Generic filters

Mud Muse


This great construction of driller’s mud and sound-activated electronics to make it bubble and splash is the most totally bizarre and ‘concept-less’ piece in [Rauschenberg’s] oeuvre. [It] had to be watered and mixed daily. It must be taken care of and interacted with to function. The piece uses “ocean sounds, animal sounds, some generated on a synthesizer and some processed at variable speeds(23)” to encapsulate humanity using a collection of random sound elements, which could possibly be interpreted as an interesting extension of the imagery in a piece like Barge (1962-63). This bubbling vat of mud exudes its own sort sexuality as well, in this case in the tactile, sensual quality of the smooth, flowing mud.


Viewers reacted to this work immediately: “People reached their fingers in and felt the mud, it was very silky. Then they started putting their whole hands in and making brown mud prints on the dove grey wall. One woman was about to jump in and do body prints on the wall. An exiting night. From then on, we had to put a guard at the entrance… to keep people out of the mud.(a)” As far as that viewer was concerned, she could literally be taken in by the art work. Mud-Muse also operated on gallery sounds, like Soundings, and the theme of audience participation is again underlined in this work. The element of collaboration is also important in this work. As in the other major technology pieces, engineers were employed to execute and fabricate this work:


“He couldn’t ‘learn’ the process or make immediate hands-on experiments to see what the image would be. He had to be able to sustain decision-making over months since there was a long lead time from the moment he articulated an idea until the engineer built and tested the equipment.(b)”[1]


More recently artists and designers have done their own mud-related projects, including Anke Ekhard’s artwork, ! (2009), in which sub- bass punch seems to trigger an ‘eruption’ in the water tank standing below, which is filled with black liquid and Tom Gerhard’s Mud Tub, an experimental organic interface that allows people to control a computer while playing in the mud.and




According to Rebekah Kowal, engineers Lewis Ellmore and Frank LaHayne of Teledyne Industries in California-which manufactures aviation electronics [a major military contractor] 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.”


Through its extraordinary uses of ordinary sound technology, Mud Muse expressed an attitude that the physical body is both endlessly provocative and endlessly mundane.[2]


Note:  This entry is comprised of extended quotations from the following sources:


[1] J.D. Welch, “Antiquity, Sexuality and Technology in the Mid-1960s Work of Robert Rauschenberg” 1999.


citations: (a) LaHaye, Frank, interview with Billy Klüver, quoted in “Four Collaborations” in Haywire (Munich, Germany: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997): 89. (b). Klüver, Billy “Four Collaborations” in Haywire (Munich, Germany: Verlag Gerd Hatje: 1997):93.


[2] Rebekah J. Kowal, “Blurp, Blap, Blop: Rebekah Kowel Listens in on Robert Rauschenberg’s Mude Muse” Art Orbit #3 Sep 1998.


Listen to Rauschenberg explain Mud Muse here :