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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Sound Sculptor: Bill Fontana

Bill Fontana is a sonic artist whose work focuses on the relocation of ambient sounds in public, urban spaces and the resulting recontextualization of both the sounds themselves and the sites of his installations. Several of his better-known projects include:

Distant Trains (Realvideo clip): In West Berlin in 1984, Fontana constructed the acoustic space of a living train station (the Köln Hauptbahnhof, the busiest European train station at the time) inside what had been one of the busiest stations in Europe before WWII, the Anhalter Bahnhof, but had become a bombed-out ruin. He was unable to use live sound in this installation due to technological limitations, so instead used a live recording of train station hustle and bustle made from eight microphones placed inside the Köln Hauptbahnhof, then played on loudspeakers hidden among the ruins of the Anhalter Bahnhof.

Sound Island (Realvideo clip): In 1994 as part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy and the liberation of Paris, Fontana transmitted the white noise of the sea live from the Normandy coast to loudspeakers hidden in Paris' Arc de Triomphe.

Acoustical Visions of Venice
(Realvideo clip): For the Venice Biennale in 1999, Fontana created a "sound map" of the city by piping audio live from twelve sites around the city, chosen for historic and cultural significance as well as acoustic character, to the Punta della Dogana. As this spot has one of the best views of the city and its landmarks, the installation allowed visitors to hear as far as they could see, in some cases hearing even further, reversing the way they normally experience the balance between these two senses.

For more on Bill Fontana, this brief essay that places his work in the obvious shadow of the ideas of John Cage is easy to digest.


Blogger Jonathan said...

I think the thing that makes these installations work, at least in my imagination, is that they all mean something. It's not just gee-whiz tech art (though I have no problem with that, it's not that compelling unless it's novel).

The three installations you present have their differing strengths. I imagine "Distant Trains" as a very immediate, somewhat haunting experience. "Sound Island" seems like it might work for some people as a creeping realization of significance, but the chances of people catching the reference seems unfortunately low to me. Not that I would have done anything better, of course.

The Venetian installation is the one I find most interesting of these three. It's live, but in a sense it could be ahead of realtime. We're not used to hearing that well, sure, but beyond the amplified presence we're not used to hearing that *quickly*. I don't know what the latency of the installation was, but if it was low enough the effect could be weird and wonderful. (I'm assuming he relocated sound relative to its source, so the view and the spatialization matched.)

Very simple and very neat ideas... best kind.

11:47 PM  

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