The past year has been good to sound in contemporary art. The inclusion of sound-based works in gallery exhibitions continued to rise, a number of sound artists received large grants and public commissions, and some of New York’s most prominent museums and cultural institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, and MoMA PS1, turned to the aural paradigm (some for the first time). Needless to say, sound is here — but it always has been, coloring our daily lives, permeating our galleries and museums, and infiltrating our homes and bodies. The pervasive, even immersive, nature of sound is the subject of an unassuming exhibition by Tim Bruniges, whose megalithic installation, MIRRORS, is on view at Brooklyn’s Signal gallery.
Formally, MIRRORS is comprised of two 9-by-9-foot slabs of cement, each boasting a deep concave recession in its center. Embedded within the focal points of the concave surface is a microphone, sunken directly into the cement, which captures and amplifies all sound produced in the gallery. The sounds — ambient or intentional, depending upon the interest of the gallery goer, as well as the noise level in the room — are played through two large speakers positioned in alternate corners of the building. The towering structures are placed at opposite ends of the exhibition space, facing each other at a distance of about 25 to 30 feet, and together create a simple, if intimidating, sense of balance.
The monoliths provide an obdurate, almost uneasy presence, as if they have been resting, silently, in this empty space for decades. At the same time, they interact nicely with the building itself — a former warehouse facility that reopened as a gallery two years ago — and artfully mimic the surrounding architecture. The result is a largely site-specific work that conforms to its location, but also exploits its space of exhibition as a formal component.
Bruniges calls these constructions “sound mirrors,” simple devices that collect, compress, and amplify all sound occurring in front of them. The curved surfaces — technically, they are called “parabolic reflectors” — function much like any other mirror: all energy moving in front of the structure (in this case, sound instead of light) is collected at the focal center of the reflector — imagine a satellite receiving a radio signal — pushed outward along the edges of the concave recession, and then projected in the opposite direction. When two sound mirrors of equal dimensions are placed in front of each other, the structures create a rudimentary transmission system, where the sounds reflecting off of one are received, mirrored, and amplified by the other. In order to experience this phenomenon, the listener must stand about 1.5 feet away from the center of one mirror. From this point, all ambient sounds are collected and intensified, manifesting a surprisingly embodied experience – silence is not only audible, but it is also tactile.
All of this occurs naturally without the assistance of the microphones contained within each structure. Indeed, the concept of parabolic reflection dates to antiquity and has received technological application for centuries (e.g., satellites, microphones, and telescopes). As such, the microphones and speakers connected to each structure do not serve this process, but are instead used for another purpose: creating a second aural layer, an artificial amplification that reproduces the discrete sounds of the gallery at a higher volume, for a longer duration, and in all directions.
Before coming out of the speakers, the sounds are also run through several layers of digital delay, creating a formal tension that produces a temporal disjunction. We hear the sounds of our footsteps, but only after the fact, and we hear the murmurings of people across the room, but they may have already moved on, leaving behind a ghostly, disembodied voice.
This acoustic back-and-forth is a somewhat disorienting experience, but the bare, almost irreverent, presentation of microphones, audio cables, and speakers helps demystify the apparatus. Indeed, by explicitly calling attention to an electronic infrastructure, Bruniges actively seeks to expose — and possibly exploit — what he calls the “mechanisms of intervention” that support the installation. There is no mystery after all.
In this way, the sparse installation recalls minimal and postminimal sculpture, as well as the massive installations of environmental artists such as Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Nancy Holt. There are also specters of Dan Flavin and Richard Serra: the large, whitewashed room is brightly lit by an overhead system of white fluorescent tubes, and the gallery itself — located in Bushwick — sits atop a metalwork shop and across a cement depot, imparting a strong industrial charm. Like these artists, Bruniges wants us to focus not only on the work of art, but also the environmental conditions of its site of exhibition.
Much like the aural spectacle last summer in the Park Avenue Tunnel — Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Voice Tunnel” (2013) — some people may get a thrill out of listening to their own voice — a sort of aural mirror stage. However, in MIRRORS, the actions of the participant are not proscribed. There are microphones, but they are barely visible. There is no podium, no intercom, and no stage. There are no instructions. In fact, the visitor is not actually compelled to make any sounds at all — they simply have a choice. Bruniges has constructed an interactive environment, but this is not interactive art.
Interestingly, the installation is surprisingly quiet — it does not sound as menacing as it looks. MIRRORS is an exhibition that allows us to think about what (and how) we are hearing, and many people will find a subtle, almost meditative environment, one that encourages contemplation of the sounds of our body as it moves through space.
MIRRORS continues at Signal gallery (260 Johnson Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through March 9.