In 1963, Gibson Guitar commissioned legendary automotive designer Ray Dietrich to design an electric guitar. The idea was to bring a creative voice from outside the world of traditional music who would explore the possibilities of the electric guitar in terms of form and feel – bringing a heavy dose of innovation. And Dietrich was quite the innovator, having pioneered the concept of bespoke car designer in the age of classic cars.
Introduced in 1963, with its asymmetrical shape and taller horn positioned to the right rather than the left, the Firebird broke nearly all convention of a solid body electric guitar. For example, the wooden neck featured nine bands of alternating mahogany and maple, layered for strength and stability, spanning the full length of the instrument. It also had wonderful original details, the fenders resembling the fins of the car. Naturally, the Firebird played differently than any other electric guitar of the time.
Fast forward to 2022, and I stand in front of five bespoke electric guitars mounted on the makeshift wall of the BMW Lounge in the temporary Frieze London pavilion. These complex objects are the work of the designers of the brand’s flagship electric car, the i7, made like functional musical instruments by luthier Ian Malone.
Each guitar is named after important black guitarists in history: Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Barbara Lynn, Big Mama Thornton and Joan Armatrading. A spotlight moves across the panel, guiding our gaze from guitar to guitar. Later in the day, three musicians will activate the guitars through ten to fifteen minute live performances. Simultaneously, sound will play inside the i7 cars driving guests to and from the art exhibit.
The artwork is called ’63/22′ and is the work of Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist Nikita Gale, curated alongside Attilia Fattori Franchini for BMW Open Work for Frieze London. The annual project is a joint initiative between BMW and Frieze to bring together art, design and technology. And Gale’s contribution is a multi-layered piece addressing today’s complex discussions, namely the politics of sight and sound, how we see and hear, and how this manifests in unseen voices.
With an academic background that includes anthropology and art, Gale investigates the politics of sound through the medium of art with work that touches on themes of invisibility and audibility, recasting the complex dynamics between performer and spectator while subverting and destabilizing these notions via the work of art.
I meet Nikita Gale at Frieze London to unravel this latest project, “63/22”.
When did your love of music start, and why an interest in the politics of sound?
My mother was a music teacher and there was always music in our house. In addition to teaching me the piano, she spoke of historically significant musicians. Growing up on an Air Force base in Alaska, she was often a guest music teacher at our school, teaching classes in black music history. For me, it wasn’t just about appreciating the music but thinking about the stories that preceded it.
Your project at Frieze pursues the investigation of the politics of sound but through the lens of the car. How did this connection happen?
In high school, I started to think of cars not just as technologies but as objects into which we project cultural and political information, insofar as the modes and means of production of these technologies are not neutral.
Decisions are made based on political positions: Are cars powered by fossil fuels or electric, or the designs and shapes they take? The appearance of cars is largely determined by the understanding and biases of the people who design them.
Most of them would be of a certain sex. How did you then bring that back to the music?
While investigating the cars, I found some interesting information about music, especially American blues and rock. Early blues and rock songs were largely about cars, such as Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” from 1951, considered the first rock and roll record. Cars are metaphors for personal freedom, sexuality and gender expression.
The overlaps kept happening during my research, which is how I came across Ray Dietrich and his work with Gibson in 1963 – hence the title of this last work, “63/22”. This is the first time that these two industries have overlapped on such a large, mass-produced scale.
It must have seemed quite surprising then to be approached by BMW for the Frieze project. Speaking with the curator earlier, she was unaware that you were already thinking about these currents of ideas.
Crazy, right? I’ve had this idea in my back pocket for seven years, so when BMW reached out to collaborate at Frieze, I already knew what I wanted to do. It was an incredible coincidence; I knew we had to do this. Plus, I’m a real car fan.
And what do you think of the project that is displayed in front of us?
Seeing an object born from a concept that exists in space never ceases to amaze me. This project really took that to a new level. These guitars are not just aesthetic works of art but functional technology; these are all playable guitars that Ian Malone helped make possible.
I can’t help but notice how unusual the guitars are, how they explore form and materials beyond tradition, seeming to question the masculinity of musical instruments.
Yes absolutely. During the design process, I discussed the profile of the types of users of these technologies with the designers at BMW. We looked at who would play guitars and how we should design with other bodies in mind than the typical type that determined the shape of things in the 60s, which would have been mostly white men. Musician St. Vincent recently designed a signature guitar that has a much narrower body to accommodate people with boobs. I asked our designers to consider ergonomics taking into account all morphologies.
Can you explain the performative side when these aesthetic objects carefully lining the wall are played?
We invited three diverse musicians to perform at 3 p.m. each day, giving them carte blanche to do whatever they want and choose the guitar they like. It has been fascinating to see which ones they choose. Fortunately, no one opted for the same guitar.
Given your interest in sound and cars, what do you think of the role of sound in the age of afterburners, where electric cars omit very little natural noise?
The sound is largely a consequence of some material friction, so the sound is synthetic with electric cars. And right now it feels like it’s an open season – anything is possible. But do we want to reproduce the sound of an engine or do we find a new sound? For security reasons, these conversations must be global. I am very curious.
I’m curious to see how the concept of class is reflected in technologies and sound. Studies show that more elite neighborhoods have a lower noise profile, while less privileged neighborhoods tend to be louder. These are interesting discussions that also collide with cars.
“63/22” interrogates a topical theme: namely, the politics of sight and sound, what we must see and what we are allowed to hear, and how this manifests itself in invisible voices. What did you hope to achieve with the project?
I strongly believe in the importance of modeling possibilities. So when I think back to that moment in 1963 where these industries overlapped, I see that as a demonstration of what’s possible when conversations are allowed to directly overlap. I watch the moment when ideas collide.
Since the guitar in general, design hasn’t changed that much in the last 60 years, by recreating and almost staging the scene in this context, we can shine a light on the possibilities for change.
The shapes and forms of technologies were largely determined by the biases of the people who designed them. As political and cultural landscapes change, these biases also change. Where are we now? Why do we stick to the above? We can still change things. Nothing is set in stone. In the essay “Technology and Ethics,” Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones at the time, has a great line: “Nothing should look or sound like it does. »
The 19th edition of Frieze London will take place October 12-16, 2022.