Arts Desk

Bluebrain Returns With Sweeping Sound-Art Exhibit at Artisphere

A speaker installation by John Henry Blatter

It's been a while since we've heard from Bluebrain, the experimental-pop duo of Ryan and Hays Holladay. That will change this year, when the group, known for its pop-up musical performances and location-aware apps inspired by Central Park and the National Mall, unveil a series of new projects. Among them: an actual wall of sound.

Well, kind of. An elaborate speaker installation created by the artist John Henry Blatter will be the centerpiece of Artisphere's "Fermata," a months-long exhibition devoted to sound art curated by the Holladays and Cynthia Connolly, the Rosslyn arts center's visual arts curator. (Ryan Holladay is Artisphere's new media curator, while Hays is a recording engineer and producer now based in Los Angeles.) Scheduled to open April 24, the show features 30 names, an array of artists spanning pioneers of sound art like Alvin Lucier and indie-rock favorites like The Books and members of Double Dagger and Future Islands. The point, Ryan says, wasn't to strictly define sound art but to present an exhibition that highlights the porousness—and tension—of music and contemporary fine art. "We chose not to put them in camps," says Ryan Holladay. "We wanted to show that those lines are increasingly blurred"—a not-exactly-new tradition that has included visual artists who incorporated sound (Marcel Duchamp) and composers and musicians who drifted toward fine art (John Cage).

Be prepared to settle in with the show. "One of the difficulties of sound is that it doesn't afford you the luxury of space. The problem is that sound bleeds," Ryan says. To hear it, then, you'll probably want to take a seat in one of the bean-bag chairs Artisphere will arrange in front of Blatter's 12-channel speaker installation. Unlike a visual art show, "Fermata" is structured sequentially: One sound piece will play after another, broken into three programs of about 10 works each that will each run for about a month. Beyond the wall of speakers and an accompanying residency by deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim, there will be no visual component. The presentation is so minimal, Ryan says, “only because we’re working with a limited space, so we felt like in order to focus people’s attention on the sound, it was almost a bolder statement to have nothing in the gallery."

While Artisphere is pitching "Fermata" as the region's first audio-only sound art exhibition, it's part of a wider art-world conversation. "Data/Fields," an Artisphere show curated by the sound artist Richard Chartier, featured a number of works involving sound. (Chartier has a piece in "Fermata.") The band Beauty Pill presented an album recorded in Artisphere as a public work there in early 2012. (The group's Chad Clark has a piece in "Fermata," too.) And to much fanfare last year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented "Soundings," its first major survey of sound art, while in 2010 the prestigious Turner Prize went for the first time to a sound artistSusan Philipsz.

Other artists involved in "Fermata" include Ryuichi SakamotoJez Riley FrenchForest SwordsToni DimitrovKate Carr, and a member of the art-rock group Swans. (Following the three main programs of "Fermata," the museum will present a program called "Coda" featuring emerging artists participating in local art nonprofit Transformer's "Exercises" program.) Ryan is especially excited about Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrophysicist who transforms readings of light into sine waves and will assign the waves to part of the speaker wall based on where they'd be in the sky. "So you’re actually hearing an audio representation of the song the universe is singing to us,” Ryan says.

So: Will the lack of visual stimuli lead to a room of sound-art lovers playing Angry Birds? "However people find themselves there and for whatever reason they stay is great," Ryan says. Since much of the show will take place during the summer, "I think the idea of lounging inside on a bean bag chair and listening to the sound of a glacier sounds pretty appealing.”

LISTEN: CFCF, "Glass" (from "Fermata")

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"Fermata" opens April 24 at Artisphere.

Image courtesy Artisphere

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