New York

Seth Cluett


Diapason is relatively obscure, owing to its location on the tenth floor of a large, nondescript building on the wrong side of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, its being open strictly on Saturday afternoons, and its particular focus: contemporary sound art. Despite a history stretching back to the cacophonous experiments of Futurism and Dada, and periodic peaks of recognition—sometimes, as with video, attendant on technological developments—sound art remains a niche concern. The reasons for this are legion: To many, sound art remains profoundly confusing in its consistently ill-defined intersection with music and theatrical or cinematic sound design, and is generally incompatible with the conventional demands of the gallery opening, the print reproduction, and the showboating collection. It tends to demand one’s sustained attention but can still be maddeningly abstract.

Seth Cluett’s Doleros (Audio Tourism at Ringing Rocks), 2008, seems at first consistent with this characterization, but, while outwardly lacking any concrete point of reference, is in fact based on a real place and a natural phenomenon; the room-filling installation was inspired by the artist’s visit to Ringing Rocks Park, an area of unusual geological interest in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Reportedly, this field, home to “the largest diabase (dolerite) deposit in North America,” teems with “audio tourists” intent on investigating the mineral’s peculiar resonance by wandering around with hammers and striking the rocks to produce a variety of bell-like tones.

Cluett’s project consists of an arrangement of speakers illuminated by a series of dim, low-hanging lightbulbs. Some speakers look conventional but others, here placed toward the center of the space, have been integrated into irregularly shaped pieces of salvaged metal and wood. Seating is incorporated into the installation design, but the desire to pad around the carpeted room and press an ear to each speaker in turn proves irresistible. Even those habitually suspicious of art that requires one to remove one’s shoes will have seen the wisdom of checking this pervasive source of sonic interference at the door.

The sounds that Doleros itself emits are uniformly gentle but range from a subdued crinkle or rustle to a range of more direct metalon-metal taps, tinks, and chings. Each individually locatable sound continues for a few seconds, up to perhaps half a minute, then dies away to be replaced by another from elsewhere in the room. But far from constituting a whiz-bang dimensional illusion, the effect is rather subtle, the noise seeming to flicker, rather than lurch, from place to place. Sometimes the sounds have a blacksmithing-like rhythm, sometimes they suggest the calls of reptiles, birds, or insects. An underlying drone ebbs and flows over time, evoking the darker depths of ambient music. And therein lies a perhaps predictable problem.

Though Doleros’s overall sense of orchestration (while not exactly tuneful, it is highly—if somewhat covertly—structured) and its backing drone contribute to the work’s seductive, immersive quality, they also nudge it toward entertainment (albeit entertainment of a very rarified kind). Whatever its origins, the drone in particular has such a standardized “atmospheric” tone that the impact of the installation as a whole is diminished. The specific strangeness of Ringing Rocks and the behavior of its community of visitors is jostled by the addition of this more generic signifier of mystery. The results of Cluett’s manifest and unusual interest—in the interaction of noisy old human beings with an acoustic environment that exists independently of them (apparently, the tree falling in the forest when there’s no one there to hear it does make a sound)—need no enhancement.

Michael Wilson