On November 7, 2007, the Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge and dumped 50,000 gallons of heavy bunker crude oil into the San Francisco Bay. Tide and current conditions spread the resultant slick around the Bay and beyond before it was contained.
Rodeo Beach, just down the road from the Headlands Center for the Arts, where I was a 2009 artist in residence, was one of the most heavily impacted sections of the coast. Hundreds of gallons of oil were recovered there in the initial clean up, but much remains; storms in mid-2008 brought oil to the surface, and the beach was closed while crews removed thousands of pounds of contaminated sand. Oil continues to be surface at the beach after storms. It is believed that it will take decades for the Bay to recover.
Two days before the spill, my wife and I visited Rodeo Beach.
Two days after the spill, I collected oil and tar on Ocean Beach in San Francisco as part of the enormous volunteer cleanup effort wearing a respirator.
On October 2, 2009, the first day of my residency at the Headlands, I sat on an exposed rock for one complete tide cycle at the south end of Rodeo Beach, executing a companion project, Sitting the Tide, Rodeo Beach (after Andromeda).
The location I chose was accessible only during low tide; at high tide, it was embayed: surrounded by water. I reached the site shortly before 1 am and recorded between approximately 2:30 am and 4 pm.
Instructions for sitting the tide were distributed in a limited signed edition; you can find the artist statement and instructions here. I strongly encourage you to sit the tide yourself.
I documented the tide cycle I experienced that day with synchronized conventional open-air microphone and hydrophone (underwater microphone) recordings of the surf's ebb and flow. With these recordings—twelve hours, twenty five minutes, and twelve seconds long—I made my most ambitious installation to date, Rodeo Soundial (After Prometheus).
Rodeo Soundial debuted on October 18, 2009, at the Fall Open House of the Headlands Center for the Arts, where it was installed in a blacked-out gymnasium. On the last night of my residency, November 6, I invited people to spend the night sleeping with the piece, and hence experience it in its entirety.
handpans and the hang
as paredes têm ouvidos
flostam resonance #1
a day, a week, a year
effects concert series
as installed at the Headlands Center for the Arts in November, 2009.
Rodeo Soundial consisted of twelve pairs of speakers arranged regularly in a 10' diameter ring in the center of blacked-out space of large dimension.
One speaker of each pair, which played the conventional open air recording, was suspended from the 25' ceiling by aircraft cable. The other, which played the corresponding synchronized hydrophone recording, was mounted on top of a large jar filled with of non-conductive oil and one of twelve types of sand or gravel I collected along Rodeo Beach.
Each speaker had an incandescent light bulb wired in series so as to illuminate in accord with how loud the speaker was playing. In the dark gymnasium where the piece was installed, the twenty-flour lights flickered and flared like fireflies. The bulbs for the speakers on jars were immersed in the oil, and illuminated the jars from within.
In the center of the ring, I suspended and spotlit the safety gloves and spade I used collecting crude bunker oil after the Cosco Busan disaster, still covered with irremovable traces of black sludge.
Each station in the soundial reproduced the same long recording, but each station was successively offset from its predecessor by one twelfth of the recording’s length (one hour, two minutes, one second).The entire tide cycle was thus always audible over the course of just over an hour, but arrayed in space rather than time.
Walking the circle clockwise, advancing just over an hour at each station, one therefore encountered the entire tidal cycle. The full tide could thus be heard in two different ways: either by sitting at any station for the piece's twelve and a half hour duration; or by walking the circle for a mere one hour, two minutes, and one second.
High tide was always directly opposite, audibly louder, and visibly brighter, than low tide.
Detail of two of the twelve stations of the Soundial, with incandescent bulbs illuminating while submerged in silicone oil.
Sonically the piece exceeded my expectations in ways that no documentation of it does justice to.
It is novel to hear dozens of speakers arrayed around you in a empty space. The resulting soundscape is much more spatially complex than conventional stereo or surround sound, but in no way mistakable for 'natural.' (I experience a similar curious sense of the hyperreal yet unmistakably artifical walking through Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's Forty Voice Motet, a forty-channel forty-speaker installation of a choir playing back Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium ).
In the Soundial, something else occured as well, because each speaker was playing water-sound: washes of white noise.
Though none of the twelve stations were playing correlated material, eachc was playing variations on the same swooshes and gurgles and aquatic rushes.
Within the circle, the ear would constantly find correspondences between surges in one place and another in the circle, creating the subjective sense of being surrounded by whirling choppy waters: exhilirating, disorienting, and totally evocative of the sound of the sea as (uniquely) heard while bobbing in it.
Sadly, the stereo recordings I made—even the binaural ones—to document the piece do not capture that experience. It, like the day originally documented, is lost to time and tide.
Among other things, the work functioned as a tidal clock, tracking lunar-tidal time; it took just under twelve and a half hours to complete one cycle. It therefore lost synchrony with standard clocks by roughly fifty minutes a day, resynchronizing with standard earth time once only per lunar month.
Each station itself is also a functional tidal clock: if started precisely at low tide, it will indicate low and high tides in perpetuity. Individual stations were available in an edition of twelve; inquire as to availability.
This work was made possible in part by a grant by Richard and Shirley Thieme.
You can read the original artist statement here.