Off to Burn

Just about to take off on a week-long odyssey into the Nevada desert. Of course, I won't be alone. I'll be joined by about 40,000 people who gather each year and construct the temporary metropolis known as Black Rock City. I've been looking forward to my first trip to Burning Man all year but I've withheld expectations. My plan all along was just to show up, sound recorder in hand, and just absorb the place.

But last night everything changed, at my house-mate's insistence. A piece from my thesis, a 4-foot long, 10-inch diameter bass cannon powered by an Aura 50-watt bass shaker will be coming along. What am I going to do with it? I have tentative plans, should the desert accept them. I'll post about successes and failures when I get back.

Well, it has been a summer of imagining temporary things. In June, together with architect/skater Matt Baran, I developed SOUNDSKATE, a skateable infrastructure which brings the non-skating public into a playful intersection with skaters through the re-mixing of the sounds of skating (design details to be posted at a later date).

SOUNDSKATE by Nick Sowers and Matt Baran

The idea is that this set of quarter pipes and half pipes--the standard skating infrastructure-- would be augmented with resonance chambers, tubes, and surfaces which would produce interesting sound effects. Skaters would then go about creating a personal skating routine full of riffs, bridges, choruses and, of course, self-indulgent solos. The "noise" of skating is thus turned into a noise-music soundtrack. SOUNDSKATE amplifies the sound of skating and in so doing, it aspires to bring acceptance and interest in skating to a wider public.

SOUNDSKATE by Nick Sowers and Matt Baran

For another temporary installation, I took part in the Sukkah City competition--an opportunity to re-think the sukkah, a temporary structure which is put up for seven days during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Though not selected as a finalist, I am still convinced that I should realize my sukkah. The concept was pretty straightforward: build a sukkah in California, record the sounds of making it, then destroy it (record that sound as well) and re-project the sukkah in Union Square Park, NYC. I have half a mind to just bring a PA system and blast my sonic sukkah throughout the park. Alas I will be in Texas, not New York, at the beginning of Sukkot.

I'm packing up gear for Burning Man tonight. The most precious cargo is: a ZOOM H4n recorder and a set of microphones (a pair of stereo binaurals, one omni-condenser and one omni dynamic cardioid).

There are a number of installations at Burning Man that I am looking forward to listening to. One that stands out is Sounds from the Urban Innerground which is set up at the base of the giant man. It will be playing sound from cities around the world continuously for 24 hours corresponding roughly to the time when the sounds were recorded in their respective locations. So I could be up at dawn in the desert of Nevada and listening to the sounds of Mumbai's rush hour.

There is a lot of sound art I expect to find that won't even be dubbed as 'sound art' (part of what I love about this kind of art). These will be sonic experiences, minute and perhaps even mute, evoking through the vibration of air the connection people share in a rare place like Black Rock City.

It's exciting to be a part of such a large, leave-no-trace event. It's inevitable that how you destroy or dismantle what you take with you factors into the design of what you bring. This is the power of sound: to record these constructions and deconstructions with a medium that is the essence of temporary.

See you on the flip side of the Burn.


Dispatches from the Fortress of Eden

Park Avenue, Adobe Systems Inc., via Google Streetview
It's another sunny day in downtown San Jose, just like everyday is on Google Streetview.  The fog of San Francisco never seems to get close.  It's just an average day like this that two of DEMILIT's members, myself and Bryan Finoki, decide to have a look around.

We're getting ready for an installation at the SJ01 San Jose Biennale next month.  Our group (also including Javier Arbona) is a loose one based upon a collective gravitation toward military landscapes.  Each of us will define differently what a 'military landscape' is, what our methods for exploring them are, and what sorts of projects we envision out of them.  But the fact of the matter is we're hooked on 'em, and they don't seem to be going away any time soon.

Details will follow on what DEMILIT is up to, who is coming to speak, and the installations that we are preparing for SJ01  One thing we'd like to get people involved with is a guided tour of the militarization of downtown San Jose.  So Bryan and I made an adventure out of our first practice run.

It was our first visit as pedestrians in downtown San Jose.  We had little idea what, if anything, we would find.  I anticipated large stretches of boring, smooth, generic downtown urban space.  We definitely saw some of that.  In these sorts of mundane places, however, the clues for how the urban environment is shaped by invisible sources of power are best detected.  What is it that makes us feel safe in a city?  Is this security based on anything real, or do we depend upon invisible factors and codes that buttress our corporate-consumer culture?

San Jose City Hall, Richard Meier, completed in 2005
Bryan and I spotted the City Hall and decided to linger in the large plaza.  Bollards of many typologies (flagpoles, rocks, fountains, and our favorite--poles spouting mist (wanna-be San Francisco fog?) ) buffer the plaza from Santa Clara St.  The space definitely has some military-urbanist planning codes informing the proportions, the standoff distances, etc.  I'll leave that for a future post to delve into.

We also walked the perimeter of Adobe's corporate park, and we discussed some of its features.  Lacking the glorious allusions to the elegant geometries of traditional fortresses (epaulette, ravelin, Priest's Cap, bastions with ciruclar flanks, etc), we are left with the viewing cones of surveillance cameras and blank walls of ground-floor mechanical rooms to understand its fortress nature.  Listen:

Bryan and I then traversed the innocuous San Jose landscape to an office tower at 225 W. Santa Clara Ave.  At an elusive Suite 1600, one can find the offices of Jeppesen, a Boeing subsidiary which allegedly assisted with the trip planning of CIA rendition flights.  I'll leave it to Bryan to fill in details at another time.  For now, we just want to knock on their door.  You know, we're wondering if they are hiring.  Listen:

That's it for now.  There is a lot more work to be done in order to understand the place of San Jose in the larger Bay Area fortification.  We'll also be looking at the former blimp hangars at Moffett Field and the  Mission Santa Clara de Asís as components of this military landscape.  San Jose, from fruit orchards to pyramids of silicon, is not as obvious as the military landscapes of Alameda, Richmond, and the Presidio, but it is our task to demonstrate how it is a military landscape and through this task, we may come to learn more about our own assumptions and ways of looking at these landscapes.