Venzha Christ and the Sounds of 'Area 51'

01 Installation view of Area 51 A Sound Installation by Venzha Christ at UCR ARTSblock.jpg
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By Tyler Stallings

"Area 51: A Sound Installation" by Venzha Christ is a new site-specific, sound installation at UCR ARTSblock's Culver Center of the Arts. It is based on the artist's travels to the secretive U.S. military base, Area 51, also known as Dreamland, or Groom Lake, where he made recordings of the sounds emanating from and around the base. Located in the southern portion of Nevada, the base's purpose has never been announced officially. In fact, the U.S. Federal government has acknowledged its existence only recently. However, it has been assumed that it is used to develop experimental aircraft and weapons. UFO sightings are frequent in the area. But, because of the secrecy around the base, it is hard to verify whether that unusual shape in the sky represents extraterrestrial, aerodynamic engineering, or U.S. technology to evade radar when crossing covertly into foreign lands.

Area 51 landsat image. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

It is these secrets and ambiguities that Venzha explores in this new work created especially for UCR Culver Center of the Arts Black Box intermedia studio. Venzha is a sound artist based in Indonesia who has been invited by University of California, Riverside's Music Department for a month-long residency, which includes creating the installation at UCR's Culver Center of the Arts. The exhibition is on view May 4 to June 1, 2013, with a reception on Saturday, May 18, 6-9 PM.

Venzha Christ is from Yogyakarta, Indonesia. He is a prolific artist, initiator, and leader in media and art and science research. Focusing on media art since 1999, he created the HONF Foundation with the goal of fusing education, art and technology with local communities. He has produced and organized many projects such as public art installation, media performance, media art festival, technology and science research, video work festival, workshops, discussion, DIY gathering, electronic and media culture movements. Venzha is founder of HONF lab, electrocore sound project, C.O.S (Circle Of Satan), v.u.f.o.c lab, Micronation/Macronation project, etc. He is director of YIVF (Yogyakarta International Videowork Festival) and CELLSBUTTON (Yogyakarta International Media Art Festival), which has been produced annually and organized by HONF since 2005.

Steve Roden performing at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Hollywood, California, 2012. | Photo courtesy of LACE

Historically, Venzha's use of "field recordings" to record ambient, often low-level sounds out in the environment, using highly sensitive equipment, can be traced to Futurism's and Dada's interest in sound, to musicologist John Lomax traveling the country to record folk music in situ, to Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer's development of musique concrète in the1940s, and many others up to the present, such as the esteemed Pasadena-based sound artist (and painter), Steve Roden.

A sound recording by Venzha's from Area 51 included in the installation. | Courtesy of the artist and UCR ARTSblock.

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A sound recording by Venzha's from Area 51 included in the installation. | Courtesy of the artist and UCR ARTSblock.

The device used by Venzha around Area 51 was an ultrasonic frequency receiver. It is able to receive sounds that we normally cannot perceive (frequencies above about 20 KHz). The device automatically converts these sounds to lower frequencies perceptible to humans. Every second of every day, we are bombarded with such sounds, many emanating from electricity and the electrical components we use while others reach earth from space. These sounds bounce around our environment, sometimes absorbed by certain objects and landscapes but more often they are reflected--even amplified--by buildings and other large hard objects. Thus, the ultrasonic frequencies soundscape of any given location is unique and may change radically over a short time. Near Area 51, Venzha recorded the sounds his device was able to pick up (and convert to audible sound) and, along with radio frequencies (from Short Wave to Long Wave) as well as ambient sounds, used them as part of his installation project at the Culver Center. Two of Venzha's devices are displayed in the installation.

The Integraton near Joshua Tree, California. | Photo: reallyboring/Flickr/Creative Commons License

During his residency, Venzha also traveled out to the Joshua Area to visit The Integratron. Originally, it was a building constructed by George Van Tassel, and was done so, purportedly, with plans provided by Venusians. It was meant for rejuvenation and time travel. After Van Tassel's death in 1978, a variety of people owned the building. The present day owners now promote The Integratron as an "acoustically perfect structure." The building is currently open at select times and includes regularly performed "sound baths."

Victoria Vesna's BLUE MORPH installation at The Integraton, 2008. | Photo: Courtesy of Victoria Vesna and The Integraton.

As a side note, Victoria Vesna, an artist interested in the intersections of science and art and professor at UCLA, did an amazing project there in 2008: BLUE MORPH. It was an interactive installation that used nanoscale images and sounds derived from the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. It was represented at UC Irvine's Beall Center of the Arts in 2012 for a retrospective of her work, MORPHONANO: Works by Victoria Vesna.

Installation view of "Area 51: A Sound Installation" by Venzha Christ at UCR ARTSblock. | Photo: Nikolay Maslov and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock.

In Venzha's Area 51 installation, the gallery is nearly pitch dark, so your eyes are useless at first, until your pupils adjust. However, sound vibrations from surround sound speakers touch your body, compelling you to enter. There are six skylights letting a little daylight. But, upon closer inspection, they are flat screen video monitors actually, hanging facedown from the ceiling. Their blue glows suggest views of the sky; some do contain views of an azure sky, as if to point to our preoccupation of viewing the world through screens. Others contain scenes of driving through the Nevada landscape around Area 51. Perhaps Venzha is suggesting that we live in a topsy-turvy world where the land has become sky and night sky is the ground upon which we stand now.

Installation view of Area 51: A Sound Installation by Venzha Christ at UCR ARTSblock. | Photo by Nikolay Maslov and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock.

There are two circular, Plexiglas containers hanging from the ceiling at the center of the gallery, which are lit with spots. They are visual beacons that draw you into the gallery further. Once nearby, you can see that there is a customized, electronic board sitting inside each. Headphones are connected to them through which subsonic frequencies in Area 51 can be heard.

This experience in the gallery, along with the background of knowing about Venzha's visits to both Area 51 and The Integratron, demonstrates his desire to interact with the nearly imperceptible and the invisible in the form of sound. His approach is one that does bring our attention to that which envelops us: strange resonances, the secrecy of governments, and a desire for cosmic connections--all are masked from our eyes, but present when we open our ears.

Venzha, UCR Music Professor and exhibition co-curator, Rene Lysloff, along with Music Department graduate students at Area 51. | Photo courtesy of Anas.

A sound recording by Venzha's from Area 51 included in the installation. | Courtesy of the artist and UCR ARTSblock.

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"Area 51: A Sound Installation" by Venzha Christ is organized by UCR ARTSblock and co-curated by René T.A. Lysloff, Associate Professor, Music Department, University of California, Riverside, and Tyler Stallings, Artistic Director, Culver Center of the Arts & Director, Sweeney Art Gallery, University of California, Riverside, with curatorial assistance from Nikolay Maslov, UCR ARTSblock Scene Technician. UCR's College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (CHASS), Asian Studies, the Music Department, Center for Ideas and Society, and the MaryLu Clayton Rosenthal Endowment have provided support. Venzha Christ is a Rosenthal Scholar in Residence at UCR.

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Top Image: Installation view of "Area 51: A Sound Installation" by Venzha Christ at UCR ARTSblock. | Photo by Nikolay Maslov and courtesy of UCR ARTSblock.

About the Author

Tyler Stallings is the artistic director at Culver Center of the Arts and director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside.
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