Michael re-worked the idea of a street bench into a work of public art capable of reflecting and amplifying the tastes, interests and personalities of those who have access to it. The Boom Bench has been described as “a regular piece of street furniture [turned] into a sound system.” Michael’s described it as a super-sized Docking Station. I’ll let him speak for himself:
“The Boom Bench features eight 60-watt co-axial speakers and two subwoofers that can be accessed through Bluetooth. Connect your player to the amplifier and take control. Now you can play your music with 95 dB high quality sound. A Bass Shaker in the seat transforms the deep sounds into vibrations that enhance the physical sensation of your tunes. Playing loud music in public will either attract or repel people. The music extends you personality onto the streets. As such it will shape the place. It is a showing off and putting yourself on the stage. Either you start an instant party or mark your territory. The music acts as an acoustic sign.”
Michael told me that the idea for the bench came out of putting a couple of observations together–that teenagers would congregate around benches near their homes and play music from their cell phones. They didn’t have boom boxes to take outside (like in the old days–if you’re old enough to remember) and they didn’t have the space to play their music loud or share it with each other in their families’ homes. Go here to read more about his democratic bench (especially the hilarious Celine Dion story he recounts there).
How’d I find out about Michael’s work? Through project research about how sound shapes space. That notion came up in conversations related to a grant proposal I was preparing for Locally Toned. The first glimmer of that idea came from a comment that smart home researcher and designer Scott Davidoff shared with me: “Someone like my mother wouldn’t completely understand your project unless there was video documentation to show her what happens when the tones go off in public.” He was so right. How do I capture that experience/arrange for that sort of video documentation?
I mentioned Scott’s comment to another mentor/project adviser, Marge Myers, she said, “Yes, what happens when the tones go off in public? How do the ringtones shape or affect the space or sphere in which they’re played? Notions of unexpected place and timing are interesting to think about in relation to your work…”
After talking with Marge, I went straight home and googled “how does sound shape public space.” Presto! I found this .pdf called Can Sound Shape the Public Space? uploaded by NL Architects. The document includes writing about (and links to) other projects and products that embodied this concept. So I wrote to the firm to thank them for posting that research and asked if anyone at the firm would allow me to talk with them about the idea of how sound shapes space.
The firm wrote back (!), said they were delighted to hear I found their essay, and suggested I speak with Michael Schoner, who designed the Boom Bench. Then Michael sent me a note (!). He mentioned that the sonic cannon ringtone made him feel extremely nervous and that he’d be happy to talk. Here follows our Q&A:
Teresa Foley (TF): You’re sensitive to audio in particular?
Michael Schoner (MS): Yes, but I think it does take a while to realize how much audio has to do with space. For example, in churches and museum–the general expectation is that you have to be quiet.
TF: Can you describe a formative experience from your childhood in relation to sound?
MS: Yes–sitting on a washing machine and singing, or the experience of parents telling you to shut up.
TF: The first thing you mention is an embodied experience of sound and of manipulating it! As soon as you say that, I remember lying on my stomach on the floor, and another kid giving me a karate chop/pretend massage–I start humming and love how the impact of their hands on my back affects my vocalizing.
MS: Well at least your experience was social, Teresa–mine was with a machine…
TF: Yes, but I bet somebody put you up on that washing machine the first time you discovered those vibes, though.
TF: Until you said what you did about your washing machine experience, I never thought about how children learn about sound/vibrations physically. It reminds me of that thing I’ve seen musicians and scientists do–where they put sand or rice on top of an amplifier to make sound vibrations visible .
Okay, another question–where’s the Boom Bench been so far?
MS: Amsterdam, Milan and New York.
TF: Where’s it going to next?
MS: Possibly Shanghai.
TF: Have any cities asked about installing it somewhere permanently?
MS: We received an inquiry from Bulgaria, but right now it’s been designed for temporary placement or exhibition. If you wanted to make it a permanent piece, it would have to be fabricated out of steel. The original is made out of wood.
TF: What would be an ideal location for it?
MS: The obvious placement is urban, but some people have asked to place it out in the suburbs–one location that’s been pitched is an area in between the sea and a lake. The idea of an urban artifact installed in the countryside is interesting, I think. But I’ve never really thought too much about this idea. I think it’s up to other people to figure out what to do with it. The thing leads a life of its own, anyhow.
TF: Are you working on any other audio related projects?
MS: I’m working on designing a concert hall.
TF: Would you kindly share the names of any other artists whose audio work you find interesting?
MS: Yes, a friend of mine told me about a project called The International Dance Party–a kind of disco machine. You start dancing by it and music comes out, the machine starts to open up–there’s even a smoke machine. My bench is for hanging out, a machine like this is for dancing–something like that machine would be great to have for openings.
TF: What kinds of things would you think about if you were designing a ringtone to be shared/downloaded for free/played in public?
MS: Well, I don’t really like ringtones. They’re usually so terrible. I had a friend who made an interesting tone–he had one of the first phones that you could record sounds with. He made a ringtone out of the sound you get when you slowly let air out of a balloon. Snoring might be an interesting ringtone…
TF: There is a snore tone in the project… Okay, one last question–may I make a ringtone for the project based your specifications, or would you like to submit an audio file to the project?
MS: I’ll think about it. Maybe that is the sort of thing I could mention at the lunch table to the firm.
TF: Wow–that’d be great! Thanks for your time, Michael. I’ve enjoyed learning about your work, and this exchange we’ve had is helpful in expanding my thinking around the performative aspect of Locally Toned.