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Ed Osborn / MATRIX 193

Vanishing Point

March 18, 2001 - May 13, 2001

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Ed Osborn: Fencesitters, 1995, mixed media, sound; dimensions variable. Victoria Room, San Francisco—installation view. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA.

Download the exhibition brochure (PDF) .

Sound, like fire, is simply an artifact of the transfer of one form of energy into another—expended in an instant and then gone.—Ed Osborn1

Often defined by that which it is not—for example, music—sound art uses sounds for their own essential qualities, from the recognizable (telephones ringing and fans whirring) to the unknown (abstractly configured tones and chords) to the barely discernable (low-decibel noises). Some contemporary sound artists, such as Kristin Oppenheim and Bill Fontana, present only sound (her own voice and a mix of live and recorded sound, respectively), while others, such as Stephen Vitiello, Alan Rath, Rebecca Horn, and Christian Marclay, link the sounds to tangible objects. Helsinki-born, Oakland-based artist Ed Osborn fits into the latter group.

Trained as a traditional composer, with degrees in composition and experimental music, Osborn made the crossover from performance to installations in 1990 as his interests began to outstrip the possibilities of conventional composition. Today he creates mechano–acoustic sculptures that, while low–tech, are moving and provocative. Critic Mitchell Akiyama places Osborn in the tradition of innovative avant–gardists such as Marcel Duchamp and John Cage.2 Indeed, his artworks contain visual elements similar in spirit to those used in Duchamp's Dadaist sculptures: Osborn often creates his installations out of such mundane items as fishing rods, model trains, music boxes, rubber tubing, and electric fans.

As critic Sandy Thompson has noted, asking how and why Osborn's works work is like imagining that to know how paint is made engenders an understanding of painting.3 The technical aspects of Osborn's creations include random patterns, transduced movements, shadow audio images, sounding ghosts, inaudible artifacts, sonic depictions, silent taxonomies, ultrasound sensings, echoes, and interference patterns. The content of his works, however, like those of many artists working in the visual and the aural, draws upon the "collective cultural memory," a storehouse of thousands of images and sounds that one encounters daily.4 Thus, one does not need to possess a complex understanding of the mechanics of Osborn's sculptures in order to appreciate them.

The essence of Osborn's work is the transformation of one form of energy into another—for example, motion into sound. In Swarm (1998), the motions of a group of electric fans suspended from the ceiling are detected by ultrasound sensors positioned below, and transformed into a rumbling sound. The fans switch on and off in intricate patterns, oscillating solo and in clusters, allegorically echoing the way people navigate not only art exhibitions but culture and the everyday: experienced collectively, but processed alone.

In Night-Sea Music (1998), Osborn presents a wall of rubber tubes that undulate like seaweed, "dancing" to the movement and sound of the small music boxes to which they are attached. The tune of the accompaniment is a slow rendition of the Merry Widow operetta. The result is slightly surreal in being unexpectedly lyrical and poetic. The connecting wires writhe and twist in what is a spirited parody of the mostly futile upstream struggle of spermatozoa in search of their target. (The work is a riff on John Barth's short story of a similar name, "Night-Sea Journey.") Osborn creates an implied tension between natural forces and humans' attempts to control their own destinies.

Osborn's work frequently explores social phenomena. Parabolica (1996) suggests the sociological tendency in which traits of a large population fall into a certain average range. The sculpture features a scale model train engine running on tracks suspended three feet in the air. The train sports a speaker that picks up and then emits sounds from the track into the gallery space. The train track thus acts as a conduit for the soundtrack, which features narratives about personal aspiration. In contrast to these stories of hope and determination indicative of free will, the switches and paths, while apparently random, are programmed to describe the statistical bell curve for which the work is named: the train takes the routes through the center more often than those on the inner and outer part of the loop.

Fencesitters (1995) is perhaps the work that is most similar to Vanishing Point, Osborn's site–specific MATRIX installation. In Fencesitters, contact microphones and audio speakers were placed on the inside of large frosted windows at the front of the Victoria Room gallery. The microphones picked up sounds both within and outside the gallery, and these sounds were amplified through the speakers. The microphones produced a specialized and oblique signal; the acoustic image they provided mirrored the translucence and opacity of the windows.

Vanishing Point (2001) differs from the majority of Osborn's recent installations in that, like Fencesitters, it is a sound installation without a conspicuous sculptural component. The audio content is comprised of a series of chords and pitch relationships derived from the measurements of the museum's windows. In fact, Vanishing Point is installed directly on the window facade of the Berkeley Art Museum's Galleries A and B. The windows become speakers through the affixing of a small speaker driver to the base of each window. As a result, the glass vibrations are magnified and sound is transmitted. People can hear the work both in the galleries and outdoors in the museum's sculpture garden.

Through Vanishing Point's placement on the skin of the institution, a space simultaneously within the museum and outside it, Osborn addresses the role of the museum in relation to its larger community. The work is physically and conceptually reliant on the site and structure of the Berkeley Art Museum building. Though it is an imposing concrete structure that exudes a sense of permanence, ironically, due to seismic safety issues, the building's time is itself limited. In fact, during the installation of Osborn's piece, work will begin in the garden for a temporary retrofit of the BAM. The original form of the building will be permanently altered, its integrity in a sense vanishing.

Vanishing Point employs as a point of creative departure a Robert Irwin acrylic plastic disc painting in the Berkeley Art Museum's collection, Untitled (1969), currently on view in Gallery 6. The physical form of Untitled is a curved disc that is gently arced toward the middle where it is bisected by a horizontal line. Osborn concentrates on several vanishing aspects of Untitled, including its provenance as well as its place in the evolution of Irwin's career. When looking through collection records at the museum, Osborn noticed that the painting is in fact a replacement, an exact recreation of the original that was damaged while in storage and then destroyed. Thus, while the "new" work is not in any way denigrated, in theory the "original" painting has vanished. As the disc series was the last of Irwin's works to focus on the tangible object, this means of creation also vanished for Irwin.

Around the same time that he made Untitled, Irwin fabricated a series of curved glass pieces that never left his studio—the tension in the glass would have caused any disruption to destroy them. Osborn echoes Irwin's fascination with curved glass by using an elongated S-shape to articulate the movement of tones as they glide from one pitch to another in Vanishing Point.5 His gesture is a metaphorical attempt to use sound to inscribe curves into the museum's glass faade. The sounds in Vanishing Point are made up of simple sine tones, the most basic element of sound.6 These tones were selected, according to the artist, precisely because they are hard to localize: the point of listening will continually shift and vanish regardless of how hard one tries to focus on the emanation of the sounds. Additionally, the pitches fade out before reaching the notes that will resolve their chords, so that the harmonic parameters of the chords are never heard. This elusiveness is a brilliant metaphor for the creative process, which is in itself a vanishing point. The effort to see (hear), know, and make is a straining to grasp that which exists on the periphery. Osborn's work, with its gradually shifting, unlocatable, and ultimately vanishing tones emanating from a space which is in between, neither inside nor outside, is a commentary on the nature of creativity itself: seductive, elusive, and inspiring.

Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson
Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator

Special thanks to Adrienne Gagnon, MATRIX Curatorial Assistant, for her input to this text and coordination of the exhibition.


1 David Hunt, "Pause and Reflect: Sound Art from the Bay Area," Merge, Fall 1998, no. 2, p. 40.

2 Mitchell Akiyama, "The art of noise," The Link, January 20, 1998, p. 7.

3 Sandy Thompson, "Ed Osborn at the Farfield Center Gallery," Artweek, July/August 1998, p. 26.

4 Charles Ashley Stainback, S.O.S. Scenes of Sounds (Skidmore, New York: The Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, 2000), n/p.

5 The path of the curve is calculated using a simple cosine function, which causes the curve's rate of change to decrease as it nears the edge of its range.

6 There is a long history of using sine tones in electronic music that includes the work of Jim Tenney and Alvin Lucier, two composers and electronic music pioneers who have influenced Osborn.

The MATRIX Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum is made possible by the generous endowment gift of Phyllis Wattis.

Additional donors to the MATRIX Program include the UAM Council MATRIX Endowment, Ann M. Hatch, Eric McDougall, and the California Arts Council.

Vanishing Point was developed in part with support from the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Oakland Cultural Affairs Commission.

The museum also wishes to thank Earlene and John Taylor for their support of Ed Osborn / MATRIX 193 Vanishing Point.