Battery Maritime Building
United States

This is a giant musical instrument made from a decaying building which, as it happens, is located only a walk away from the World Trade Centre remnants. David Byrne, backed by New York based Creative Time, is responsible for the work. Passers-through are invited to play an old pump organ which drives wider acoustics: the keys are connected to a series of solenoids and motors linked to pipes, girders and other metal components of the surrounding structure. Users are literally playing the building. In a way that completely describes the installation and the text could end here.

The work also looks a certain way and more surprisingly sounds a certain way despite the apparent freedom for manoeuvre for participants in controlling what happens aurally. The layout is reasonably symmetrical and pleasing to look at and travel through, in a very simple sense. Cables extend, more or less evenly distributed, at angles upwards from the organ which is positioned in the centre of the building in one dimension but located closer to the entrance/exit in the other direction. The building itself has been decomposing for some time and the apparatus acts to bring order into the ramshackle environment. These visual aspects might be taken for granted in relation to such an installation but unquestionably they are part of it.

From the description one might expect a diversity of different audio effects to emerge depending on what different 'players' do. Participants queue up to operate the instrument on busy days but to my untrained ear every tune sounded similar. This is amusing. In all probability players hope to add something new, imagine they are being empowered by the artist. Sounds come from different parts of the room, a radiator is seen being hammered at one moment, air is pumped through pipes/flutes somewhere else shortly afterwards, and the sudden changes, particularly if standing close, are startling but the general impact melds into one whole. Whether this is intentional I do not know. The nuances and subtlety of musical differences would presumably be lost on a Lilliputian sitting inside a guitar, it would all sound like noise, but noise characteristic of that space and the particular materials of construction.

Nearby, as has been stated above, is the site of 9/11. For locals possibly talk and discussion about that event and what remains became ordinary or has passed but for me, an outsider, passing through New York for the first time since 2001, a mental linking is impossible to avoid. I wondered whether Byrne’s piece represented an attempt to make beauty out of destruction. The process of playing, in effect amplifies the natural creakiness of the Battery Maritime Building anyway, as sound reverberates around the structure. This certainly evokes reminders or thoughts of the twin towers collapse. When the installation was located in Stockholm in 2005 the impact would have been very different. Perhaps part of what is being communicated here simply is that some buildings die of old age, others do not.

The fate of buildings is of course trivial compared to the premature termination of human lives but in our psyche perhaps undue weight is given to the former as catastrophy. In the end Byrne’s achievement is itself the result of his own playing with buildings. The fact that simple engagement of this type, such lightness of touch, is possible at all, in the hugely dramatic and tragic global landscape which has emerged since 2001, is rather inspiring too.