Bill Fontana

Sonic Shadows, 2010

  • A white structure with a blue sky behind it, Bill Fontana
    Bill Fontana, Sonic Shadows, 2010; sound sculpture (twelve-channel live sound installation with twelve accelerometers, eight loudspeakers, and four ultrasonic emitters on pan-tilt heads); dimensions variable; commissioned by SFMOMA; collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Nancy and Steven Oliver, Wendy Webster and Stuart Davidson, and the Accessions Committee Fund; © Bill Fontana; photo: Don Ross
  • A white perforated wall, Fontana Soundtracks
    Bill Fontana, Sonic Shadows, 2010; sound sculpture (twelve-channel live sound installation with twelve accelerometers, eight loudspeakers, and four ultrasonic emitters on pan-tilt heads); dimensions variable; commissioned by SFMOMA; collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Nancy and Steven Oliver, Wendy Webster and Stuart Davidson, and the Accessions Committee Fund; © Bill Fontana; photo: Don Ross
  • A white slatted bridge seen from below with dancers silhouetted
    Deborah Slater, Echoes Made Visible, November 3–6, 2011; site-specific movement work created for Sonic Shadows; choreographer: Deborah Slater; dancers: Melissa Caywood, Kelly Kemp, and Wendy Rein; photo: James Gouldthorpe

This site-specific installation by San Francisco–based sound art pioneer Bill Fontana explores both visible and invisible features of the museum building. Sonic Shadows (2010) reveals the internal resonance of structural elements like the fifth-floor bridge below the oculus and boiler room pipes, transforming them into musical instruments. The sound sculpture uses moving ultrasonic speakers and vibration sensors to turn the space below the dramatic circular skylight into an acoustic drawing in real time. As visitors cross over the bridge, their footfalls contribute to real-time recordings of ambient sounds. While Fontana’s previous collaborations with SFMOMA relocated environmental sounds from the regional landscape, Sonic Shadows creates a live composition generated by the building itself.

— Rudolf Frieling


On Bill Fontana’s Sonic Shadows

Stepping into the SFMOMA atrium, we were greeted by strange sounds of dripping water, metallic pings, and intermittent clicks. Just as we thought we might recognize a sound, it vanished. Sometimes it seemed to travel right past, while others seemed to swerve somewhere near. It was hard to tell, though, as there was no evidence of anything that could be making the noise—or so we were told. I can’t see and came to the museum with a number of friends, most of them also blind or visually impaired, to experience Sonic Shadows, a site-specific sound installation by Bay Area artist Bill Fontana.

Most interesting to those of us without sight was the way the ultrasonic beams bouncing off the walls demonstrated the shape of the architecture we could not see. But the piece seems especially fascinating, funny, and even subversive when you learn that the sounds ricocheting around you are ones the museum originally paid good money to exclude from the visitor experience: live sounds captured from the boiler room on the roof above the atrium. Liberated from the confinement of the mechanical loft, the noises become eerily serene and seem to resemble natural sounds from the environment.

I understand that in the absence of any other visible form of Sonic Shadows, many visitors spend a lot of time gazing at the armature and the array of speakers that move and rotate above the bridge. That seems a bit like going to a movie and watching the projector. I suspect that this may be a piece of art that is best “seen” with your eyes closed.

— Chris Downey


Excerpted from Chris Downey, “On Bill Fontana’s Sonic Shadows,” Open Space, July 11, 2011