Earlier this week I went to a lecture by the sound artist Bill Fontana at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was skeptical, sound art? Please. Wouldn’t you call sound art music? I braced myself for noise/ screeching and howls, but oh how awesomely wrong I was!
Fontana (American, b. 1947) studied at the New School for Social Research in New York, focusing on philosophy and music. He was influenced by the work of John Cage and specifically Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, zoning in on the idea that sound could be a sculptural medium and the act of listening could be a form of music. On his travels to Australia, Fontana was fascinated with the myriad of unique sounds in the region. Using the human and natural environments, the artist records often ‘overlooked’ sounds of everyday life as well as sounds inaudible to the human ear. These recordings create networks of listening sites that act as a kind of sculpture. Fontana’s sound sculptures attempt to capture the “true” representation of a sound, his works question how sound is able to create a sculptural image/ environment in the mind more immediate than visual art.
Recurring themes in Fontana’s work are recordings of water, birds, bells, and traffic, giving it a distinctly natural, elemental feel; tempered with the cacophony of human life.
One of his early works, Distant Trains/ Entfernte Zuege (1984) recorded the bustling train station in Cologne and projected it at the remaining bombed-out facade of the famous Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin. The Anhalter Bahnhof was sealed off in 1952 by the Soviets (the station was in East Berlin and ran through West Berlin, a big problem for the Soviets). The bombed out Anhalter Bahnhof stood as a ghost platform, eerily reanimated by Fontana’s recording, projected from eight giant speakers buried in the ground. Fontana’s work reflects on the destruction of WWII, the destructive divide between East and West- however, it also connects the two with a recording of the Western Cologne train station piped to the Eastern.
Fontana’s more recent work aims at connecting sound sites in real time. Currently ‘up’ in London is White Sound: An Urban Seascape (Sept. 22- Oct. 16, 2011) which connects the sound of the ocean shore of Dorset with the gridlocked Euston Road. Speakers on the face of the Wellcome Collection building projects a live feed of crashing waves, creating a dynamic listening experience that is at moments dominated by the natural ocean that recedes to reveal the pulsing traffic. This ebb and flow of different sounds revamps how we actually listen, becoming attuned to sounds we tend to block out.
To read and explore more about Bill Fontana (give it a listen!), check out his site here.