In near-darkness, laser tones whip around the heads of audience members during the latest installment of the UNSEEN Series at Gray Area, an arts foundation and exhibition center in San Francisco. Sound-event artist Madalyn Merkey's opening performance physically shakes the space as metallic chirps build and resolve to improvised commands she channels through her laptop.
Thanks to a partnership with Recombinant Media Labs, Gray Area’s 8-channel sound system makes it one of the few art venues that can handle this type of immersive audio work. Curator Matt Fisher tells The Creators Project that the aim of this three-act, four-artist show, Relabi Pulses, is to showcase people who mess with expected musical structures in a “sensorially comprehensive way.” He describes its sound as self-erasing rhythmic cycles.
“With the democratization of tools, everybody now can do so many things that they used to have to devote quite a bit more money or time to do,” Alaric Burns, audio engineer at Gray Area and Recombinant Media Labs, tells The Creators Project.
This democratization of technology creates “the level of ambition an artist is allowed to have now without a computer science degree is huge compared to what was possible even 10 years ago,” Fisher says. When combined with the Bay Area’s legacy of experimental scenes from happenings, laser shows, and acid tests to modular synth and hacker culture, Fisher argues that there is now a framework for an unparallelled experimentation, antithetical to the outcome-driven, commercially focused art scenes of Los Angeles and New York.
It’s out of this experimental atmosphere that musician Danishta Rivero invented the hydrophonium, a percussive, water-based electro-acoustic instrument she created while heavily influenced by the Tape Music Center at Mills College. Rivero describes her performance as a “ceremonial purge” and that’s exactly what it sounds like: industrial, syncopated percussives that punch through coarse, distorted vocals that are spoken, not sung.
“I feel often like I’m sitting in the cockpit of a spaceship and I’m driving it and we’re all looking out the window,” says Andy Puls, whose immersive audiovisual collaboration with Scy1e is the last performance of the night.
Puls creates what he calls “no source visualizations” by generating and manipulating video feedback loops through an assemblage of old consumer electronics including a camera, a monitor, a video mixer, and a couple of video color processing boxes. He feels a performative kinship to San Francisco’s music visualization tradition of old school psychedelic light shows because of the physicality of the practice, but is quick to point out that it isn’t a rebellion against tech.
Until recently, Scy1e ran an unofficial venue in West Oakland, and says that the influx of tech and wealth has actually damaged an experimental arts scene which relies on the availability of unwanted spaces and cheap rent. So the familiar story of gentrification goes.
Whether or not Gray Area’s UNSEEN Series brings Fisher’s perception of the region’s immersive media scene out of the nation’s peripherals, he believes that hindsight will ultimately prove his side right. “I think as time goes on as we look back at it, it’ll be much more clear that that’s one of the main contributions that this area has been making to the national arts scene.”
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