Tuning In to the City
The Lomas On-site Listening Station
By Alison Oatman
It was a fiery early-summer evening at the end of May, and in a sand-covered empty lot on Lomas Boulevard near I-25, several offbeat Albuquerque art lovers came together for a “listening party.” People munched on popcorn and cool watermelon slices as they greeted one another. If you tuned into 96.9 FM, you could make out noises above the routine scratchy sound of the wind blowing: convivial chatter, cars passing, the puttering of a motorcycle, a small child talking and pockets of laughter. What did these “sounds of the landscape” say about this particular space in Albuquerque, and what do they tell us about the identity of the community?
photos by Elizabeth Shores
These are questions UNM artists Jessamyn Lovell and Elizabeth Shores asked when they came together to create Lomas On-site Listening Station. This site-specific art installation consists of a low-watt solar-powered FM radio transmitter and antenna that the artists installed on an abandoned billboard, broadcasting with a range of several thousand feet.
Radio waves continuously transmit music, conversations, pictures and data through the atmosphere and beyond. It isn’t always clear who is doing the “talking” and who is doing the “listening” in this cosmic chat.
Lovell and Shores recently joined forces with Friends of the Orphan Signs, a group directed by Ellen Babcock since 2009 that revitalizes abandoned signs along Route 66. Babcock told me that at one point, she came across a ’60s-era dilapidated sign (the kind that obliges you to change the letters with big suction cups), and the group posted a phone number so people could send text messages that competed for the space. “We want to inject mystery, humor and surprise into the visual landscape of Albuquerque’s roads, and we invite all to participate,” Babcock says on the FOS website.
About a year ago, Babcock approached Lovell about doing a project in the sign on the empty lot owned by UNM on the south side of Lomas Boulevard. That’s when Lovell and Shores were spurred to develop the concept of a “listening party” on the site. “By listening to the sounds of the landscape surrounding this seemingly empty lot, we hope to gain some understanding of how we might engage the site further and invite others to consider this an invitation,” Lovell wrote me. And according to Elizabeth Shores, “Listening is a very personal experience. We would like people to explore their personal connection to place by taking a moment to consider what is around them.”
The “listening” concept of the art installation on Lomas sounds abstract at first because the project is an exploration of the invisible. And then it makes you wonder what underlies the densely spun web of communication on our planet and beyond. Radio waves continuously transmit music, conversations, pictures and data through the atmosphere and beyond. It isn’t always clear who is doing the “talking” and who is doing the “listening” in this cosmic chat.
Reactions have been varied. Lovell says the public has been “very curious and receptive.” Shores notes that because the site is experienced on a personal level, everyone has different feedback, which reflects everything from “a relaxed calm to confused interest.”
So the next time you cruise down Lomas Boulevard between I-25 and University Avenue, tune into 96.9 FM on your car radio. You never know what you might discover about the mysteries of communication in our universe.
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