Sound can be a mighty thing in art. If not used wisely, it can drown out
the visual part of the art experience. With the advantages of new technology,
sound art has moved forward in recent years. Roland Smart, the bright
young curator who oversaw the late, lamented Gallery Bershad, has orchestrated
''Boom Box,'' which examines the crossover between aural and visual art,
in the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts. Loosely defined,
''sound art'' covers music and ambience, pirate-radio broadcasts, digital
translations of light and motion into something aural, surround sound,
and spoken word. In short, it's anything that makes a noise. Work like
this by 16 artists results in a bit of a cacophony at the Mills, but not
an overpowering one. You can still experience each piece of art discretely.
John Cage, who created sound-based performance art in the last half of
the 20th century, can be seen as the progenitor of this kind of work.
Cage's sounds, and his silences, invited his audience to listen to themselves
as much as to him. That engagement with the audience marks many of the
works in ''Boom Box.'' Many are interactive. Some interact with you whether
you like it or not.
While it has plenty of good things going for it, ''Boom Box'' trips up
where most art that capitalizes on new technologies does: the ''Look,
Ma, no hands!'' excitement about the gadgetry trumps the potential for
subtlety and sophistication.
The best work in this show, then, is the simplest. Sean Langlais mounted
an installation of wires and plastic cups on one window. Wires attached
to rotating pegs collide with ones springing from the cups, creating a
mild, surprisingly pleasant jingling. Each of Langlais's untitled pieces
is visually and sonically understated; one is just a cork apparently plugged
into the wall, electronically humming like a rush of air. The quiet of
the works draws you close. That quiet, combined with unprepossessing forms,
creates an air of reverence and magic.
Tracey Cockrell's ''Envoy'' is a comical contraption and a triumph of
construction: a makeshift piano with an old manual typewriter for a keyboard.
When you type, a thread jerks a metal rod that in turn strikes a wire
(or, for the lower notes, a brass pipe). You won't be able to tap out
''Chopsticks'' here, but ''Envoy'' draws you in as if you were a toddler
learning how to pound piano keys for the first time.
Jeff Warmouth's ''Clawfoot Bass-Tub,'' fashioned from a bathtub, plywood,
and nylon strings, is less effective; you can't stand it up and play it
like real fiddle. It's a visual pun with no real function.
Christy Georg's elegant ''Attainment'' harks back to Ben Franklin's glass
harmonica. To play that, you stroke the rims of glasses filled with various
amounts of water. Georg has a flask dripping water over a small cork and
into a rotating glass. The cork, on a mechanical arm, touches the glass's
edge every 30 seconds, and we hear the amplified tone of the vibrating
vessel. ''Attainment'' works because there's no man behind the curtain:
The artist lays her piece out like a high school science experiment, and
we get a vicarious thrill when the experiment works.
Ravi Jain is a performance artist - one who reaches into the community
with his work and lets it ripple out into everyday life. His ''Concerto
for Voicemail No. 1'' is here on video, which you can listen to through
a phone receiver. Jain's home voice mail recording was ''Hi, this is Ravi.
Leave a message or accompany this bass line.'' Then he played a riff.
Folks would call in and leave melodious messages for him, turning telephone
communication into musical collaboration. We witness Jain's cleverness
but miss engaging with it, only seeing the video of him playing along
with his messages. Maybe you have to call him directly to get in on the
Sound artists United States of Belt don't succeed in crossing over to
the visual. ''Cyclones (Holosonic Mix)'' has the interactivity of a baby's
toy: Push a red button and a wheel spins, making a single, repeated utterance
that sounds vaguely like '' United States of Belt!''
The group also has a piece in the show's surround-sound room, a darkened
area set up for purely aural experiences. Most of the ones I listened
to resembled sound beds for NPR stories: squishy footsteps, organ chimes,
lapping water. As ambience for a narrative, they have their value. On
their own, as they are here, they don't amount to much. Other, more composed
works, such as CJT Cartiglia's ''digital Ambienz,'' which conjures atmosphere
with electronic chimes and chords, also have trouble holding their own.
The most ambitious piece in ''Boom Box,'' David Webber's ''AO 2000,''
is all bells and whistles. He rigged up old computer equipment and video
cameras to a turntable, added some potted plants, and created a piece
that makes ''music'' according to data about where the viewer is standing.
To me, the music sounded like radio static; I hardly felt I was participating
in the composition of anything worth listening to.
Smart is on the edge of something worthwhile with ''Boom Box.'' He's right
to put together a show about sound art, since it's changing so quickly
and integrating into society in new ways. But there's too much whiz-bang
and not enough reflection and depth here - which suggests Smart should
wait five years and do it again.
Boom Box: The Art of Sound
At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St., though
March 9. 617-426-5000. www.bcaonline,org
This story ran on page N8 of the Boston Globe on 2/16/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
© Copyright 2003 New York Times Company