Walking in dissidence: reckoning with stability and moral aestheticism in Odland and Auinger’s “Harmonic Bridge”

Photo by Erik Abrahams
Photo: Erik Abrahams

I diagram the sound, its domes. The empty center of the domes’—the waves’—nadirs. The diagram reflects mitosis, the nadir contained in vesica piscis: an aureola, a lozenge, an estuary threshold of movement. Through this emptiness runs a two-lane road where cars, bikes, tractors, and freight pass, unimpeded by a bridge’s spiritual cleanse. This site of passage, the “negative space” produced by the sound sculpture audible harmonics, is given such little attention by the installation’s artists. I think the damp of presence. In making the diagram, I explore how sound pushes outward, in saturnalian rings, muffled by earth, amplified by variously muddled concretes. The echo of a ghost. The bladder of a brook trout. Harvested rubber, extortion-born petroleum gnashing against quarry stone, mashed alloyed metals, the tiny bones of pre-Columbian snails and salamanders. 

The “harmonics” piped in from vibrations under the highway bridge are resonances, guttural and sturdy sounds, and make a post-industrial-industrial music. As sounds, they are “public,” as far as vibrations are accessible across bodies, ambiently without financial transaction. But also, the transformed sounds of rumbling cross-state traffic both effect and represent a sanitization of the messy, marginal underpass site—the dense estuary of intersecting points of access, mobility, shelter, resonance, encounter—that bridges the “revived” post-industrial neighborhood, the concerns of those interested in contemporary art, the collections of the gentry made public, and the commercial vector of this New England main street.


The south side of North Adams, Massachusetts holds the residue of its industrial past lives: polyped with warehouses, government buildings, (relatively) lower-income housing, a median quality supermarket, irregularly shaped atolls of parking lots. Marked by the loose girdle of Route 2, a meander of streets connects the south side of North Adams to the charming colonial facades of anachronistic candy emporiums, cigarette and sardine purveyors, lace shops, ballet studios and delis: Houghton, Main, Church. Manicured greeneries, large public sculptures (on corporate private property), a picturesque colonial church and spire on a grassy hill shaded by deciduous trees, Jeffersonian brick along the two-lane winding main streets.

North Adams sits in the southern center of a triangle of unceded territories, under the stewardship of the Wabanaki Confederacy and Mohican communities at the time of settler occupation. The rolling landscape is textured by Mahican, Mohican, and Pocumtuk namesakes and languages, lives, dreams, husbandry, transits, loss, games, laughter, and all things made or broken by life in relation. I know very little about northern Atlantic first nations communities; though by settler-colonial design, the tribes’ optical and sonic absence from the cut of a town I visited in the summer of 2020 amid international rallies in defense of Black lives and against racial genocide, are, it bears stating, remarkable. Located in Berkshire County, the land now under North Adams jurisprudence was occupied and claimed by white settler colonialists in 1745 during extraterritorial battles for the Austrian succession in Europe, otherwise called King George’s War. Tensions among European colonial states played out in settler towns across occupied North America and upon the bodies of the land’s indigenous inhabitants. One such colonial outpost, North Adams, became a mill town, powered by the confluent waters of the Hoosic River tributary. Eventually came the shoe-makers, sewing leather and canvas and wood; then the cabinet makers and their dependence upon the small and large-scale logging ventures; then the brick makers, the marble workers, the milliners and ironworkers of the Civil War. Eventually came the decline, bottoming out North Adams’ industry during the Depression, making way for the machinists of modern war.

In the early 1940s, Sprague Electric purchased a cluster of buildings which previously housed the Arnold Printworks. Soon, the U.S. government called upon physicists, technicians, chemists, and electrical engineers employed at Sprague to design and manufacture weapons systems, including the atomic bomb, that would be tested across continents and archipelagos on indigenous ancestral lands—the justification for unleashing this kind of eradicating, destructive force being that these lands were “wastelands”—detonated and deployed in aggressive international war campaigns pursued by the U.S. into the late 1970s.[1] By the mid-1980s, Sprague Electric employed twenty percent of the town’s inhabitants, and produced semiconductors alongside components for household electrical goods, now in high demand.

By 1985, the growth of electronic manufacture beyond U.S. borders led to the company’s closure. Within the year, North Adams lawmakers and colleagues partnered with Williams College Museum of Art administrators, Joseph Thompson and Thomas Kren, to open an exhibition site for large works of contemporary art in the Sprague complex. In the following years, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (or MASS MoCA) inhabited this historically dense local tableau and launched the site into what MASS MoCA describes as “its third century of production, and the continuation of a long history of innovation and experimentation.”[2]


Just south of the red-bricked former Sprague buildings are living impressions of environmental resuscitation and, as MASS MoCA describes in its public-facing historical narrative, “reclamation.”[3] There is a sidewalk made of recycled rubbers and plastics. There are public raised beds in which woody stalks of dinosaur kale and sage grow. There are polygonal areas of green space, vinyl-paneled, new developments zoned for mixed-income earners.

North of both the reclamation site and the industrial corridor, dividing North Adams across the belly, there is a bridge. More specifically, there is Route 2, lifted above Houghton Street by thick cylinders of concrete. The Route 2 overpass, just north of one coil of the Hoosic River that passes through the town and the once lush, berry-heavy botanicals that would have surrounded it before heavy industrialization. Route 2 runs the length of the state of Massachusetts, one hundred and forty-two miles as a mostly scenic two-lane highway, from the northwestern-most corner of the state to the port of Boston. Throughout Berkshire County—a getaway destination for concrete-weary, wealthy New Yorkers—Route 2 “follows” and has most likely paved over the Mohawk Trail, an integral first nations trade route that connected Atlantic communities with communities in what is now upstate New York and Canada. Route 2 flows jagged and undulating east-west / west-east. It carves south and north of the Hoosic River, and where the river splits, the highway lifts over the township. Following the “security and jobs” acts of 1944 and 1956, which set highway construction into motion at a national level, Route 2 began dividing North Adams in half creating discrete zones, identifiable by architecture, income, ecological grade.

In 1998, when the funding period for this massive exhibition site ended and MASS MoCA was preparing to re-open the building where A-bomb detonators had been manufactured and assembled, the directors of the new museum reached out to sonic artist Bruce Odland and architect Sam Auinger to fix the “problem” of the highway overpass. Not only was the future museum separated from the rest of the town by Route 2, but the traffic noise, according to MASS MoCA, made the division worse.

Odland and Auinger, in response, installed two sixteen-foot tuning tubes to the railing of the bridge, which channeled “sympathetic resonance” into two cement cube speakers installed under the bridge on either side of Houghton, set back a few feet from the embanking sidewalk. These cubes playback resonances from the tubes, creating what Odland on his (currently defunct) website described as “omnidirectional domes of sound which activate the found ‘gothic’ acoustics under the bridge.”[4] The finished version of “Harmonic Bridge” included, orbited, and sought to critique global fossil-fuel dependency. According to O+A, the transmission of vibrations through tubes, into cement speakers, was meant to transform the violence of traffic sounds, which had, according to the artists and the directors of MASS MoCA, essentially created a wall of noise that accentuated the barrier between the south side of town, where the new museum would be located, and the north side of town. Odland lauds the project, writing that “[t]he installation has been transforming noise into harmony for 20 years now.” Gestures toward harmony can elicit and even animate mutually beneficial interactions, collaboration, and utopian worldmaking. “Harmonic Bridge” thus also gestures toward political and spiritual harmonies, ideals of unity, divined cooperation among elements, and thus a stability of symbiosis. Here, however, the insistence that “Harmonic Bridge” has indeed transformed noise into harmony, unceasingly, for two decades is disconcerting to me. What does harmony mean to the MASS MoCA Board, to O+A? What does noise mean to them? Odland claims stability, and the power of artistic intervention to save, or at least purify, the world. What world?

Photo: Erik Abrahams
Photo: Erik Abrahams

Nearly 300 years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was reorganized into the shape of the state we recognize today—where the silence of Mohegan, Pequot, and Narragansett genocide rings loudly—the sanitization, or “urban renewal,” projects like Harmonic Bridge that emerged in the latter half of the 1990s hold particular menace. The wave of sanitization becomes more troubling when we consider the increased militarization of police forces and exponential spikes in incarceration—especially of people of color—across the U.S. in the wake of Democrat-elect Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (also known as the 1994 Crime Bill).[5] Over the course of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, MoCA directors were scouting and contracting sites for opening future franchises; meanwhile, towns, cities, whole counties, were systematically cleansed of individuals (individuals who comprise entire communities) whose identities were being indexed essentially as “unorderly” and criminally out of place in America’s white supremacist, increasingly neoliberal social order. The cultural resonance of such social projects is a reminder of how damaging narratives of stability, harmony, and renewal can be when their historical context is overtly displaced by moral aesthetics.

In reading the attitudes which precipitated the installation of the “Harmonic Bridge,” anthropologist Mary Douglas’ semiotic 1966 treatise, Purity and Danger, might offer generative and disturbing insights. In Purity and Danger (which was both canonized and caught up in a counter-hegemonic intellectual revival in the early 1990s), Douglas theorized dirt as matter out of place, suggesting that the designation of “dirt” does not index literal pollutants or pathogens; rather, “dirt” indexes breaches in the borders that maintain social order. Those elements which pass and cross social and spatial borders are considered dirt, dirty, a mess to be cleaned or otherwise wiped away, in turn reaffirming the viability, propriety, and purity of those remaining within the bounds of order. Perhaps for MASS MoCA directors, the noise—like dirt marking matter “out of place”—of Route 2 both marked a boundary, an outside-of-placeness, and became sound out of order. In 1997, what constituted the social boundaries of the town of North Adams? Was the south side of town not already considered part of “town”? Was the noise produced by Route 2 a sad reminder of failed progress, of the depleted town’s former industrial heyday? Why was a “social revival” project not introduced earlier than the arrival of the post-industrial socioeconomic boon of contemporary art and the tourist scene that came with it? What are the impacts of beautification, and how do their impacts compare with redistributed investment in community? Is this the stability of reform politics represented in the aesthetics of a sonic commons? But whose commons, and by whose rubric? Who is “beauty” for? The alchemy of up cycling noise into a public sound-art installation was not only a civic project: it was also a case of a private company sponsoring and branding the aesthetic gentrification of liminal urban space.

While I won’t necessarily seek to find an answer to each of these questions, I will seek to continue generating inquiry, and to leap in a practice of troubling, in wondering, in destabilizing MASS MoCA and O+A’s solution-oriented approach to urban “resuscitation.” In the context of O+A’s works, I believe these questions—these troublings, and at the very least their consideration—do matter.

Take, for instance, “Reflections on the Sonic Commons,” co-written by Odland and Auinger and published in 2009, eleven years after the installation of Harmonic Bridge. The authors present their artistic mission to construct “large scale public sound installations that transform city noise into spaces that encourage connection to our environment and our community through hearing” [italics mine]. Their interest in cultivating connection, in the transformation of noise into space, is at first comforting. But I wonder, who is the “our” the artists are speaking of? Who are the inheritors to a commons, a polis, in late liberalism? Who are the commons’ architects, and who is monitoring its boundaries? When O+A offer a glimpse into their process of creating a sonic accompaniment in 1991 to Peter Erskine’s Secrets of the Sun at Trajan’s Forum in Rome, something of an answer to these queries arises. Odland and Auinger observe the Forum’s beauty, and they also observe its location at the intersections of the seat of government and what has evolved into a metropolitan shopping area, bleating and buzzing with the sounds of fossil-fuel dependent vehicles. They write:

The problem was that the grandeur had become purely visual. The vast atrium had been built for a different sound environment, a slave-powered Rome. In fossil-fueled Rome, the ancient arch had become a band shell for Vespas, cars, trucks, buses, horns and sirens on the passing thoroughfare, amplifying them and projecting them into the center of the forum. It was a devastating mess, creating major cognitive dissonance between the eye and ear. We either had to come up with a feel-good aerosol sound spray or learn to use our given modern soundscape—traffic.[6]

They continue: “What follows must be considered in context. We, O+A, listen to everything. Everything.”

Reading this, one wonders if O+A would have preferred the sounds of human chattel slavery to the sounds of combustion engines—it seems for the artists, a slave-powered soundscape in the current zeitgeist would have made for a more authentic and relevant listening experience.

It is time we collectively explore the damaging, eliding impacts that cultural nostalgia effects. Whether I think the makers actually believe in the racialized colonial violence produced by the Pax Romana and that an architecture built and populated by an enslaved community is platonically good, doesn’t really matter—that their writing in this essay even offers this possible reading creates a certain weaponized ambiguity. Their concerns are greenhouse-gas-negative at best, and unapologetically euro centric and Anglo-imperialist at worst. And in their case, the distance between these concerns is little to none.

Moreover, theirs becomes an unreconstructed anthropological project. O+A’s ears—attached to the bodies of two grown, NEA funded, white men with state-administered passports—can go anywhere, be any place at any time, listen to everything, without physical interruption or undue surveillance. Their ears, as we gather from their treatise, are transcendent, and further, seem invisible, unmarked, without any bearing upon the spaces they occupy. We observe the artists’ uncomplicated nostalgia for the spectacle of slave-and-indentured—built architectures, and we might also wonder if we are being invited to submit to the sublime power of these systems, their enforcing institutions, and the Uncontestably Beautiful products they produce, to which we (more specifically, the artists’ imagined listeners) are the noble inheritors.

What, though, is the “context” they are referring to? Are they not part of the context? And if so, what roles do they understand themselves playing within “context”?

 Included in Odland and Auinger’s “Reflections on a Sonic Commons” is a photo of the two of them at work in a back alley in Seoul, South Korea. In this image, the artists embody the “hearing perspective” and also a cartography of consolidation. We see O+A in profile; they face one another, turned inward toward the center of the image. Their eyes are closed, and they are dressed in windbreakers, layers, and beanies, prepared for an autumnal chill. One of the figures, lips slightly parted, wears earbuds, but the geared-up ear is out of frame. An alley stretches into the background beyond, deepened and flattened by the scale of multi-storied buildings rising, visible between the foregrounded figures. These figures, the artists, at first glance appear to be in focus, but with closer attention, we notice that the camera’s point of focus lies deeper, blurring the artists who create an opaque flank, a perimeter. Though slightly out of focus, the artists seem to exude energy, perhaps an emission produced by the photo’s tightly wound and radial composition. This same energy could both have created the central points of focus, and even made the artists appear clearer to the viewer.

Sarah Ahmed’s 2007 essay “A phenomenology of whiteness” helps map this image, and grounds O+A’s frolic into “context” (in their case, positionality without a reflection upon the inheritance of their positionalities, or how these inheritances of recognizable position confer power and impact the spaces they inhabit). Ahmed describes whiteness and the cultural capital it wields / flows out / extends into space from: that is, whiteness as an accumulation and consolidation of power spills out from behind the point of action, the frontal pressure.[7]

The artists’ looming, yet shadowy presence knits the form tightly together, and meanwhile our attention slips off them, is drawn deeper into the alley which curves and overlaps, causing the field of vision to close the attenuated visibility of the southeast Asian milieu. The artists’ bodies and their reproduced image, to me, become a regulating, metabolic, periphery, delineating who and what and where a listening public is—who has the seemingly rare faculty of true listening, and who has access to its institution. Odland and Auinger’s formation is perhaps that ‘around whiteness’ elucidated by Ahmed: a border wall of power shaped by the proximity of white bodies gathering habitually to affect the coherent edges of institutional spaces. O+A’s hierophantic formation perhaps signals those registers of power that go unacknowledged as whiteness and cis-masculine privileges go unmarked. How do we know that what O+A hear in the Seoul alley is, at its “essence,” the same as what—let’s say—a Japanese expat club dancer, who has just picked up a meal and purchased a hand purse from a vendor in the alley, hears? How can we qualify or discuss the edges of the image, that the image ends and is tightly held in its end—its frame?


Photo: Erik Abrahams
Photo: Erik Abrahams

Do you remember the sculpture with no place? With no name? The sculpture was booming. The sculpture read in multiple: fixity, abstraction, representation in binary (the two halves of a city, pollutants or art), density and mobility, power and its mutability. There is chimera. As a stranger, the sounds held me in place that was also no place, and in this suspension I felt comforted, home in the wash of something so strange. I found kinship there, and I found quiet there. This quieting, this lulling, both was and was not the artists’ intention. A quiet that brought me closer to my disturbance; and a quiet that wanted the cars to keep coming, so I could inhabit this strangeness a bit longer. The firmament of my body rolling in and out.


Is   sealed   in   /   is   interrupted   /   by   imperial  /  transport   paths   such  as
highways,             “straightened”            rivers,            main            streets.
All   roads,   it   seems,   lead   to    the   barren    house   of   a   powerful   god.

O+A approach the passage of sonic time through the confluent pastiche of those architectures and technologies present in a Roman square, and their listening seems to catch only atomically—and with the cartesian logic of—an unreconstructed anthropology. O+A reenact the construction of the white gaze, and they wholly embody it: their model of hearing remains, with unique insight, ever outside its object, yet with remarkable inability to imagine ontological presence of a subject beyond one’s own perspective (in this case, “hearing”). To hear, they seem to imply, is to know, to unveil, to create a progressive path to revelation, to solution. Studying and deconstructing context without in turn acknowledging the effects of one’s own position within “context”—a method these two sound artists seem to engage again and again—is a tired means of invisibilizing interpersonal and institutionalized power dynamics. The artists’ seeming insistence that “context” refer to spatial proximity of historical technologies presumes much about the hierarchical position of object-oriented “positionalities” and meanwhile defers access to a variegated human experience of position. It is worth wondering how spatial proximity inflects and is in tension with material relationships and those less-tangible histories and epistemologies that elucidate the dynamic fluctuations of being with and through.

Are O+A silent, invisible, technologies moving through space? Clearly not, though unacknowledged white, male, middle-class privilege might reinforce this delusion. How much exists beyond the frame of these two men’s certainty? Undoubtedly, an infinite universe. If the artists are listening to everything, we may kindly invite them to listen in to the aural and social waves they themselves are casting into place. We might invite the artists into cross-cultural and interdisciplinary investigation 101 of noise and sound, where they might consider questions Hans-Joachim Braun raises in “An Acoustic Turn? Recent Developments and Future Perspectives of Sound Studies”:

 [How do] sonic practices vary across time and space and address the ways technologies change when moving across continents[?] If the making of noise has a politics, how do economic inequalities affect the way noise is produced, controlled, and heard? How do race or gender amplify, silence or distort the creation of sound?[8]

It would be reasonable to acknowledge that despite a belief in their omnipotence, O+A do not—cannot, will not, or will be asked, eventually, not to—listen to everything.

But O+A do not work in isolation. Their project Harmonic Bridge, my site of inquiry, was voted upon and funded by private administrators and a board of elected officials. It feels appropriate and generative to return here, with Ahmed’s phenomenological framework in hand. If MASS MoCA is a central point of institutional action in North Adams, then O+A are part of the sea of cultural capital that flows into space, extending the reach of the museum, amplifying it. Ironically emerging from the pipeline that most museum visitors travel by, the wall of noise considered so egregious by MASS MoCA administrative and marketing teams, a sentiment mirrored by O+A, is now doubly sounding: there is the installation of Harmonic Bridge itself, and augmenting the installation’s “echo,” the sounds of traffic continue to ring. These big sounds coalesce in the hollow of Route 2’s underpass, a space that, like many underpasses, both dampens and amplifies resonance. Among other relationships to mobility, space, and sound, Harmonic Bridge’s mitigating sonic event also extends the boundary lines of place: what goes on under the highway is set to MASS MoCA’s soundtrack, concomitant to O+A’s intervention.

While the concept of intervention is central to Harmonic Bridge, there are, not surprisingly, glaring limitations to the scope of artistic mediation, and thus to who is a stakeholder in the ongoing life of this public artwork.


 What happens when sound is organized, stabilized, made harmonious? What happens when organized sound is applied to architectures? Does it depend on the architecture? What is the difference between sound and noise—when does the sound of traffic become noise? When does noise transition into sound? Is there a tipping or sliding point?

The gothic pathos of civil and economic decline—and the ghosts that accompany it—are certainly part of the harmonic bridge’s prismatic presence. Cascading and receding, the sounds emitted are om-ic, Gregorian, uterine, and ultimately kaleidoscopically evocative. The sounds exceed a relativist endpoint without context—that is, the soundscape exceeds what the artists actually foreclosed in their intention of a future-perfect harmony. The soundscape of Harmonic Bridge is what sound scholars Nathan Clarkson and Jennifer Schine describe as an “artifact of an action.”[9]

Further examining the covalent constructions of noise, order, and capital, Jacques Attali, in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, defines noise first, as “violence … a simulacrum of murder,” and music as “a channelization of noise … a simulacrum of the sacrifice [of the Scapegoat],” that is “a sublimation” that creates order and political integration.”[10] Following this thread, “music” for Attali, “is ritual murder.”[11] Music, according to Attali, is also a dialectical confrontation with the course of time, becoming a collective memory of social order; simultaneously, music is a prophecy, a futurism.[12] Sonic prophecy is possible because each musical codification pushes “to the point where it creates the internal condition for its own rupture, its own noise. What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new.”[13] Harmonic Bridge, applying Attali, might exist somewhere between murderous violence and ritual murder. Attali’s analysis illuminates my fundamental misgivings with the artists’ work: that is, their overwhelming desire to produce a timeless cultural relevance, which rejects the precarious realities of cultural production and its dissolution.

In O+A’s rubric, noise is an essential symptom, harmony is an unceasing distillation, and the vessel of transformative purification is unerring; these elements are dependent upon each other, creating a closed circuit. Embedded in the future perfect blueprint of this elemental stasis is also its ever-broadening reach. Using this rubric to realize Harmonic Bridge, O+A seem to reproduce the conditions that catalyzed Attali’s 1977 critique in the first place: here, musical code (harmony) is used and produced as a byproduct of ritual in an attempt to make people forget the general violence. Sound in the key of C is deployed to entice the collective into believing in the harmony of the world, and that there is order in exchange and legitimacy in commercial power—meanwhile, the political power of “the collective” is siphoned elsewhere.[14]

Crouching under Route 2, I listened to the sound and felt the vibrations in my body, animate my cells, and this held me and changed, alerted me to flux and instability held within/hidden by the sonic architecture, its bigness, its turn to transcendence. Transcendence is a beautiful phenomenon to aspire to. And in this tangled present, we also inherit an ethical imperative to interrupt the cycles of droning silence, the kind that drown out the imagination, the histories, the protests of more compassionate, messy, and equitable futures.

Whatever happens on the bridge, it seems—whether vehicular traffic or sonic events that deviate from the expected vehicle and road relationship, will still be read as noise; the installation, too, will always be performing a transfiguration, from noise to a codified harmonic form. So, like social liberalism under capital, Harmonic Bridge will absorb, metabolize, and transact any tremor that enters its radius, and will always succeed in producing/echoing harmony. We hear similar narratives from advocates of carbon-capture: a technological intervention will reconstitute the “bad thing” through containment, neutralizing it. Meanwhile, these same advocates offer motor vehicle manufacturers enormous economic bailouts.


Photo: Erik Abrahams
Photo: Erik Abrahams


Here in North Adams, Houghton Street slips perpendicularly under the highway, allowing for a stream of vehicles in two directions, north and south. There are unremarkable sidewalks, the means for bodies to pass through. The highway as a phenomenon, at least in the continental U.S., has always been a tool of militarized transport, justified by and intertwined with nationalist unity. The highway, like train tracks before it, is a tool used to link and unify; simultaneously, it is a method of intrasocial division, cutting already racially zoned municipalities into halves or quadrants along these lines. The presence of highways in the U.S. indicates residues of racial apartheid and class-based segregation, serving as aesthetic markers, borderlands of difference, of civil and social priority, of negligence. It bears making explicit that the underside of highways, their underpasses can be highly charged estuaries of social encounter and social crossing, too. The charged encounters may be inflected by deeper histories of reterritorialization and elision represented in this space. And the underpass may also be inflected, mannered, by its more recent uses and re-inscriptions: the proximity of the vulnerable body to generally invulnerable flows of traffic, the shelter these spaces provide paired with the sonic deluges that land at certain times of day, the chance or arranged meetings, performance and ritual, the often-incidental architectures that arise there.

The harmonic overlay that O+A propose for this space feels like an apology for a social neutrality that seeks to eliminate tension, conflict, dissidence, or misidentification with the rubric of neoliberal aspiration.


Is it possible to explode, transform, or intercept O+A’s exhaust alchemy to make space for more equitable, capacious relations? Is there space for interruption, for discursive approaches to a harmony that undergirds the bitter impacts of imposed and illusory stability, of public spaces privatized?

To read, or rather, to sonically (re)imagine Harmonic Bridge is to acknowledge other realities marking the space: those of fluidity, of the unexpected, of chaos, of surprise. We could also recognize the phenomenon of bridge and installation together as an invitation to consider this space in the future: for example, how will the soundscape change when petroleum or coal no longer power the vehicles that cross over and under the bridge? We only receive this transposed sonic architecture through unstable or fleeting relations—the counterpoint to this being that the production of sound is dependent upon the predictable aggregate of those who do not stay, of fleeting contact. Under the bridge, someone may not hear the sounds at all, but may feel something more than the sonic architecture could have predicted. The harmonics could be the soundtrack to rupture: car accidents or traffic jams, breakups, weather events, physical or psychic collapse, grasses growing up from the concrete, a gathering of bodies, shouts and sounds of protest eclipsing or changing the timbre of the tonal drone. The encounters under Route 2, in the dome of sound, exist in a third space.

My critique, too, exists in a third space; however, rather than suggesting the extant potential in O+A’s work, I’m interested in working through what the complicated inadequacy of their work exposes.

The experience of the harmonic bridge is multiple. In memory it accumulates texture, residues, it is excavated or approaches form. Ever-approaching, it stands in opposition to O+A’s intention and thesis that the bridge had enacted an unchanging, a priori harmony (of my experience) even before I arrived in North Adams. But I visited at a deadly time during the pandemic, in the summer months of police and I.C.E. violence and murders and protests, before vaccinations were anywhere near to being discussed openly. The teleology and cartography of these atmospheres, and their effects upon my reception of these cavernous sounds is also bound up in my own affect as a genderqueer ambiguously diasporic/mixed-race person of color who had quit the prison of the east coast in the months after Trump’s election, now returned on an arts fellowship to this majority white small town.

The installed soundscape’s dependency on instability, transience, or velocity, to only then be reconstituted into a slow droning may directly address the precarious conditions and intimacies that define daily life in decomposing global systems of capital and climate. The residual impressions of the vehicles’ velocity conjure a subrosa of a life hollowed out by subsisting on borrowed time, of exhaustion, of a Future-fetish met and humbled by the vastness of glacial meter/Glacial Time (their millennia-long freezing and now, their accelerated melting). Can we read Harmonic Bridge’s tubing resonance chambers as an extension of an exhaust pipe and carburetor, the instrument of exhaustion in the Anthropocene? The sonic residue (the delay and reverb) alerts us to the material and sociopolitical residues of relationality in crises; put another way, the aesthetic revitalization of cultural environments is both a cause and symptom of the lag in addressing the Puritanical and racialized language that reifies blockades to equitable relationships animated by mutual care and presence. By meeting the tones of Harmonic Bridge produced literally by rumbles from hundreds of thousands of exhaust pipes, with involuntary body creaks, gurgles, belches, exhales, hums, pops, quietudes, shouts, passers-by become resonance chambers and interlocutors through the material conditions of exhaustion and precarity piped out by O+A’s concrete speakers.

Nisha Ramayya, in literary conversation with Fred Moten, addresses those affective positionalities inscribed by contact and repetition, and the body’s interruption. In her hybrid text States of the Body Produced by Love, Ramayya analyzes lines from Fred Moten’s The Little Edges:

exhaustion                makes               life                       ever
lasting.                when            I                dance           with
you          I                am             the        moved        mover.
baby, you’re a solid sender.[15]

Both Moten and Ramayya challenge and reconfigure Aristotle’s unmoved mover, that apotheosis of harmony and beauty: the indivisible, eternal. “Exhaustion,” Ramayya offers, “is a drawing out or forth of air, of essence. Exhaustion suggests the study of multiple possibilities, the arrival at a single conclusion.” She continues, exhaustion is, itself, “study that consumes, conclusion that empties.”[16] They call out this tired upright form, while also calling it into dance, release, transition, movement—that is, a meeting of beings whose relationality make time without just existing forthright like statues in time. Harmonic bodies are called in to be sent forth, moved, and radically transformed. By walking out of the sonic zone, or clapping back in some way, they approach what it means to both dance with and give up the ghost.

[1] See Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) by Traci Brynne Voyles; “Wasteland Ecology” (2021) by Jennifer Colten https://www.jennifercolten.com/wasteland-ecology-statement; Vittoria Di Palma’s Wasteland: A History (Yale University Press, 2014).

[2] See “History” on MASS MoCA website https://MASSMoCA.org/about/history/

[3] But there were other problems surrounding this site. In the wake of Sprague Electric’s permanent closing in North Adams, the city’s population dropped by 4,000, and unemployment climbed to fourteen percent. North Adams’ largest employer was gone and the historic twenty-six building cluster, the center of labor, was rusting and decaying. Removal and cleanup of the industrial waste by-products of Sprague’s operations for nearly half a century, including carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), were also ongoing concerns in the town. In 1996, around the same time that O+A installed “Harmonic Bridge,” seventeen homes were demolished on the south side of North Adams due to the vaporizing of a toxic trichloroethylene (TCE) plume of groundwater seeping west from the former-Sprague site, as crowd-source catalogued by Massachusetts College environmental studies students in 2011 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzqahyk01bY).

[4] Cited on Bruce Odland’s now-defunct website http://bruceodland.net/2017/07/07/harmonic-bridge-oa-1998-present/

[5] See Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, 1997, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p97.pdf and ACLU, “How the 1994 Crime Bill Fed the Mass Incarceration Crisis,” by Udi Ofer, 2019, https://www.aclu.org/blog/smart-justice/mass-incarceration/how-1994-crime-bill-fed-mass-incarceration-crisis

[6] Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, “Reflections on a Sonic Commons,” LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, Vol. 19, pp. 63, 2009.

[7] Sarah Ahmed, “A phenomenology of whiteness,” Feminist Theory, Volume: 8 issue: 2, 2007, pp. 149-168.

[8] Hans-Joachim Braun, “An Acoustic Turn? Recent Developments and Future Perspectives of Sound Studies,” AVANT, Vol. VIII, No. 1/2017, 87. Open access link: http://avant.edu.pl/wp-content/uploads/Braun-An-Acoustic-Turn.pdf

[9] Braun, 83.

[10] Jacques Attali trans. Brian Massumi, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 26.

[11] Attali, 28.

[12] 9–11.

[13] 35.

[14] 88–89.

[15] Fred Moten, cited in Nisha Ramayya’s States of the Body Produced by Love (Ignota, 2019), pp. 97.

[16] Ramayya, 97.


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