Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From the Archives: John Cage, "changing installation," 1991

As an MLIS (Master of Library & Information Science) graduate student interning in the Mattress Factory Archives, I have a unique opportunity to work with records, documents, and photographs, which tell the story of the museum and the artworks created over the museum’s 35-year history. There are many amazing relics in the MF archives and I help preserve and provide access to this material for students, researchers, and artists. One of my favorite collections is a group of images of John Cage’s 1991 changing installation, an artwork exhibited as part of the 1991 Carnegie International. While cataloging, digitizing, and organizing these photos, I noticed an unexpected surprise that exemplifies the serendipitous magic that so often happens with artists working at the Mattress Factory.

Day 73 of changing installation

One of the poems included within the installation
instructions for changing installation
Most well known for his musical compositions, John Cage (1912-1992) also expressed himself as a poet, artist, and writer. In changing installation, 1991, Cage combines the use of two-dimensional works with poetry, all while maintaining an exploration of concepts surrounding randomness. The concepts of randomness and chance are frequently woven into Cage’s musical compositions, such as Music of Changes (1951) and the 85-part series, Music for Piano (1952-1962). For more about John Cage’s work, check out the John Cage Trust.

Based on the concept of “controlled randomness,” changing installation consists of two-dimensional works by artists Dove Bradshaw, Mary Jean Kenton, John Cage and Marsha Skinner, along with six chairs that rotate around the exhibition space in an order determined by a computer algorithm.[1] The six chairs are: one Bertoia Side Chair, one 1940s aluminum lawn chair, one Arne Jacobson Egg Chair, one chair made from sticks, one Empire chair, and one steel chair made by a steelworker. John Cage hoped to present randomness (in this case, the computer generated numbers), in a controlled and orderly way (through the use of clear and precise installation instructions). The installation was on view for 102 days and each day the chairs and artworks were rearranged based on placements outlined by the computer algorithm. Museum Co-Director Michael Olijnyk photographed the installation each day from a vantage point identified by the computer algorithm.

Wall Label for changing installation, 1991. Each artist provided 12 works to be used within the installation. The works each have an assigned number and a combination of 15 works was shown every day.
The entire fourth floor of 500 Sampsonia Way was divided into distinct locations for changing installation. Cage gave each corner of the gallery a unique number ranging from 1-64. 
Based on the computer algorithm, John Cage’s script lists the works to be displayed each day, their location, their display angle, and the placement of the camera. Here, this script page indicates the works to be shown and their location within the gallery for the first twenty days. For example, on day 1, work 5 is shown in position 30.   

Each morning Museum Co-Director Michael Olijinyk took “down the works from the previous day, put in place the new arrangement of chairs and artwork” and “photograph[ed] the space.” During this process, his pet cat, Godzik, would follow him around the gallery. In some photographs, Godzik placed himself directly in the center of the installation (and image), and in others, he appears as a blur or a reflection. Rather than retaking the day’s image, Michael Olijinyk noted that the cat’s appearance was “in complete accord with Cage’s concept of incorporating random sounds and occurrences into his work.”[2] All in all, Godzik can be seen in 17 photographs and is a surprising addition to an exhibition already based heavily on randomness.

Check out the images below—can you find Godzik in each one? (Click the image to enlarge)

Day 14 of changing installation
Day 25 of changing installation
Day 26 of changing installation
Day 30 of changing installation
Day 31 of changing installation
Day 58 of changing installation
Day 95 of changing installation

As you can see, through my internship at the Mattress Factory Archives, I have the chance to work with some fantastic collections and amazing artwork. The museum is made up of a multitude of moving parts, and as I continue to explore its history, I’ll gather more interesting stories to share!


Bernstein, David W., and Christopher Hatch (eds.). Writings Though John
Cage’s Music, Poetry, & Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.  

Mattress Factory. “John Cage.”

Mattress Factory Education Department. “Mattress Factory’s Permanent
Collection Curriculum Guide.” Last Modified 2009.

Olijnyk, Michael, Barbara Luderowski, and Claudia Giannini. Installations:
Mattress Factory, 1990-1999. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

[1] David W. Bernstein and Christopher Hatch (eds.), Writings Though John Cage’s Music, Poetry, & Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000): 5.  

[2] Mattress Factory Education Department, “Mattress Factory’s Permanent Collection Curriculum Guide,” last modified 2009, http://www.mattress.org/documents/2009_curriculumguide_web.pdf.

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