2012: Underground


Underground is a sound sculpture that takes the form of two couches inside the foyer of the Surrey Art Gallery.  Inside each of the couches are small loudspeakers and tactile transducers, which convert sound into vibrations that the body can feel and touch as well as hear.  The speakers and tactile transducers are playing a droning soundscape derived from recordings made in the electrical and mechanical rooms inside of the basement of the Surrey Art Gallery.  You can sit on either of the two couches, which literally vibrate your body with sound, becoming louder and more tactile once you physically connect with them.

Essay by Ross Birdwise, curator On Air: Making the Inaudible Audible: PDF

In 1917, the French composer Erik Satie composed his first piece of musique d’ameublement (furniture music), music deliberately intended sink into the background ambiance of a room much like arrangements of furniture are meant to be conducive to comfortable conversation. Kristen Roos’ new work Underground operates in the foyer of the Surrey Art Centre with this history of lobby-oriented music in mind. The work is integrated into two existing art centre sofas that are hard-wired to emit ambient musical compositions in a way the listener can both feel and hear. The artist has installed speakers and tactile transducers into the furnishings so that they vibrate and generate low-level sound that is almost only sensible to the sitter.  The sound is derived from recordings made in the basement of the Surrey Arts Centre, in the electrical room and the mechanical room.

According to Roos’ these droning mechanical noises often either go unnoticed in the background, or are hidden away in underground chamber’s and near janitor’s quarters, spaces strongly associated with blue collar labor. The automated machinery and manual labor contribute to the functionality and comfort of the building and its inhabitants, including staff and visitors.  It helps to create a pleasant ambiance.  A simple piece of furniture such as a couch also contributes to that ambiance. Unlike Satie’s furniture music, which is supposed to fade into the background, Underground utilizes furniture to foreground a hidden ambiance.  Roos’ states “Underground in today’s terms, is the space of the janitor, and the electric machines that power the building to bring air and heat. This is an automated space, a kind of robot that for the most part relinquishes us from having to have someone shovel coal and mind the switches, but has not stopped us from using the space to house the tools of the custodian. Interestingly enough, the word robot was coined by Carel Capek, a czech writer in the play Rossums Universal Robots (R.U.R.), and robot, or rabota in czech, simply means worker.”

For Roos, these sounds also represent the specters of Surrey’s past.  Audible and tactile, yet invisible, these sounds have the absent presence of ghosts. They refer to past histories of urbanization and industrialization in the region, as well as the natural spaces that once existed prior to Surrey’s development.  Furthermore, these physical, droning, noise-based sounds also signify the underground experimental music scene of Vancouver. This scene includes a variety of noise musicians. Some of these musicians link noise music to machinery and to the human body, and often choose to remain underground (and perform in  ‘underground’ and illegal spaces) out of a kind of pride, and also due to economics, lack of affordable spaces, and the archaic licensing bylaws in Vancouver and the lower mainland.

Roos’ exploration of underground, low frequency and electromechanical sounds is a prominent feature of his other work, including his site-specific installation Ghost Station (2007), which utilized an unused Toronto subway station and subway sounds and a recent soundwalk he led through underground parking garages. Additionally, Roos has been interested in tactile, droning electromechanical sounds since he was a toddler, when he would enjoy pressing his head up against washing machines and dishwashers. Roos speculates that these sounds might also relate to the audiotactile experience of being in the womb. The muted sounds and tactile vibrations of Underground implicitly suggest this primal association, mingling it with the deep droning noises of modernization and labor, the spectral, resonant shimmer of Surrey’s past, present and future.