On Bill Fontana’s “Sonic Shadows”

July 11, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay, One on One

Our guest writer today is architect Chris Downey. Welcome!

Stepping through the lobby and into the atrium of SFMOMA, you may be greeted by strange sounds of dripping water, metallic pings, or intermittent clicks. Just as you think you might recognize the sound, it vanishes. Sometimes it seems to travel right past you, while other sounds seem to swerve somewhere near you. It’s hard to tell, though, as there’s no evidence of anything around that could be making the noise — or so I’m told. I cannot see and came to visit the museum with a number of friends, most of them also blind or visually impaired. We came to experience Sonic Shadows, the temporary site-specific sound installation by San Francisco’s own Bill Fontana. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was Bill’s work that greeted us as we stepped toward the atrium.

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Bill Fontana, audio clip of site-specific installation Sonic Shadows, at SFMOMA, 2011.

This was an incredible experience on many levels. We had the opportunity to hear about the installation from the artist himself along with Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA’s curator of media arts. We learned about the challenges of curating an audio installation such as this within the museum, the artistry and inspiration that formed the work, and the technology that brings the art to life. In the end, of course, we were there to enjoy the art itself and the new dimension that it offers in the iconic atrium space of the museum — making the architecture audible.

The curator talked about what it meant for the museum to embrace an installation that doesn’t follow the usual rules. It doesn’t stay within a frame, sit on a pedestal, or welcome containment of any kind. This art moves around the atrium and bounces randomly into all the spaces surrounding it. It ricochets off walls, people, and other pieces of art. Patrons of the museum may be gazing at an artwork in a gallery on the second floor when a sonic beam unexpectedly crosses them. It is rare in a museum to let one piece of art sneak up invisibly to surprise visitors while they are focusing intently on another work. As irreverent as it may seem, Sonic Shadows makes for a wonderful temporal experience as one is immersed in the work through many different settings and evolving acoustic dimensions.

The piece seems especially fascinating, funny, and even subversive when you learn that the sounds ricocheting around you are sounds that the museum originally paid good money to exclude from the visitor experience. These are actually live sounds captured from the boiler room — the mechanical loft — on the roof above the atrium. Noises that were never meant to be heard within the museum are now the very sounds animating and enlivening the most celebrated public space of the institution. Liberated from the confinement of the mechanical loft, the noises become eerily serene sounds that seem to resemble natural sounds from the environment, like streams, or dripping water.

To capture the sounds, Fontana placed a series of sensors with accelerometers on pipes and other equipment within the mechanical loft. The signals from these are then relayed to a computer, where they are mixed and composed by a program built to randomize the sound samples. From there the sounds are transmitted through ultrasonic speakers on the fifth-floor turret bridge that rotate and shoot sound waves like laser beams out into the atrium space.

The sounds are imperceptible until the sonic beam bounces off a surface, striking you or somebody else. The effect could be described as a mosquito or large flying bug that buzzes straight at your head, quickly coming at you with a crescendo before it fades off into another direction. My wife had a chuckle when, walking toward the bridge the first time, she saw one of my blind friends, who is typically calm and composed, ducking and weaving as if avoiding punches thrown by a phantom boxer. This uncharacteristic behavior quickly stopped when he realized that it was the audible art that was whirling by.

Most interesting to us as patrons without sight was the way that the ultrasonic beams bouncing off the walls demonstrated the shape of the architecture that we could not see. Standing on the bridge, you can hear the geometry of the space as the point of inflection of the ultrasonic beam on the wall rotates around you. This sensation was quite successful in defining the space at the immediate level of the bridge, but less so relative to the height and depth of the space. Descending the stairs, however, we started to recognize larger “spots” of sound that seemed to move faster the lower we went toward the lobby floor. There in the lobby, we could better perceive the difference in the size of the audible spot and the speed at which it travels, which gives a wonderful sense of the height of the space when compared to the sounds that are heard from the bridge way overhead.

Reflecting on the art after leaving the museum, I started to relate Sonic Shadows to Alexander Calder’s red-and-white mobile in the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Just like Sonic Shadows, Calder’s kinetic art moves in and out of your consciousness as you move around the museum, catching occasional glimpses of the art through openings and in vistas across the gallery spaces. Sonic Shadows, however, is far less predictable, and has a far greater reach and a richer composition. It has no visible form or mass, yet it seems more physical and more immediate or personal to the observer.

I understand that in the absence of any other visible form of Sonic Shadows, many patrons spend a lot of time gazing at the armature and array of speakers that move and rotate above the bridge. That seems a bit like going to a movie and watching the projector. I suppose it’s a rather curious visible contraption. Perhaps one has to look at it to try to figure out what it is.

However, I suspect that this may be a piece of art that is best “seen” with your eyes closed. It is commonly held that 80 percent of the environmental sensory experience is visual. That’s not to say that there are more visual phenomena in the world than there are sounds and smells, but rather that the brain is disproportionately focused on visual stimulation. With a properly functioning visual apparatus, the brain is simply overwhelmed with sights, leaving little capacity to focus on or appreciate a comparable experience of sound. To fully appreciate Sonic Shadows, then, it may help to block out the visual stimulation that would distract your mind from really hearing the art. Doing this, you may get a better sense of how you can hear the space or form around you. Give it a try by standing still on the bridge and closing your eyes to really listen to the space. Then, try it again on another floor to better hear the differences.

Somehow, I can’t help but wonder how many museum patrons recognize the sound installation as art. When I listened to people walk across the bridge, most crossed without pausing and didn’t seem to notice the sounds whirling past them. Perhaps the sounds are just lost — like a bird singing outside a window. A most amazing sound or song might get filtered out by our brains focusing on a task at hand or on the art at which we may be looking. If we subconsciously ignore the birds and other ambient sounds, are we prepared to recognize or appreciate sound as art — especially if it has little or no visual evidence and is devoid of melody, lyrics, or rhythm? In the curatorial composition of the museum, I think it’s a wonderful challenge and addition to find art that engages other senses, making the museum a richer experience.

Experiencing how Fontana’s Sonic Shadows celebrates and enlivens the museum’s most iconic and public space by using its most concealed, intimate, and nonpublic sounds is fascinating, ironic, and fun. For me, the installation gives the lobby a dimension and dynamic that it simply does not have without it. It is also the most engaging acoustic and architectural experience that I have had since losing my sight. I encourage you to head over to the museum and close your eyes to hear this art — the museum’s new voice.


Chris Downey is an architect who lives and works in the Bay Area. Since losing all sight in 2008, Chris now works to design buildings and environments for greater accessibility and delight for all — with or without sight.

More Bill Fontana on Open Space!

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