SAN FRANCISCO — I visited during a hell of a week for the City by the Bay. With temperatures soaring into the 90s, the sounds of fans, ice cream trucks, and San Franciscans complaining about the heat wave and lack of air-conditioning filled the air. Often, we ignore and dismiss the sounds that fill our daily lives as white noise, tuning them out so we can zero in others that are more important to us; however, these ambient and environmental sounds have an effect on our daily lives. At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Los Angeles–based artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon explores the politics and intimacy of sound and how we negotiate our auditory and physical responses in her first solo exhibition, It Only Happens All of the Time.
Situated in the upstairs galleries of Yerba Buena’s expansive Mission Street space, the exhibition centers on a 15-channel auditory installation that shares the show’s title and was commissioned by the YBCA. The installation inhabits an entire gallery outfitted with specially designed fabric panels that climb the walls in an angled pattern. These walls are inspired by those in scientific and military testing facilities, where a precise environment is manufactured to produce a controlled and measurable outcome. Gordon has placed 15 speakers evenly around the perimeter of the room; located at an average ear height, they play a soundtrack on an approximately 20-minute loop that includes the sounds of people talking, garbage trucks, birds, and other background noises you would expect to encounter on a routine day.
In the center of the room sit two listening booths that have a hybridized space-age-meets-stone-age look, like a mash-up between the Flintstones and the Jetsons. These booths, together titled “Love Seat,” offer two viewers the chance to sit across from one another and absorb the sounds swirling in the space. Each booth offers a different auditory experience: one that’s more muffled and one with a higher reverb. There’s a tangible difference in how you experience the installation depending on where you’re sitting or standing; a single track is playing, but it shifts greatly as you move through the gallery. Gordon has a background in dance, and the potential of movement seems just as important to her as sound — how the viewer reacts physically to what she hears, moving towards or away from noises that cause pleasure, pain, curiosity, or fear. Gordon has created an intricate ballet of sound and physicality.
Beyond the new work, the exhibition includes a film installation titled “Everyone Will Be Here Now But Me” (2013). The single-channel film, running on a loop of a few minutes, features a weeklong project that Gordon created in Los Angeles — a controlled sound experiment at an abandoned food bank. In it, the artist treated the building like a sound laboratory, guiding participants through with sound and documenting how they reacted (and didn’t) what they were hearing. “Everyone Will Be Here Now But Me” explores the dialogue between audio and architecture, creating an acute awareness of how sound inhabits and corresponds with space.
In addition to the film, the YBCA show features a few untitled works on paper, pastel-colored interpretations of human organs, as well as “IWYTWMTWYTWM (I Want You To Want Me To Want You To Want Me)” (2014), a large acoustic foam sculpture of protruding spires and spikes. These works are interesting enough but feel disconnected from the more immersive and experiential richness of the titular installation and film. Their placement in the mezzanine overlooking the atrium takes away from their impact, pushing them into a liminal space and making them feel more like décor than art.
Overall, though, Gordon is successful in composing an exhibition that heightens our consciousness of our auditory senses; she reminds us that we can shut out sight by closing our eyes, but blocking out sound is much harder than we may even realize. There’s an inherent subjectivity and vagueness in sound that Gordon draws out. Rather than overwhelming us with oppressive noise, she directs and enhances our awareness of the sounds we both intentionally and unintentionally try to ignore.
Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon: It Only Happens All of the Time continues at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission Street, San Francisco) through June 15.