Press Office Exhibition


New Sound Sculpture Transforms Museum Space into Acoustic Experience

Released: September 16, 2010 ·

On November 20, 2010, SFMOMA debuts a new site-specific sound sculpture by San Francisco–based artist Bill Fontana.

Entitled Sonic Shadows, the work transforms the museum’s dramatic circular skylight and fifth-floor steel truss pedestrian bridge into musical instruments. Exploring both visible and invisible architectural features of the museum, the work creates an acoustic translation of the physical space.

Commissioned as part of SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary celebration, Sonic Shadows is Fontana’s first truly kinetic and interactive sound sculpture. While Fontana’s past works typically relocated environmental sounds to a remote location such as a museum, he is now exploring ambient and live sounds generated by specific spaces in response to the energy of weather, visitors, or a building’s infrastructure. The artist’s concept for Sonic Shadows grew out of these recent investigations into how architectural structures resonate. Sonic Shadows is organized by Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA curator of media arts, and will run through November 6, 2011.

This new work utilizes moving hypersonic speakers—a visually as well as acoustically engaging technology—built into a simple flat white surface, along with vibration sensors called accelerometers that respond to visitors’ footsteps and integrate ambient sounds recorded in real time inside and outdoors. Narrowly focused ultrasound beams from the four speakers reflect off the turret walls and are audible on the bridge and encircling staircases, producing a captivating multisensory environment.  

“What Bill Fontana has achieved is a truly hybrid and reactive sculpture of sound in time. We can listen to the three dimensions of a spatial arrangement inside the architectural setting of our museum based on a new technology of hypersonic speakers. Crossing the bridge on the fifth floor activates a complex work in which the invisible structures of the architecture play as large a role as the random movements of visitors. It is a unique SFMOMA sound,” says Frieling.


Bill Fontana has a long exhibition and performance history with SFMOMA, contributing to its longstanding interest in artists’ intervention into space, notably with his Sound Sculptures through the Golden Gate in 1987, the founding year of the Department of Media Arts. Commissioned by the museum in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, the work captured a live sonic duet between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Farallon Islands. Fontana placed microphones along the bridge, underwater, and on land to record environmental sounds in real time, simultaneously transmitting these recordings to loudspeakers on the facade of SFMOMA’s former Van Ness Avenue building. For the opening weekend of the 75th anniversary celebrations last January, SFMOMA revisited this piece by presenting a 30-minute excerpt of the multichannel composition.

In 1997 SFMOMA acquired Fontana’s Sound Sculpture with a Sequence of Level Crossings, an acoustic portrait of the Amtrak and Southern Pacific rail lines in Berkeley and Emeryville. To create this work, Fontana made recordings using eight microphones positioned along the tracks. The resulting train sounds were transmitted stereophonically using a white beam and white speakers in a white museum gallery, allowing visitors to experience the auditory environment of the actual site. This sound sculpture was the first Bill Fontana work acquired by an American museum.

In 2009 SFMOMA’s Modern Art Council honored Bill Fontana with the Bay Area Treasure Award for lifetime achievement.


Fontana has been a pioneer of sound art for the past forty years. Using sound as a sculptural medium, he reveals hidden acoustic worlds and transforms the way we perceive the visual and architectural spaces around us. Fontana’s works have been installed across the globe, from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and New York’s Brooklyn Bridge to London’s Millennium Bridge and Big Ben.

Born in 1947 in Cleveland, Ohio, Fontana studied philosophy and music at The New School for Social Research in New York and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the DAAD residency program in Berlin, and the Arts Council England. Fontana’s work has been exhibited at SFMOMA; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum Ludwig, Cologne; the Vienna Art History and Natural History Museums; the Tate Modern; the National Gallery of Victoria; the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; the Kolumba Museum, Cologne; and the 48th Venice Biennale. Fontana has created radio sound art projects for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR, KQED, the BBC, West German Broadcasting (WDR), Radio Sweden, Radio France, and Austrian State Radio. He has most recently exhibited sound sculptures at London’s Somerset House and New York’s Haunch of Venison gallery. Fontana lives and works in San Francisco.

Support for Bill Fontana: Sonic Shadows is provided by Arup and Meyer Sound Laboratories, Inc.

Jill Lynch 415.357.4172 jilynch@sfmoma.org
Clara Hatcher Baruth 415.357.4177 chatcher@sfmoma.org
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