Nothing to Hear Here, Move Along

Outside, Patrick Dougherty’s installation is coming together. The thick mass of interwoven branches form peaks and tents atop the white pillars of sycamore in front of City Hall. I’ll try to get some pictures later in the month once it’s completed.

Inside the building, there’s a whole lot of nothing going on which is disappointing to say the least since I’m here for Bill Fontana’s site-specific work Spiraling Echoes. Things get off to a bad start after passing through the check point, because as soon as I reach the rotunda, on go the vacuum cleaners. This is to be expected I suppose. It is 5:30pm on a Wednesday, but since City Hall is only open from 8am-8pm Monday through Friday, hopping on BART after work for a visit is going to be my only chance to experience Mr. Fontana’s sound sculpture.

nothing1Spiraling Echoes, the display easels explain, is composed of some strategically arranged tranducers which beam sounds which bounce around the features of the inner surface of the dome. Although the website claims that “(t)he sounds will be experienced most notably on the fourth floor corridors overlooking the Rotunda,” the signage on-site claims that for best effect, you should stand on the ground floor or on the grand staircase. I know because I distinctly remember reading it after hiking up the four flights.

Amplified within the dome, the droning of the vacuum cleaner reaches a high pitched squeal, which I convinced myself must be sound produced by the tranducers, so I wandered from floor to floor seeking it out. Mercifully, the vacuum cleaners cease their wail and everything goes quiet. Like the chirping of birds coming back to life after the retreat of a passing threat, I can now hear the scattered conversations of people still left in the building, security guards and cleaning people as well as some scattered staff finishing up for the night. By this point, the place is pretty empty though. Every ding of the elevator rings through the room like the reverberations of a bell.

In fact, I can hear quite a lot, everything in fact except any hint of “contemporary and historic sounds from various San Francisco events and locations.” I stand next to each of the easels, make my way back down to the ground floor where I find a kindred soul in a lady who is also wandering about like me with her head tilted to the side, staring upward. She gives me a little shrug and gives up.

Masochist that I am, I try the grand staircase, near the staircase, center of the room, wandering around its perimeter. I check my cell phone and realize I’ve been searching for non-existent sounds for nearly an hour. If bird watchers knew what I did with my Wednesday evenings they’d likely beat me up. “Encountering sounds from another place and/or time,” says the web page, “will provoke a sense that the City’s character, its history and vibrancy have been captured within the walls of our treasured City Hall.” Not encountering sounds from any place and/or time will provoke a sense of frustration and resentment, however. Eventually a group of people assemble at the grand staircase to take some photos. There are several cops and someone mentions “local heroes” and I really wish I knew what was going on. Frankly, it’s a relief to hear them laughing and chatting together after the silence and smatterings of distant conversation coming from isolated parts of the building.

Outside you can feel the city winding down after a long day, with the roar of traffic and car horns and the stilted cadence of the bus speaker recordings calling out the stop names and line numbers. It’s louder still in the station as you descend the stairs with the light rail rushing over you and the whine of the BART trains passing below. After straining to hear anything within a bubble of silence, the chaos of the evening commute provokes a sense that the City’s character and vibrancy are better captured by vanishing into it.


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