Bill Fontana: Acoustical Visions of Venice

By Matthew Drutt

Mary McCarthy once wrote: "The things of this world reveal their essential absurdity when they are placed in a Venetian context." Indeed, Venice is a city that defies comparison to more conventional settings. It has an aura that is at once enigmatic and utterly fantastic. Instead of a modern skyline, it rises out of the water like a city from another era. Its early mornings and late evenings are often shrouded in fog while echoes of distant sounds reverberate subtly across its waterways and piazzas, drifting into our consciousness like voices from the past.

Artists and writers have long celebrated Venices otherworldly character, largely deliberating upon the citys panoramic views and shimmering light. However, its most arresting quality in a contemporary context is its uniquely "transparent" acoustic signature. Devoid of automobiles, helicopters, and other modes of transportation whose incessant roar is synonymous with the modern city, Venice has an unparalleled acoustical clarity. The sounds of everyday Venetian life pedestrian footsteps, voices, church bells, pigeons, gondolas, water taxis, water buses, and ferriescreate an impressionist soundscape untarnished by the background noise common to urban environments.

Bill Fontanas Acoustical Visions of Venice is a live audio collage of sounds collected from 12 key sites within the city that celebrates this distinctive sonic character. Using microphones concealed at strategic points selected both for their acoustic richness as well as for their historical and cultural significance, Fontana has created a dynamic, multi-layered, collective impression of these different locations by transmitting their sounds simultaneously in real time to a single site: the Punta della Dogana. From here, one finds the most commanding views of the city and its landmarks: the bell towers of San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore, the Doges Palace, the Giardini.

The result allows us to hear as far as we can see in some cases extending even further reversing the way we normally experience the balance between these two senses. This reversal, which is intensified by the shifting modulation of different sounds becoming more prominent at any given moment, disrupts the equilibrium that otherwise defines our relationship to sound and vision and renders uncertain even our most basic assumptions about time and space. Like poetry, whose rearrangement of speech into carefully metered cadences heightens our awareness of languages subtleties and transitions, Fontanas arrangement of "found sound" into carefully orchestrated compositions translates the quotidian into something lyrical and redefines our comprehension of the world around us.

While he has worked in the genre of sound sculpture since 1974, Fontanas explorations of the compositional aspects of ambient sound (as opposed to electronic sound) date back to the 1960s. Influenced by Marcel Duchamps strategy of the found object, he realized that the relocation of a sound from its source into a new context would radically alter its perception and effect. Shifting a sounds point of origin and its point of reception manifests itself as a sculptural phenomenon because it influences our sense of physical space. It also entails a powerful relationship to music, which has the capacity to alter our spatial perception through auditory sensation. Working with public spaces in major cities around the world, Fontana has distinguished himself by grafting the sounds of non-urban sites into the citys fabric, refocusing our experience of the acoustical environment and undermining our reliance on visual cognition.

One of his more renowned commissions, Sound Island, occurred in 1994 in Paris where he enveloped the Arc de Triomphe, at the center of a notoriously frenetic traffic circle, in the white noise of the ocean crashing along Frances Normandy coast, thus obliterating the sounds of the city. The installation was especially poignant as it was created for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy and the liberation of Paris.

While Acoustical Visions of Venice similarly transforms our experience of a familiar urban landmark, it differs significantly in that its reordering of auditory sensations is drawn exclusively from Venice itself. Moreover, the realization of the work during the Biennale highlights the contrast between Venices customary sonic serenity and the dizzying melange of languages, events, and energies produced by the ebb and flow of the international art community. Thus, Fontana posits himself as both archaeologist and diarist, mining the citys enduring history as he chronicles its transformations in the present day.

Matthew Drutt

Associate Curator for Research, Guggenheim Museum, New York