Artist and curator Alan So sees—or rather, hears—art differently. So in 1998, he founded the San Francisco nonprofit Mediate, an art group dedicated to redefining boundaries in the art world with unique and multi-sensory experiences.
"We're just such a visual world, and a visual community, that art is considered visual," explains So. "There wasn't a really huge sense in the art world that sound was seen as an art form. I wanted to push that a little. I wanted to say sound is art, and sound can be explored in many different realms."
With that in mind, Mediate's multidisciplinary artists founded the Soundwave Festival in 2002, a biennial event that delves into new themes with a season of art installations throughout the Bay Area. The festival's sixth season comes to the Marin Headlands on Sunday, Aug. 3, with a performance in Battery Townsley at Fort Cronkhite called "The Infinite Swell."
This season's theme is "water," a topic chosen not only for its present scarcity in California but for the mystery and power it holds. Artists from around the country are invited to express their relationship with sound and water. "The Infinite Swell," according to So, is the most adventurous event of this season.
"It's one of the most resonant spaces I've ever been to in my life," he says of Battery Townsley, a former military installation built into the Marin County bluff that used to house guns aimed toward the ocean. It was largely abandoned after World War II, and is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is full of tunnels and passageways that open into expansive concrete rooms, and acts like a megaphone to create amazing reverberations.
"The Infinite Swell" offers three separate concert sets, taking audiences into different parts of the battery. Three artists, well known in their own right, explore water in its many forms and with varied expressions.
Travis Johns, a Bay Area native now living on the East Coast, builds instruments. For this installation, he has constructed a sonograph that measures vibrations, like a seismograph. But instead of earthquakes, it measures sound vibrations and creates art from a pen that records the vibrations. Johns uses the naturally occurring pools of water, where battleship guns used to sit, to generate vibrations and sound—and one-of-a-kind art prints—which he'll be giving away.
Chris Duncan is an Oakland-based artist known for everything from paintings to video and sound art. He has been recording sounds in a cave just below the battery at sea level, and he's using those recordings to create a reverberating performance while testing the sonic possibilities of ice.
Jim Haynes, who, like a scientist, creates art through chemical reactions, is known as the "rust master." For this installation, Haynes uses steam and corrosion to create a reactive process with vibration to discover the sounds that accompany a largely visual process.
The "Infinite Swell" is no ordinary concert experience, and the adventure begins with the hike 20 to 30 minutes uphill from the parking lot to the battery site. Jackets and blankets are encouraged, as the site is often subject to fog and wind. The only other requirement is an open mind.