If the Millenium Tower Falls, Does it Make a Sound?

As I type this in KQED’s temporary downtown offices, I sit one block northeast of the now-infamous Millennium Tower. And though the tower leans northwest (sorry Salesforce) as it sinks at a rate of just over an inch per year, that slight variation in direction isn’t much comfort. The Millennium Tower looms over us all.

Completed in 2009 and discovered sinking in 2016, the Millennium Tower is not just a physical threat to those who work in its tilted path or dwell within its luxury condominiums. In its years of controversy, this shiny, aesthetically unremarkable structure has come to represent the blithe arrogance of a certain sector of the Bay Area economy. Its sinking and tilting? Cosmic retribution.

In that mindset, the Millennium Tower portends the inevitable collapse of everything that has made this place change so dramatically: wildly speculative markets, questionable technologies, ridiculous IPOs. And that symbolic status is what makes it a prime target for conceptual art.

Black and white portraits of two men against a black background.
Postcommodity members Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist. (Courtesy of the artists)

For Postcommodity (the indigenous art collective of Cristóbal Martinez and Kade Twist), the sinking Millennium Tower is inspiration and raw material. Using scientific data from court documents filed in tower residents’ suits against the developers and other parties, Postcommodity built software that translates the tower’s rate of sinking into daily four-minute soundscapes. Unless the tower is fixed or torn down, The Point of Final Collapse, as the piece is called, will continue to grow more and more dense, its snippets of audio potentially overlapping as the composition’s complexity deepens.

The content of those daily soundscapes is equally important to the artists: samples include dialogue from audio sensory meridian response (ASMR) tracks, binaural beats, chakra tones and whale songs. These are sounds meant to relax and heal—sounds gathered from a growing “wellness industry” Postcommodity regards with equal suspicion. Would we need crystals in our water bottles, their piece argues, if we weren’t in the throes of late-stage capitalism (and its discontents)?

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Then there’s the method of delivery. The Point of Final Collapse plays between 5:01 and 5:05pm, broadcasting from the bell tower of the San Francisco Art Institute via Long Range Acoustic Devices (essentially, high-powered directional speakers). The audio carries east along Chestnut Street; if you can see the SFAI tower’s east face you can likely hear the piece, timed to “greet” you as you get off work. The artists claim that under the right atmospheric conditions, the audio can be heard as far away as Treasure Island.

On a recent day, I rode my bike to the corner of Chestnut and Powell Streets a little before 5pm. In the echo of a local church bell’s last “bong,” The Point of Final Collapse began as a ghostly crackle and whisper of ASMR. Eerily, the unintelligible words seemed to drop directly out of the power lines above.

A woman walking by stopped suddenly—listening—and turned. “Do you hear that?” she asked me.

“It’s an art piece,” I explained, uselessly pointing toward the barely visible speakers in the tower.

“It’s terrifying,” she replied with real feeling.

Though the stated purpose of The Point of Final Collapse is not to terrify, there’s an inherent chaos in its algorithmic devolution. And even in its current sparse state, whispered ASMR lines like “some people don’t see it, some people are blind,” and the strange hums of what could be either animal sounds or the heart chakra tone don’t exactly soothe. This is especially true when such sounds descend from nowhere, seemingly directed to your ears alone.

View from street of the 58-story Millennium Tower.
The Millennium Tower in 2019. (Photo by Robert Canali; courtesy of San Francisco Art Institute)

The truth is The Point of Final Collapse is not meant to be experienced by the uninitiated—or perhaps experienced in person at all. It favors a kind of bloodless, armchair appreciation of conceptual box-ticking, an appreciation capped with a knowing chuckle: “Good one.” Those who do happen across the sound installation by accident will likely mistake The Point of Final Collapse as a momentary auditory hallucination. To understand that it is an art piece, let alone an art piece meant to be a call for accountability, is a privileged experience somewhat antithetical to the project’s stated politics.

And yet, the artwork’s promise lies in its longevity. The Millennium Tower will not collapse. The recent settlement reached between homeowners, the developer, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority and other parties details a $100 million stabilization plan (not to mention the “stigma payments” due to the residents for the ignominy of dwelling within a leaning tower).

In the years it will likely take to remedy the situation, Postcommodity says the four-minute collection of “helpful” sounds made unhelpful could become even more agitated (and agitating) than it already is. Strange and punctual, it may become a known entity—even a sought-after firsthand experience.

It could even become a tourist destination in its own right. “This is what capitalism looks like,” tour guides will say at the base of the sinking, leaning Millennium Tour, “and at our next stop, we’ll get to hear what it sounds like.”

'The Point of Final Collapse' broadcasts daily from the bell tower at the San Francisco Art Institute, 5:01–5:05pm. It will continue until the Millennium Tower is fixed or torn down. Details here.