Down the River


Open Plan: Andrea Fraser - Down The River

Whitney Museum, New York, NY

by Arthur Ivan Bravo

Having not yet been to the Whitney since it moved into its new location in the Meatpacking District from the Upper East Side just under a year ago, my assignment to write something up about Andrea Fraser’s contribution to the museum’s Open Plan program finally gave me a good excuse to go and see what all the hype was about.  After all, this Open Plan thing in particular sounded interesting enough: a series of five successive exhibitions by as many renowned artists, to be housed within its “dramatic fifth-floor,” which was being touted as “a single open gallery, unobstructed by interior walls,” making it “the largest column-free museum exhibition space in New York.”  How could one not be intrigued?

Fraser, well known for her institutional critique-by-way-of-performance art practice, must have been aware what kind of opportunity was afforded her as the first artist to exhibit in, and utilize, the Whitney’s impressive fifth floor, that is to say nothing of the overall context – social, cultural, political, economic, and whatnot – surrounding the museum’s institutional status in the art world, and around its much publicized – and expensive – move from one area of Manhattan to another, all of which unraveled from 2014 to 2015.

Her contribution, a site-specific ‘installation’ titled ‘Down The River,’ consisted of nothing more than an audio track of unspecified duration played by a grid of speakers evenly distributed throughout the entire ceiling of the space, so as to produce a consistency in how well it could be heard by the visitor below, no matter where in the space they were.  But what then, did the contents of the audio involve, what was the subject matter?  Fraser was able to gain access to record inside the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a prison located 30 miles north of the city, along the Hudson, which itself provided for the generous, even beautiful (I was there at sundown), view from the west side of the fifth floor space.  At Sing Sing, Fraser recorded the everyday sounds of prison life, from guards and inmates talking and yelling, to announcements being made by speaker, to cell doors slamming shut, to even music being played, and birds chirping.  Indeed, her contribution was as much a response, considering the circumstances. 

Actually, the audio Fraser recorded was only just audible enough, as if to accentuate its competition with the vastness of the space, and the city views from its eastern and western-facing windows, for the visitor’s attention.  As I walked around and across the space, finding nothing there except for the audio emitting from above, and distracted by the sense of freedom and the views beckoning from either side, I thought many visitors – tourists, families, a few young people, lots of yuppies – probably either didn’t notice the audio, or mistook it for the sonic ambience of the museum itself.  I saw children running and playing, adults taking photographs, a young woman dancing, another sitting against the wall writing on a notebook, and tourists at a loss for what to do except to keep walking.  Approaching either side of the space, I saw the Hudson, New Jersey on the other side, an endless parade of cars going to and fro, people bicycling (it was one of those nice days), jogging…On the other side, I saw the end of the High Line, more tourists and picture taking, a couple of very stylish young women who suddenly got up and left, and lots of very human activity on the street below, only the glass separating me from what I was seeing, and slightly muting it all.  

I realized that, for me at least, ‘Down The River’ was about us, human beings, in the absence of Andrea Fraser of course, left to our own devices, and our uniquely conditioned capacities for paying attention to what goes on around us.