Vinyl, it’s not just for DJs anymore. The Oakland Museum of California’s new interactive exhibit Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records, highlights the resurgence of the LP and the enduring appeal of leafing through a bin of albums searching for unexpected aural pleasure.
Opening on Saturday, which is also international Record Store Day, the exhibition features listening stations, a newly commissioned art work by MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Walter Kitundu, hundreds of albums, and thematic playlists — dubbed “curated crates” — by an array of cultural figures, including BAM/PFA’s Steve Seid (remembrance of life as a teenager), actress and spoken word artist Aya de Leon (musical influences growing up and becoming a parent), and Berkeley-based novelist Michael Chabon (growing up as a nerd).
The idea for the exhibition came from a project by Seattle’s Olson Kundig Architects that involved turning the innovative firm’s storefront into an informal listening space outfitted with record players and LPs. Initially the museum hoped to collaborate with the firm on a similar project, but when Olson Kundig’s involvement proved impractical due to the distance, the curators looked to a beloved Berkeley institution as a partner.
“The important thing was Amoeba signing on,” said René de Guzman, senior OMCA curator of art, in a recent conversation in his museum office with Amoeba’s Lori Katz, the Telegraph store manager. “They were incredibly generous and instrumental in gathering informed advisors.”
“We knew we had to be involved,” Katz said. “Every week we get calls from the press about the resurgence of vinyl. It’s not just about collectors. Artists are putting out new releases on vinyl: St. Vincent, Daft Punk. We sell tons of turntables.” (The 372 song playlist from Katz’s curated crate can be streamed on Spotify.)
In fact, some 500 new vinyl releases are slated for Record Store Day, albums representing a wide stylistic swath of music. In a slap in the face to our national obsession with technological advancement and obsolescence, vinyl refuses to fade away into kitsch like the rotary phone. The format has made deep inroads among a generation for whom the CD is already an object of indifference.
De Guzman sees the interest in experiencing an entire album rather than a single track as part of a broader current, akin to the slow-food movement and the embrace of hand-made craft.
“This is not a look back at an archaic technology,” De Guzman said. “This is not about nostalgia. It’s about a format reaching a full breadth of human need. The new technologies are incredibly powerful, but they can leave people behind.”
For many years, the LP was relegated to a collectors’ market driven by dogged fans searching out music still unavailable on CD, and DJs looking for rare and obscure tracks. The outpouring of new work on vinyl speaks to the format’s relevance, but there’s something about the physicality of an LP, with the sleeve’s 12” by 12” dimensions serving as an ideal forum for evocative imagery, that imbues it with a presence unattainable by a jewel-cased CD or an iTunes index.
It’s not nostalgia to note that for anyone who became a teenager before 1983, the year that compact discs first hit music stores in the United States, vinyl likely played a formative role in your musical consciousness. De Guzman asked the guest curators to tell stories with their crates, which led to Sylvie Simmons, the rock historian and music journalist who wrote I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, compiling bins devoted to Americana and Grrl Power.
People perusing the gallery can take an album out of the sleeve and play it on a turntable. With eight listening stations, and a social space outfitted with beanbag chairs, this is one exhibition that invites you to linger.
Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records is on view at the Oakland Museum of California from April 19 to July 27. OMCA, 1000 Oak St., Oakland.
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