks. Endless has a few close ups but they’re still always obscured so it all feels detached in an emotionally reserved way, mirroring the feelings created in the framing of shots in The Visitors that intentionally obstruct the layout of the house. Both Kjartansson and Ocean want us to feel close to them while kept at a distance.
Our language alone will always be insufficient when it comes to fully conjuring mood and atmosphere. Visual albums are then an attempt to break beyond that barrier, allowing an artist to couple oblique lyrics and scattershot instrumentation with images that fully impose their will on the viewer. Endless might be difficult, but it is so on purpose. It doesn’t matter that he’s building stairs or that he never fully climbs them, what does is that this is how Ocean decided to present his music. The lack of a dynamic narrative doesn’t lessen the album, and instead the slow unfolding of the project provides a perfect focus for music that, like the stairs, still seem like a work in progress. Together though, they make something that feels more whole. The music aspect may be broken into what we recognize as ‘songs’ but there’s still the feeling that Ocean, like Kjartansson, is seeing how long we can endure this pace. Endless, like The Visitors before it, is asking us to spend time with it.
Ultimately, both projects also demonstrate the essential harmony between the two halves of the visual album designation. Kjartansson released the song performed in The Visitors earlier this year as The Visitors Soundtrack, cutting the song down to 27 minutes by removing the extended a cappella sing-along that opens and closes the performance. On its own, it’s perfectly fine to those who have seen the installation, conjuring the memories of the dark rooms where it was first experienced. But for a stranger, the power and impact is robbed away and the soundtrack suffers for being removed from its visual components. He suddenly made The Visitors about the music, when it was never just about that. Endless thrives on the breathing room and atmosphere created by its pairing of sights and sounds, just like The Visitors did in its original presentation.
Part of this desire to separate comes from our own distinctions, which work to the detriment of the artists. Kjartansson is viewed first and foremost as a visual artist, so the music is always adjacent. Ocean on the other hand is a musician, so despite directing Endless, the first reactions were all about the new Frank Ocean music that was presented in a purposefully challenging, rather than the visual and auditory experience it actually is. The difference between what Kjartansson and Ocean created is simply semantics, a failure born from our language shaping our understanding. Kjartansson might be an artist who made music along with his video and Ocean might be a musician who made a video along with his music, but both chose to have these components presented simultaneously. For the true experience Kjartansson and Ocean envisioned, there is no separation of these halves, just the whole for us to revel in.
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