Jason Kahn 
Upcoming Events
Works for Radio

Technique: acrylic paint, text

Art Space Mullae
Seoul, Korea

October 21–27, 2013

In "Mullae" I spent a day inside the ground floor studio of Art Space Mullae listening to that space and how it changed over the course of the day. I was interested in how our perception of the world outside–in this case the Mullae neighborhood in Seoul–changed by listening through the filter of another place–in this case the studio of Art Space Mullae. Not only did the sounds I perceived outside undergo change throughout the day but the sounds in the studio, and by extension, in the entire building of Art Space Mullae as well.

The resulting text has been painted on the southern wall of the studio. The wall represents for me our perception–that entity standing between us and what we perceive. In this case, the wall of Art Space Mullae's ground floor studio stood between myself and the world outside. Just as our perception is a filter to the world around us, so too was this wall a filter to how I experienced the world outside during this day sitting in the studio.

Chairs have been placed in the studio at locations where I sat through the day. It is my intention that visitors to the installation not just read the text outside on the wall but also sit in the studio and take the time to listen a bit as I did. For in the end, these pieces are also about re-connecting with the world through listening. More and more we shut down our senses, feel overwhelmed or even threatened by so much sensory input. We pass through the world with our ears shut, just trying to make it through the day. And because of this I think a lot of beauty gets lost. Simple things like children playing in a school yard or wind blowing through the trees.

In Place: Art Space Mullae

I'm sitting in the ground floor studio of Art Space Mullae. Early morning light streams in from the windows facing east. To the west an elementary school slowly fills with arriving children, some laughing, some crying, parents raising their voices in admonishment or support. These sounds filter in from the world outside, vibrating through the walls, piercing the windows. Sounds from inside the studio also appear as I slowly acclimate to the room's presence. Off in the shadows of of the studio's southeast corner something buzzes quietly, like a lone insect overstaying its evening welcome. The elevator doors in the lobby open and shut with a hushed bang. And each time a person walks through the sliding entrance doors to the building the large folding steel door opening from the studio to the street behind me shudders and vibrates. By the end of the day I practically won't even notice this any more.

Suddenly, I don't hear the children. They've all made there way into the classrooms and school has started. Every few minutes a train passes by behind the studio, separated by a narrow strip of grass and trees. I can sense the deep bass vibrations of the trains shaking the concrete floor of the studio before I actually here them whooshing by. The slower trains don't make any sound other than just a nearly subsonic rumble. I imagine hearing a train flying low above and then realize it's only a jet plane. The planes never vibrate the building like the trains do.

Next to the studio, a large metal shop–one of many in this neighborhood–gradually starts its work for the day. I suddenly hear high vibrating tones and can't tell if they're coming from the room itself or from outside. I finally realize that the machines in the metal shop have started to whir away, reforming a large pipe or sheet of steel. Accompanying this, a huge rhythmic pulse bangs through the morning air and sends deep shuddering vibrations through my feet. A gigantic machine pounds down again and again. I think first of a steady, heavy drum beat but the longer this goes on the more I realize no drummer could ever play like this.

The fragment of some classical music melody I've heard hundreds of times but now can't put a name on signals a brief recess from the classroom for the students in the school next door. Before the melody has even finished I hear the cries of joy and laughter as the children storm out onto the playground. Their voices completely dominate every other sound in the studio and I find myself transported into the children's midst, as they hop and spring wildly around me in all their youthful vigor. And before I know what has happened, the melody is playing again. The young voices disappear and all the other morning sounds slowly become audible again, coming out from hiding.

In a brief lull of quiet the more subtle sounds of the studio take the foreground. I'm swathed in slowly shifting hues of noise: brown, white, blue, pink. Streaks of bright yellow sunlight bisect the studio's floor and light up little clouds of dust hovering motionless in the cool morning air. A woman's high heel shoes click clacking across the tiled lobby floor of the Art Space tear me from my revery. Two muffled tones and a woman's robotic voice announce the arrival of the elevator. The loud shoes disappear within. I leave my seat and make take a slow walk around the studio, absorbing the different perspective of sounds in each part of the room. Coming closer to the folding steel garage doors at each end of the studio I'm able to hear more of the traffic passing by outside. The sounds from the metal shop gain prominence as I pass the eastern windows. And to the west I can hear kids being unruly in their classrooms. The schoolyard's speakers play a different melody now and all the kids come running out for their mid-day break.

I move my chair to the far northwest corner of the studio and take a seat. With all this distance now between me and the passing trains, the metal shop and the school, the sounds reaching into the studio from outside take on a softer hue, dampened by the expanse of space. The high ceilings give the room a rich resonance and all the sounds seeping in from outside begin to swirl and mix. I'm not sure any longer what I'm hearing, so much definition has been lost. The vibrating trains could be a large machine in the metal shop or maybe a truck passing by in the street behind me. Only the sound of a helicopter hovering somewhere overhead makes a clearly stated entrance. It chops violently through all the other sounds. I imagine it landing in the schoolyard and all the children running screaming for their teachers. The whir of the helicopter's blades sends all other sounds in the studio ricocheting from wall to wall, ceiling to floor, a tornado of impossible hues and colors and textures and shapes reverberating wildly.

I stand up again and move quickly to the center of the studio to re-gain my bearings. The helicopter vanishes slowly somewhere off in the west, leaving a vast sea of silence in its wake. It's mid-day now and the metal shop takes its lunch break. The school is also quiet and I imagine the children away somewhere having a noisy lunch together. My stomach rumbles, too. Its gurgling fills the studio's void. I eat a sandwich and listen to a slowly evolving mix of light whirring sounds, long tones suddenly appearing and then just as suddenly making their exit. Their absence always seems more vivid than their presence. I imagine that I'm sitting in the Art Space's massive stomach, with all the strange organic sounds of a digestive system reaching me from mysterious places in the building. In the cacophony of morning activity outside I'd missed this wealth of internal sounds. My focus turns back inwards and the world outside vanishes from view. With the sun now directly overhead, beams of harsh white sunlight no longer pierce through the windows. A softer, quieter light now fills the room, matching the growing presence of pulsing, humming sounds.

But with a great boom, the world outside springs to life once more. A gigantic machine in the metal shop slams down again. And again. And again. A train races by, the floor vibrates. That snippet of a classical melody blares again from the schoolyard speakers and a storm of children's voices rises like a great wave about to crash across the studio's western windows. I brace myself for a storm of sound, which never really comes. With starts and stops the afternoon proceeds, swelling with loud machines, screaming children and then dropping down into a lull of barely noticeable hums from inside the Art Center. These recurring oscillations between loud and quiet, dense and sparse slowly wear me down. The sounds around me take on a weight, a tangible presence, at times filling the room like so many clouds of huge gray cotton balls, or great blocks of concrete being hurdled through space and crashing against the walls and floor.

By the time the setting sun beams a warm yellow light through the western windows, I've finally made my peace with the sounds outside. The children are on their way home, tired now from the long day at school. The machines in the metal shop have been turned off. A large object being pulled across the shop's concrete floors is the last sound I hear from it today. More trains rumble by but they don't seem to be in any hurry. The Art Center itself is largely quiet now. Only the occasional robot voice and chimes from the elevator mark any activity in the lobby. I take one more slow orbit around the studio, in search of every possible aural perspective but everything is so quiet now, no matter where I stand. Only the occasional kick from some people scaling the walls of the Art Center outside sparks any life back into the studio. The climbers shout to each other now and then, and their dangling ropes whip quietly against the windows. As the last rays of sunlight slowly fade, I feel as though I can hear evening falling.