Art as Cocktail Party

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As word spreads about the opening of Montclair State University’s interactive sound/light installation — “Everywhere is the Best Seat” — the site is quickly becoming a “must see” for cultural tourists from all over the NY metropolitan area. Over Labor Day weekend, the site was filled with  folks making the pilgrimage to this latest work by world-renowned artist, Christopher Janney. The artist has spent some time on the MSU campus over the past few weeks, and he’ll be back on Saturday night to jam with fellow musicians Dave Revels and Jimmy Hayes of the Persuasions, Stan Strickland, Wes Winter, Jerry Leakes and Eddie George in a free public event called “Disembodied Instruments.” We’ve even heard rumor that local musicians might show up with their instruments to add to the mix.

Baristanet’s Stacey Gill caught up with Janney in the amphitheater, and got some perspective into his creative mind and the MSU project.

He’s been called a sound sculptor, a jazz musician, a visual artist, a composer, and an architect, but Christopher Janney just goes with artist. “The nice thing about art,” Janney mused, “is that art defies categorization.”

So it does. And, in a way so does Janney’s artwork. With his interactive sound and light installations intriguing audiences worldwide from the New York City subway to the Spanish Steps in Rome, Janney has now brought his unique sonic/light experience to the people of Baristaville and beyond.

Designed specifically for the Amphitheater on Montclair State University’s campus, the installation of 36 metal pillars, laced with sensors, speakers and lights, will be spread across the grass and stone steps of the outdoor arena so that the work, Everywhere is the Best Seat, really does offer the best seat anywhere one sits. And not only is everywhere the best seat, it’s also the best price. Free.

But don’t plan on sitting. Janney’s installations are designed to allure would-be spectators into becoming active participants. All the columns include cut-outs containing sensors, which upon detecting motion, trigger lights and sounds. The sounds emitted range from percussive drums and Indian tabla to croaking frogs and chirping birds, but all combine in melodic fashion.

“It’s like being at a cocktail party,” said Janney. Partygoers are surrounded by the buzz of conversations taking place all around them but still remain focused on the person with whom they are speaking. At this particular spontaneous social gathering, Janney said, “the column you trigger will be the loudest sound you hear, but it will be in concert with all the other sounds in the space.”

This orchestra of seemingly disparate sounds works harmoniously because Janney acts as a sound editor. He manipulates the sounds “looking for things to create rich visual images.” These sound images, Janney said, have the power to transport the listener to another place. But before you head off
anywhere, Janney draws you in. Rather than being a passive observer of art, Janney’s audience gets to become a part of the artwork itself. “My goal as an artist is to be able to walk into the artwork,” Janney explained.

With this installation at MSU, Janney has certainly achieved his goal. As of last Wednesday, when the students of Montclair State participated in the launch of the installation, the site is open to the public and all are invited to walk into Janney’s work. It’s an experience Janney described as being immersed in sound. “It’s like being in a house only it’s a house of sound.”
And you can stay submerged in sound for 1,056 hours straight if you’d like because the exhibit is open 24 hours a day, everyday through November 14.

But with participants streaming in and out, the space and the experience is continually changing, reflecting the jazz influence behind the work. Just as jazz is never played the same way twice, the same is true of Janney’s artwork.
Janney might not know quite what to expect with his installations, but he has always viewed his work as experiments, one he can watch unfold along with his audience. “We’ll all discover it together,” he said. But one thing is certain. As the space becomes filled with people so, too, does the air with sound. “So you have this nice combination of density of sound and density of people.”

Janney has been investigating this ostensibly incongruous combination of architecture and music as far back as the 1970s. Then, as one of the first students to enroll in the graduate art program at MIT, he was able to draw on both his passions. “I wondered how could I make architecture come alive.” After receiving his master’s degree in Environmental Art, he continued in his pursuit to integrate the two because as he said, “that’s how you come up with new concepts.”

He certainly has come up with his fair share of interesting ideas. His impressive body of work spans nearly three decades and two continents. One recent example of which is Sonic Forest, a roving installation, which appeared on college campuses across the country and included a stop at the 2008 All Points West festival at Liberty State Park. But there are many others. If you wanted to go on a Chris Janney crawl, you could start right here in Montclair with his latest installation. Then shoot over to the 34th Street/Herald Square Subway station to see his permanent installation, Reach: New York, described as an urban musical instrument. Afterward, make a dash up to Boston’s Museum of Science for Soundstair (think gigantic toy keyboard Tom Hanks played at F.A.O Schwartz in the movie Big). If you’re still up for it, head down south to Harmonic Runway in the Miami International Airport. Here, the colored glass panels glow in the intense Miami sunlight, providing harried travelers with a bit of awe like that of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory upon entering the secluded world of Willy Wonka. For a moment, passengers take a respite as they wander into Janney’s rainbow.

Janney’s installations, which are typically erected in busy public spaces and large transportation hubs, are intended to be a calming presence in an otherwise frenetic world. “My work is designed to be soothing – like an oasis.”

Enter this oasis through Peak Performances at MSU, and visit other Janney events at the Alexander Kasser Theater, including a live performance by Janney, throughout the fall.

Photos courtesy of Montclair State University/Mike Peters.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is best experienced at night to enjoy the full effects of the sound and light, I’d imagine. Very interesting concept.

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