01: The Tide and the Seay (Transcript)

*Introduction Collage* This is Everything Sounds.

Craig Shank Alright

George Drake Jr. Are you recording?

Craig Shank I am.

George Drake Jr. Markin’!


Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. And I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank And this is Everything Sounds. You know, art is normally something you think about as being visual — paintings, drawings, and sculptures…

George Drake Jr. Right.

Craig Shank …but when does it include sound?

George Drake Jr. How do you take that medium that is prominently visual and incorporate a sound element?

Craig Shank That’s what we’re going to try to figure out on today’s show.

George Drake Jr. But first, Craig, imagine you’re walking on the beach, ok?

Craig Shank Alright.

George Drake Jr. So, think about what you might hear. Maybe some seagulls in the background.

*Seagull Sound Effects*

Craig Shank Mmhmm.

George Drake Jr. The ding of a buoy way off in the distance.

*Buoy Sound Effects*

Craig Shank Right.

George Drake Jr. Some children playing, maybe?

Craig Shank Sure.

*Children Sound Effects*

George Drake Jr. Maybe the occasional boat passing by.

Craig Shank Ok.

*Boat Sound Effects*

Craig Shank Wait. What about the waves? The water?

George Drake Jr. I was hoping you were gonna get to that. That is where this comes in.

*Mechanical Tide Sound Effects*

Craig Shank Wait. That doesn’t sound like water.

George Drake Jr. You are absolutely right.

Jesse Seay Have you ever seen this piece running?

Background voice Yep.

Jesse Seay Really? What does it look like when it’s running?

George Drake Jr. This is Jesse.

Jesse Seay My name is Jesse Seay…

George Drake Jr. That’s s-e-a-y.

Jesse Seay …and I’m a sound artist. I’m also an assistant professor at Columbia College in the department of audio arts and acoustics where I teach sound art.

Craig Shank She’s quirky, but in a good way.

Jesse Seay I’m known among my friends for singing to my food. It’s not something I really do intentionally, but if I really like it, I start humming.

George Drake Jr. She’s made this sculpture. It’s called, “Mechanical Tide,” and it kind of mimics sound and the motion of the actual tide.

Jesse Seay It’s just evocative of it.It’s not meant to be like a very strong mapping of what water looks like.

George Drake Jr. It just rocks back and forth pretty slowly and it has that same lull that the tide does.

Jesse Seay It does resemble the tide of an ocean, but it was sort of something that just kind of came out of what I was doing. It was like, “Yea! This reminds me of that.”

Craig Shank What did that guy say about it again?

Jesse Seay What’s it look like when it’s running?

Background voice It just moves back and forth. It’s not as exciting as you’d think.

Jesse Seay Really? Oh, that’s a shame.

George Drake Jr. In case you didn’t hear him, he said, “It just moves back and forth. It’s not as exciting as you may think’’

Craig Shank Well let’s just prove him wrong!

Jesse Seay He is so totally wrong. It is really exciting. But if it’s not exciting I think it’s because people like him have been stealing the balls off of the top of the piece…and I should probably send more balls.
George Drake Jr. Craig, before we go any further with this I think we need to get a visual of what Mechanical Tide actually looks like.

Craig Shank Alright, just imagine a big wooden table…

Jesse Seay It’s made of unpainted poplar wood, which is why it’s so sensitive to changes in temperature and climate. The piece is, I don’t know, somewhere around 5 foot by 8 foot. I think I was shooting for the golden mean when I devised the ration of the height….the width and the length of the piece.

George Drake Jr. …and down the length of the table….you don’t even have to look that close…there are just all of these little grooves…

Jesse Seay This is actually wood trim. You know, the original idea was having these dowels put together and we did that for the prototype. I have a small version of this piece that’s like, two feet by three feet, and it was done with the dowels, but for something on this scale, it just proved to be kind of impractical.

Craig Shank …and in those grooves: hundreds of ball bearings…

Jesse Seay It looks like there’s a little bit fewer. Like, umm..there might have been more.

George Drake Jr. …and they’re not all the same size. They’re different sizes..

Jesse Seay I think there’s maybe two or three sizes of ball bearings on the surface. It’s more interesting when you’ve got some variety there.

Craig Shank …just rolling back and forth on the table…

George Drake Jr. …and if one gets too close to the edge on the other side, it falls into one of the cans at the corners…

Jesse Seay I had done a previous piece that involved a lot of tin cans and I just had them around and when the ball bearings, when the balls started jumping to their deaths off the corners of the table, we had to put something under there to save them. So, that just seemed like an obvious solution and I think it fits with the aesthetic. I mean, I think it just works. I like the way it looks…I like shiny things.

George Drake Jr. Now, Jesse takes simple every day items and makes them not only into something you’d never think of, but she seems to actually see the sound that they’re going to make. The best way to describe it is as she does. She says, “My goal is art as playground.”

Craig Shank We talked to Jesse at the University of Chicago James Frank institute…

George Drake Jr. That’s f-r-a-n-c-k.

Craig Shank We interviewed her in the lobby next to her piece, so you may hear some talking in the background or the occasional elevator chime. It was her first time seeing the piece in 2 years.

Jesse Seay You know, it’s not like seeing your lover that you haven’t seen in six years. I mean, it’s like, “Yup! Still there.” It didn’t change as far as I can tell. I don’t know, if it was broken I think I’d be upset, but it looks ok…This piece came about because I’ve always been fascinated by little ball bearings, by pachinko balls. When I was a kid in Japan, walking home I would sometimes see little pachinko balls in the cracks of the sidewalk and I’d pick them up and keep them in my pocket. They’re really cool. They have like, little stars inscribed in them and like the name of the pachinko parlor. And I had just always had wanted to do something with them and I had gotten my hands on a couple of them and I had these dowel rods that somebody had left behind in the basement of where I was living and I was playing around with the dowel rods and I had like…taped them together so that the groove between the two dowel rods formed a track. And I put the balls on it and was rolling it back and forth and I put several balls on it and I was like, “Wow! This is even cooler!” And I was telling people, “Yea! Ok, so just imagine this multiplied by a thousand! Wouldn’t that be awesome?” And, you know, I probably sounded like I was kind of nuts.

George Drake Jr. Adhered to the side of the piece was a handwritten sign which read: “Please do not disturb – this is a one-of-a-kind art piece made from scratch, not owned by the University but on loan from the artist. if you have any questions or concerns about the piece see John Phillips in E145. Thanks.”

Craig Shank So, of course, right after we got there Jesse decides to reorganize everything about the piece.

Jesse Seay The balls tend to, like, stick in the groove. So, you have to sort of reset them………Watching people interact with it…it’s kind of like watching people read Rorschach prints, the ink dots? The ink blobs? Right? You know, and somebody says it’s a bat and someone else says it’s a house on fire and this is the same way. It’s really interesting to watch little kids watch it because they’ll sit here and they’ll watch it for a really long time and they’ll actually personify, anthropomorphize, the balls and, you know, decide that two are having a race and this one is the winner this time, but next time the other one is the winner. And, yeah, people have told me…like the motor on the piece makes noise and I kind of, you know, wasn’t that happy about it having a motor that made noise on it, but then people are like, “Oh, it’s the sound of the foghorn!” I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. It’s like, that evokes something else for you.”

George Drake Jr. So at this point we know what it looks like and we know how the thing works, but we haven’t heard from Jesse about why sound plays such an important role in her artwork…

Craig Shank …and that’s where her childhood comes into play.

Jesse Seay Our teacher at school asked us if we’d rather lose…which would be worse: losing our vision or losing our sense of hearing? And everybody except for me said it would be worse to lose their vision and I said it would be worse to lose my sense of hearing because I think it would just leave me really, completely isolated from the rest of the world, way way too much. I mean, losing your vision would be really inconvenient, logistically speaking. That’s be kind of a pain in the butt, but I think losing your hearing would just take you out of the world, emotionally, psychologically. Yeah, I think sound connects us to the world. It brings the world into our minds.

George Drake Jr. Craig, I think there was one thing in the James Franck institute that you nor I could complain about. Do you know what it is?

Craig Shank No, what’s that?

George Drake Jr. The Tootsie Rolls!

Jesse Seay Could you toss me a Tootsie Roll, please?

Craig Shank Oh, right!

Jesse Seay Thank you.

George Drake Jr. There was a bowl of tootsie rolls in the corner of the lobby, which they refill constantly and not only that it promotes student traffic through the building.

Craig Shank But it’s about more than just the candy. People visit for for a lot of reasons. When we were there a tour group of teenagers and their parents triggered the piece.

Tour guide This very interesting table…umm…no tour guide actually knows what this is…


Tour guide They love, they love….like we’ll have meetings where we literally will talk about what this table is for like twenty minutes, but none of us know, but we all know that it’s really cool looking.

Craig Shank Jesse explained to them that it was a piece of art.

Jesse Seay It’s actually a piece of art!

Tour Guide Oh, it’s a piece of art? Okay! So, it’s art!

Jesse Seay I made it.

Tour guide Really? Oh, cool! Awesome!

George Drake Jr. And for the record, the next tour guide that came through…he knew it was a piece of art, and then he went on to say that it was, “Addictively distracting,” which Jesse then explained she was pretty ok with.

Jesse Seay Sometimes people just sit down next to it and they just sit there for a long time. I like that…that they’re…that it’s making them want to stop and pay attention. I think that’s a good thing because if you ever watch people go through a museum they’ll typically spend, you know, the average is three seconds per painting and it’s cool when you can get someone to slow down and just stop and pay attention for a while. We don’t do that enough.

Craig Shank You can learn more about Jesse’s work at Columbia and her past artwork at her website Jesse Seay dot com — that’s j-e-s-s-e-s-e-a-y dot com and, of course, we have all of the information you need at our website everything sounds dot org.

George Drake Jr. And not everything we do is audible, we actually took some videos during the recording of the piece so you can see Mechanical Tide for yourself. You can find those at the website as well.

Craig Shank Or if you’re ever in Hyde Park, stop by the James Frank Institute at the University of Chicago and see Mechanical Tide for yourself.

George Drake Jr. The music for this week’s show was graciously provided by the band, Met City. You can learn more about Met City and also how your music can be featured in an episode from our website at everything sounds dot org.

Craig Shank I’m Craig Shank

George Drake Jr. And I’m George Drake Jr.

Craig Shank Until next week…Thanks for listening to Everything Sounds.

Jesse Seay Oh hey, they triggered it again! Yay!

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