Bill Fontana, Installation view of 'Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns,' 1981. Photo by Bill Fontana
Bill Fontana, Installation view of 'Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns,' 1981. (Photo by Bill Fontana)

Why Are You Hearing Foghorns on a Sunny Day?

Why Are You Hearing Foghorns on a Sunny Day?

It’s not every day you get to travel through time — but a carefully arranged group of audio speakers along the San Francisco waterfront allows visitors to do just that.

The centerpiece of Bill Fontana’s three-month-long installation at SFAI’s Fort Mason Campus, Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns, transports its audiences through time -- but not space -- to 1981. It was then that Fontana participated in the New Music America festival, a week-long gathering of experimental sound and music luminaries in the Bay Area.

Project ephemera from 'Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns,' June 1981; Design by Catherine Caldwell.
Project ephemera from 'Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns,' June 1981; Design by Catherine Caldwell. (Courtesy of the artist)

During that festival, Brian Eno performed “Music for Museums” at the Berkeley Art Museum. Pauline Oliveros performed “Travelling Companions” in the Marx Meadow of Golden Gate Park. And Fontana, still early in his career as a composer and sound artist, installed eight microphones at points throughout the San Francisco Bay to pick up the sounds of foghorns in the foggy first weeks of June. (As much as the built landscape and demographics of San Francisco change, perhaps there is comfort in the fact that it will always be foggy in June.)

Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns was such a mammoth project — with microphones positioned on Treasure Island, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands and elsewhere — that it attracted the attention of KQED, who partnered with Fontana to release a now sought-after long-playing LP of Fontana's recordings of the bay.

For the current reinstallation, eight speakers mounted along the eastern wall of Pier 2 broadcast the same ambient sounds heard by listeners in 1981: wind, waves, foghorns, the occasional automobile and seagulls. Mingling with the nearly identical sounds of 2018, the only clue that Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns is temporally out of place is the fact that it can be heard on a perfectly sunny day.

Bill Fontana, Video still from 'Black Sea Study,' 2014.
Bill Fontana, Video still from 'Black Sea Study,' 2014. (Courtesy of the artist)

Complementing this “sound sculpture” -- as Fontana terms such work -- is a group of video pieces inside SFAI’s exhibition space. Three screens play Space Voyage, studies of sound and moving image Fontana recently made around the Fort Mason waterfront. On one, a split pier piling moves hypnotically with the motion of the water beneath it, a glug-glug sound mingling with other watery noises. For those prone to motion sickness, gripping the cushioned bench provided may help.

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Around the corner in the Gray Box Gallery (previously home to Isaac Julien’s Better Life (Ten Thousand Waves)), Fontana shows a newly created diptych from two recordings made years and thousands of miles apart. Attaching seismic accelerometers to a bell used in New York’s MetLife Tower and a temple bell in Kyoto, Fontana recorded the internal resonance of the bells at rest, capturing sounds imperceptible to the human ear. A technologically aided form of “deep listening,” Fontana describes the process as capturing the bells’ “acoustic energy.”

Bill Fontana, Video still from 'Resonant Silences (Southern facing bell, MetLife Tower, New York),' 2015.
Bill Fontana, Video still from 'Resonant Silences (Southern facing bell, MetLife Tower, New York),' 2015. (Courtesy of the artist)

In addition to that internal resonance, Fontana’s equipment picks up the sounds each bell “hears,” depending on its location: city life, New York weather, chirping birds, footsteps on gravel. As Fontana says: “The bell is always listening.”

If it’s daunting to dwell too long on the magnitude of what humans cannot hear, the sonic space created by Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns offers something a bit more soothing, despite its eerie displacement in time. As a foghorn blares on one speaker, another location picks up the same blast a bit later, creating a deep call and response that sounds symphonic.

I found myself walking away from Fort Mason listening intently. How long could I hear the foghorns fading behind me? What was that new gurgling sound coming from under the sidewalk? From its outset, Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns asks if deep looking and listening can change the way we experience the world. Thankfully, even nearly four decades later -- it can.

'Bill Fontana: Landscape Sculpture with Foghorns' is on view at the San Francisco Art Institute's Fort Mason Campus through April 22, 2018. For more information, click here.

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