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An Insider's Guide To "Hearing Architecture" With Sound Artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon

A look inside at the artist's newest exhibition "It Only Happens All The Time."

One of the most compelling aspects of Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s installations is actually inherent to their make-up: even though replicable, they can’t be experienced the same way twice. Unlike physical art, which can often be transferred from gallery to gallery while retaining the entirety of its distinguishing elements, Gordon’s work relies on the architecture of the rooms it occupies to produce its intended effect. In a synthesis of aural and physical mediums, what you see—the walls around you, the roof above you, the structures in front of you—becomes what you hear.

You get what she means, then, when she describes her work as an invitation for us to “[hear the] noise from architecture.” And in her newest exhibit, It Only Happens All Of The Time (IOHAOTT), which opened last Friday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, CA, part of that architecture is being altered to reexamine Gordon’s work as a reflection on sonic manipulation—audio as a tool of control.

No, she’s not looking to practice control (a contentious idea in and of itself, yet capable of eliciting some fascinating debate in the audio arts world—we talk about that a little bit below). She’s making a comment on, without imitating, those methods employed by scientific and military organs when testing the impacts of controlled sound as an inciter, an inhibitor, a debilitant—essentially, a weapon. 

Stills from sketch-up of “Love Seat”

IOHAOTT also marks the debut of YBCA’s newest exhibition series Control: Technology in Culture. Throughout its course, Control will aim to engender questions about technology’s influence in our daily lives by broaching its confluence with the many civil branches it impacts, such as, according to the YBCA press release,“architecture, acoustics, psychology, labor, consumerism, the environment and the military.”

On that note, it makes complete sense that Gordon would be first up to bat. And she’s tackling the honor in a way she’s never done before. Established with support from Berkeley, CA based audio company Meyer Sound (renowned for their works with major musical acts like Metallica, The Grateful Dead, et. al.) and San Francisco, CA based art production company Gizmo Art, IOHAOTT is poised to be a truly unique, immersive installation experience.

We talked with Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, as well as the exhibition’s two audio/architect consultants Jon Leidecker and Zackery Belanger, about what distinguishes IOHAOTT from her other projects, what visitors can expect from the exhibition, and more. We also got a ton of behind-the-scenes photos and specs, which you’ve already seen a bit thus far.

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon

Fabrication process

The Creators Project: Without giving too much away, what can we expect from your new work? What will visitors experience at the YBCA that they haven't experienced from your previous installations?

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon: The new work definitely stems off of a show I did last summer at Pro Arts in Oakland. This installation will involve sounds that do not emanate from the local environment. They are all either fabricated or recorded for other purposes. That's a totally new thing for me.

How has the creation/installation process progressed since your last exhibition showing? What new tools or influences hold sway here?

Lots of progress. I've had the opportunity to work with some really great specialist in the field of sound design and acoustics as well as getting access to a new specialization software.  I've always built things intuitively and a bit naïvely, which has lead me into some really interesting places, I still worked that way in the beginning for this piece, but I really wanted to focus in on a particular experience and so it was great to consult with people who are at the front of the research and their real world applications. 

Fabrication process

How has the creation/installation process progressed since your last exhibition showing? What new tools or influences hold sway here?

Lots of progress. I've had the opportunity to work with some really great specialist in the field of sound design and acoustics as well as getting access to a new specialization software.  I've always built things intuitively and a bit naïvely, which has lead me into some really interesting places, I still worked that way in the beginning for this piece, but I really wanted to focus in on a particular experience and so it was great to consult with people who are at the front of the research and their real world applications. 

Everyone Will Be Here Now But Me video [entirety]:

What are some of the technical challenges of installing the same project in different locations, galleries, etc.? Do you find the same effect is still achievable across all varieties of rooms/buildings?

Never. That would be so weird! I've never installed one piece twice and had it be the same. The intention and conceptual nature are the same but the experience has been adapted to the new environment. This has become a problem or has given new and different life into a piece. At the root of it I kind of go to when I literally built speaker systems into or as my sculptures. They are objects whose function could be altered so easily by just changing what was being played through them. There is something so exciting about working with one material that is solid and permanent and another so malleable and transient. 

"Love Seat” specs—Gizmo Art

It seems like the more bodies entering one of your installation areas, the more the room's acoustics may be altered. Do you have to create capacity limits when displaying at galleries? Or are people allowed to roam freely between the projects?

Well, at the moment I've not had a problem with too much capacity outside of the opening night. It's more the trick of trying to get people to listen, experience and explore the whole piece.

One of the first pieces I made was a small single person sized geometric dome that had 5 speakers from playing sound from 5 microphones placed around the gallery (it was a group sound show). For that piece it was a single user experience so i created that limitation though scale. This new piece also has a limit built in though the design. But in a different interaction and between two people or more. Playing between viewer and participant within an installation is definitely something I'm into. I also like to create buffer zones between pieces or make work that is compatible or enhances the other work. We understand what we hear by comparison. We do not necessarily hear the room sound of one space endless we enter another room with a different ambient noise level or acoustical architecture. Our abilities to habituate is fast. 

“Love Seat” specs - Gizmo Art

Is there ever any desire to request visitors to stay for a certain length of time in one of your installations, in order to ensure they get the effect you desire?

I cannot do that because I do not believe in instilling that sort of hierarchy into the interaction of an installation. It would add a forced linear narrative to the experience and I am totally against the idea of trapping someone in a space. I've done way too much research on psychological effects of sound and on sonic torture to do that. I like to think that I create an edge to the experience using technology and sounds that have an effect on the body but in a way that allows the participants to have agency within the space. Losing one’s agency within a soundscape is a constant battle for me and I think forcing people to be subject to such a specific experience is torture, though it can be interesting and bring up a really great dialogue but it is something I like to address in more suggestive way then explicit and allow people to make a choice and/or move with it.

As for Jon and Zackery, give some details about your approach to the installation process. What roles will you play? What tools/expertise do you provide?

Jon Leidecker:I'm helping to prepare Jacqueline's composition for 11.1.4 surround sound: 11 speakers on the floor, one sub, and four heights.  She's designed installations with quadraphonic sound before, but when you expand to this many sources, you can really move the sounds around in subtle ways that nearly trick the ear. The heights are the biggest factor here.  So many of the keynote sounds of a familiar sonic environment, the sounds that really physically place you, are quietly coming at you from above;  reverb reflections, distant echoes, the wind—if you take those sounds and put them in the heights instead of mixing them in with the same speaker as your source, you start getting involuntary physical responses to a sound, even if it's an absolutely non-acoustic, simulated source—you're just there. Jacqueline's assembled a wide range of real and simulated sounds, and my job is to help map that composition into her sculpture.

JKG testing the audio space:

Zackery Belanger: Jacqueline’s work is exciting for me because she approaches acoustic performance through sculpture. Acoustic architecture is overly dependent on off-the-shelf products. It’s not that products are bad - they are often an appropriate solution - it’s that all materials are inherently acoustic and we could be doing much more to explore how their reconfiguration gets the results we want. My role was to help guide her choices of materials and their arrangement. My education is in physics and architectural sciences, and I worked as a consultant for about eight years before I decided to move into more creative projects, so I’m experienced in helping others get audible results.

What materials will be used?

JL: For playback we're using Pro Tools to play back 16 channels out of a PreSonus interface. In the past Jacqueline's used Max/MSP to diffuse in quadraphonic. For this, we're misusing a beta build of software well outside of its intended application. In typical Silicon Valley fashion, we've had to be a bit quiet about the fun we're having on the side, stitching together something strange with it.

ZB: Jacqueline is using velour and rock wool for sound absorption on the walls and ceiling, respectively, and the central sculpture targets acoustic isolation using dual-layered acrylic, wood, insulation, felt, and stucco.

According to the YBCA website, part of the exhibition is "inspired by a military or scientific testing facility." How do these elements influence the installation? How will the audience see their influence?

ZB: Testing facilities often include anechoic chambers - rooms in which the surfaces absorb nearly all incident sound. This can be accomplished by covering all surfaces with deep absorptive wedges, which gives the chambers a distinct acoustic character and an unmistakable visual presence. Jacqueline’s installation adopts this functionality in-part, and a visual likeness follows. The installation isn’t meant to be anechoic, but it is in the spirit of maximizing the performance of a given material by manipulating its geometry. Audiences will hear this influence more than they will see it.

Follow Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s work over at her website.

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY YBCA / JACQUELINE KIYOMI GORDON