A whisper is 40 decibels, a normal conversation, 60. A loud brunch reaches 70 or 80, while a screeching subway clocks in at around 100. A screaming jet engine is 110 decibels. Sound waves higher than 10 decibels are absorbed by pyramids and wedges jutting from walls, floor, and ceiling like stalagmites and stalactites inside Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III, now open to the public at New York's Guggenheim Museum. It's the quietest room I've ever been in, and according to architecture consultancy Arup, among the quietest places in the world's 7th-loudest city.
I know this from personal experience, having lived exclusively next to major subway stations in my years. If it's not the train itself that wakes you up at 3 AM, it's the aggressively drunk partiers shouting about how much fun they're having. That's why, when I heard about the Wheeler's new installation, billed as the quietest room in the city, I hauled ass to get there. Synthetic Desert is a semi-anechoic chamber filled to bursting with a sound absorbent material called basotect. Standing inside a specially-designed room tucked into the heart of the Guggenheim simulates Wheeler's own journeys into the barren desert of northern Arizona. I exit a noisy subway platform, and breathe a sigh of anticipation.
Wheeler is a 60s-era minimalist painter-turned-light and space artist similar, in some ways, to James Turrell. He's concerned with peeling back human perception, using soft light, rounded corners, and rigid standards of cleanliness to cultivate otherworldly experiences. He studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles, then spent years funding his groundbreaking works out of pocket, one at a time, well before "immersive experience" was a buzz word.
Wheeler didn't get his first solo show in New York until 2012, but, according to ARTNews, freezing crowds lined up for hours to don protective shoe coverings and lose themselves in an all-encompassing white room called an Encasement. According to Bloomberg, Wheeler will sell you the instructions to build a similar white void in your own home—for a cool $2 million.
Before I and a group of other visitors can enter Wheeler's latest installation, we learn all about the soundproofing material that helps makes it possible. Basotect, chemically similar to the foam made for Mr. Clean sponges, can dampen sound in a room to disorienting levels. There are 600 pyramids and 400 wedges of the stuff occupying 80% of the Synthetic Desert like a miniature mountain range. In addition to the sound dampening basotect, the room is mounted on gaskets to keep outside noises from entering the room.
When I'm finally allowed to enter the installation, I find out I must share it with four other noise-making human beings. At first they're all I can hear. Fabric rustles as each attendant finds a place on the narrow pathway to sit down, as has been recommended to us. I hear ever shift in hips, every breath and sigh, every smack from the lips around me. As we begin to settle down, I stretch my neck to the left and the vertebrae let out an audible crack. Those around me visibly flinch.
Finally we're settled and can soak in the near-silence. The 10 decibels in the room keep it from feeling like the silence one imagines in the void of outer space. On the way out someone muses, I wonder if that was an HVAC." It seems to me that a noisy air conditioning unit would be a major oversight in planning an installation about silence. Later, Doyle Robertson, a manager at German chemical company BASF, which manufactures the material, clears it up. "It's actually recordings from the desert that have been modulated," he says.
That customized recording is the only sound in the room, aside from what you bring with you. It's partially an aesthetic decision on Wheeler's part to include that low-level sound, and partly a safety decision. "If there wasn't any sound at all, you could go batty," says Doyle. Your eardrums are used to the pressure of sound waves, he explains. "If you take away the sound, you take away the pressure, and it's nauseating! I've been in perfect anechoic chambers, and I can't be in there for more than 30 seconds."
I didn't go mad inside Synthetic Desert—quite the opposite, in fact. Anyone who buys into immersive experiences should find the installation transcendent. If we were allowed to whip out our phones, the space would be as appealing a selfie spot as a Turrell light box or Yayoi Kusama infinity room. As with those works, PSAD Synthetic Desert III is just one of a large body of plans Wheeler has drawn up over the years.
"This is the first time a sound-based work by this artist has been produced," curators Francesca Esmay and Jeffrey Weiss tell Creators. "Wheeler conceived a number of works referred to as Synthetic Desert, most of them based on acoustical experience. The element of added sound was not envisioned in Wheeler's early conception, but was included by him when he reconceived the work for the museum." While it's advertised as a primarily sonic experience, a huge part of Synthetic Desert is how the sound transform the visuals of the piece. Robertson explains, "Wheeler found that near silent conditions in deserts of Northern Arizona influenced his visual sensation of distance."
I split my time inside Synthetic Desert into quarters. First I sit with eyes open, then eyes closed, then stand with closed eyes, etc. Eyes closed, it feels almost like the Daredevil movie with Ben Affleck—except on mute. Each shift in another person's position is broadcast so loud you can visualize it. Allow your brain to soak in the foam stalactites dripping with pale purple light, and the room seems to grow. A rounded corner of the ceiling that spills into the wall is particularly hard to focus on, seeming to stretch out like an endless horizon. With imagery of the Arizona desert already planted into my imagination, the lilac surface stretches out, at times oscillating like heat waves on sand baked by the sun.
These visual musings are soon accompanied by aural hallucinations. Before I learn about the soundscape, my subconscious tries to identify it. Ventilation occurs to me, but that would be a waste of such a hermetically sealed environment. I decide at one point that it's the sound of all the frequencies I've hurt with loud noises haunting the scene of the crime like ghosts.
That thought is interrupted by a Guggenheim staffer informing us that our time is up. As we shuffle out someone asks, "Did anyone else feel that was claustrophobic?" In fact, my feeling was the opposite, a near agoraphobic suspicion that the far wall enclosed with spikes stretched forever. Even though I know it's physically impossible, immersive installations like this are a feast for my active imagination to prod at the reality of perception.
Exiting the Synthetic Desert is one of the harshest experiences of my young life. Whispers about the group's differing experiences yield to the now cacophonous-sounding chatter of everyone else waiting in line. I stay to ask Robertson a few more questions and snap up some hors d'oeuvres. It's torture.
Visit PSAD Synthetic Desert III at the Solomon R. Guggenheum Museum through August 2, 2017.