Zarouhie Abdalian

Zarouhie Abdalian, Occasional Music (preparatory photograph showing space between buildings in downtown Oakland), 2013; Public installation in downtown Oakland: brass bells and electronics; dimensions variable; commissioned by SFMOMA, courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel San Francisco; © Zarouhie Abdalian; photo: courtesy the artist

Zarouhie Abdalian: Occasional Music

Zarouhie Abdalian creates subtle interventions into everyday perception. Often bordering on the edge of invisibility, her minimal installations engage with the specifics of a site. Through researching a location's history and physical features, she addresses the dynamics between visitors and a given space, arriving at simple adjustments that transform a viewer's physical or emotional understanding of an environment. Her refined modifications have included making a window flutter with Mylar and illuminating an abandoned building with lights set on timers.

For Occasional Music (2013), Abdalian's largest public commission to date, the artist programmed brass bells to simultaneously ring from rooftops radiating out from Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, at 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. The artist first noticed the site's potential in 2010, when gatherings were held there in support of Oscar Grant's family during the Johannes Mehserle trial. Created for the city where the artist lives, this experience-based work shifts our attention and awareness of this city center, a historic place associated with community gathering, performance, and protest.

Abdalian is interested in the way that "bells regulate the activities of social spaces — announcing the passing of hours, shift changes, festivals, calls to service, and emergencies — and become powerful mechanisms by which the listener is situated in space." She chose to use brass ship bells for their clear, bright tone and because they are "utilitarian sound-producing devices." Since the bells are out of view from those who hear them, their sound has no visual anchor, an absence accentuated by the empty bell tower atop City Hall. Activated for several minutes once a day at varying times, each bell plays a randomized rhythmic structure of accelerated and slowed tempos, causing them to sound different every time. The surrounding environment, consisting of natural and built elements, also ensures that the ringing is never heard the same way, as the bells articulate space in this downtown area and adds to its layered textures.

Production assistance: Daniel McAnulty and Joseph Rosenzweig

Commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco; with special thanks to the City of Oakland Public Art Program and Public Art Advisory Committee; Cultural Arts and Marketing Division, Department of Economic and Workforce Development for their generous assistance.


Download a PDF of the exhibition catalogue essay and conversation with the artist. The full publication is available for purchase at the SFMOMA MuseumStore.

Visit Information

Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, near 14th Street and Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612

Visitors are encouraged to go to the amphitheater.




The public sound installation is activated for several minutes once a day. Daily times vary; check schedule for details. Occasional Music was installed as part of the 2012 SECA Art Award exhibition; the closing date for this commission has been extended to January 20, 2014.


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Major support for the 2012 SECA Art Award: Zarouhie Abdalian, Josh Faught, Jonn Herschend, David Wilson is provided by SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art), an SFMOMA art interest group. Generous support is provided by Carlie Wilmans. Additional support is provided by the SECA Circle of Friends.