"Earmarks," July 3-Oct. 20, 1998, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Mass. 01247.
Remember MASS MoCA? Well, after over a decade of anticipation (and a cool $18.6 million from the state of Massachusetts), the new arts center created out of a 780,000-square-foot, 19th-century mill complex in North Adams is scheduled to open in next spring, scarcely nine months hence. Initially conceived by Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens as a museum of Minimalist and conceptual art, MASS MoCA is now billed as a "multidisciplinary center" encompassing performing and media arts.
As a prelude, MASS MoCA director Joseph Thompson has organized "Earmarks," a series of sound installations at the museum and surrounding environs. The exhibition signals MASS MoCA's move from a "static display hall" to a high-tech, multi-media space, as its seven installations explore the use of sound in site-specific art.
Two of the best works in the show, Christina Kubisch's Clocktower Project and Ron Kuivila's Building 12, focus on the history of the Sprague Electric Company, which occupied the MASS MoCA factory complex from 1940 to 1985. When the company shut down, its century-old clocktower fell silent. Kubisch has revived the clockworks electronically by digitally recording the sounds made by scratching and striking the tower's bells. Solar panels regulate the sound of the bells according to the weather and time of day. Sunny days ring sharp and clear, while cloudy days are softer and denser. Clocktower Project is easy to miss, yet inescapable.
Also interwoven with MASS MoCA's site is Kuivila's Building 12. Addressing the Sprague Electric Company's erstwhile standing as the leading producer of electronic capacitors, Kuivila incorporates these gadgets, along with rotating mini-speakers and stun guns, into a room-sized, interior and exterior installation. Best seen at night, the work uses high-voltage wires festooned on a brick façade to generate a field of electrical sparks. In the melancholy, fluorescent interior, receding rows of empty chairs and company documents recall the room's commercial past. Poignantly evoking the absence of Sprague's employees, the electronic armature fills the vacant space with buzzing movement.
Also historically resonant is KABOOM, an organic installation by Alvin Curran and Melissa Gould sprouting on a cow pasture on Stone Hill, behind the Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown. Inspired by a story about Sterling Clark's art collection, presumably stashed in a safe zone during the Cold War, Gould used fertilizer to encourage the grass to spell out the word KABOOM in 300-foot-high letters. Curran's sound montage features Gould singing America the Beautiful along with orchestral tracks and explosive noises broadcast from speakers at the top of the hill. This was the show's only comic piece -- and now the cows have eaten it!
The other works in "Earmarks" are less concerned with specific histories. Bruce Odland's and Sam Auinger's Harmonic Bridge transforms traffic noise from the nearby Route 2 overpass into music that can be heard through loudspeakers underneath the bridge.
Ed Osborn equipped The Walkway, located outside a building on Main Street, to broadcast "audio images" of passersby. Electronic sensors convert the movements of pedestrians into sounds that are projected back to them from speakers underneath an awning.
In Between Buildings, Ulrich Eller fills an alleyway with speakers, covered in red plastic bags and suspended from overhead cables. Random noises altered by the acoustics of the alley blare from the sculptures.
Finally, Windsor Lake is the site of Seestück/Hörstück, a piece by collaborators Roswitha von den Driesch, Jens-Uwe Dyffort and Klaus Lebkucher. In this work, which translates as "see-thing/hear-thing," audio-rigged buoys playing excerpts from German romantic poetry and bird and bell noises float across the lake. Like Kubisch's Clocktower, sound is triggered by atmospheric changes. According to the condition of the water, the sound is either steady and smooth or fragmented and choppy.
If "Earmarks" is any indication, the opening of MASS MoCA will turn out to have been well worth the wait.