Say Watt? The cult of the sound system

The exhibition

from 21 June to 25 August 2013
Riding the waves of the Sound System, Say Watt guides visitors from its beginnings in Jamaica through its extrapolations in the field of contemporary art, by way of its many contributions to DIY culture.
  • © Pierre Mahieu

Sound systems, portable audio systems, mobile discos... The terms may vary, but one fact remains a constant: the invention of this form of musical expression came from the streets.  From raves in Europe to demonstrations from Kingston to Belem, from France to Columbia by way of Kenya and the huge K7 sound players favored by rappers, the amplified sound of sound systems has been the common ground among popular and musical gatherings these past few decades.

And what started out as nothing more than a portable disco in the ghettos of Jamaica or in U.S. basements in the 50s has revolutionized the way we listen to music. Since then, radically different cultures have adopted this cult object, making it their own through all manner of tinkering and manipulation.

The sound system also has the unique quality of having been, throughout the years and as needed, an artistic, religious and political loudspeaker. For the very first time, an exhibit comes along that explores the technical component at the root of all forms of contemporary urban music, which played a part in the birth of major musical movements. But not just that: by claiming its codes for themselves, many contemporary artists also ended up bringing their own vision to "sound system culture" over the years, by questioning sound's colonization of public space.

From the photography series "Last Dance in Notting Hill"
(Source: Patrick Gherdoussi)


Regardless of where it sets down its speakers, sound system culture remains a phenomenon on the fringes, obscure and unsung, drawing its origins from a need for the street.  The introduction to this exhibit takes a furtive approach to the visual, sound and "philosophical" aspects of this mysterious underground culture.  From the front totem of Sound Garden to Tal Isaac Hadad to the visual montages edited by obsessive collectors of photos on Facebook, this tour lets the visitor discover, by way of a giant slideshow, seven photo illustrations of the ways in which the sound system has been adopted and adapted throughout the world, and to experience it long-distance with ear and eye alike: find out what kinds of sounds are shaking the walls of Berlin nightclub Berghain with Soundwalk Collective; feast your eyes on the frenzied and unique dancehall posters of major Jamaican cult artist Denzil "Sassa" Naar; and catch a glimpse of flyers by old school rap pioneer Buddy Esquire.

• With: Denzil "Sassa" Naar (flyers), Buddy Esquire (posters), Tal Isaac Hadad (Sound Garden installation-sculpture ), Soundwalk Collective (sound installation), Alex Smailes (photos), Wilfrid Estève (photos), Katie Call an (photos), Mirjam Wirz (photos), Vincent Rosenblatt (photos), Patrick Gh erdoussi (photos).

From the series "Rub a Dub Style"
(Source: Beth Lesser)


In the second part of the show, Say Watt? pays emphatic tribute to Jamaica, a country that managed to turn its showoffs with sound systems into authentic icons of street culture, superbly brought to life by the photography of Beth Lesser, an adventurous Canadian who set off to document the effervescent scene of the Kingston demi-monde in the early 80s. At the same time, another artist didn't know it yet, but he would go on to become a cult figure in the decades that followed for the clever and hilarious illustrations he drew for dozens of album covers, posters, and books. His name? Limonious. Wilfred Limonious, who passed away in 1999 but whose work today is posthumously the subject of the first retrospective worthy of his prolific output.

• With Beth Lesser (photos rub a dub style), Limonious (album covers and memorabilia), Lick It Back (Installation: sound system vintage King Tubby’s Hometown Hi Fi).

Photo from the photomontage series "The Boombox Project," 2010
(Source: Lyle Owerko)


Named after the character in Spike Lee's film Do The Right Thing, who never went anywhere without his giant boombox, the third part of the exhibit logically takes its saga to the Bronx, figuratively and very literally, since the first rapper ever recorded in the annals of History, Kool Herc, was a... Jamaican who emigrated to New York! On the menu:  the whole cult surrounding those boomboxes so dear to Raheem, photographed here by Lyle Owerko with the awe devoted to relics; a tribute to block parties, those street parties that gave birth to hip-hop, by sculptor JYB; and what's left today of the first house of rap, by photographer John Short, at the 1520 Sedgick address...

• With: Lyle Owerko (Photos - The Boombox Project), John Short (Photos –Home of Hip Hop), JYB (Sculptures – The Merry Go Round).

"Ikea Sound System" installation by David Renault, 2012
(Photo source : Mathieu Tremblin)


It was to be expected:  so cool, so easy to mold, so easy to take and make your own, dancehall or early hip-hop imagery ended up traveling around the world, inspiring along the way, by its very nature, many artists of the Do It Yourself school, anxious to pay a folk art kind of tribute to what has become a culture in its own right.

The super souped-up bike with speakers, Tchic Boum Boum, made in Toulouse, is one of the great eloquent examples of it, as are:  the sound system made out of cardboard by the penniless Mexicans of Dub Iration who, unable to buy the actual equipment, produce a look-alike to make believe they're living the thrills of the Notting Hill Carnival; or the Ikea sound system by David Renault, who denounces ready-to-consume products but has nothing against embellishing them!

• With: La Boîte à Outils (Installation - Tchic Boum Boum), Dub Iration (Installation – Dub Iration), David Renault (Installation - Ikea sound system).

 "Squeeeque" installation by  Alexis O'hara
(Photo source: conception-photo.com)


Make room for experiments.  These ones are in your face direct, like in the sound-proof Small Room where Watts are playing at full amp, in a cool fun way, to go with the visual of a sound igloo designed by Canadian Alexis O'Hara, sometimes accompanied by an alarming or political message. Just like with an airlock, videos of the vibrating metallic sculptures by Art Of Failure warn us that sometimes, an experiment can go beyond our control to become a quasi-military weapon (sonic radar by Mark Bain), even a means of actual coercion, as demonstrated in the film by Yeter Akyaz and Juliette Volcler, produced specially for Say Watt? and based on Volcler's book, Le Son Comme Arme (Sound as a Weapon).

• With: Mark Bain (Installation - Sonic Radars), Juliette Volcler and Yeter Akyaz (vidéo/animation), Art Of Failure (resonating Video-Architecture ),  Alexis O’Hara (Installation – Squeeeque).

Les Gobelins, L'Ecole de l'Image


Animation, video, photography, multimedia projects: throughout the entire school year, in partnership with British label Scotch Bonnet Records, we have given carte blanche (= anything goes!) to eight student groups from the prestigious visual design school Gobelins to create eight projects around the sound system culture.  Their films will be screened at la Gaîté Lyrique at a specific preview event, throughout the entire length of the Say Watt? exhibit and before a few specially chosen concerts.

• Preview: Tuesday, July 2 at 7:30  pm - free admission, auditorium

•Continuously on the wall of the historical lobby on the second floor

• www.gobelins.fr


7€/5€/3€/ gratuit pour les adhérents
Tout public

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La Gaîté lyrique is open Tuesday through Sunday.
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