San Francisco

John Randolph/Bruce Tomb

New Langton Arts

John Randolph and Bruce Tomb’s collaborative architectural installations point toward the eradication of the traditional separation of “fine” art and functional, workmanlike aspects of architecture and design. In Randolph and Tomb’s most recent installation, entitled Prima Facie, 1991, art and life met in an elaborately engineered, gallery-sized device. If houses are the metaphorical equivalents for bodies, then stepping into this installation was like entering a brain. Seen from the gallery door, the structure suggested an immense wooden camera; like a set of stereoscopic lenses, two identical corridors led from the piece’s central chamber to the gallery’s windows. These corridors narrowed progressively, from normal standing height to a small rectangle of window, in which the glass had been replaced with some miraculous material that, at the flip of a switch, changed from opaque to transparent. Controlled by the passing of cars over two traffic-counting devices laid across five lanes of pavement, these “eyes” constantly but irregularly blinked open and closed in random waves of ticks. When transparent, however, the views offered were distorted by mirrors, which revealed disorienting glimpses of either the sidewalk below or the sky above.

As queasily hypnotic as this aspect of the installation was, the environment had another, and equally important, aural component. Once inside the chamber, the viewer/listener was surrounded (via Randolph and Tomb’s adroit manipulation of sophisticated technology) with the sounds and rhythms of the traffic hurtling through the busy street below. A shuddering membrane of sheet metal separating the twin corridors served as a receiver for the electronically transformed reading of a radar gun pointed at the street. The oddly melancholic din of the vibrating metal was generated from the varying speed of passing cars, by a computer program.

The remaining part of the installation offered a kind of respite from this blinking, rattling wheeze. A single room, suggesting a narrow, dark cave, extended from the small central chamber toward the back of the gallery. Like a recording studio or an interrogation chamber, its surfaces were covered with deep baffles of sound-absorbing material. The quiet of this retreat had an unnatural quality; the deadened sensory experience it offered seemed unpleasantly narcotic rather than restful.

In its compromise of the neat white envelope of the gallery, Prima Facie exuded a palpable quality of unease as the kinetic energy of passing traffic shuddered through it like second-hand cigarette smoke. As Gordon Matta-Clark demonstrated so aptly by cutting holes in buildings, there is something profoundly unsettling about breaking the membrane between Inside and Outside. Shelter, like our bodies, is supposed to enclose and protect us—particularly from the toxicity of urban settings.

According to the first law of thermodynamics, the energy expended to move vehicles and their contents isn’t lost—it merely assumes another form. Exhibiting an unusual kind of echo-consciousness, Tomb and Randolph’s inventive device for the recapture of that energy seems to suggest that acknowledging our degraded environment, not only as an exterior threat but as condition of our homes or even our bodies, is essential to our survival.

Maria Porges