Switch Contents Parabolica

YT: I saw your exhibition at Center for the Arts Yerba Buena Gardens. Can you tell me about the piece? How did you come up with the title "Parabolica"?

EO: "Parabolica" is an Italian word for parabolic, and a parabolic curve is a particular form that can be described mathematically. In Italy, there is an automobile race track, Monza, in which one of the curves is named Parabolica because of its shape; it's actually the last one before the finish line on the track and it is well-known in automobile racing culture. I watch car racing obsessively, it's just about my only interest in sports, so there is always a lot of generally useless information about it rolling around in my brain. Once in a while, as with this piece, something relating to it makes its way into a project I am doing. The statistical form of the bell curve is a parabola. Since measurements of a great variety of human activities show up as a bell curve when plotted out and that some of the studies that show this have ugly implications about the distribution of skills and intelligence across social groups, it seemed that the parabolic form of the bell curve could be used as a reference both to the Darwinistic tendencies in human culture generally and, if sports are viewed as a simplified abstraction of these tendencies, to the specific forms of competition found in them - car racing being one example. As the curve on this particular track is right before the finish line (it's the last spot for the cars to pass one another before reaching it) and discrepancies in performance between automobile racing teams is largely a result of unequal access to financial resources, the title seemed apt in referring to the inequities that affect outcomes resulting from human performance and capabilities on all levels.

The piece itself is made from a materials used to build a model train set, and an engine that pulls a special car equipped with a speaker circulates around it continuously. The track is designed as a loop with one part of it splitting into many different paths that feed back and forth between one another. Each time the train goes around the track, the switches that determine what route the train will take get reset randomly so that it takes different one through this matrix of paths. While the train starts out each loop at the same point, it will end up at one of five different segments each time around depending on how the switches happen to be set. Because of the way that the paths are laid out, the train will take the routes through the middle more often than it will the ones on the inner and outer part of the loop. So over time the train is describing with its motion the form of the bell curve.

As the train does this it broadcasts sounds of people talking about making decisions and plans, describing confidence and certainty, and sounds of highly stressed mechanical systems. In the piece it is possible to hear the sounds of trains and racing cars and some other machinery. There are also sounds referring to human activities like applause, laughter, crowds of people talking, and sounds referring to forces of nature. So there are aural representations of human and natural energies being expended, all referring to some notion of determination. As these sounds are heard, the vehicle carrying them (the train) is illustrating a tendency towards the average, its course determined at random and beyond its control.

YT: Some of the sound are hard to hear especially when people are talking. Are they speaking in English language?

EO: Yes, it is in English. The sounds that the train broadcasts are picked up from the rails, and as the train rolls along them dirt accumulates on the track. The more dirt there is, the fuzzier the sound; it's a problem we've been battling with for the course of the exhibit. It's equivalent to playing a vinyl record: the more it is played the less clear it becomes. Even when we clean off the track and wipe off everything down, it gets dirty again very quickly; it's a technical shortcoming of the piece. But the idea of the sound actually coming through the rails is important. You've probably seen an image of someone putting their ear to a train track or done it yourself to hear if a train is coming. Sound vibrations travel better through solid materials that they do in air, therefore an "ear to the ground" will allow listening at a greater distance, and I wanted to have this idea present in the piece.

YT: What did inspire you to do this project?

The original inspiration for the piece occurred when was when I was looking at a train track and realized that they are often used to carry electricity, so they could be used to carry audio signals. Since they are designed to allow something to move along them (a train car), this system could be used to provide an audio signal to a moving speaker, and having a moving sound source that is possible to have some control over is something that I've been interested in doing for a long time. With model trains there is a mechanical system already in place designed to pick up signals from the rails (to provide power to the engines), so I had to modify it a little bit to get audio, but it wasn't difficult. So that's how it started. It took a while after that to figure out how to use this system in a way that made sense as a piece, but eventually it all came together.

YT: I have noticed that the rail sways slightly which is very nice.

EO: It's sort of hypnotizing. Since the track is suspended, it sways back and forth a little bit when the train goes around. Originally I was planning to have supports coming up from the floor to hold everything in place, but that would have been too impractical. When we were putting it together and trying to figure out how to hold it off the floor, the crew at Center for the Arts suggested to hang it. At first I didn't think that it was going to work, that there would need to be too many cables hanging down from the ceiling, but we only needed five so it worked out very well. The whole staff at Center for the Arts was very helpful in putting the show together, I certainly couldn't have done it all myself. They always made sure that I got what I needed to complete the project. The shape of the track is wavy in order to emulate the roads found in Dr. Seuss's books. I wanted the look of those curvy, one-lane roads with no guardrails that the characters are always driving pointy little cars around on.

Other Works

YT: Are you doing anything right now? Do you have any plans for future?

EO: There are a couple of projects that I am working on now that I had to put on hold during the organizing of SoundCulture. One is a project working with blind people in San Francisco. I got a grant to develop a project working with the Rose Resnick Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It's a community-based project, and I am working with them to develop an aural portrait of some of the people in it. Once we get the audio material together it will be played through a very specialized locating system for the blind that is being installed in a number of different locations in San Francisco. The plan at the moment is for it to be installed in Yerba Buena Gardens when the whole system gets put in place there. Since it is a public site, it has to be approved by lots of city agencies and the whole process is very slow, but that's the way it is. So the project probably won't be done until next year sometime. I am also working on a project in Seattle which involves a bus shelter at the University of Washington. We are still talking about how that's going to go, and since that also is a public project, it will take a while too. "Parabolica" will be shown in Berlin later this year, so I'll be going over to set it up and maybe doing some other projects when I am there as well.

Interview with Ed Osborn