The Icebox, Crane Arts
by Gordon Stillman
The Big Bang III, by Ezra Masch, lies somewhere between an instrument and a sculpture. It was the third and largest iteration of the Big Bang Project, installed at the Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts and played for two days by three different drummers, Gregory McDonald, Christopher Sean Powell, and Lenny Reece. The drum set was linked to a grid of lights that filled the Icebox and flashed during each drumbeat. Volume and pitch determined the number of lights that flickered, with volume represented horizontally and pitch vertically. Thus the drummers had to play light and space as well as a drum set.
We are used to discussing light and sound as separate phenomena, as we perceive them through different organs. Despite this, both can be used to describe or think about space, with different disciplines framing our thoughts about space, sound, and light differently. One general assumption may be that musicians think about space acoustically––how their work sounds––and visual artists think about space in terms of light––how their work looks. Musical performers dim the lights so that the spectators can focus on the sound, in a way limiting sight to the stage and the source of the music. Visual artists often present their work in a white cube, removing all distractions, so that one’s sense of sight is attuned to the work. For both, space influences how the work is perceived, and I would also argue, both types of work create and modify the experience of the spaces they are in.
For some, sound and sight are related, for example, those with a type of synesthesia unconsciously see light when they hear sound, whereas others, such as Masch, visualize sound as a type of mnemonic device. This is really not that strange to imagine, as much of what we perceive is altered by our brain, and our perceptions are based more on our previous experiences than what is actually causing sensorial stimulations; we think something is music for example, because it sounds like previous pieces of music, among other reasons. Our brains simply compare new phenomena to our history of experiences to create our current understanding.
The strength of the Big Bang was in the way it intertwined light, sound, and space in such a way that they become inseparable. This phenomena challenges perceptions because one does not have the usual history of experiences that help form perceptions. As the spectator, the grid of lights took up the entire field of vision so that there was no place to rest one’s eyes, no constant place the light or sound appeared to be coming from, and no constant shape the light or sound took. Volumes of sound were literally translated to volumes of space; aural signal was turned into visual signal; and the space was sculpted by the performer. When I was exploring space visually, I was also exploring sound visually.
The danger of this piece, of intertwining light and sound and creating an immersive stroboscopic effect, is that it becomes intolerable. Instead of an initial shock that leads into the drama of the piece, which is how I experienced it, it could turn into one long shock, with your senses so overloaded that your brain can only process it as a constant bombardment. The drummer can control the intensity of this to an extent as he is both affected by it and affecting it, but the viewer either has to leave or submit to intense aural and visual experiences.
After adjusting to the immersive environment of the Big Bang, I became so focused on the light and sound, and so attuned to their absence in the reverberations and after images, that they were all I perceived. This let my mind play without being bounded by a room, horizon, or a single point of view. Instead of light and sound articulating space, they became the material of space, the only material I could access. I began to create meaning from the sound and light, its varied absence and presence becoming a foundation for future perceptions. In a way, I became a composer using the material of sound and light to create my own composition. I had to create a new way to perceive and sense the environment, and it was this act of creation that I as a viewer also shared with the performer. This brought me into the piece as a collaborator and broke down distinctions not only between light and sound, but performer and audience, and figure and ground.
The world I experienced seemed as though it was boundless; as small as a light drumming and a single flash, or loud and full of light, but always with the potential for expansion and contraction. Kant explained that the sublime was to be found in a formless object, so far as it is in it, or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented. And the Big Bang’s ever-changing shape, and seemingly endless variations in how it could be played, create this sense of boundlessness––the space was as small or as large as the volume of the drumbeat dictated––expanding and contracting in infinite variations, seemingly changing the space, and you, along with it.
Gordon Stillman is an artist living in Philadelphia, primarily working in photography. He recently received his MFA from the University of Pennsylvania and currently teaches at Lincoln University.