The texture of a city can be difficult to get a handle on. But once grasped, it becomes a special pleasure to run your hands across it; the anxiety of inarticulateness is assuaged by material expression. I’m speaking here of the actual textures of a city that we take for granted, the stucco or clapboard, pavement or cobblestone, real brick and mortar, that is only thrown into relief once we left behind, but one may view art itself as a sort of manifest antidote to the insufficiency of language.
Bill Fontana uses various recording and transmission technologies to capture the aural cityscapes just out of earshot. They do not hit the ear like a familiar bustle of traffic or wind whipping around skyscrapers. The effect is subtle and extraterrestrial, particularly in his real-time sound installation Sonic Shadows commissioned by the SFMOMA. Standing on the cage-metal bridge which offers a clear view of the museum lobby far, far below, the dizzying height of the bridge coupled with the strangely dulcet pings and squeaks bouncing all around create the frisson of eavesdropping. “They’re the sounds hidden in the mechanical guts of a building.” Fontana’s sound sculptures have been installed from here to New York, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Tokyo and beyond, but San Francisco is certainly a recurring location for his work, beginning with Sound Sculpture with a Sequence of Level Crossings in 1982. By 2009 he had made it all the way to city hall with Spiraling Echoes, installed in the iconic rotunda entrance. Fontana also creates dialogues by transmitting sounds across geographical locations. He likens these sound sculptures to music, but I often find them to be redolent of when experimental novelist Robert Pinget refers to “the talk of the town” as a disembodied chorus of voice, exercising its own agency apart from human action.
I like that Fontana’s sound sculptures talk to one another. It’s as though cities themselves have a language that we can only listen in on, and even so, offer no understanding that a mere human ear can be privy to. What are they whispering about us?
—Christina C. Martinez