By Natalie Bell
Who else but contemporary artist and renaissance man David Byrne would enlist "Victorian steam-punk technology" to convert the Battery Maritime Building, an aging municipal ferry terminal in lower Manhattan, into a curiously low-tech instrument-cum-speaker-box? In his installation Playing the Building, sponsored by Creative Time, an antique pump organ sits at the center of the vast, partially whitewashed space [May 31 - August 24, 2008]. Wires sweep out from its switches, reaching in graceful simplicity to the interior's limits. Upon entering, visitors are likely greeted with a range of reverberating industrial sounds: a careful cacophony of clanking, buzzing, humming, clanking, and whistling -- something like a Morton Feldman composition for drills, pipes, and jackhammers. The sounds revel with composure as they emanate from discrete, particular locations while visitors revel more ecstatically in the ambiance and activity. And while the pared-down atmosphere conveys the piece's minimalism, its invitations to public interaction best translate its conceptual humility.
In contrast to another of the city's major summer public art projects, Olafur Eliasson's Waterfalls, Byrne's installation is not a large-scale industrial construction for public appreciation. And unlike other installations that have applied electroacoustic technologies to resonant, industrial materials, such as David Tudor's exemplary work, visitors' interaction is essential in Byrne's project. Sharing the authorless flair of both ambient maestro and early Byrne collaborator Brian Eno and infamous sound advocate John Cage, Byrne makes each visitor a curator and creator.
The organ, which essentially controls the sounds, is an invitation to experiment, practice, or freely improvise. Its marked keys designate the categories of sounds that can be played. The back of the organ is open for all to see the connections between keys and wires. One section of the keyboard triggers motors that are strapped to girders near the windows at the ceiling, another activates solenoids -- a type of electromagnetic transducer -- that strike rods against cast-iron columns and radiators, and a third area forces air into hollow pipes on the walls. Without electronics or amplification, the work has a quiet transparency. Its sense of musical scale entirely deconstructed and reconfigured in a clustered coordination of mechanical triggers, the organ loses its musicality as an instrument as much as the musician loses her advantage. As such, the organ democratizes: it redefines the kind of sounds we may consider musical as well as who may be deemed an artist or musician.
Such concepts have been explored elsewhere and by many others -- though we might thank Cage and Beuys respectively. But Playing the Building actually realized -- not just theorized -- their coordination. The results are as clear and manifest as the installation itself. During one visit, I watched -- for at least thirty minutes -- a lone visitor amble around the building in a daze of mutters and moans, banging and tapping every pipe, column, and radiator within his reach. On another visit, a triad of young punks performed what seemed a practiced sonata, accompanied by an improvised dance medley of writhing, leaping, and sweeping gestures that concluded with one of them brilliantly pretending to swallow the fistful of AA batteries that had slipped from his pocket mid-somersault.
Later that afternoon as I exited the subway, I pushed my way through the almost painfully hoarse moan and squeal of a turnstile. Without thinking, I began reeling it around, repeating its short cycle of cries with variations in force and speed until several trains had come and gone and too many concerned passersby had asked if I needed help. The enchantment and the simplicity of Playing the Building, I realized, had followed me home, and I imagine there is quite an orchestra of its visitors who were also struck by -- and inspired to strike -- metaphorical and literal chords, columns, and radiators. The installation demonstrates its success as a public artwork in this way: it does not simply address or engage an audience, but truly invites examination, collaboration, and a sense of freedom through play.