September 1, 2007
Hear Color, See Sound
Architect Christopher Janney’s playful public art acts as an aural and light-filled salve to the alienating effects of the built environment.
Christopher Janney’s most used—and abused—sound architecture project is probably the installation on the N and R subway platform at the Herald Square station in New York, which has survived 12 years and the attention of more than 100,000 riders a week in the third busiest station in the entire system. “Reach: New York” is about as minimal as Janney gets: two green metal boxes hang above parallel platforms, each containing four loudspeakers and eight photosensors. When waiting passengers reach up and wave a hand in front of one of the sensors, a small light block glows, and a sound sample is triggered: a marimba, a flute, or birdsong, aimed at evoking someplace more bucolic than the gritty city subway.
In this simple project are all the key strategies in the artist’s work: “Reach: New York” is playful, allows a limited degree of musical improvisation (riders can exchange sounds across platforms), is accessible (it can be used by anyone taller than five feet or carrying an umbrella), and is a touch escapist. It is also a striking example of how his work is conceived as a salve to the alienating effects of the built environment. “Public art is often there to fix an architectural problem,” Janney says. “Architects and landscape architects tend to think at the scale of the building or the plaza. My niche is between the building and the individual.”
The use of public art to mitigate the effects of supersize architecture is nothing new: it heralded the era of “plop art” or, to use James Wines’s description for site-insensitive art, “the turd in the plaza.” But Janney, who learned to play drums at age 13 and later studied architecture at Princeton, has effectively carved out a practice by playing one discipline, music, against the other, building design. He began exploring the use of installing photosensors to trigger sounds as people walked up and down staircases while a masters student at MIT in 1978—a project that became “Soundstair on Tour.” But the definitive moment came when an invitation from Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in 1994 gave Janney the opportunity to build “Sonic Forest,” a design he’d developed with a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Given the site, an often bleak plaza at PPG Place, Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s colossal corporate crystal palace, Janney created a series of 16 aluminum tubes, each containing photosensors that triggered sounds and light. “It was designed as this thing to transform urban plazas,” he says. “But the first time we turned it on and I went out and stood in the middle of it, I realized we had with these sixteen speakers a fantastical spatial sound instrument. I could make frogs fly from the left to the right, I could make dogs run through. It gave me a spatial extension to my idea about making sound images. Now I could make sound movements. It was really the difference between looking at a photograph and making a movie.”
Earlier this year Janney published the monograph Architecture of the Air: The Sound and Light Environments of Christopher Janney (Sideshow Media), which provides a colorful fly-through of 14 of his realized projects. These range from “urban musical instruments” like “Soundstair” and “Sonic Forest” to his favorite and perhaps most famous project, “Heartbeat:mb,” a stage collaboration with choreographer Sara Rudner and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who danced to the amplified sound of his own heartbeat. The book has a carnivalesque flavor, festooned with photographs of people in public spaces reaching, stretching, and dancing around strange protrusions that emit sound, steam, or light.
As you might expect from someone whose work depends on having fun in places where you’re not supposed to—airports, subways, stairwells—Janney takes play seriously. In July I flew to meet him in Boston’s Logan Airport, where his most recent project, “Rainbow Cove,” opened in the passageways connecting the airport to the newly expanded parking facility of terminals B and C. At the terminal C atrium, the elevator doors opened with a whoosh reminiscent of the magic fairy-dust sound that accompanied the arrival of an instant message in the early days of online chat. Sunlight filtered through colored-glass panels installed on the atrium’s curtain wall, and the various sounds of New England emanated from strategically placed speakers: peepers, gulls, a foghorn. As if on cue, 57-year-old Janney, sporting a Bill Clinton hairdo and a high-volume Hawaiian shirt, bounded from a moving sidewalk.
The son of a CIA agent, Janney grew up in Washington, D.C., and seems to have a knack for navigating organizational politics. His account of the Logan project is casual and colorful, demonstrating how public art projects funded by the One Percent for Art mandate end up being an administrative obstacle course to test the artist’s patience and know-how. “The hardest part was convincing the bureaucrats of what I was going to do,” he says. After winning the public art competition, Janney was required to present separately to the head of aviation and the CEO of the transportation authority, Massport. To help convince them of the artistic legitimacy of “Rainbow Cove,” he tried some unabashed name-dropping, lining up an advisory board including jazz composer George Russell and Gunther Schuller, former president of the New England Conservatory. “It wasn’t clicking,” he says. “Then I said, ‘Sir George Martin.’ Bing! It was like, ‘Could you get Paul McCartney to come to the opening?’ At that point they were relaxed.”
I wondered if architects ever complain about Janney’s whimsical interventions spoiling their pristine curtain walls and monochrome spaces with colored filters and birdcalls. “If they do, I never hear about it,” he says with a hoot. In this case Deborah Fennick, whose Boston-based firm, Fennick McCredie Architecture, designed the Logan expansion, considers “Rainbow Cove” a “happy example of a collaboration where an art-ist’s involvement made the architecture better.” Elsewhere at Logan, her firm used double-height windows to offer passengers sweeping vistas of Boston and orient themselves. Here, she says, “the glass really changed the experience.”
Janney’s hands-on approach to art-making certainly seems to help smooth the collaborative process. “He’s very focused on the manufacturing of his items, which becomes quite technical,” says Jay Cross, president of the New York Jets and former president of the NBA’s Miami Heat, for which Janney worked in the late 1990s. The Miami project was a 30-foot-diameter spherical scoreboard made of brushed-aluminum “tentacles” holding 14 LED screens, which when lowered into the arena in 2000, raised the bar for stadium theatrics. To help intimidate visiting teams, this giant “Medusa’s head”—as Cross calls it—changes color, emits fog, and switches into strobe lighting according to the crowd’s mood. The design eventually became a benchmark for NBA stadium displays, which increasingly rely on stats, replays, and effects to outshine the common foe, the home TV-viewing experience.
Janney’s strategy for dealing with the politics and practicalities of public art is an idiosyncratic mix of business know-how and a rock-and-roll philosophy that ripened in the late 1960s. His studio, PhenomenArts, which employs two full-time assistants and some freelancers, is located in two old greenhouses in the backyard of his house in Lexington, Massachusetts. The atmosphere is more garage than office. On the day I visit, T-shirts from his recent Glastonbury Festival appearance are piled up on a table, books are strewn haphazardly on shelves, and a folded futon sits opposite a line of columns from the touring version of “Sonic Forest,” spilling electronic circuitry and emitting marimba and bird sounds. Models of old projects hang from the ceiling, and bits of colored resin lay around like discarded dried fish.
Janney begins and ends his day with a meditation session, a practice he began in 1970 and learned with help from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, onetime guru to the Beatles. “I’m a researcher,” Janney says. “And meditation is a big part of that. An idea isn’t going to come as a reaction to a client but from an idea I’d been thinking about prior to the project. If you create a project based on a programmatic requirement, it doesn’t elevate the project above that.” His house resembles a white New England farmhouse from the street but from the rear turns into a kind of early postmodern fantasia on Gehry’s Experience Music Project, with a conical section rendered in deep blue, porthole windows, and an underground recording studio connected to the house via a spiral staircase in a cylindrical tower of rose-colored glass. Janney spends his early mornings here exercising, sitting in a Jacuzzi, and writing down ideas with a pad and pencil. Between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. he works in the studio in business mode (“I could be selling flowers,” he says). In the late afternoon and early evening, he moves to the recording studio or the shop. This serves to “get the brain out of project management and into that intuitive creative side,” Janney says. “You have to be able to decompress out of one and get into the other. An artist doing project management is a bad idea.”
The rock-and-roll aspect of his art kicks in visibly at festivals, where the “Sonic Forest,” revived for the 2005 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, drew a late-night party crowd armed with drums. Amid the unremitting rainfall of English summer at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, the installation’s 16 columns ended up marooned on grass islands in a sea of mud from all the stomping and dancing. “There were 170,000 people,” Janney says. “We’ve done a lot of music festivals, but Glastonbury is really about the sixties. A lot of baked-out freethinking people. I took my son and four friends as part of the crew, and they had no idea what I was talking about. ‘The sixties, man!’”
Like most musicians, Janney loves a good audience and prizes improvisation. One of the most surprising responses to his work happens when a temporary project is removed and leaves what he calls a “sonic shadow,” where children return to the site and mimic the sounds of the absent installation. Permanent installations, however, pose a different problem: What happens when the element of surprise wears off? Miami International Airport decided to scrap Janney’s “Harmonic Runway”—a colored-glass walkway imbued with sounds of the Everglades—when it remodeled last year to meet post-9/11 security requirements, even though the work was unveiled as a “permanent” installation in 1995. A visit to the 34th Street subway platform on a hot July day revealed “Reach: New York” in a deteriorated state: a light had been broken off and two of the sensors were not responding. The remnants of the soundscape were losing a sonic battle with the clatter and squeal of trains entering and leaving the station. As the train doors opened, a passenger leaped up and smacked the metal with the palm of his hand as if performing a habitual air dunk.
Janney, however, aspires to permanence (the 34th Street installation was fixed the following day after my visit). “The goal of my work as an architect is to make it part of the urban fabric,” he says, likening the well-used flavor of “Reach: New York” to the ritually kissed toe of a bronze statue at St. Peter’s Basilica. The worn-out areas above the photosensors once sported blue dots, which have to be replaced once a year because of air-dunking passengers. The project requires a twice-monthly cleaning of the photosensors to remove the metal-dust film left by steel train wheels rolling against the steel tracks, but maintenance is fairly minimal. “With 112,000 people a week, I think the MTA is doing a pretty good job,” he says.
After witnessing a few of Janney’s projects, I find myself wanting to see less harmonious, more unsettling versions. His use of nature sounds and pentatonic scales (creating harmonic rather than dissonant music regardless of the order in which notes are triggered) gives his work a relentlessly upbeat flavor. Janney says that he has explored more dissonant modes, citing “Heartbeat,” which underscored the dancer’s amplified heartbeat with spoken medical texts and whispered jazz scat phrases, but he argues that art in public spaces must be harmonious. “My work, especially when it’s in public-transportation areas, is really about creating an oasis. It’s about being in juxtaposition to the din.”
Ben Gilmartin—an architect at Diller Scofidio + Renfro who appeared on public radio with Janney and musician David Byrne earlier this year as part of the artist’s “Resonating Frequencies” series at the Center for Architecture, in New York—suggests that Janney’s approach to the architecture of sound is “surrealist,” adding, “The production of sounds that are out of context, such as rain-forest sounds in an urban context, is familiar now as a trope. There’s much more that can be done. Sound has an incredible impact on how you perceive or experience a space.” Still, Gilmartin credits Janney with bringing the subject of sound to current architectural discourse, a welcome counter to its image-obsessed focus.
In 1977 Canadian composer and music theorist R. Murray Schafer wrote a case for what he called “acoustic ecology,” offering prescriptions for listening to the “soundscape” that already exists in the world. Like John Cage, he promoted the idea that music is sounds heard around us, not just those we hear in concert halls. Schafer’s remedy for noise pollution was not acoustic insulation—what he termed a “negative program”—but a positive study program: “Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?”
While Janney’s installations tend to separate us from the immediate urban environment through the suggestion, in collaged acoustic layers, of exotic or more peaceful places, Schafer’s challenge implies that an installation might work creatively with the given sounds of, say, an airport, a subway, or an outdoor plaza. The closest Janney gets to this approach is in “Heartbeat,” where the dancer’s amplified heartbeat becomes a profound expression of human vulnerability, rendered with the materials at hand.
Driving me toward his house from Logan Airport, Janney put on a pair of bright pink–framed sunglasses and reflected on his current workload. “We’re doing more parking decks. They’re not going away, and people are starting to think they should be more interesting.” He does not consider this a bore but another opportunity to work for the public good. “I grew up in Washington, so I basically lived in a city surrounded by public servants. The nature of my work and interest in putting things in the street to improve the quality of life on a daily basis, for better and for worse, is where that impulse comes from.” For him art has a political agenda: to make banal and anxiety-ridden places more pleasant, and for this reason his work will always be more populist than challenging.
Perhaps it’s up to the next generation of sound designers to explore the idea of public art utilizing existing ambient noises, as Jacques Tati did in the sound track to his masterpiece Playtime. For Janney the potential in harmonic juxtaposition is big enough. “Someone asked me if I had to do ‘Reach’ in a forest, what would it sound like? Well, I would never do it in a forest. It works well because it’s underground in a man-made space. My idea is to make completely natural sound images in counterpoint.”
Enjoying the Zenlike connotations of the exchange, I ask Janney what he would design for a teeming forest. “I’d probably do something purely electronic.”