JOHN DUNCAN

The STEELWATER MESSAGE

5, 12, 19, 26 November 2005
Eleven channel audio installation in near-total darkness
Diapason Gallery, New York

Three rooms. The first is cavernous, with an amorphous droning cloud of sound filling the entire space. Your eyes adjust to see faint light coming from a doorway that leads to a second room with a softer, soothing cloud of sound. Exploring this space, you discover that the light is coming from a third room, an intimate carpeted cubic cell occupied by a single faint light bulb and a subwoofer that softly vibrates the floor, encouraging you to lie down on the padded carpeting and let the vibrations pass through your body.

I have never been frightened in an art gallery before. Any sense of absurdity or shame at experiencing fear in a place normally not conducive of such a reaction is reduced by the strength and integrity of the material forcing the response. The piece in question is ‘The Steelwater Message’, an enigmatically titled sound installation by John Duncan at Diapason, an institution geared toward exhibiting audio works. Located a few blocks below the packed masses and aural and visual din of Times Square, the exhibition space resides on the second floor of a quiet, nondescript street in the “garment district”. As the gallery was only open on Saturdays from 6 P.M. to midnight for this particular exhibit, and as this area of Manhattan is primarily populated with businesses that are closed on weekends, the approach to the Message was relatively surrounded by silence.

After entering Diapason, a sign notifies patrons that they are about to enter a completely dark room, and also instructs those who have not balked upon reading this warning to remove their shoes before parting the thick, billowy curtains that lead into the installation.

Being informed that one is about to step into an unlit chamber doesn’t really cushion the shock of having your most utilized (therefore, that which one is most dependent on) sense removed in a few seconds, or more, depending on how reticent one is to go in. Compare the commonplace childhood memory of being informed by a doctor, parent or guardian that an injection will be painful with the shock of actually experiencing a needle first prick, then pierce, then enter skin to produce pain, precisely torn flesh, then blood.

As soon as sight is erased, hearing is immediately pushed to the forefront due to the audio that Duncan has composed and which is played at a high volume, filling the space as much as the blackness does. Although a number of adjectives come to mind when attempting to describe the key auditory component – Aggressive. Glacial. Impenetrable. Massive. Unrelenting. “Wall of Sound”. -, an accurate description truly seems difficult. An abbreviated analogy would be the musical equivalent of a Michael Haneke film.

Once inside The Steelwater Message, there are only two choices: explore or exit. I, and the friend who accompanied me chose the former. Instinct led me to use my hands to locate a wall and run my fingers and palms along it as a means to navigate. Going into the center of the room seemed like the best way to get lost. I had to make a conscious effort to stop from squinting, and am not sure if the elongated, geometric shapes I and my companion later mentioned we both saw were present on the walls, or solely in our imaginations. After being separated for a few minutes (which took forever to pass), we only came together again by literally bumping into one another.

The music invoked a synaesthetic response, as ears become eyes. With my hand in hers and me leading, we eventually began to move away from the sound, and finally found a second, significantly smaller room whose soundtrack was harsher than the first. Seeing and advancing toward a sliver of light led us into a small, thankfully quiet room, illuminated only by a tiny fragment of a lamp. We sat on the cushions and throw pillows on the floor and remained there for a few minutes, reflecting on everything. This third room had slow, extremely deep bass pulses and the noise of two people breathing as its score. Although soothing, the pulses were so low that I could literally fell them in my chest.

The actress Susanne Sachße has stated that for her, “horror is the starting point for possibility”. Consider Brando’s speech from ‘Apocalypse Now’, magnified and defined by Chris Marker in ‘Sans Soleil’ as being “definitive and incommunicable”: “Horror has a face a name. You must make a friend of horror.” An individual’s response to the “horror” present in The Steelwater Message, and the face he or she chooses to give it depends on the traits specific to the individual, and these varied responses the work produces are perhaps the greatest strengths of the installation. Francis Bacon’ intention to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently” gels with Duncan’s goals in making what he calls “creative experiences”. The title “The Steelwater Message” may mirror Bacon’s use of arrows and illegible text in his paintings as a means of distracting the viewer from the overall qualities of the image to provoke other interpretations.

Aside from Duncan’s previous work utilizing sensory deprivation as a means of (self-)exploration, The Steelwater Message also recalls David Hammons’ ‘Concerto in Black and Blue’ installation at Ace Gallery in New York in 2003. Both men used a similar approach (perhaps best loosely described as “existential minimalism”) to produce two very different works (or environments) that have a shared theme in bringing about a revelation or an awakening in participants possessing the openness to accept such things. While Hammons’ exhibit was full of men, women and kids all acting the same age while curiously shining blue flashlights in a vast, multi-chambered room in search of something which may or may not have been present, bringing a child to The Steelwater Message would surely qualify as abuse. Although Duncan’s endeavor can on one level be viewed as the foil or “evil” version of Hammons’, the phrase “Extreme Zen” is another way to encapsulate the fear, excitement and inexpressible inner treasures that the The Steelwater Message can unearth.

Randal Wilcox

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