What does the sunset sound like? What does the wind look like?
A crowd of about a thousand made their way along a traffic-free and food truck-lined Elmwood Avenue on Friday afternoon to find out the answers to these and other imponderable questions as the Burchfield Penney Art Center prepared to unveil its permanent outdoor installation known as “The Front Yard.”
At about 6:28 p.m., as the sun dipped below the horizon behind the SUNY Buffalo State campus, a trio of high powered-projectors in three leaning steel towers slowly illuminated a rectangular slice of the Burchfield Penney’s zinc-plated facade.
Soon enough, three video images of the sun setting over Lake Erie viewed from beneath what appeared to be the Peace Bridge materialized, accompanied by a low drone that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Daft Punk song. This was the premiere of “Afterglow Arrangements,” an evolving work by the installation’s co-designer and technical guru Brian Milbrand.
The sound was created by computer software, which was taking live readings from weather stations in the vicinity that measure temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure and precipitation. Some variation of this will happen every night – if the Burchfield’s press materials are to be believed – now through “forever.” Each time, the sound will take on a different character depending what the atmosphere decides to get up to that day.
And after the sky turns dark enough, an ever-evolving series of videos will flicker across the building, inevitably prompting drivers to slow to a crawl along the busy avenue and scratch their heads over some snippet of beauty or visual noise they would never otherwise have seen.
The videos thrown up on the center’s wall will range, as they did on the installation’s opening night, from the pioneering work of Buffalo’s much-ballyhooed media art movement of the 1970s to new video and sound works from local contemporary artists.
As the sun rises each morning, the Burchfield’s facade will return to normal, but a powerful 6.1-channel surround sound system will run all day, every day, featuring a rotating series of work by sound artists that will also respond to environmental changes.
What was perhaps most striking about the installation on opening night were not the projections themselves, which seemed less luminous than the artist’s renderings indicated, but the towers that house the projectors. They were designed by UB architecture student Isabella Brito and produced through a collaboration between the University at Buffalo’s architecture department and a student team led by Brad Wales, the Burchfield Penney and the Buffalo company Rigidized Metals.
Each tower, leaning toward the museum like an italicized “I” or like Madrid’s KIO Towers, is illuminated from within by LED lights. Those lights shine through thousands of laser-cut holes in the steel cladding on the north- and south-facing sides of the towers that mimic the brush strokes of the center’s namesake Charles Burchfield. To anyone familiar with Burchfield’s work – as dependent on the vagaries of the weather as this installation – the tower’s designs instantly evoke his paintings.
In concept and practice, the weather provides the perfect reference point to understand the scope and ambition of the project. Aside from being dependent on subtle changes in the atmosphere, the installation follows that 716-appropriate cliché sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The same goes for the art, which should change often enough to hold all but the most distracted viewer’s attention for at least a few meaningful moments.
On Friday night, viewers were treated to work by ’70s heavyweights Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits and Steina Vasulka, along with newer work by Chris Gallant, Milbrand, Barbara Lattanzi. There were lots of confused comments among the crowd about what the work meant, but also plenty of open-mouthed stares. At one point, a viewer remarked that the piece by Steina Vasulka, featuring three round orbs pulsating with abstract imagery, was perfectly mirrored by evening’s full moon then rising in the east. This was nature’s art show working in perfect concert with man’s, one of the designers’ explicit intentions.
Such moments of reflection and quiet wonder, among the light and noise of the installation and the constant uncertainty about what it might offer next, speak volumes about its potential for transforming the way Western New Yorkers interact with often complex and challenging art. By its very nature, this project is bound to put off those who believe public art should be a closed circuit or a single, unified idea. It’s also bound to please those of us who see art as a necessarily messy, open-ended laboratory experiment, a living thing that inhales and exhales in unpredictable rhythms that constantly throw the viewer’s expectations off-kilter.
“The Front Yard” thwarts immediate judgment because it is always in a state of becoming something else. And that alone makes it one of the most exciting cultural projects the region has yet dreamed up