Author: Kiley, Brendan
Date published: May 2, 2012
Journal code: STRR
Robb Kunz wants to take Union Station on a train trip. More precisely, he wants to take it on 11 train trips a day, starting in Delhi and winding through Athens, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and several other cities. Last stop: Albuquerque.
Kunz is a musician, sound-installation artist, and self-taught electrician who was raised in Oklahoma and moved to Seattle just after the WTO riots in 1999. He then traveled the world from protest to protest- and sometimes from arrest to arrest-with the marching protest band Infernal Noise Brigade, recording music, demonstrations, and everyday street sounds as he went. For Bark! Disembark!, Kunz commissioned 11 people around the world to draw rough floor plans of their city's major train station, then record around two dozen sounds-arrival and departure announcements, conversations between drunks on a bench, vendors hawking magazines or ice cream, various animals- and mark them on the map. Kunz will mount moving speakers around Union Station to, in his words, "closely overlay one geography over another."
Kunz likes the kinetic qualities of sound- he laments how the ubiquity of headphones has diminished people's interest in actively listening to the way sound moves through space. And his sonic installations are all about movement. He builds "teeter-totters" (speakers on a fulcrum that tilts back and forth with the force of magnets and tiny computer fans) and "spinners" (rectangular boxes with a speaker on each end that broadcast sound while whirring in circles). For Bark! Disembark!, Kunz plans to install spinning speakers, swinging speakers, and speakers built into rolling, remote- controlled suitcases throughout Union Station to replicate the movable sonic feast of walking through a train station.
When I visit Kunz in his studio in the old Immigration and Naturalization Service Building in the International District, he's hunched over circuits, his soldering iron blinking on a corner of his desk. (He says he stopped using lead solder because the fumes were actually making him dumber; when he started using zinc solder, he says, he stopped getting colds.) Kunz says he's "debugging"- Bark! Debark! involves at least 15 different audio channels that need to be synchronized to create an immersive train-station soundscape, but he's dissatisfi ed with the internal clocks in his mechanisms. "I've learned the hard way that clocks drift," he says. "Even digital clocks, due to heat and all these different factors."
He looked into other forms of timekeeping- GPS-based clocks, mechanisms that synchronize to atomic clocks via radio-but they were all too expensive. In the end, he settled on using what he calls "relay thingies," those electronic key fobs people use to unlock the doors of newer cars. "They have a range of 100 meters, and you can extend that if you want to," he says. "They'll all talk to one clock." He holds one up for me and then pauses. "Sorry I'm being technical," he says. "This is not the fun part."
The fun part is hearing the way Kunz imports the "wrong" sounds into a different context. A couple of years ago, he set up a ring of beautiful dark-wood speakers in Westlake Plaza to broadcast sounds recorded at the WTO and other riot-protests into the empty public square. Last year at Smoke Farm-a former dairy farm turned cultural center about an hour north of Seattle-he hung some of his "spinners" in trees, broadcasting the sounds of insects from his native Midwest into the forests of the Northwest. He described the project as "invasive species."
Kunz says he's been attracted to sound projects in Seattle because its geography has this "constant din of planes and cars-this washed-out, gray glow. It's not dynamic." Oklahoma, he says, "was quiet all the time until something cataclysmic like a tornado... It's fl at and boring until it's not boring. And then it's really exciting."