Reverberations: David Wilson on Transcendence and the Invisible Frame

Oakland-based artist David Wilson has been making unsanctioned installations in Bay Area groves and woods, as well as related gatherings incorporating art, music, film, and performance. For a special crossover project between the museum’s MATRIX and L@TE programs, he was in residence during July and August of 2010. Over the course of months, Wilson built temporary architectures, set up a drawing studio full of artifacts and specimens, and programmed a series of performances and participatory activities. He is currently organizing a September 2011 beach gathering in Bolinas, which will combine hands-on stop-motion animation, fire-pit cooking, and musical performance - more information will be posted on Wilson’s blog.

Dear Reader,

Upon the museum’s invitation, I’m writing a little reflection to you about my time working on a union of a MATRIX show and a L@TE program last summer, which was called Gatherings. For this, I combined efforts, creating a space-specific installation to house a series of performances, and also planning a series of performances that responded to and informed my decisions for growing the installation. It was a unique cross section is what I’m getting at, and I was lucky to get to work in both directions. At the center of everything was a focus on responding to the space of the museum, in form, in light, and in sound.


Responding to place and the qualities of space is how I work, so this show was very much in keeping with that practice. Often, I am venturing out from the city and exploring my way to natural spaces that hold me with their sense of architecture. I’ve noticed that it’s a feeling of arrival that marks that moment of when you’ve come upon a prime space. In these remote place encounters, I spend time drawing and playing and learning about why these spaces feel as they do. These musings often lead to ideas on how to present what is happening/captivating about a space, as an integrated performance to a group of people.


It was funny and fun for me to go about a similar process inside an actual piece of architecture since there are very clear decisions and expressions of form that went into creating a sense of prime space. The pleasure for me was that I have always admired BAM/PFA for how successfully it configures some transcendence. In fact, my first ever visit to California included a trip to BAM/PFA, and when I finally moved here, I made a point of trying to get a job at the museum so I could hang out some more in it. I did get actually get a job installing art shows, which I did for a couple years, soaking in the building all the while.


So when (MATRIX curator) Liz Thomas talked to me about doing the show, there were already a fair amount of sparks between me and the building. I basically moved in to the museum during the show. I spent a while drawing the building from different points, enjoying the central cavity and the connecting views across and through it. It made me imagine ways to further surround the openness and frame it from different corners.

When I hung out in Gallery B for a while, one of the main things I was thinking about was how to steer some of the attention inwards during performances. With such a big area, I felt it could enhance the feeling of togetherness if there was a construction that kind of hugged you. Since the BAMscape (or “blob” as it was often called) took up the middle of the gallery, I had to get to know the beast a bit in my designs for the space. It is a bold thing that blob, and I tried to make peace with it by letting it be the island, and offering a bit of a cove off it’s northeastern shores. I decided to build an arched, amphitheatre-like structure coming out of the corner by the ramp. I imagine it coming over people’s heads, and making that corner cozy enough to draw people into all the deep recesses of the space. That way, very little floor space would actually be consumed and perhaps the central museum cavity would be framed, sitting within the structure. That was goal at least.


When thinking about performance ideas, I found that the openness that visually centers the museum also offers itself as a large resonant chamber. I got off on thinking of sound coming from all around the museum, connecting people who might not be visually connected, allowing sound to act as invisible frame for the open space, connecting all the corners. With this I began planning the SUN Ceremony with Chris Duncan. An integrated light and sound performance that had everyone in the museum watch a centrally suspended, eight-foot diameter papier maché “sun” as it was flooded with different colors of light, and then use drumsticks (we passed out about 200 pairs) to create a percussion composition that followed the light cues … yellow sun meant just sticks, blue sun meant cymbals, black sun meant silent etc. It was fun. It sounded wild. People got into it.

The other L@TE programs that I organized played with the sound in the space in other ways. I worked with Liz Harris of Grouper, who I knew would love the opportunity to take her spacious droney swells to the next level here. She also had a pre-existing love for the building from her time as a Cal student, and we spent a lovely afternoon walking all through the museum as she took note of all the echoey complexities of the building. She recorded a series of tape loops that ranged in pitch from low to high, and set up each tape and set of speakers in a different spot of the museum, going from the lowest point to the highest point, so that there would be literally a spiral and cascade as you walked through the museum. Grouper is amazing.


And actually, now I’m reminded of how Meara O’Reilly went through a similar deep acoustic investigation of the building in preparation for her closing moment of the SUN Ceremony. Meara sings through a plate that she covers in salt, and as her tone changes, the plate vibrates to form intricate patterns in the salt, unique to each frequency. This is called Chladni plate singing, and it’s amazing, and if you can’t picture what I’m saying, look at her website and be mesmerized. Anyway, the thing is that Meara’s plate responds different in each room since it is the room that offers resonance. So, Meara actually built a larger plate for her performance at BAM/PFA and spent a full week singing through it and noting it’s patterned responses. It was a bit like watching divination.

I think I’ll wrap this reflection up, since it feels time to do that, but I will say that I am happy and humbled that I got to witness so many moments of inspiration between person and building during my time residing at BAM/PFA. It was a constant state for me, of that I am sure.


Photos: Aubrey Trinnaman