Los Angeles

Eric Orr and Howard Flemming

Los Angeles Jr. Art Center

About two years ago, Eric Orr, a sculptor who describes himself as an environmentalist, began a modest experiment with the class of high school students he taught at the Los Angeles Junior Art Center. Orr had become fascinated with the structural and spatial possibilities to be found within controlled sound sources and sound inputs. Demonstrating that it was possible to define shapes and spaces quite precisely if impalpably with standing waves and patterns of interference of one sound source operating against another, Orr proposed to his class that a tunnel be constructed which would be lined with small loudspeakers on floor, ceiling, walls and ends. Sound sources could be precisely controlled, the participant simply passing through sound masses or fields which would be stationary or also in motion.

While the project was thought of as demonstrating certain aural phenomena, its chief function was seen as challenging perception rather than intellect, and thus has always been regarded by Orr as a device of art rather than science. Over the intervening years the project grew from simple to complex, a search for the grail of perfection, of achieving an aural nirvana in which one’s other senses would be depressed to the point of unimportance. Within the tunnel, space and form would be constructed of sound alone, sound could move parallel with, or perpendicular to the participant. Sound could be made to helix across all four surfaces of the tunnel and would be either loud to the point of pain or soft to the point of extinction.

At this writing the tunnel is nearly completed (nothing of this sort is ever really completed) and promises to function more or less as intended. The tunnel, a construction equally of art and technology, is some forty feet long, six feet high and thirty inches wide inside, covered outside with perforated aluminum. Inside all surfaces are lined with black plastic speaker cloth. Imbedded in the floor, ceiling and walls are over 200 high quality, four inch speakers. Each pair of speakers is connected to a separate amplifier, giving the tunnel 100 separate audio channels. At one side of the tunnel is the control room. Necessarily complex, it is slowly filling with the switching gear and amplifiers, tape decks, synthesizers and computers necessary to make the tunnel function. Most of the equipment has been donated by the manufacturers who have been hustled by the students, Orr and Howard Flemming, a computer designer who became involved with the project for amusement and found it dominating his life. With Flemming’s arrival, what began as a simple project, became immensely more complex. Flemming sensed refinements within Orr’s simple project and at that time the art became dominated by technology—technology which admittedly was to improve the art when the project was finished, at which point the obvious technology would vanish, leaving pure effect in its stead.

If one is not hustled through it, and if the other senses (too hot, too stuffy, too much extraneous noise) do not obtrude, the tunnel’s sound-structured possibilities begin to emerge. Yet, as ideas are felt, technical and esthetic problems, heretofore unknown or ignored during the press of construction, begin to appear. The soundspace should have been room-like rather than a tunnel form, to permit participant movement in at least two dimensions. One should be allowed to remain in one position or move about without feeling the pressure of those waiting in line. The sound structure too would thus be permitted to develop spaces within spaces much more completely than is now possible.

Of greatest importance here however, and a problem that seems endemic with all art/technology structures, is just what to do with them after they are completed. How shall this marriage of the disciplines be fed? In this instance the program material, synthesized sound and snatches of “recognizable sounds,” music, speech and urban noise, are fed through the tunnel in patterns in which the sound quality itself may be altered as the sound structure is altered within the space. One perceives this as a series of multiple blips of noise, stroboscopic in length and pattern, revealing an informational “bit” within a matrix of silence. It is not enough. The designers and builders of the tunnel must begin to forage around for the new percepts this machine suggests are possible, and at the moment one senses an impending creative collapse on the part of the staff now that construction is nearly completed.

Thomas H. Garver