Lessons in listening
Architectural talk, when it turns to formal properties, tends to address issues of space, surface and light; sound is seldom considered. Most intentional architectural interventions in sound are an exercise in dampening or removing it, not using it creatively. The only standard sound calculation for contemporary buildings I can think of is made when locating fire and security alarms. What art can be made of this?
In 'Audible Light', eight artists - two of whom are trained architects - offer an answer. They work with forms of sound in architecture. And if the only sound that most buildings are designed to make are fire and security alarms, then Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis' Alarm brings attention to this disconcerting noise.
In the middle of a darkened room they have placed a 2m high metal box which stands on light industrial castors. Through a thick glass window set at face height, an inner compartment can be seen. The ceiling of this compartment holds a small 10Wt bulb, while at the back is an institutional round red fire bell. When you approach the window the face-like bell starts to ring, activated by an unseen electric eye; the soundproofing of the box, however, makes the noise almost inaudible. Your presence is registered by the artwork with muffled alarm, perhaps suggesting the way in which buildings, subliminally and overtly, remind inhabitants of their mortality.
Carl Michael von Hausswolff draws our attention to the ambient low-frequency sound that exists in buildings by virtue of electrical appliances. He has installed an untuned television, an electric heater and an electric oven and then amplified their buzz. This buzzing is a constant accompaniment to daily modern life, even a background presence in our dreams. Von Hausswolff invites us to invest imagination in these sounds, suggesting that the hums and buzzes are ghostly presences trying to communicate. The installation recalls hovering on the edge of sleep, when the sounds of a darkened building can fabricate a host of fantasy beings.
Much less metaphysically inclined, Tommi Gronlund and Petteri Nisunen are Finnish architects who are also djs. Their eight satellite dishes, four with microphones, four with speakers, transmit sound across a large room (directing it as if it were light). As the number of people in the room increases, there is a noticeable dampening effect as their bodies absorb the sound. It is best when standing alone with eyes closed in the middle of the room. So sharp and three-dimensionally vivid is the sound information, that 200m2 of floor space seems as richly intimate as a small closet. There are some real formal possibilities in this.
Anne Lislegaard's work is more social. Her talking wall, In Another Room, is set at an angle to the exhibition space. Proportioned so as to fall short of ceiling and walls, a stud partition stands in a dark room and conceals four built-in speakers. A distinctly female, American, 30-something voice comes over the speakers describing a man's domestic activities, as if she were watching a neighbour. Every time she speaks a 100W halogen lamp illuminates the room. In an odd way the flickering light causes one to see the speech and hear the darkness. There is something voyeuristic about this piece, a gendered looking and being seen.
Most popular with artists and public alike was Atem by Carsten Nicolai. A creaky grey 200mm high chipboard floor fills the room. Inserted into this spongy deck, eight large hi-fi speakers emit a constant low-frequency rumble and visibly heave and pump. This is palpably confirmed, as the vibration from the speakers and other spectators transmits into your legs.
Knowing space through your legs is contrasted with knowing it through your eyes, and to emphasise this duality of knowledge Nicolai has placed two large glass spheres half-filled with water. The fluid surface makes the room's vibrations visible and hypnotic. The experience is multi-sensory: tactile, visual, auditory.
Seen in sequence, these varied pieces qualify the institutional character of the Oxford gallery by drawing attention to its floors, walls and spaces. They also remind the spectator of how richly and complexly embedded we are in the sound environments of our buildings.
Timothy Martin is a visiting lecturer at the University of Reading