The phones are ringing off the hook in the basement of IDIO Gallery, and no one is answering them. As part of its Soundlab series, curated by Maria Chavez, the Brooklyn art space is currently presenting Western Electric Nº1, an installation of 15 dinging, automated black rotary phones by sound artist Matthew Ostrowski that subtly stirs the senses. Their chorus is never-ending and ever-changing: at times frantic, as one phone rapidly and persistently peals as if begging for someone to lift its handset; at times soothing, as the machines chime delicately, evoking the tinkling of crystal bells.
Although the visual setup is simple, a complex network of programming lies behind what sounds like arbitrary ringing. The phones follow computer-generated patterns based on the behavioral ones of creatures such as crickets and fireflies, which, respectively, will chirp in sync or light up in unison. The noises of the rotary phones draw from these mathematically modeled patterns — they have “a pile of tricks to choose from,” as Ostrowski told me — ringing out different sound sets, but then reading their neighbors’ data to try and match up their frequencies. The result is both charming and playful, with these devices usually meant for human conversation set in erratic dialogue with each other, creating a composition from a language we can’t understand.
There’s something oddly organic about the installation as well: the phones have a sense of liveliness, even if the mechanics are indiscernible inside their metal armors. With wires trailing behind them, they resemble critters that have skittered from the basement’s dark corners, scattered around, and set themselves down to face all directions. And when I closed my eyes during my visit, some of the ringing did sound natural: the high-pitched trills and scurrying rhythms of bells resembled the singing of crickets; the steady and textural whirring of hidden gears reminded of the soft ribbiting of frogs or even the purr of a cat. Of course, periods of chaotic clanging from phones that seemed anxious for attention were at times near-maddening, but the soundscape had its moments of complete silence, too, as if the devices needed a break from the busy chit-chat.
At one point, a visitor’s cellphone started ringing, sending notes of an upbeat jingle through the small room. In that moment, ringing out amidst the metallic timbres and gentle echoes of the chimes, the familiar song sounded strange and otherworldly.
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Western Electric Nº1 continues at IDIO Gallery (976 Grand Street, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through June 4.