Aural Fixation: The Many Manifestations of Sound-Based Art

The contemporary artists featured here vary in discipline and approach but are united in their focus on the aural experience. For each, engineering or recording sonic environments is a point of departure, a fertile ground for exploration of individual and communal reaction. Here, we invite you to listen to their work, hear their philosophies, and enjoy a small taste of the many manifestations of sound-based art.

We begin with Bill Fontana’s trek through the SFMOMA boiler room to discover, quite literally, the mechanical sounds of a contemporary art museum. Then, we take a trip with composers Nelson Soares and Marcos Moreira of O Grivo to discover the inspiration behind the duo’s sonic sculptures. We continue with a look at Christina Kubisch’s work that blends elements of traditional musical composition with technology. From there, we conclude with Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon and Zarouhie Abdalian, who share an interest in sound’s ability to shape how we experience sites.

Bill Fontana: In The SFMOMA Boiler Room

Fontana, a pioneer of sound-based art, takes viewers through the SFMOMA boiler room, where he fashioned himself a studio for the production of his work Sonic Shadows (2010), which was commissioned by the museum. “I thought that this mechanical boiler room was the most interesting sound,” he explains of his intriguing choice. In an additional video you can watch here, the artist remembers finding beauty in the oft-overlooked noises that score our daily life and his initial compulsion to capture them.

O Grivo: On Sculptural Orchestras

“To keep your ears open is an invitation to take rest, listen, and start to make connections,” Soares concludes in this video interview. Watch as the artist and O Grivo partner Marcos Moreira discuss their work as musicians, composers, and professional craftsmen. Plus, hear and see the work Cantilena (2017), a group of sculptural machines that produce sounds and perform together as a kind of orchestra. Read more about the work here.

Christina Kubisch: Discovering New Sounds

“Sound-art was not really known at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s,” Kubisch, a consummate interdisciplinarian, explains. “There were just many people trying to make something that went beyond these strictly separated fields.” Watch as the artist describes how she discovered electromagnetic induction, the phenomenon at the core of her work Electrical Walks San Francisco (2017). As part of that participatory piece, museumgoers donned hypersensitive headsets that allowed them to experience magnetic fields from electrical devices as sound and compose their own live soundtrack as they explore the urban area around the museum. Learn more about Kubisch’s work here.

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon: The Slipperiness of Sound

“I can play a sound and I know what I’m paying attention to and what I find attractive about it, but that same sound can be played for somebody else and they’ll have a completely different experience with it,” Kiyomi Gordon explains. “…You can’t control what someone else’s experience is, and I don’t want to.” Here, the artist discusses Inside You Is Me (2016/2017), a sonic environment she installed at SFMOMA as part of the exhibition Soundtracks. The piece, which featured a chorus of directional speakers playing sounds amid an evolving formation of movable walls, highlighted the highly personal ways we experience sound — a quality she refers to as “slipperiness.” Enjoy a 360 tour and find more information about her piece here.

Zarouhie Abdalian Makes Social Sound in Downtown Oakland

“One of the great things about sound is that it is social and you can experience it in a space,” Abdalian muses at the outset of this video. “A lot of times you can’t get away from it.” The artist goes on to reflect on her previous SFMOMA commission, a sound installation featuring brass bells that were programmed to ring simultaneously from rooftops radiating out from Oakland’s Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Each bell played a randomized rhythmic structure of accelerated and slowed tempos. With this experience-based work, Abdalian hoped to shift our awareness of Oakland’s city center, a historic site associated with community gathering. After viewing the video, consider participating in this downloadable art activity Abdalian created, which encourages exploration into sites and space.

For more artist interviews and behind-the-scenes looks at installations and exhibitions, visit SFMOMA’s YouTube channel.