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Exclusive Interview: Bill Fontana - Capturing the Heartbeat of CERN, by Leslie Deere

Bill Fontana is an American artist based in San Francisco famous for his pioneering work in sound art, which he’s been practicing since 1976.  He has exhibited internationally at institutions such as The Whitney, the Venice Biennale and San Francisco MoMA.  

In 2006 Fontana received the renowned Tate Turbine Hall commission where he presented a piece that amplified noises hidden within the Millennium Bridge.  He produced a large-scale installation that essentially turned the bridge into a giant stringed instrument, playing an ever-changing composition based upon the surrounding environment.  

In 2012 Fontana was awarded the Prix Ars Electronica CERN residency.  Running for two years now, the residency at CERN offers artists a chance to explore and respond to the well-known physics lab in Geneva, attempting to instigate creative collisions between the arts and science.  

Bill is currently in Switzerland for his residency capturing new sounds, which will be presented either in full or as a work-in-progress this September in Linz.  Run Riot’s Leslie Deere caught up with him after his keynote talk at last month’s Sounding Space Symposium at Chelsea College of Art.  Bill spoke about his new work and explained how he is capturing the heartbeat of CERN.

Leslie Deere: Can you tell us about your project at CERN please?  
Bill Fontana:
The last time I was at CERN in February I made extensive recordings with accelerometers on all the machines that generate various sub atomic particles and also machines that are the power sources for these machines.  The recordings are very intimate sounds of these machines because the sound is totally different than what you would hear standing there listening with your ears. It’s like listening with a stethoscope to a machine like that and the sounds are quite beautiful and rhythmic.  When I return to CERN I’m interested in investigating the underground tunnel, its acoustics and how sounds travel through that space.  That’s where I’m going to develop the project.

Leslie Deere: Ok, so you’re going to create sounds and record them in the space?  
Bill Fontana:

Leslie Deere: How are you going to create the sounds?    
Bill Fontana:
When I was there in February all the accelerators were active, so I recorded all the [power] sources.  I want to take recordings of all the sources that are no longer running in July and explore projecting individual elements of these in the space.  You can hear a mix of what these sounded like, do you want to do that?

Leslie Deere: Yes! [audio sample played during interview]
Bill Fontana: So this is a 24-channel mix of a large particle accelerator at CERN.  There are many different kinds of rhythms because they all emit particles in pulses.

Leslie Deere: So you mic'd up different locations of the tunnel?
Bill Fontana:
Yes, but I didn’t use microphones, I used accelerometers.  

Leslie Deere: Which are contact mics?
Bill Fontana:
Well it’s the scientific version of a contact microphone, its much more sensitive and precise because they’re finely tuned and calibrated piezoelectric transducers with very specific frequency and sensitivity characteristics and at CERN I would mount these on the machines, usually making a magnetic mount.

Leslie Deere: A magnetic mount?
Bill Fontana:
The accelerometers are threaded so you can screw in a fairly strong magnet into the bottom of them, which is very useful to mounting them onto the particle accelerators.

Leslie Deere: What do you record on?
Bill Fontana:
I record on Sound Devices equipment.

Leslie Deere: How closely are you working with the scientists at CERN?
Bill Fontana:
Well I had a lot of discussions with the Scientists before I made the recordings to get a sense of where it would be interesting to do it. And I will brainstorm with them when I return.

Leslie Deere: It's not really a collaboration is it?  Or is it?
Bill Fontana:
I think it’s more of an inspiration than a collaboration.  They inspire me and I hopefully will inspire them. They were very surprised by the results of my first recordings because this kind of sound is very different to what you would hear standing next to the machines.  It is the sounds inside the machines rather than the sounds outside the machines.  

Leslie Deere: I just went to a symposium you spoke at (Sounding Space) and you described the piece your working on as ‘capturing the heartbeat of CERN,’ which is great.  And you also mentioned the title of the work.  Can you tell us about that?
Bill Fontana:
Well the sort of working title I gave them when I started this was Acoustic Time Travel because what I want to do is take these kinds of sources that CERN generates and embed them in some of the various materials in this vast tunnel, 27 km tunnel, and then put sensors on these to sort of compare the sound travelling through these materials.  Sound travels at different speeds through different kinds of materials and I’m interested in the differences in the speeds of sound, which is why I decided to call it Acoustic Time Travel.  

Leslie Deere: Were you interested in particle physics or quantum mechanics before you started this project?
Bill Fontana:
In a general sort of way, I mean I’ve always been interested in physics, especially the physics of sound.  And you know, I think in ancient times there was this, what seems like a romantic idea, called the music of the spheres, which actually in contemporary astronomy and astrophysics is not such a romantic idea because I was just reading an article by a cosmologist about the milky way and how it is sort of a slow motion gong, it morphs its shape because of the gravitational influence of dark matter and dark energy.

Leslie Deere: Wow.  Going to have to research that it sounds interesting. What's the time scale of your residency at CERN?  
Bill Fontana:
It’s a little bit flexible, I was there in February and I’ll be back in July and a couple more times for shorter periods its more of an organic process as an idea takes shape.

Leslie Deere: And the final piece will be an installation?
Bill Fontana:
Yes, well it will be the final piece or a work-in-progress version of it that I will present at Ars Electronica in Linz in September.   

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