December 17, 2009

Bill Fontana, New Media Artist

An artist’s installations making use of sound as a sculptural medium to transform the audience’s perceptions of visual and architectural settings

Bill Fontana is a bit dry in interviews but he is big on sound. Bill attended the New School in New York City and studied music and philosophy. He is trained and practiced as a composer but he is known internationally for creating sound art. These installations use sound as a sculptural medium to transform the audience’s perceptions of visual and architectural settings. Bill calls this work sound sculpture and it has been featured around the world including San Francisco, New York City, Paris, London, Berlin, Venice, and Tokyo. Much of the work deals with retrieval of ambient sound from multiple reception points and beaming that sound to the sculpture site.

A good example is the Paris piece called “Sound Island.” Installed in 1994, this piece consisted of three distinct parts, each one demonstrating a common Fontana theme. First Bill used acoustic microphones to pick up the sounds of crashing waves from the cost of Normandy. These sounds were delivered to the Arc de Triomphe hundreds of miles away. 48 speakers within the monument’s façade amazingly drowned out the sounds of the considerable automobile noise from one of the busiest traffic circles in the world.

Building facade SSMAC

The Arc De Triomphe as seen from the top of the eiffel Tower

“The presence of the breaking and crashing waves gave the illusion that the cars were silent… The sound of the sea is a natural white sound, and has the psycho-acoustic ability to mask other sounds. Not by virtue of being louder, but because of the sheer harmonic complexity of the sea sound.” BF

Second Bill used hydrophones (underwater microphones) to pick up the sounds of the English Channel. These sounds were transmitted to the underground access tunnels under the Arc de Triomphe effectively deconstructing the visual and physical space within the tunnel.

In the final portion of this piece Bill utilized microphone sensors to pick up ambient noise from the streets of Paris, chatter from cafés and tourist noise from the base of the Eiffel Tower. Bill beamed these sounds to the viewing area on top of the Arc de Triomphe allowing his audience to hear as far as they could see. The use of technologically advanced speaker systems at the reception site allow the audience to hear the sound sculpture in a natural way and realize the conceptual meaning behind the work.

It is quite disappointing that installations like “Sound Island” are not permanently installed, but chances are good that he will produce more work in the future. In fact just as recently as late 2009 Fontana exhibited new work at the San Francisco City Hall called “Spiraling Echoes.” Also stereo versions of his sound sculpture work from the past 30 years can be found via the internet. Let me know which one you like the best.

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