Kristen Roos

From the depths of space

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Canadian artist Kristen Roos connects sofas to droning machines and uses subway trains as deep-frequency drums.

  • Author: Lucy Hyslop
  • Photos: Angela Fama
„I love catching people off guard“

Two black sofas vibrating in the lobby of an art gallery. Though subtle at first, the low- frequency thrum is almost like listening to a lullaby. That is, until an escalating quiver suddenly surprises the people sitting on it. What is that sound? Is it emanating from some machine close by? For Kristen Roos, such reactions are music to his ears. The Canadian artist is obsessed with the resonance of these deep sound waves.

“I love catching people off guard,” he admits, “and making them think“, laughs Roos as he sits in fornt on his creation at the Surrey Art Gallery just outside Vancouver. “I love the drones. They make me feel good. It’s very meditative.”

Sound from the underground

His curator feels the same. Roos’ use of infrasound has a decidedly otherworldly effect. The sofas make it tactile, explains Ross Birdwise, but it isn’t the same feel as, say, holding an electric toothbrush. “You feel the sound. It’s ghostly. As if spirits had been released from their graves and have possessed the couch.” It all taps into Roos’ artistic calling: to make the inaudible audible. For his show, Underground, Roos was able to achieve his vision using tactile contact combined with Sennheiser MKH 8020 microphones. Ross used the ultra-sensitive microphones, which can record frequencies beginning at 10 Hz, to record the machine and electrical rooms hidden in the gallery’s basement. The sound – rife among archaic-looking gauges and copper coils – was first sculpted and sequenced before being hardwired to the sofas via tactile transducers and speakers. Even though the sofas muffle the noise somewhat, with the help of microphones, the underlying sound is transformed into something more intense than they would have been in situ. The result of the 15-minute-long loops? Think: musical compositions. “There’s no doubt that I’m turning it into something more pleasing than it actually is,” he continues. “I think of it as manipulating the drone into a sound that pleases me.” For Roos, it’s the idea of the underground writ large. Reminiscent of the futuristic film Brazil, these industrial behemoths may look bizarre, but – in his mind – these machines are “real beauties”.

An expanded world

In his best known exhibition Ghost Station, Roos recorded the moaning and vibrating of subway cars and sequenced them into rhythms using subwoofers and shaking nuts, bolts and springs on rods hanging from the ceiling to create something akin to an eight-piece drum kit. “Bringing sounds that people are usually not even aware of to the surface,” he insists, “amplifies sound and creates a whole new world.”

It’s a world he has longed for all his life. What with cars, hip-hop and the experimental music scene, society is already flooded with lower frequencies. But there is more. It’s that depth of sound that attracted the father of one, even as a toddler. “I used to press my head up against washing machines and dishwashers,” explains the graduate of both Victoria and Concordia Universities. “They comforted me.”

Layered sound

Whatever the reason, over the past 15 years, sound has brought him into collaborations with musicians and dance troupes – and into honing the sounds of the city to produce “soundwalks.” In the Micro Radio Project he carried out in Quebec City, Roos created a counterpoint between resident’s voices, and recordings of trains and church bells.

Back to the gallery. Ross explains how he plans to take the concept even further in future projects. Repurposing more objects - such as a refrigerator that hums rhythmically in tandem with a stove, for instance – to explore the tangibility of their seductive and captivating low frequencies. “It changes people because all of a sudden they can actually feel something that they have never heard,” he says as the sofa’s leather seats rise as if on cue to punctuate our conversation.