The first thing East Bay educator and composer Chris Brown noticed about the new plaza atop downtown Berkeley's BART station wasn't the incandescent globe sculpture or LED stage lights but the speakers: eight of them in weatherproof casing, each mounted on the top of a 21-foot pole. "They aren't arranged in a circle or a square," he said. "They're facing inwards—so people will walk through a sound hallway.”
Brown is the first participant in a unique series of public sound art installations at the renovated transit plaza. He created an audio collage called Flow in Place from hours of field recordings—snippets of parties, performances, and unplaceable din—collected on three continents over the past 25 years. Each of the piece’s 140 fragments sweeps from one end of the eight-channel speaker array to the other; during a test last week, the ebb and flow felt enveloping, even pleasantly disorienting.
“I’ve thought about the installation as being analogous to an aquarium, where fish swim back and forth,” Brown said. “I also hope to see some commuters skipping.”
The plaza, which will also feature a Michael Christian sculpture and performances programmed by Taylor Street Production, debuts with a celebration this Thursday, Oct. 18. Flow in Place, the first of ten sound art commissions, will run 7am to 10pm for two months, followed by works from artists including Maggi Payne, Danny Clay, Edmund Campion and Jim McKee. Jennifer Lovvorn, the city's new chief cultural affairs officer, said the speakers and plaza are meant to be a platform for experimental music in the Bay Area, and to join the Berkeley Art Museum, UC Theater, and incoming Cube Space in cementing downtown Berkeley as an arts and culture destination.
Sound is a relatively undeveloped field of public art, but there are precedents: In New York, the amplified hum of a tunnel junction emanates from beneath an unmarked grate in Max Neuhaus’ Times Square. In San Francisco, Bill Fontana’s field recordings play from the side of the North Beach library branch in Sonic Dreamscape. Still, to Lovvorn's knowledge, there isn’t a permanent, eight-or-more-channel speaker system for revolving sound installations sponsored by another city in the United States.
Plaza renovation began years ago, and Lovvorn said it occurred to Berkeley civic arts commissioners to retrofit the light poles with speakers accommodating sound art in perpetuity. "Rather than just doing a permanent sculpture at the site, the commissioners chose to create a platform to present a sound series," she said. The cost of the Meyer Sound speakers, custom installation and ongoing technical support by BugID and $4,000 stipends for commissioned artists is nearly $350,000.