Thursday, April 17, 2008
A Strange Machine's Making Noise At Wesleyan
What Is That Strange Machine, And Why Is It Making That Noise?
A Strange Machine's Making Noise At Wesleyan
By CHARLES PROCTOR
Courant Staff Writer
April 15, 2008
— The machine in the basement is a mystery.
Buried in a dank corner of Wesleyan University's art studio, it hangs from the ceiling, bathed in cold blue light and aimed into space. Sometimes, it turns itself on, purring with loud, rhythmic thrums. Its purpose? Speculation on campus swirls. The machine might cause you to hallucinate, someone posted on "Wesleying," a student-run blog, maybe even see ghosts. Students and professors who paint and sculpt on the floors above it don't know who put it there or what it does.
But Matthew Valades knows. He built it.
A 22-year-old senior with a goatee and a shock of sandy-colored hair, Valades pieced together the machine for reasons less sinister: It's part of his senior project.
And although it might be the most visible — some might say ominous — piece of the installation, the machine is not the focus. The whole basement hallway is part of Valades' experiment on what happens when sound, light and oblivious passersby meet in an anonymous place.
"This is a transitive space; it's really mundane and functional," said Valades, of New Jersey, as he stood in the cool, darkened corridor on a recent Thursday. "But it's also very beautiful. I wanted to get people to pause and think about these things."
It might seem a strange place to plop an art installation. The corridor is well-traveled by a small group of professors and students, but otherwise inhabited only by stacks of wooden boards and a set of rusty lockers.
Its walls are pockmarked with holes and blotched with water stains. The only light comes from forlorn LED fixtures on the ceiling and the red neon of exit signs.
But where others might just see a shortcut to their next class, Valades sees artistic potential. To highlight the hallway's quirks, he taped countless small white labels to cracks in the floor and marks on the wall. ("Splatter" reads one, beside what looked like age-old drops of paint.)
And, of course, there's the ultimate head-turner: the machine. Using $400 he received from the Student Budgetary Committee, Valades bought two high-quality speakers on the Internet and set them into handmade wooden boxes.
With a tape measure and pencil, he calculated where to place the speakers to get the best sound waves. One speaker went halfway down the hallway. The second he suspended from the ceiling.
Amplifiers and oscillators were hooked up to a series of timers that tell the machine when to switch on. Valades sealed the contraption with a cashmere scarf that he found among the basement refuse. "No one's complained or tried to reclaim it," Valades said, "so I guess it's OK."
The machine pumps out sound waves of two lengths — one an ultra-low frequency and one so high it's on the edge of human hearing. Some parts of the hallway vibrate intensely. In others, there is a vague hum.
The end result is impressive, and a bit creepy. Valades draped portions of the corridor with scraps of plastic wrap to catch and tremble in the reverberations that echo like the hallway's own heartbeat.
The installation mixes Valades' interests in testing the boundaries of art display and sound, said music Professor Ronald Kuivila, Valades' faculty adviser.
Research studies have suggested that high- and low-frequency sounds can do things as diverse as enrich a person's aural experience or inspire feelings of unease, perhaps even explain why people say they see ghosts. Some healers, Valades said, have used them for therapy.
There's no sign posted to explain where the installation begins or ends, or any advertising to draw an audience. News of it spread on campus by word-of-mouth and the Internet. "It's viral," said Kuivila.
Valades thinks that reaction suits the installation's guerrilla nature. He's a bit miffed that some people boil it down to the "ghost machine," but added, "If it gets people down here and thinking about [the hallway], I guess that's the point."
He plans to tweak the hallway again this week by weaving in colored lights.
And when he's not adjusting the installation's decor, Valades enjoys seeing how people react to it.
Some take it in stride. Others, not so much — as one recent post on the Wesleyan student blog attests.
"how does it work??" the anonymous poster wrote. "ugh i pass it all the time but never know what to do."