Walk into the bright white, upstairs gallery at MAAM -- the MassArt Art Museum — and you'll encounter 40 black speakers on 40 lanky, straw-colored wooden stands. They're spread out in a wide circle that fills the airy room. In the ring's center, two simple benches flank a torso-height pedestal.
This piece, titled “40 Part Part,” looks like a minimalist sculpture. But step inside and you'll notice two cables poking out of the pedestal's top. And there's a Bluetooth button. The wired and wireless connectors are artist, writer and DJ Jace Clayton's invitations for visitors to activate his sound installation with songs from their cellphones.
“Everyone has this world of sound at their fingertips. And so what if we can turn something which is ordinarily private — your own personal playlist — into something that's broadcast in this space?” Clayton asked. “And partially, I'm always just curious about what are people listening to.”
But his exhibition isn't just a listening party. When people connect their devices and press play, Clayton's algorithms morph their selections into something new. “They'll hear whatever they've chosen, transformed, mutated, spacialized and spun around,” he explained. “And it's always surprising.”
But Clayton said sharing can also feel a little vulnerable. “Some people get very self-conscious, but there are no judgments here.”
So, I scrolled through my phone and landed on a classic: “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. The tune was recognizable...at first...then it went all wonky via Clayton's wizardry.
“The sound will also move around these 40 speakers in a circle in different ways,” he explained. “Sometimes it will spin, sometimes it'll freeze.” As if on cue, Brian Wilson's voice evaporated like digital vapor, then burst back, undulating, in trippy fits and starts.
Clayton explained what was happening. “In a way, I've composed the algorithm — or you could say I've constructed the sound system,” he said, “but no audio of my own enters into the piece. Only other people's sound gets processed.” And without their participation, “40 Part Part” would still be striking — but it would sit in silence.
The installation is actually a riff on artist Janet Cardiff's 2001 "The Forty Part Motet." Her piece also involved 40 speakers, but they amplified a recording of a 16th-century choral work that played in a loop. Clayton loved it, but said, "For me, the joy of interesting sound systems is what people in crowds can do with them." He wondered what it would be like to have a person in the middle that could choose what to play."
You could call Clayton a sound chaser, an audio alchemist, a digital explorer. Making familiar songs and sounds unfamiliar is one of his goals with "40 Part Part" because he said the experience taps into our emotions and memories. But Clayton also wants to challenge assumptions about what can transpire in a museum.
“You know, museums are ordinarily places of quiet appreciation, whereas here, come in and play your sounds as loud as you like," he said. "It's kind of inverting the standard power dynamic.”
This relinquishing of control speaks to MAAM executive and artistic director Lisa Tung. “Let's imagine what a museum could be,” she said while standing in the middle of Clayton's sculpture. “Not just as a space where you walk in and just see something on the wall, and you can't interact other than by observing — which is also really wonderful — but to have an artist who really wants the public to come and take over his piece.”
Then Tung — a child of the 1980s — pulled up “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club. “I just love how it just goes around in different ways,” she said with giddy delight, “cutting it up and making this weird, like, origami tapestry.”
Tung first experienced “40 Part Part” when it debuted at the 2022 Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. Now she's thrilled to host Clayton's installation at MAAM for its east coast premiere in his exhibition "They Are Part." Being in Boston is something of a homecoming for the New York-based artist. He grew up in North Andover and started manipulating music technology in underground spaces as a DJ in the '90s.
Clayton went on to release a turntable mix called “Gold Teeth Thief” that put him on the map internationally. As DJ /rupture, and a composer, he's performed in more than three dozen countries — in nightclubs, galleries, grassroots spaces — and also with ensembles including the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra.
Clayton's global sound explorations have evolved in tandem with technology. His in-depth research and reflections fill the book, “Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture.”
On a trip to North Africa, he collaborated with Moroccan musicians to create free music software known as “Sufi Plug Ins.” For that project, Clayton programmed electronic instruments so they could express Arabic scales and polyrhythms (most music software defaults to Western standards). At MAAM, computers are set up so visitors can learn about, and play around with, those less-familiar sounds.
When asked how being a DJ informs “40 Part Part,” Clayton said, “The main act of being a DJ, aside from all the technical stuff, is selecting. I think this quietly asks the audience to do that — like, what song do you want to present?”
On a frigid Saturday, visitor Alex Bednar picked something nostalgic for him: “Never Meant” by the band American Football. The 26-year-old's eyes went wide as the late-'90s tune ebbed and flowed in odd waves. ”It's like an echo chamber,” he said.
Bednar explained how this coming-of-age, relationship song has long hit him “in the feels.” Through Clayton's algorithms, it became more elusive — like a dream.
“It's almost like the feeling of remembering a song, and how the song associates with a memory,” Bednar said. “It's a different way to hear something I'm all too familiar with.”
When Gabby Gales stepped up to the pedestal she chose her favorite of the year, which also has a fitting title: “Ghosts in the Machine” by SZA.
“Wow. Wow. This is so weird,” she said after connecting her phone. “I love it, though.”
Gales, who's 24, has been going to Boston museums her whole life but said this exhibition is definitely different. “For an individual to enter a space, and then kind of dominate it with their music choice, that's not something you ever get to do.”
As for Clayton's concept, Gales thinks it's pretty cool. “I mean, we're in this new age of remixes every single day — on the internet, TikTok has them all the time, you mash and mix songs — so it keeps you fresh.”
That's exactly the type of reaction that would be music to Clayton's ears. During our interview, he said, “I love contemporary art that actually addresses what it means to be alive right in this moment.”
When technology and the human spirit mix, Clayton believes they can produce magic. For him, music and sound are like “social glue.” He hopes other visitors will feel that for themselves when they step inside his circle of speakers at MAAM and opt to press play.
Jace Clayton's exhibition"They Are Part" is currently at MAAM through July 30. The museum will also host a collaborative performance on March 16 with the Northeastern University Madrigal Singers and Clayton featuring his new, electronically-altered arrangement of the group's music.
This segment aired on March 7, 2023.