Gather 'Round the Vinyl

In the center of René de Guzman's office at Oakland Museum of California, stacks of exhibition catalogs and trade journals form an improvised table. Crates of records rest nearby, with jackets jutting out at odd angles like the haggard shared collection in a party house living room. The haphazard ephemera and vinyl seem to clash with the title “senior museum curator,” but Guzman's lack of preciousness towards his media is telling. He describes the Oakland Museum's upcoming exhibition, “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records,” not as a lofty, rarefied cult of object-worshippers congratulating themselves, but as an endeavor to build community and relationships. “The turntable and the record is the fire around which we gather,” he says from across the magazine plateau. “It attaches to a basic, primordial need.”

Guzman envisions the exhibit as a romanticized record store: a diverse cast of characters exchanging ideas about culture while vinyl crackles in the background. It opens on April 19, to coincide with the annual Record Store Day, and boasts listening stations, complete with personal headphones and turntables; diverse record collections to browse and play; in-gallery performances; and talks from music industry representatives. One area presents notable album art. A set of photos depicts local record enthusiasts with their collections, while interviews about vinyl culture play overhead. “It might sound funny, but playing a record in a gallery is radical,” says Guzman. Noting the fragility of vinyl and turntables, he continues, “[That's] an incredible amount of trust [to] give the public.”

A hands-on experience, especially one shared by a group, is crucial to the exhibit's goals. To that end, an installation by Matthew Passmore, from the San Francisco art and design firm Rebar, provides space to sit and mingle around a communal stereo system. Guzman sought Rebar because of the group's interactive public art project Park(ing) Day, which fosters the creation of temporary public space on city streets. For Passmore's listening lounge centerpiece, elongated beanbag couches form a triangle to reflect the diamond tip of a turntable stylus.

Guzman intends for the exhibit to champion the increasing importance of records, and, by extension, all physical media. “In the world of disembodied digital experience, we're starting to build objects again,” he says. “[Vinyl] is a contemporary, relevant format because it brings people in contact with the physical material world — together. We're tired of computers and iPhones. We want experiences that bring us into contact with others.” He says the exhibit is implicitly about how the digital era bolsters our need to share sensory and aesthetic experiences with physical objects. As reading moves to tablets, for example, publishers hone the tactile and visual pleasures of a book. As streaming music on cellphones becomes commonplace, record labels beautify album packaging, and the Oakland Museum organizes an interactive exhibit around playing vinyl on turntables.

Guzman is quick to credit his many consultants and collaborators, a diverse group culled from the music and arts communities. “We are doing curating, but it's about people playing records and engaging with others to build something,” he says. “It's not about the selecting, but the things we share in common.”

Novelist Michael Chabon, whose Telegraph Avenue revolves around a fictional record store, is one of the Crate Curators, invited to tell a story through 33 LPs that attendees can peruse and play. Guzman says Chabon's crate is about his “nerdy childhood.” Music journalist Sylvie Simmons will host Guilty Pleasures, a forum for participants to admit and relish their most embarrassing favorites, and WFMU DJ Billy Jam is set to record an in-gallery radio program.

To Guzman, the Bay Area's record culture and history is characterized by independence and indifference to notoriety. He cites Mills College for graduating many of the country's most innovative composers, even though the popular narrative of 20th century classical music is centered in New York. Guzman describes a parallel history for California conceptual artists of the 1970s, whose devotion to the state at first stunted their stature in the art world. He says Californian music culture “keeps it real,” noting the state's formidable lineage of independent imprints and privately pressed vinyl. Local record collectors, he says, “keep it amateur, in the best sense of the word: doing it for no other reason besides that you love it.” Indeed, record collectors here typically reject the title “record collector” while fulfilling the role of archivists for styles of pop music that lack the preservationist institutions of other fine arts.

A hand-bound LP jacket adorned with geometric shapes hangs on the wall of Guzman's office. Created by local visual artist Chris Duncan, it looks homespun and intimate, especially in a plastic bag thumb-tacked crookedly to a wall. When asked about it, Guzman doesn't prize the object, or the individual artist, so much as the collaborative experience that spawned it. The vinyl inside documents Duncan and other artists collectively learning how to play the drums. “It starts out soft,” Guzman explains. “Then it builds to an amazing group crescendo.” “Vinyl: the Sound and Culture of Records” aspires to do the same.

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