I visited Dan Flavin's Untitled Marfa Project in 2009 on a fellowship studying the spectrum of new uses on former military bases. One such base, decommissioned shortly after WWII ended, is Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, TX. The property is home to the Chinati Foundation and contains ammunition sheds, old barracks, and various other military structures. Some buildings are vacant and some are filled with sculpture by Chinati's founder Donald Judd. In the 1980s, Judd invited Flavin to come and do an installation. His piece opened in 1996, the same year Flavin passed away.
While I was walking around Marfa with a sound recorder, picking up things like the specific resonance of Judd's concrete sculptures, a curiosity entered me about approaching any artwork with a sound recorder, especially a predominantly visual one like Flavin's. What is to be captured with the sound, and how does looking at something change when listening momentarily displaces looking as the primary means of taking in a piece of art?
Flavin's installation, a painting with light, deliberately includes the sources of light, the ready-made fluorescent lamps, as part of the composition. But the lamps are also participating in the art because they emit a sound. The faint buzzing sound has a base frequency of about 120 Hz, with several multiples of that frequency also noticeable.This buzzing comes from the ballast which keeps the current flowing through the fluorescent tubes below a safe threshold. The electricity is dampened, and the output is sound.
Every Flavin piece will sound different. The specific configuration of lights, the number of them, the proximity of the lights to nearby walls--these factors will have subtle yet palpable effects. In addition, the light itself, its color and intensity, must have an effect. Are there certain colors which bring out the buzzing, or conversely permit the viewer to shut away the sound? Do certain colors shift the perception of certain frequencies, i.e. does a blue light point our attention to the lower note, and a yellow light to the higher note? Is there a color which allows all background sounds to melt away?
Spending countless hours, days, and years to get his installations just right, was Flavin using the buzzing sound to inform his work? Or, how could he not? He would be subjected to it possibly more than any human being that has lived since the invention of the fluorescent bulb. We can no longer ask the artist these questions. Nevertheless, the project continues, a grand experiment to re-draw space with light and sound. The artist here has presence; his work continually re-configures the interior of this army barracks, each day that the power is flicked on. Flavin made a place for questioning how we perceive space.