Rebekah Kowal listens in on Robert Rauschenberg's Mud Muse

During the 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg discovered that sound could be used to make art, just like a discarded umbrella or a stuffed billygoat. Excited by the promise of using sound as a material, he co-founded Experiments in Art and Technology, an organization dedicated to supporting collaborations between artists and industry.

by REBEKAH J.KOWAL, from Merge #2, 1998

All images from Los Angeles County Museum of Art "A Report on the Art and Technology Program L.A.C.M.A. 1967-71" (LOs Angeles L.A.C.M.A.,1977)

Composer John Cage had already paved the way for the participatory sound experiments of Rauschenberg in his use of unconventional, and usually ear-twisting, sound material in multimedia performance events. In the mid to late 60s, Rauschenberg created sophisticated pieces that were sonically engineered to respond to sounds made by their audiences. In Soundings, for example, a plexi-glass wall composed of nine panels would illuminate depending on the tone that viewers used to speak to the work. Rauschenberg's perception of "interactive" differed from that of some critics like Grace Glueck from the New York Times, who scoffed at the concept: "No matter how loud you shout or how low you whisper at Soundings," she wrote, "you still see the same old chairs. That's 'participating in the creation' of a work?"

In a move that silenced these critics by changing the definition of interactive, Rauschenberg created Mud Muse (1971), commissioned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The piece consisted of a big aluminum tank of mud-9 x 12 feet-that oozes, plops, bubbles and slaps in response to the sounds of its own earthy noises. Rauschenberg explained that it was intended to simulate the "paint pots" at Yellowstone National Park, the churning pits of molten earth caused by subterranean heat geysers.
   Engineers Lewis Ellmore and Frank LaHayne of Teledyne Industries in California-which manufactures aviation electronics as well as the popular oral hygiene tool, the Water Pik-helped Rauschenberg to realize the concept. Together they designed and built the aluminum tank filled with 8,000 pounds of driller's mud made of bentonite, a volcanic ash with grains smaller than .001 millimeter. The material can absorb great quantities of water which turns it into a gel-like substance whose consistency, not unlike thick pea soup or chocolate-cake batter, has an undeniably scatalogical texture. It is hardly coincidental, perhaps, that the first visitors to see Mud Muse enthusiastically smeared and splattered mud on the tank and in the space, which then had to be closed down, cleaned, and later monitored by a guard.
    Despite their original concept of an entirely self-activating work, the collaborators found that the system needed to be triggered by an outside sound-base. Rauschenberg commissioned performance-artist Petrie Mason Robie to create a soundtrack of recorded material taken from daily life as the basis for Mud Muse's activation. Describing how it operated, Rauschenberg said, "Mud Muse starts from sound: An impulse is turned into an electrical signal and then spreads out into three other breakdowns, depending on its dynamics. Then each of those splits off in three ways." Microphones located close to the tank were installed on the ceiling or on a nearby wall to protect them from mud splashes. Soundtracks of the base track, and of the eruption sounds of the work itself, played underneath the tank and were selected electronically by an apparatus controlling a pneumatic system comprised of air inlets, air pressure sources, and solenoid valves powered by electricity.

In its final incarnation, Mud Muse demanded nothing active of its audience; it ran by itself, asking viewers only to be receptive to its sensual stimulation. "It is primitive but I hope in being primitive that it can be simple and the intent be legible," commented Rauschenberg, who also hoped that audiences would "get involved with Mud Muse on a really physical, basic, sensual level." Perhaps he imagined that audiences would be stimulated synesthetically by the concomitant effects of sight, sound, and kinesthesia. This vision seems to have materialized in the mind of Art News critic David Antin, who suggested in 1971 that this was "the interactive work of art conceived as the perfectly responsive lover."
    Mud Muse's sexual connotations were reminiscent of one of Rauschenberg's earlier combines, Bed (1955), in which Rauschenberg splattered, dripped and roughly brushed paint onto the top end of a quilt, wrapped it around a vertical canvas, placed it in a wooden frame, and fastened a splattered-on pillow at the top. In this context, it looks as if the paint has erupted from beneath the quilt coloring the undersheet and pillow. But while Bed is silent-we only see the aftermath and are forced to imagine the sound of the desire that disrupted the scene-Mud Muse provides the sounds and tactile experience of perpetual sensuality, both generalized and ordinary-part of the blurp, blap, blop of everyday life. Through its extraordinary uses of ordinary sound technology, Mud Muse expressed an attitude that the physical body is both endlessly provocative and endlessly mundane.~