Sounds Challenging: Documenting the Identity and Iterations of Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors”

Amy Brost
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018


This talk demonstrates the application of a documentation framework for the aural elements in media installation art that the speaker presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting. The focus of this case study is The Visitors by Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976), a work jointly owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It was recently installed for the Soundtracks exhibition at SFMOMA. This large-scale, nine-channel video performance piece has been exhibited worldwide to great acclaim. The setting of the work is a stately, aged mansion in rural upstate New York. The artist gathered fellow musicians there in 2012 to perform an original composition with lyrics inspired by the writings of the poet and performance artist Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir (b. 1976), his ex-wife. One of the themes in the work is the break-up of their marriage, giving the piece tremendous emotional range that has a corresponding broad dynamic range in terms of sound. The piece involves vocals and numerous musical instruments, including two pianos, drums, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, banjo, accordion, and cello, as well as the sounds of the natural landscape, punctuated by two cannon blasts. Life-sized video projections of the individual musicians encircle the audience, whose experience ranges from contemplation of the solo performers to immersion in the music of the entire ensemble. This case study highlights the importance of collaboration between conservators and sound engineers, both within the institution and, where applicable, in the artist’s studio. Central to the conservation documentation of the aural aspects of The Visitors was an in-depth interview with the artist’s director of sound, Christopher W. McDonald. This talk will cover the identity of the work, including both its aural and visual aspects, characterization and assessment of the digital files, significant properties of audiovisual equipment and the acoustic environment, and documentation of the iteration at SFMOMA. Various methods, challenges, and limitations of documenting sound will be discussed, along with future directions for this research, including the further development of the framework and terminology for sound art documentation.

Amy Brost
Assistant Media Conservator
The Museum of Modern Art, New York