Dark Matters at the Yerba Buena

The subtitle to Dark Matters, the new exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, is “Artists See the Impossible.” Many of the featured artists employ sound in an attempt to achieve this end. But perhaps the real lesson of Dark Matters is that it isn’t a matter of what’s possible and what’s impossible — it’s a matter of doing away with the primacy of the visual in museums, in favor of allowing other senses to serve the artist’s metaphoric vision.

The highlight of Dark Matters is “Listening Post” (2000 – 2006), credited to statistician Mark Hansen and artist Ben Rubin but also involving the unwitting participation of thousands of largely anonymous individuals. Hansen and Rubin have constructed a mesmerizing grid of suspended LEDs, 11 by 21, along with speakers that emit related sounds. The LEDs flash precisely choreographed yet ever-changing streams of words and phrases, all drawn from searches for data on the Internet. The work rotates through several movements, each of which parses the data in a different manner. One movement is constructed from four-letter words (“omit,” “food,” “zits” and, inevitably, far less savory ones), another from phrases that begin “I am” or “I’m” (“I’m on the crack patch myself,” “I’m cheering for Japan,” “I’m having an identity crisis today…”). At times a synthesized voice reads selections from the text; at others bell-like musical tones fill the room. When an LED changes text, it makes a light click, and the careful pacing of those clicks evidences the attention to detail that Hansen and Rubin bring to their work.

I’d seen “Listening Post” previously, having on three occasions driven down from San Francisco to check it out at the San Jose Museum of Art, where it is part of the permanent collection. The first time I sat through it, a half hour or so in all, I emerged with two thoughts: first, that I was suffering severe data poisoning; second, that I couldn’t wait to visit again. In San Jose, the piece benefited from a description of how each of its movements was conceptualized; for some reason that text is omitted in the Yerba Buena staging. The entry text to Yerba Buena states, “Hansen and Rubin translate this invisible data into a complex, symphonic environment of palpable, auditory and visual experience as if conjuring something out of thin air.” All of which is true, but perhaps their accomplishment would seem less mysterious, less a matter of “conjuring,” had that explanatory text been presented here.

Elsewhere on the Yerba Buena’s first floor, Sergio Prego‘s “Black Monday” makes use of the multi-camera technology that allowed characters in the Matrix films to be viewed with eerie three-dimensional fluidity. Prego applies the technique not to leather-clad information-warriors, but to a rigged explosion in an enclosed warehouse space. The resulting cloud balloons in a series of cross-cuts that are matched by a soundtrack of stuttered, split-second bits of noise and voices. Walid Raad‘s “We Can Make Rain but No One Cares to Ask” is a double-widescreen projection of images related to confrontations in the Middle East: documents, schematics and exploded buildings set to an audio collage of field recordings. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of exaggerated, almost panoramic widescreen images in video installations is an attempt to complement or to try, merely, to keep up with the immersive properties of sound. (More on Raad at theatlasgroup.org.)

Kambui Olujimi‘s “Scaredy Cats” consists of recordings of conversations in various languages on three banks of phones — plain, black, Emerson sets — dispersed throughout the show. Judging at least by the English-language portions (“Tell me that Marshall is just a big fat liar”; “Things happen, my ass”), the voice acting isn’t particularly believable, and thus diminishes the intended voyeuristic kick.

Charles Norman Mason teamed with two visual artists for “Murmurs: Three Compositions for Porous Architecture.” He created sonic accompaniment to Richard Barnes‘ photos of birds flocking above Rome, a mix of chatter and sonar-like noise, emphasizing how much the swarms look like bats in the images. (The Barnes photos resemble the cover to the band Wilco’s album Sky Blue Sky, also shot in Rome, by Manuel Presti, who won the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2005.) Alex Schweder‘s “Folded Murmur” consists of a four-screen box on which are projected (inside and out) moving images of those same birds. You step up on a pedestal so that your head is in the box, and every once in a while the pedestal rocks with a nearly subsonic tremor as the sound ebbs and flows. (Barnes’ photos are viewable at the website of the Hosfelt Gallery, hosfeltgallery.com, and Schweder’s piece is documented at alexschweder.com.)

Out in the museum’s courtyard, a small concrete space that has a lovely pool and some graceful bamboo but could use a few benches, Mason has combined the sounds from the Barnes and the Schweder pieces with other recordings; the result is a florid soundtrack in a fairly antiseptic landscape. Of course, even before you step into the courtyard, the sounds of the Barnes and Schweder pieces merge into something entirely unintended; no matter where you stand in Dark Matters, you’re certain to hear the “Listening Post” piece, and depending on proximity, the Prego, Raad and Olujimi also join the gallery’s soundscape. Porousness is an issue with which all curators of sound art struggle.

Not everything in Dark Matters  includes sonic elements. David Maisel shows photos of neglected, rusty containers that hold the remains of mental patients (in a review of the exhibit today, at sfgate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic, Kenneth Baker, noted that Maisel’s photos “stand out here because their silence contrasts so meaningfully with the verbal and vocal liveliness of ‘Listening Post'”).

Bull.Miletic‘s “Heaven Can Wait” (2001-ongoing) is a grid of flat screens, five high and three wide, each showing video from rotating restaurants around the world. It resembles Marco Brambilla’s “Cyclorama” (1999), a nine-screen installation that is in the permanent collection of the SFMOMA, across the street from the Yerba Buena. The two key differences between “Heaven Can Wait” and “Cyclorama” are that the latter is set up in a circle and has sound. Bull.Miletic is the duo Synne Bull and Dragan Miletic (bull.miletic.info).

Trevor Paglen, who concerns himself with what is off limits by law, presents photos that show distant glimpses of military bases around the world. He also reproduces images from the passports of CIA agents currently embroiled in the case of a kidnapping in Italy, two of whom have names oddly similar to the captain of the Starship Enterprise. One wall at the museum features a list of hundreds upon hundreds of code names for recent military activities, “ambient breeze” among them. (Paglen has well-documented his work at his paglen.com site, and I wrote about his to piece “Listening to Pelican Bay” [disquiet.com] when it was presented at the 2004 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.)

Surveillance is also central to the “proximity” installation by Alison Sant and Richard Johnson, who project images caught by a hidden camera that one of them wore in a hand-made felt vest. (Some of the footage is viewable at Sant’s site, alisant.net.) The vest is also on display — and in a cute twist, one of the video screens is projected back out to the street. However, a further irony cancels out that witty bit of staging: Despite this being an exhibit largely about the power and danger of secrecy, no photography is allowed at the Yerba Buena.

The exhibit is up from July 28 through November 1. More info at ybca.org.

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