Art

Sculpting Soundscapes

Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth "Tube Amp" (2014) (Daniel Neumann pictured with piece) (photo by author)
Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth “Tube Amp” (2014) (Daniel Neumann pictured with art work) (all photos by author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Sound is not just for your ears, but something your hands can touch if you bring them to the right spot. An ingenious device, “Tube Amp” (2014), built by Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth, enables your fingers to feel the vibrations linked to the sound you’re hearing. It’s smashing.

“Tube Amp” is part of a sound field created by several speaker-sculptures on display for the next few weeks at the Fridman Gallery. In this show, One Cycle Ahead, each modified speaker ruptures expectation on several levels. Not only do they reveal sound as something you can occasionally see, feel, and touch, the aural clamor itself has an addictive low bass quality. It’s worth a trip — you’ll leave the exhibition realizing just how reductively you once thought of sound before you walked in.

Installation View (photo by author)
Installation View (photo by author)

Each speaker-sculpture is a hybrid between the electro-sonic artistry of Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth’s sculptural penchant for the subversive.

Neumann has a long history of connecting speakers to computers to make booms, thuds, klangs, and other sonic effects that fall outside what is normally labeled music. His technical expertise is highly sought after, and he helps to maintain and repair the sound system at New York’s Cielo nightclub and served as the sound engineer on David Guetta‘s recent North American tour. The sound fields he creates using speakers in art spaces, like Eyebeam and the Sculpture Center, achieve effects conventional electronic music can’t. He pushes the technical envelope of what sound sounds like, and where and how it interacts with the space itself.

Juan Betacurth "Nightmare"  (2014) (photo by author)
Juan Betacurth “Nightmare” (2014) (photo by author)

Frequently inviting his audience into rooms with specially configured speakers, Neumann was always struck by how the speaker can be an object in its own right and decided to initiate a collaboration with a sculptor to modify the speakers themselves. “I’m too close to the technology and its function and I have a hard time seeing it removed from that. I feel like that’s where the collaboration started, at these found objects that I gave to [Betancurth] as a material,” Neumann said in a recent conversation published by Fridman gallery.

Enter Juan Betancurth, who subverts objects’ original functions with aplomb. With just a few tweaks to found objects or a few artistic devices in photographs of objects, he reveals their hidden and fugitive aspects. A salt or pepper shaker is suggestively photographed as a sex toy in his For Faith, Pain on Pleasure series, while a spoon has sprouted hair in another work that was on display at his recent solo show at the Camera Club of New York. It was up to him to twist average sound engineering tools into something new. He succeeded.

Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth, "Double Phase" (2013) (photo by author)
Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth, “Double Phase” (2013) (photo by author)

Their first collaboration, “Double Phase” (2013), is on view at the gallery. Betancurth makes extensive use of belts in his work, so he proposed hanging the speakers from a metal frame with two leather belts. The two facing speakers visibly vibrate when activated by sound. You can feel a faint wind from the machine when it activates, and it looks and feels like a multi-sensory object.

Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth, "Red Resonator" (2014) (as listened to by Regina Besha) (photo by author)
Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth, “Red Resonator” (2014) (as listened to by Regina Besha) (photo by author)

Another work, “Red Resonator” (2014), sounds very different when you bring your ear close to it. The rich texture soon dissipates as you move away. Placed on a wooden platform, you can feel the sound from the speaker resonating in the wood beneath you as you lay on the platform. It can take some kinky positions to get the most out of these sculptures. The leather belts that appear in nearly every sculpture are a hint to push your body and stretch, crouch, and strain in order to get the most out of each work. Instead of positioning sound as a purely aural phenomena, each work invites you to explore sounds visually, tacitly, and spatially as they manifest and shift according to the carefully orchestrated algorithms. Our standard idea of music suppresses how sound can be seen, touched, and carried by space. It takes art like this to unlock a fuller aesethetic potential.

The sounds themselves are haunting. Some evoke a rusty conveyor belt or crickets at night, while others suggest a clicking typewriter, a loud old fluorescent lightbulb, or the roar of an old TV as it broadcasts nothing at all. The computer algorithms have a randomized component so every walk through the installation will vary slightly. Neumann and Betancurth weren’t trying to mimic specific sounds, but these descriptions hopefully convey how evocatively this aural mosaic captures the imagination.

Over a century ago, Luigi Russolo declared in his “The Art of Noises” Futurist manifesto that “we must break out of this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds.” Neumann and Betancurth are making good on that promise by shattering our idea of a pure sound and immersing viewers in a raw field of noise-sounds. Liberated from the restrictive category of music, sound is allowed to be become visible in the vibrating speakers, touchable in its emissions, and sculptural as it fills the space in inconsistent but intriguing ways. Every few steps is a different experience. This is the kind of nuanced soundscape the Futurists could only dream of.

One Cycle Ahead is on view at the Fridman Gallery (287 Spring Street, Soho, Manhattan) through January 17. There will be special performances on January 9, 7–9pm, and January 16, 8–10pm. 

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