Making waves
'Vibrations artist' Mark Bain aims to unsettle his audience - as well as local architecture - with sub-audible sound.
 
 
We are standing in front of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum beside a large rectangular hole in the ground lined with steel. Behind us, a bright orange digger churns up fine sand. A workman squats on a pile of giant paving slabs. A high fence separates us from the tourists, who peer inquisitively through the wire.

It’s hard to imagine that what looks suspiciously like a building site will, within a few days, become the location of the latest installation by ‘vibrations artist’ Mark Bain.

The authorities have constructed 19 giant underground pits around town for use in cleaning up the canals. But before they fill them with water, they’ve given Bain one to play with.

‘It’s actually a giant toilet,’ says Bain, pointing down at the uninviting steel cover. The underground space is 17 metres by 17 metres by four metres deep. In one corner, there will be a scissor-jack elevator, and in another, an escape hatch, just in case things go wrong. Visitors to the installation will have to wear hard hats.

The first space will have a rack of four large speakers which will play a recording of the canals made using hydrophones.

‘How will it sound?’ I ask.

‘Liquidy,’ says Bain with a grin.

In the second space, a powerful pump will generate a high-pressure stream of water. Illuminated by strobe lights, the jet will appear motionless.

A giant poster of a beautiful woman will be suspended from a crane high above the installation. At first glance, it looks like an iconic advertising image, but upon closer inspection it proves to be a deliberately provocative challenge to our preconceptions of beauty.

For the past five years, Bain, an American, has been based in Amsterdam. His multimedia work is provocative, maverick, clever and amusing--although his mischievous sense of humour is probably not to everyone’s taste.

For many, his most controversial project was the one that involved sounds extracted from seismological records of the September 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center.

‘When you play it through a heavy-duty sound system, it gives you this visceral feeling that the buildings are coming down on your head,’ he says. ‘It’s a really fucked-up sound. If you speed it up, the sound of the impacts of the aeroplanes is like a “ding”--the two towers acted like giant tuning forks.’

Earlier this year, he nearly got himself arrested by playing the sound of rioting crowds through portable speakers in a square in Istanbul. He’d scoured the Internet for videos of protests and riots and collected their audio content, making sure the sound was generic and unspecific.

‘I had 45 minutes of riot sound, and it only played for six minutes before the police showed up,’ he recalls. ‘Some member of the public started pushing me around. They forced me to turn it off. It was crazy. It was like a protest without ideology or people. I could have been handing out flyers with no writing on them.’

Bain was interested in music as a kid, but as he grew up he moved in a more experimental direction. ‘I went from playing bass guitar at high school to playing, like, “ultimate bass”--buildings and things like this,’ he says.

As a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became interested in the effects of infrasonic sound—inaudible, very low-frequency sound--on the human body.

‘These vibrations can resonate the whole body, but there are particular frequencies which resonate the inner ear, and when that happens it upsets your sense of balance and you get vertigo,’ he says. ‘There are also frequencies that make you nauseous, or make you want to take a shit.

‘Frequencies also do stuff psychologically to you. You can create a feeling of mass panic or a feeling of spirituality. There are even frequencies that I work with that define the resonant frequency of your eyeball. I can turn this signal up and everything goes blurry--even with your glasses on.’

Some of these resonant frequencies can be harmful. ‘I’m interested in these potentials,’ Bain says, ‘but I’m not looking to make people run out. A lot of times I use myself as the first test subject.

Resonant frequencies can also damage buildings. Bain’s interest in architecture encouraged him to look at their effects, and at the relationship between building frequencies and body frequencies.

‘A lot of this work involves finding the resonant frequencies--monitoring the structure and working out which frequencies are going to do the damage,’ says Bain. He uses a computer system akin to a conventional audio mixing board and 16 or 24 mechanical resonators, which he attaches to the building. He then tunes them in harmonic frequencies. ‘You can use two higher frequencies to generate one lower frequency, and that’s where you get the heavy infrasounds that will start destroying structures,’ he says. ‘It’s really these low frequencies that have the power.’

A keen advocate of ‘guerrilla’ art, Bain used this technique to ‘attack’ a steel truss bridge in Boston slated for demolition and closed to the public. He scaled the bridge at around 3 a.m., armed with a portable vibration system and G-clamps. ‘Part of the skill is knowing where to attach the resonators for maximum effect. Then you find the right frequency where the rust starts falling off the bridge.’

The power of these resonators is astonishing. Bain recalls how an installation he did in De Appel created sonic turbulence all over the gallery. ‘When it was switched on [the people inside] freaked out,’ Bain says. ‘The plates were jumping around in the kitchen, and in the house next door they were complaining that objects on their living room table were moving around. Then the environmental police showed up and they had to shut it down.’

‘There are ways of actually taking it to the point of destruction,’ he says. In one building in The Hague, he ran the system for about 10 minutes, creating a huge crack in the wall. In the same building he took out an entire floor.

‘The demolitions don’t happen so often. I have an open call for people who want to destroy buildings to let me have their building before they destroy it, to do experiments with,’ Bain says.

But by no means does he confine himself to good (or bad) vibrations. He’s also come up with a number of other procedures to make life that little bit more interesting for architects. For instance, he’s developed small, spiky steel objects (they look a bit like old-fashioned sea mines) which can be thrown at buildings, where they stick, and after a few weeks start to weather, creating rust patterns. ‘I had one of these on the roof of the Appel but they found it and took it off,’ Bain says wistfully.

Other ‘weapons’ in his arsenal include an air gun that can fire acid-filled packages at buildings which etch away at stone and brickwork, or packages containing plant seeds in a growing medium. He’s also been experimenting with expanding concrete. ‘You mix it up, find cracks, and pack it in, and then it creates a bigger crack.

‘I’m not out to break the law or anything,’ he adds. ‘These are more like ideological statements. Part of making cracks and minor destruction is a criticism of architects and architecture. It’s also collaboration with the people who own the building. You create a little destruction, and someone has to go there and repair it. The whole building is shifting its shape and, in a sense, growing.’

Not content merely to shake buildings up, he’s also experimented with artificial earthquakes. In 2001 he installed a ‘Portable Earthquake’ machine in the south of Holland.

‘Everything was buried in the ground,’ he says. ‘The ground started moving, creating an intense earthquake radiating for about half a kilometre. People came up to me asking what was happening. “My house is shaking,” they said.

‘Maybe one reason I do this in Holland is because the Dutch are quite accepting and tolerant.’

But no doubt the city authorities will be keeping a close eye on those resonant frequencies.
M

Versions of these stories were first published in 'Amsterdam Weekly' in June 2005.

 
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© Pete Sawyer
Talking point: Mark Bain at the opening of his installation at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Frequencies also do stuff psychologically to you. You can create a feeling of mass panic or a feeling of spirituality. There are even frequencies that define the resonant frequency of your eyeball.
 

Walking past the Rijksmuseum over the past few weeks, it would have been hard not to notice the giant poster of a partially clad woman, which is suspended by crane in front of the building.

At casual glance, the poster looks like an iconic advertising image, but upon closer inspection it is a deliberately provocative image, challenging preconceptions of beauty.

The poster depicts a woman viewed from behind, wearing red lingerie and looking out over a computer-generated ocean, her long straight blonde hair falling seductively around her shoulders and down to her waist. But the woman’s left leg is like that of a small child’s, and strapped firmly to an artificial metal leg.

The poster formed part of ‘vibrations’ artist Mark Bain’s underground sound and light installation, ‘SonicA’. For the past few weekends, the installation has been engaging visitors courageous enough to make the descent into the dark to listen to its eerie sounds and observe its solitary jet of water lit by stroboscopic lighting.

The model for the poster, Sanneke Baars, is strikingly beautiful – with pale blue eyes, full lips, and cheekbones worthy of any actress. Yet by a strange and unfortunate quirk of fate, as a child she found herself with a leg that refused to grow in a normal way.

No doubt it was this bizarre juxtaposition, which captured the imagination of Bain.

“She’s a pretty amazing person,” he says. “For her it is not a tragedy as it is something she’s always had. She gets around quite easily – she’s really into riding motorcycles.”

The meaning of the image is a little ambiguous. “Yeah, what does the girl mean?” Bain says. “Shit I don't know. It's a bit oblique. Something about Holland, and the artifice of its land; the impending environmental changes and rising waters.”

“There is a little connection but he [Bain] couldn’t really explain it,” says Baars. “I see it as the idea that you see a woman or a nice body and on the second look, you see this leg and it is a little bit of destruction… or a disruption. That is what the project is about I think. He did it from the back because it made it less personal.

“The first time I saw it [the image] on the back of his camera I felt really weird. I had never seen myself from behind. Mark said well if you don’t want [me to use] it tell me.

“I went there with some friends and I saw it and I said ‘ok can we go now’, because it felt weird. When I stood there I felt really uncomfortable, maybe because you are in front of your own picture and people are passing. You have an idea [of how you are] and when you see it [for real] you are not always connecting the image in your head. I saw it for a second time and it was good.”

As a child, her leg was afflicted by ‘localized linear scleroderma’ – a condition that leads to the hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues — fibres that provide framework and support for the body.

“I got it when I was four,” she explains. “It is really rare, and at first the doctors didn’t know what it was. It is also a thing that can kill you because it can also be in your [internal] organs so it was a scary time for my parents. There is no explanation for why I got it or where it came from.

“I saw a pretty impressive list of doctors,” she adds, smiling. She has put her personal experience to good use and now works as an occupational therapist – helping others overcome their disabilities. “It was logical [for me] to do something in healthcare,” she says. “I know that I am different because I am confronted with it every day. With my work maybe, it has made it easier to approach and get a connection with people.

“There are a lot of organisations where you can be with other people with a disability but I have never searched for anything like that.”

She first met Bain about five years ago in a nightclub, and since then they have become firm friends. “He was there to see some art on some television screens, and I was there watching a band play,” she says.

“He started talking to me. He was interested in doing something together, and suggested that maybe I could be in one of his projects, because of my leg of course.

“He had a few ideas over the past five years, but they didn’t come to anything. But this one worked out. He told me that I am his muse now, so maybe there will be other projects.”

“That should make life very interesting,” I say.

“Yes, I think so,” she says, laughing.

 
© Pete Sawyer
Muse: Sanekke Baars with her giant poster in the background.
 
© Pete Sawyer
Sound bites: local dignitaries take a closer look at Bain's underground installation.
© Pete Sawyer
The scissor-jack elevator brings visitors down into an eerie space filled with sound.
© Pete Sawyer
Stream of consciousness: visitors admire the single jet of water lit by pulsating strobes.
 
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