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
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
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.
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