Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
If you’re tired of getting shushed in the stern, silent halls of traditional art venues, here’s some good news: When Artisphere unveils its newest exhibit today, it might become the loudest gallery in town.
Brothers Ryan and Hays Holladay, the experimental-pop artists of Bluebrain (you might have downloaded one of their GPS-powered music apps or blasted their communal tunes on a boombox walk), teamed up with Cynthia Connolly to gather 28 sound-art pieces for “Fermata,” an ambitious show that will unfold in three parts throughout the summer. Ryan and Connolly are both staff curators at Artisphere, and since Ryan joined the gallery four years ago, he’s been itching to put together a sound exhibition.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like this exhibit, even though Hays and I are just curators, is a crystallization of how we approach our own work,” Ryan says of the genre-bending, hard-to-explain, fuck-with-your-head approach of “Fermata.”
If you’re befuddled by the concept of sound art—if you think sound belongs in a concert hall and art belongs in a gallery—you’re not alone. (In fact, when I posted this article on City Paper‘s WordPress interface, I had to choose whether to categorize it as “Visual Arts” or “Music.” I went with the former, since it’s a gallery exhibition, but I’m not totally comfortable with the choice.) Ryan points to protests that erupted in Britain after the prestigious Turner Prize for contemporary art (usually of the visual variety) was awarded to Susan Philipsz, a sound artist. He says there’s always been contention around the line between sound art and music, too.
“Many artists blur the line, and some cross it, but it’s never really articulated where that line was in the first place,” he says, positing that sound, music, and art sit on overlapping spectrums, not in impenetrable boxes. “We’re not going to try to distinguish between sound art and music and other forms of audio.”
Hays, a recording engineer by trade, routed the works through an impressive 14-channel sound system—-a veritable wall of sound that brings the act of listening to recordings, an eminently private act in today’s two-channel, earbudded world, into the social realm.
In recent years, commercial visual art has gone hi-fi: Consumers pay extra to watch already-crisp films in IMAX or 3D, and any TV that’s not HD makes us squint. But aural arts haven’t gotten the same treatment.
“People are willing to sacrifice quality for the convenience of being able to listen to it anytime, anywhere,” says Ryan. As a musician, he cringes at the thought of his work being distorted by the tinny speakers of a MacBook. “There’s something exciting about creating a venue where people can be reminded of how moving, and how enormous, and how stunning sound can be.”
“And immersive,” adds Hays.
Ryan’s first concept for “Fermata” didn’t include a visual component. He wanted the sound to come from invisible speakers in the ceiling, playing to a room that was completely empty save for the exhibit’s enormous beanbag chairs. (“The beanbags were always a central component,” he says, and this particular model of beanbag is the Cadillac of soft, shapeless seating.) But José Ortiz, Artisphere’s executive director, convinced him that a vacant gallery would sell the exhibit short—and it’d be kind of hard to photograph for promo materials.
The speaker wall that now serves as the exhibit’s visual anchor was designed by John Henry Blatter, a Richmond-based sound artist who first used the configuration in his own “Untitled (stories)” exhibit. (Blatter also contributed one of his pieces to “Fermata.”)
“It immediately gave us a signature visual look to a show about sound. An Instagram photo of this, and you can tell what kind of exhibition you’re in for,” Ryan says. “But even though it’s a great visual, I’ve always wanted these to be thought of as windows into these other worlds, whether that’s hearing a choir in a cathedral in Rome or a field on the Australian outback.”
The multichannel speaker makeup gave artists new ways to tailor their sounds for gallery consumption. One NASA telescope operator took readings from stars (their spin frequencies, to be precise—-listen to a sample below) in one segment of the sky, turned the data into sound, and plotted it onto the wall of speakers where the stars appeared in the telescope image. Another created a special microphone to record sounds on a subatomic level.
The show is named for an articulation mark in sheet music that indicates that a note or rest should be held longer than usual, that a musician or conductor should expand on the given value of the note—and that’s not an accident. “[A fermata] seemed to be emblematic of our approach to sound, period,” Ryan says. “We’re inviting visitors to Artisphere to expand any sort of preconceived notion they might have of sound.”
Photos by Caitlin Teal Price
Listen to samples from “Fermata,” with descriptions from the artists:
Lucianne Walkowicz: “Stellar Tathata”
“The sounds layered in Stellar Tathata are created from data from NASA’s Kepler Mission, a space telescope devoted to searching for planets orbiting other stars…Stars are not static, but rather spin on their axes, so as darker and lighter features on the surfaces of the stars rotate into and out of view, the star dims and brightens with a characteristic periodicity…The sounds of “Stellar Tathata” are the spin frequencies of stars mapped into the audible range, such that middle C roughly corresponds to the spin frequency of our Sun (~25 days at the equator). The data has been analyzed to determine how the frequencies of a given star change with time, so subtle shifts in pitch and harmonics can be detected as the stellar surface patterns change. “
“CFCF is the moniker of Canadian-born Mike Silver. Inspired by Philip Glass and Ryuichi Sakamoto (who is also a contributor to Fermata), ‘Glass’ is a shimmering and playful piece whose 12 channels of plucked piano strings and staccato horns bounce around the gallery across Fermata’s entire speaker wall.”