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"Soundforge" at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft: Participatory Art?

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If participatory art is made that you don't participate in, is it still successful art? That was the question I pondered recently when hesitating to pick up a mallet at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft's exhibition "Soundforge," a steel-music collaboration between metalsmith Gabriel Craig and composer Michael Remson. The cold, standing, human-size vibraphones are accompanied by rows of hand-carved wooden mallets warmly lit on a wall, as if calling out "Pick me up."

Still, like any musical instrument to a newbie, even one as unintimidating as percussion, there's room for uncertainty -- how do you play? What should you play? How loudly can you hit the forged steel? The only clue Craig and Remson leave is an echo-y, almost eerie percussion score on loop that acts as your guide and accompanies a jumpy, barely watchable video of the forging in action.

Answering those questions and testing the mallet to the steel are all part of the experience, sure, but when some brave soul does muster the courage to pick up one, maybe even two, of the surprisingly light mallets, the sound is akin to the cacophony created by an untrained child banging on the keys of a poor piano. Given the amount of steel and mallets with which to strike it that are available, you have, in essence, multiple children at pianos.

And though the materials say each steel piece is tuned to Remson's composition, that doesn't mean you can't hit a wrong note. In the end, I went along and timidly struck a few chords, though didn't stick with it. Given the relational aesthetics model of "Soundforge," it requires viewers to complete the work by striking the metal with the mallets. So if they deign not too -- out of shyness, disinterest or politeness -- it's not much of a success. And if they do, well, I'm pretty sure I don't want to hear it.

"Soundforge" runs through January 7 at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main. For information, call 713-529-4848.

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