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The Annotated Artwork: “Preoccupied Waveforms”

An installation turns synesthesia into something you can visit.

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British artist Haroon Mirza wants to hear light; he wants to see sound. The winner of the 2011 Venice Biennale’s Silver Lion makes his New York solo debut this week at the New Museum’s Studio 231 with ­“Preoccupied Waveforms,” a site-specific, minimalist series of monitors, amplifiers, and lights spread throughout a former storefront and surrounded by panels of sound-catching foam spikes. Mirza has carefully programmed these visual and audio elements to intermingle light and audio and electrical buzzing: Essentially, it’s a precise, immersive musical installation generated by light in various forms. “Everything you see is a waveform, every­thing you hear is a waveform,” says Mirza, who sees himself as a composer who works within the visual arts. “When you put these two together, you create a third form of perception.”

1. The Foam Spikes
“They are a bit aggressive,” says Mirza of the nine toothlike foam squares mounted on the walls, “but at the same time they’re very beautiful objects.” They’re on discrete panels, a practical decision but also one that references his background as a painter. He also didn’t want to soundproof the room entirely: “I just wanted to control how much reverberation is in the space, for the audio to be very well received without being completely dead.”

2. The Vintage TV
The television set in the back of the room plays snippets from onstage backing video for the song “Dry the Rain,” by the Beta Band— basically just images of record sleeves, “so it already has this sort of musical subtext”—alternating with onscreen static. Because it’s an analog TV from the seventies, the static comes with old-style audible hiss. As it toggles back and forth with the music video, the bits of snow turn into tss sounds, “sort of like a high-hat.”

3. The Motherboard
The “brain” contains two LED drivers: One makes the lights fade, and the other sends out a pulse to several devices at once, almost like a beating heart. This signal causes the banks of LED lights to flash, triggers activity on the old TV in the corner, and activates the clunky broadcast monitor on the table at far right. “Though they’re separate, all the sounds are kind of synchronized, because everything is coming from that one device,” says Mirza. “But everything also has a bit of a mind of its own.”

4. The Lights
Four circuits of LED strips—basically, Christmas lights—are red, green, and blue, the primary colors of light. “When the lights fade, there’s a buzzing,” explains Mirza. “And when they flash, there’s a pulse.” These LEDs, however, are not the ones we hear: The sounds come from another set, on the motherboard. The rest are for “occupying and amplifying the architecture,” defining the space around the columns in the room.

5. The Monitor
Every time this TV set gets a signal from the motherboard (via the custom-built player located in that box on the floor), it plays a one-second video. “Waterfalls, spoken word, white screens, random stuff like that,” says Mirza. “But the signal itself is very structured—not at all random.” A little strip of copper on TV connects directly into an amplifier, converting onscreen colors into sounds. White static, for example, becomes a particular timbre of buzz.

6. The Infinite Space
There’s a raw, unpainted wall toward the back of the room—“a ruin” from its previous life as a restaurant-supply store—that Mirza was excited to reuse. “There was already a two-way mirror there, installed right in the wall, so I just made use of it.” He wedged red and blue LEDs between the layers of reflective surfaces, then set up a fan behind it, causing the glass to shake. The result: a lo-fi “infinity mirror,” a quivering, pulsating window into another dimension.


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