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Looking at Noise

High Zero Sound Installations Receive A Healthy Dose Of The Visual

Jefferson Jackson Steele
ART OF NOISE: Chiara Giovanda brings a more visual orientation to High Zero 2007’s gallery aspects.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/26/2007

High Zero Sound Installations

At the Current Gallery through Oct. 2

The large beastlike appendage hangs batlike from the ceiling, greeting you as you enter the Current Gallery. Its wavy folds almost hide its true nature, not letting you get a good grip on just what it is. Part of it puddles on the floor just beneath itself, a metal box with a piston attached to some footpad. If you step on it, the creature growls in a rhythmic whir. Or maybe it's a purr. It's so casually inscrutable you can't tell if you're angering it or pleasing it when you offer your foot to its paw.

Barbara Schauwecker's "Fingered Coral" is one of the five pieces included in the sound installation portion of High Zero 2007, alongside pieces from Laure Drogoul, Neil Feather, Dylan Hay, and Asa Osborne. But one look at the large fabric and sewing machine construction and you realize this year's sound installation is coming from a slightly different angle. As curated by local artist/musician/performer Chiara Giovando, this year's exhibit focuses as much on visual presence as it does aural atmosphere and mood.

Over lunch on a downtown Baltimore patio, Giovando says she was hoping to bring a more visual-oriented vocabulary to this High Zero when she was asked to join the Red Room Collective earlier this year. "My interest in joining was to be able to do exhibitions and to be able to start curating more events and just bringing in some more visually oriented stuff, which is part of what I'm trying to do with the sound installations this year," she says. A striking-looking woman of casual intonation and cadence, Giovando speaks as if every thought sounds new to her, no matter that she's been pondering the exhibit for months. Nothing sounds coated by memory's sometimes cynical patina.

"Just to look at the ways sound doesn't necessarily have to be limited to not visual components," she continues. "Basically what I was interested in initially was inviting visual artists--artists who really have a relationship to their material--to make pieces [that] incorporate sound."

A New Mexico native who moved to Baltimore from San Francisco around the same time as Nautical Almanac's Twig Harper and City Paper contributing photographer Carly Ptak, Giovando's own work freely straddles the audio/visual realm with a fearless aplomb. Her 2005 Transmodern Age performance piece left some of us worried she was about to injure herself, and if you've ever seen her do her voice and violin thing, you know that there's nothing more alluring than a young woman who looks like she stepped out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book illustrated by Edward Gorey playing and singing. That is, until you realize that this droning, run-on sentence of a vocal and string duet may very well raise the French and Indian War dead.

The HZ 2007 sound installations come from a similarly skewed perspective. "I was interested in artists who have a deep connection to specific materials--Asa usually does wood stuff," Giovando says. "And Neil, he has this relationship to metal and he's kind of a gearhead. So there's all more tactile stuff happening with the sound. And none of it's in headphones--it's all amplified in the space. I asked them all to make their sounds interactive or playable in some way, so that people visiting the gallery could really go in and interact with the installations and affect the piece of music. All of the sounds once played are really going to become a piece--the total culmination of their sounds is going to be a piece of music."

It's a thrilling, haphazard approach to musique concrète, one that dovetails nicely with the festival's overall temperament: anything goes. That element was certainly in play at the Sept. 20 opening. As Schauwecker's fabric beast purred and growled as people stepped on its pedal, any one of Feather's three contraptions--two activated by pressing a pedal, another working on gravity if anybody physically pushed a weight dangling from a spring--turned their motorlike piston throb into blurry, staccato rhythms. Hay's untitled installation offered a wide array of electronic and stringed doodads to be plucked, turned, pushed, twiddled, and otherwise messed with. And Drogoul's "Frequencies for Darwin"--an installation featuring a colony of earthworms connected to the crowd via a two-way microphone/speaker rig --offered visitors a chance to talk to the soil and see if the soil talked back. With even an itinerant audience moving into and out of the gallery, the room revved and hummed like an idling car.

And then there was Osborne's "Group Music," as witty as it is formally austere. Osborne basically made an instrument: Atop a wooden control panel-like plank he placed five tape recorders, in which were cassettes with music pieces that he solicited from local musicians. Another tape recorder sat between them, on which you could make a piece of music using any combination of the available sound sources.

It's a single piece that comes as close as you can to encapsulating the organizing theme of the show and High Zero itself. "I think one of the really strong aspects of the festival to me is that there's a certain amount of planning you can do to make a structure or a situation, and then you just let what's gonna happen happen," Giovando says. "That's really the spirit of the festival, and trying to have that with the sound installations was important to me."

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