Critics’ Picks

Deborah Stratman, Tactical Uses of a Belief in the Unseen, 2010, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.


Deborah Stratman

Cleve Carney Art Gallery
425 Fawell Blvd. McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage
August 26–October 16, 2010

Deborah Stratman’s latest installation, Tactical Uses of a Belief in the Unseen, 2010, draws on urban crowd control strategies that were used by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Audio Harassment Division during the Vietnam War. These tactics—which the CIA nicknamed the Urban Funk Campaign—involved the deployment of helicopter-mounted public announcement systems known as “curdlers” to repel people from restricted areas and keep them psychologically off-kilter. When linked to a strong enough amplifier, the curdler could drop a nearly 11,500-foot-long cone of sound onto Vietcong forces in the jungle below, invisibly circumscribing the parameters of human movement as effectively as anything Jeremy Bentham once imagined.

At the entrance to Stratman’s installation, a drab, gray-carpeted floor rises into a series of sharply faceted inclines. As visitors navigate this uneven terrain, sounds projected from a rotating ceiling-mounted speaker shift from barely noticeable hums and buzzes to sweeping siren wails, thrumming engines, and the droning whug whug whug of helicopter propellers. A point of narrative climax arrives when all noises abruptly cease. The silence brings no relief, only escalating anxiety. Several long seconds later, the cacophony resumes with a series of slow, pounding thuds. It’s impossible to tell whether the sound is moving closer or farther away.

Created with composer Jen Wang, Stratman’s dislocated soundscape literally seeps into the skin through the vibrations emitted by several speakers placed under the floor. Despite the palpable sense of dread this inspires, it’s clear that Stratman intends the installation as a piece of theater—a device to reveal modern sonic warfare as a terrorism of the ordinary, amplified to untenable levels.