If the occasion that gave rise to “Sonambiente” was the three-hundredth anniversary of Berlin’s venerable Akademie der Künste, this month-long “Festival for hearing and seeing” was resolutely oriented to the future of Germany’s new/old capital. In the process, what might have been just one more exhibition of electronic exotica was not an exhibition at all, but a vast program of installations, performances, concerts, film screenings, and other pockets of creativity (such as the nightly “Sonambiente Sound Bar” at the Berlin Prater beer garden) scattered throughout the city. At the core of this protean event was the equally protean phenomenon of Klangkunst, or “sound art,” which has always had a solid following in Berlin, especially at the Akademie. Bringing together some one hundred artists, musicians, and/or performers, including such disparate figures as Laurie Anderson, Max Neuhaus, Nam June Paik, Sarkis, Gary Hill, Paul Panhuysen, Ed Osborn, Paul De Marinas, and Brian Eno, “Sonambiente” amply demonstrated its organizers’ contention that sound art is not an art form per se but rather a point of intersection among the arts. As such, it is also something of a misnomer (two of the more compelling alternatives circulating among participants were “intermedia” and “time-based art”), but whatever the name, the most striking thing about the works—and the festival as a whole—was the way they were integrated into the city.

To begin with, the selection of sites was anything but neutral: concentrated in the former East Berlin, and including a number of buildings that were not otherwise accessible to the public (the Akademie der Künste itself; the former GDR government headquarters; a remarkable nineteenth-century post office on the edge of the old Jewish quarter; plus the Weinhaus Huth, the only prewar vestige left among the post-Wall construction projects on Potsdamer Platz), they served to bring visitors—especially from the West—into physical contact with the space and time of reunification. No less judicious choices were involved in the presentation of individual works, many of which seemed to play on what New York sound artist Ron Kuivila described as this “special pleasure in being places people have no place being.” His Hothouse, 1996, for example, filled the eaves of the Akademie (which he calls “a beautiful space of skylights with a bridge and a tendency to heat to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer”) with wonderful Rube Goldberg–like devices for producing and amplifying otherwise inaudible sounds. At the former post office on Oranienburgerstrasse, Swiss artist Andres Bosshard transformed the central hall into a high-tech Hindu temple (Manandarbandr-radarradio Klangstation [Manandarbandr-radar radio sound station, 1996]), while Berlin-based Yufin Qin created an even more contemplative environment of bamboo, sand, and sound (Bamboo Forest, 1996) on the top floor. Not far from Alexanderplatz, the ruins of a Franciscan church bombarded in 1945 became the setting for a Gregorian sound sculpture by Hannover artist Hans Gierschik (Monk’s Matrix, 1996), while the tower of the parish church nearby housed Gordon Monahan’s Aeolian harp, Spontaneously Harmonious in Certain Kinds of Weather, 1996.

All of these works, like many others in the festival, functioned largely by understatement, as if, against the Sturm and Drang of urban redevelopment, the absence of monumental sounds and shapes served to refocus attention on human-scale concerns. Ultimately, this was even the case for the most spectacular work at “Sonambiente”—The Frenchman Lake, 1995, by Montreal artists Bill Vorn and Louis-Philippe Demers. When it was presented in an indifferent exhibition space in Montreal two years ago, this “invented aquatic ecosystem” composed of sixteen robotic units seemed like an elaborate stage set for a nonexistent rock concert. In Berlin, it was installed in a municipal swimming pool that had been drained and darkened, allowing visitors to contemplate from above this otherworldly environment of vibrating machines, blinking lights, and billowing vapors, or to climb down into the pool and become a part of it. But as Demers and Vorn explain, the real Frenchman Lake, located in the Nevada desert, was one of the first nuclear test sites, and it remains radioactive even today. The metaphor could not have been more appropriate for Berlin and its subterranean past, which, like radioactivity, is not likely to go away, no matter how many business centers and housing complexes are built on top of it.

Miriam Rosen