James Goggin is the former Director of Design, Publishing, and New Media at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. He leads a Chicago-based graphic design studio called Practise.
On an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning last March here in Chicago, British artist Martin Creed set himself up for the week at Soma Studios, a renowned (in certain circles) recording studio on Division Street (next door to the Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village, as it happens) run by self-described “owner/engineer” John McEntire, to spend the week recording an EP. The resulting record, Chicago, was recently released by The Vinyl Factory, a British music label and actual vinyl factory: they are known for their high-quality vinyl produced on a Type 1400 press, which they inherited from the old EMI Records pressing plant in the west London suburb of Hayes (along with key staff from the plant to keep the machine running). Joining Creed from the UK was producer Andy Knowles, who, together with fellow Franz Ferdinand bandmate Nick McCarthy, forms the music production duo The Nice Nice Boys.
Soma has a certain legendary status not only due to the musicians who have chosen to record there (like David Grubbs, Jim O’Rourke, Radian, Red Krayola, Stereolab, Will Oldham, and famed local heroes Wilco) but also because McEntire himself is the drummer and multi-instrumentalist behind the Chicago bands Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, Gastr del Sol, and countless projects and collaborations of his own, not to mention the recording engineer and producer for albums by a number of the Soma guests listed above. Even though I only arrived in Chicago just over two years ago from London (via the Netherlands), I’ve followed McEntire’s work since the release of Tortoise’s seminal 1996 album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, an influential record for me at the time, on heavy rotation during my final year of graphic design undergraduate study in south London. Soma was therefore a slightly mythical place on my imaginary, pre-US-resident Chicago map, pinned on Google satellite view alongside such sites as the Newberry Library, Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall at IIT, Myopic Books, and Sol Lewitt’s Bands in Four Directions (right here in the MCA’s back yard and visible from space).
Suffice it to say, for an EP titled Chicago, Creed was in as Chicago a joint as you could get. Add to that the record’s engineer Bill Skibbe (if not an actual Chicago legend, then at least a Midwestern one, with his equally famed [in certain circles] Benton Harbor, MI, recording studio The Key Club Recording Company, host to bands such as the Fiery Furnaces, Franz Ferdinand, and the Kills) and Creed’s backing singers for the week Dee Alexander and Yvonne Gage, who have worked with, among others, contentious Chicago cultural phenomenon R. Kelly, and you have, collectively, a rich psychogeographic map of Chicago and its hinterlands with streets converging at the corner of Division and Damen.
Creed was there, plugging in his guitar, testing the acoustics, in his capacity as MCA Chicago’s artist in residence for 2012. The result of his week at Soma was a recording—or, perhaps, a “work.” But what kind of work? An artwork? A piece of music? An art piece? If the record was the work, what were the four songs on that record? Pieces? If the songs are each considered discrete works, does that make the record an installation in which the works are housed? I suspect Creed himself doesn’t know. Or would say he doesn’t know. All of his works are titled as just that: Work. With a systematic number attached. The record we’re talking about is actually Work No. 1370. So it is indeed a work, with a capital W. But is it art or music? “I don’t know what art is,” Creed said to arts writer Charlotte Higgins last June, in a Guardian story on his Olympic project Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes. “Martin Creed’s bad music is good art,” said critic Alfred Hickling, in a prior Guardian article, describing Creed’s Work No. 955, an orchestral composition by the artist performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2008. “Music is art,” says The Vinyl Factory’s mission statement on the “About Us” section of their website.
Funnily enough, my own discovery of Creed was through his music, specifically the album Nothing by his former band Owada (you can still track down CD copies on Amazon for around 10 bucks), released one year after Millions Now Living Will Never Die in 1997, at which point I’d graduated with my bachelor’s degree and started my master’s at the Royal College of Art. Nothing was just as influential to me as that Tortoise album while I was starting to decide whether I should work as an artist or a designer. The record included an instant favorite, “Circle,” with its concise pop-history documentation of the 1960s conceptual art scene:
Stephen Willats thought that /
Art & Language were ripping him off /
Art & Language thought that /
Joseph Kosuth was ripping them off /
Joseph Kosuth thought that /
Lawrence Weiner was ripping him off / (etc.)
This was music and Owada was a band. A band that happened to have an artist as its singer/songwriter. Of course I later came across his neon typographic works (also appealing to a graphic design student) like EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, admired his deadpan, minimal 2001 Turner Prize–winning The lights going on and off , and my London studio even ended up being commissioned by Tate Britain to work on the design for Creed’s Work No. 850 project in 2008. This was definitely art and Creed was definitely an artist—an artist who was able to tell the Tate he wanted a continuous loop of runners sprinting down the Duveen Galleries every 30 seconds for four months, to which the Tate replied “OK” without batting an eyelid.
Perhaps we should forget the art or music question and just listen to Chicago (the work, Work No. 1370, not the city—or the band). Although here’s where I should mention a slight snag: We are unfortunately not allowed to stream it for you (and actually I have to admit that I haven’t even heard it myself yet). That’s because it’s only available for $288 in the very special form of a hand-painted record sleeve containing four all-analog Soma-recorded songs on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl in a limited edition of 200 from the MCA Store or The Vinyl Factory.