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Picture this: You're walking down a street, circa 1983, and soaking in all sorts of music from the cool cats carrying boom boxes on their shoulders. Or imagine you're making a cameo appearance in that killer scene in Amèlie, when the lo-fi sounds from the old dude's portable record player mingled with the industrial noise of the Paris Metro subway train.
Well, there's a sound-based installation currently on display at the ASU Art Museum dubbed "Sean Duffy: The Grove" that strives for similar organic sonic goodness. The addicting, interactive installation fills an entire gallery room and invites visitors to create their own musical mash-up by spinning some wax on 18 turntables.
When visiting "The Grove," you can go solo and set a few records in motion, or bring some friends and get all 18 turntables going at the same time. Just don't expect to find the latest booty-shaking hip-hop, indie rock, or techno beats in the crates. Instead, visitors can spin How to Overcome Discouragement,Ingrid Bergman's The Human Voice, and Live Mechanical Sound Effects, then add in some chirping Island Birds, a tinge of sultry vocal harmonies by Carole King, and the Street Music of Panama field recordings. If you're not satisfied with the customized audio blitzkrieg, you can mix in a classical harpsichord composition by Bach, the amusing Firm Believer workout record, or the super-awesome Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.
If you're wondering where Duffy found the sonic oddities contained in the exhibit, he simply selected albums from his overflowing collection of vinyl treasures, as well as assorted LPs from his mother-in-law and parents. "Each bin contains at least one spoken-word, acoustic guitar, drum-based, and piano record," he says. "I didn't want anything too abrasive, common, or too new. I also didn't want people to make any immediate associations once seeing or playing a selected record, so a lot of them are a bit kitschy."
The possibilities in "The Grove" are endless. I experienced drastically different encounters during three separate visits. Sometimes, I felt like I was walking through London's Camden Town weekend market or cruising Chicago's Ashland Avenue from end to end on a mellow summer Sunday afternoon, bathing in the sounds from the eclectic neighborhoods. Other times, my ears were marinated in a psychotomimetic aural netherworld. Playing with the installation is equivalent to a sexual experience, in which the action begins deliberately before the walls of sound collide and climax. Then the action dissipates, and the improvised composition concludes.
The idea behind the epic, environmental sound machine is to coax the curious into participating in the dreamlike urban recreational area. Soothing lighting and picnic-style benches (hand-carved by Duffy) give the room a kicked-back semblance. Look up and find an orchard of 20 large speakers and approximately 400 computer-sized amplifiers each painted in earthy shades of green, brown, orange, and gray suspended in air with more than 16,000 inches of speaker wire. Then gaze downward and discover upwards of seven records resting in wooden bins next to each station, inviting us to bend down, thumb through the crate, and select a sweet piece of vinyl to play.
Because the sound doesn't come from directly above each turntable, visitors are enticed to walk around, explore, and interact with the art. And everything looks okay to touch, including the rpm dials equipped with 33, 45, and 78 speeds that the museum urges you not to touch (but my friends and I couldn't resist fiddling with the dials because it added additional colors and textures to the personalized soundscapes).
Duffy's use of turntables in conceptual art was inspired during his experience as a DJ at the radio station of the University of California at San Diego, where he attended undergraduate school. He got the idea for his multi-armed "accidental machines" when he swung an arm from one turntable over to the next. "It was my attempt at making a DJ machine that didn't need me," says Duffy, whose two-armed record player, The Lonesome Hobo, is one of the most impressive pieces currently on display at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.
Duffy makes a living from creating sonic wizardry more appropriate for the art gallery than the DJ booth. In 2001, the Newhall, California-based artist invented a three-armed turntable that essentially plays the same record three times. ("You're essentially getting the past, present, and future," he says. "Plus, you're not getting more information; you're actually getting less because it's presented in a different fashion.") An exhibit at Seattle's Howard House showcases a trio of portable CD players bellowing three synchronized versions of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust," including the original and two lesser-known adaptations. The artist also experiments with sound in video art. His 881 Songs, which shows his thumb cycling through an iPod's catalog, is "more about hearing the clicks and the connections between each song rather than the actual song," Duffy says.
For "The Grove," Duffy wanted to create a chill-out essence of an urban park. "When I was younger, I would hear an amazing sound-bleed, whether it was walking down the street or driving and hearing music from the other cars," Duffy says. "Now, we don't listen to other people's music anymore. Cars are more sealed so sound can't escape or come in. And with the iPod, it has become another way of isolating yourself."
The artist chose traditional records over digital discs for the installation because the "structure works better with the park setting." That's not to say Duffy is an analog-only snob just because he sees the duality in the pure, yet sometimes crude album presentation versus the cleaner, digital format of CDs. "The analog form possesses an archaic and nostalgic quality. It's more physical. Plus, I am fascinated with album covers. Growing up as a kid, it's the biggest photo you have in the house," he says.
"When I listen to music, my choice of records versus CDs really depends on my mood. I don't feel that one is better. With records, there's a physical interaction, where you get up, set down the needle, and step away before it's time to return and turn the record over. But I'm also obsessed with the iPod because it's like going back to the time when 45s were first released, where music was presented song-to-song and not as a complete album. The flip side is that people don't really listen to albums anymore."
"The Grove" debuted to rave reviews last year at California State University, Los Angeles, and will be traveling to other nationwide galleries after its Tempe stop. So why does Duffy think the exhibit is equally appealing to kids, hipsters, non-music heads, and older folks? Because anyone can design their own interpretation of the universal language of music without the stage fright.
"The best part is that you can create something with horrible and great moments, but you can never play the same thing again," Duffy says. "You also can't make a mistake and there's no performance anxiety."