COMFORT ZONES: Eric Laska’s Cool Gauss

At the Window on Broad, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery

Through January 4, 2015

By Tim Leonido

In the early 1970s acousticians used noise to increase the productivity of office workers.  During this period, corporate workers commonly inhabited what was known as the “open-plan” office, a large floor where desks were arranged in close proximity, without walls or privacy.  Though conversation between workers was necessary, the cumulative din of speech was ultimately distracting.  A potential solution was described by Leslie Doelle, whose Environmental Acoustics (1972) became an influential text: “noise control problems can be solved by drowning out (or masking) unwanted noises by electronically created background noise.”  Here, Doelle identified HVAC ventilation systems as a particularly useful noise source.  They produced a uniform sound that could shrink the acoustic space around office workers, affording them enough privacy to communicate with neighboring workers while limiting overall noise level in the space.  Rather than eliminate noise, Doelle discovered a way to instrumentalize it.    

Though often considered an unwanted distraction, noise has also played a productive role in the acoustic order.  This odd double-identity is foregrounded in the work of sound artist Eric Laska.  In previous work, Laska has taken on the guise of an acoustician-comic, while running vague, disorienting tests on social spaces. For Acting on Impulse (2013), Laska devised a simple system in which white noise interrupted and accented the performance of an on-stage performer.  A second performer, a non-musician recruited by Laska, was invited to flip the amplifier switch on and off at their discretion.  As a result, access to the seemingly central performance was denied, allowing the audience to study the room, to speculate about the intentions of the operator, and perhaps even note the odd, almost voyeuristic presence of Laska in the back row. Broadly, Laska is concerned with the communicative patterns that take place within a gallery or art event setting. For instance, in Acting on Impulse: Negative, he documents ten minutes of post-performance mingling.  As the crowd slowly disperses, we overhear audience members chatting about personal projects, jobs, commutes, and other topics.  Following the flood of white noise, the room appears to have quickly returned to equilibrium.   

Cool Gauss, inhabiting the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery’s Window on Broad, is arguably Laska’s most public effort.  Previous works were performed within art galleries and music venues, where the audience members were relatively prepared for the event.  Cool Gauss, alternately, is directed at the street, where passersby enter an unexpected din of white noise, emitted by a loudspeaker fixed above the gallery window.  In the window sits an industrial-sized fan, the cooling effect of which is blocked by glass.  Both the speaker and fan are controlled by Gaussian variables—algorithms that generate events at an unpredictable rate.  Running these codes from a laptop, Laska devised a system in which the two units would turn on and off at random intervals.  As a result, Cool Gauss tests our tendency to connect a sound with its physical referent; we hear the uniform white noise and associate it with the fan behind glass.  But the relationship is only tenuous; the fan and loudspeaker are rarely in sync with each other.  Thus the acoustic cause-and-effect—our habit of perception—is slowly peeled apart. 

Once again noise demonstrates its ability to both regulate and disrupt a space.  On the opening night of Cool Gauss, patrons clustered around the window display as the fan’s rotating blades accelerated.  Following the initial disruption, it was curious to see how communication persisted in seemingly adverse conditions.  As the fan’s brand name suggests, the piece created “comfort zones” where one-on-one conversations could easily continue at an adjusted volume.  The most disruptive moment was not the introduction of noise but instead the moment it disappeared, when conversations were left hanging and exposed by the sudden silence.   

It is worthwhile to consider whether Laska’s intention is to disrupt, jostle or cool off the expectations of an audience.  Previous works have led to some notable heckling. During a performance of Threshold for Magic Pictures (2013), the voice of one audience member rose above the sparse chatter.  “I think I’m witnessing a statement about artistic intent,” he said sarcastically, and was promptly drowned out by white noise.  Overall, however, Laska has a more complex stance on intent.  This is most perfectly exemplified in Cool Gauss, where the audience is initially disrupted, then readjusts, then is dropped back into a newly uncomfortable silence, the blades of perception spinning like an oversized industrial fan.    

A useful reference point is the work of late sound artist Max Neuhaus.  In an interview, Neuhaus described his own works as “subtle.”  “I am not trying to create a surprise,” he said. “I am concerned with affecting [the listeners].” Take, for instance, Times Square (1977), a piece that blends so perfectly with its environment that the majority of passersby will overlook the piece.  Installed on a pedestrian island, a resonant metallic hum issues from the subway grating below.  Those who do notice the work often consider it a personal discovery.  But while Neuhaus explored space using subtle sounds that build slowly over time, Laska’s work is, by comparison, asymmetrical, abrupt, and abrasive.  Still, the effects are curiously similar.  Cool Gauss is not subtle, by any means, but it does the impressive work of demonstrating just how much abrasive and random sound has been absorbed into the acoustic order.  Here, the process of ascribing order to noise, of establishing a comfort zone, is held in suspension.    

Timothy Leonido is a writer and musician who lives in New York City.