In 1963, Gibson Guitar commissioned the legendary car designer Ray Dietrich to sketch an electric guitar. The idea was to bring in a creative voice from outside the traditional music world who would investigate the possibilities of the electric guitar in shape and feel — introduce a high dose of innovation. And Dietrich was quite the innovator, having pioneered the concept of the custom-built car designer in the age of classic cars.
Introduced in 1963, with its asymmetrical shape and the taller horn positioned on the right rather than the customary left, the Firebird broke almost all conventions of a solid-body electric guitar. For instance, the wooden neck had nine strips of alternating mahogany and maple, layered for strength and stability, spanning the full length of the instrument. It featured some wonderful quirky details too, with the wings thought to resemble the car’s tail fins. Naturally, the Firebird played differently than any other electric guitar of the time.
Fast-forward to 2022, and I am standing in front of five custom-made electric guitars mounted on the makeshift wall at the BMW Lounge at Frieze London’s temporary pavilion. These intricate objects are the work of designers from the marque’s pinnacle electric car, the i7, realized as functioning musical instruments by luthier Ian Malone.
Each guitar is named after significant Black female guitarists of history: Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Barbara Lynn, Big Mama Thornton and Joan Armatrading. A spotlight moves across the panel, guiding our gaze from one guitar to the next. Later in the day, three musicians will activate the guitars through live ten-to-fifteen-minute performances. Simultaneously, the sound will play inside the i7 cars chauffeuring guests to and from the art show.
The artwork is called “63/22” and is the work of the LA-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 art, design and technology together. And Gale’s contribution is a multi-layered piece addressing current complex discussions, namely the politics of sight and sound, how we see and hear, and how this manifests itself in invisible 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 complicated dynamic between performer and spectator while subverting and destabilizing these notions via the artwork.
I meet Gale at Frieze London to untangle this latest project, “63/22”.
When did your love of music start, and why an interest in the politics of sound?
My mum was a music teacher, and music was always happening in our house. Alongside teaching me the piano, she would speak about historically significant musicians. Growing up on an air force base in Alaska, she was often a visiting music teacher at our school, giving lessons on Black music history. For me, it wasn’t only about enjoying the music but thinking about the histories that preceded it.
Your project at Frieze continues the investigation into the politics of sound but through the lens of the car. How did this connection happen?
At grad school, I began thinking about cars not just as technologies but as objects that we project cultural and political information into, in that the modes and the means of production of these technologies are not neutral.
Decisions are being made that are informed by political positions: if the cars are powered by fossil fuel versus electric, or the designs and shapes they take. What cars look like is largely determined by the understanding and biases of the people designing them.
Most of whom would be of a certain gender. How did you then circle this back to music?
While investigating cars, I encountered interesting information about music, particularly American blues and rock. Early blues and rock songs were largely about cars, such as Ike Turner’s 1951 “Rocket 88” — 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 upon Ray Dietrich and his work with Gibson in 1963 — where the title of this latest artwork, “63/22,” comes from. It is the first time these two industries have overlapped on such a large, mass-produced scale.
It must have seemed quite a surprise then to be approached by BMW for the Frieze project. Speaking with the curator earlier, she was unaware you were already thinking along these streams of ideas.
Crazy, right? I 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. Added to this, I’m a real car fan.
And how do you feel about the project that is displayed before us?
Seeing an object born out of a concept that exists in space never ceases to amaze me. This project has truly taken this to a new level. These guitars are not just aesthetic art objects but functional technology; they are all playable guitars that Ian Malone helped make possible.
I cannot help noticing how unusual the guitars are, how they explore shape and materials beyond tradition, seemingly questioning the musical instruments’ masculinity.
Yes, absolutely. During the design process, I discussed the profile of the types of users of these technologies with the BMW designers. We looked at who would be playing the guitars and how we should be designing with other bodies in mind other than the typical type who were determining the shape of things in the 60s, which would have been primarily white men.
The musician St. Vincent recently designed a signature guitar that has a much narrower body to accommodate people with breasts. I asked our designers to consider ergonomics with all body shapes in mind.
Can you explain the performative side, when these aesthetic objects neatly lining the wall are played?
We’ve invited three diverse musicians to perform at 3 pm each day during Frieze, giving them carte blanche to do what they want and choose the guitar they like. It’s been fascinating to see which ones they go for. Luckily no two have gone for the same guitar.
Given your interest in sound and cars, what are your thoughts on the role of sound in the post-combustion age, where electric cars omit very little natural noise?
Sound is largely a consequence of some material friction, so the sound is synthetic with electric cars. And currently, it feels like it is an open season — that anything is possible. But do we want to replicate the sound of an engine, or do we find a new sound? For safety reasons, these must be global conversations. I’m very curious.
I’m curious to see how the concept of class is reflected in technologies and sound. Studies show how more elite neighborhoods have a lower sound profile, while less privileged neighborhoods tend to be louder. These are interesting discussions that collide with cars too.
“63/22” interrogates a timely theme: namely, the politics of sight and sound, what we are directed to see and allowed to hear, and how this manifests itself in invisible voices. What were you hoping to achieve with the project?
I strongly believe in the importance of modeling possibilities. So, when I think about this moment in 1963 when these industries overlapped, I see this as a demonstration of what is possible when conversations are allowed to overlap directly. I’m looking at the moment when ideas collide.
Given that general guitar, design hasn’t changed so much in the last 60 years, by recreating and almost staging the scene in this context, we can shine a light on the possibilities of change.
The shapes and forms of technologies were largely determined by the biases of the people designing them. As political and cultural landscapes change, those biases also shift. Where are we now? Why are we sticking to what came before? We can still change things. Nothing is set in stone. In the essay “Technology and Ethos,” Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones at the time, has a great line: Nothing has to look or sound the way that it does.
The 19th edition of Frieze London takes place from October 12-16, 2022.
See the work of artist Almudena Romero, “The Pigment Change,” as part of the BMW Residency for Paris Photo here, and see sister company Rolls-Royce’s group exhibition for the latest Muse challenge here.