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Lovely, Blobby Sculptures That Growl And Play Jazz When You Touch Them

Charles Long, the artist behind Madison Square Park’s latest installation, talks with us about his latest piece.

It’s been a drizzly May here in New York. With so many rainy days, the city’s parks haven’t gotten much use. Which is unfortunate, as one of them–Madison Square Park–is currently inhabited by a group of noisy, brightly colored blobs that ask strangers to play with them.

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Admittedly, loud, misshapen lumps that invite you to touch them aren’t an unusual sight in Manhattan’s parks. But these particular blobs are part of California artist Charles Long’s newest piece, Pet Sounds, commissioned Mad. Sq. Art, the arts arm of the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

At its unveiling on May 2nd (another dreary, misty day), Pet Sounds was difficult to miss: Brightly colored blobs slumped in disconcertingly human postures on benches and picnic tables scattered throughout the park. Touching one of the blobs elicited gurgling electronic noises ranging from a few bars of jazz to actual animal noises, activated by electronic sensors embedded in their fiberglass-and-aluminum skin. The “pets” became uncanny instruments, played by the visitors apprehensively exploring them.

Long, whose past work has been shown in the Whitney and MoMA, was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions about Pet Sounds. Below, he talks about the Beach Boys, the theremin, and the hive mind of New York City.

You’ve said before that your artistic process is extremely experiential. What experiences spurred the creation of the piece?

Pet Sounds was three years from start to finish; I spent countless hours in the park observing what happens there and setting up experiments.

I photographed people sleeping on the benches and did drawings of them as amorphous blobs that attached to the park. Soon I was exploring the concept of the park as a mental state, a place of the unconscious, sort of turning the real park in on itself. I began to see the people sitting and dozing on benches as park features, and conversely, I began to see the park features, such as the railings, as snaking limbs. This eventually led to my creation of this system of railings defining paths spilling out onto the great lawn, where they evolve into human-scale blobs, lounging on benches and plopping down on a picnic table.

I wanted people to connect to these blobs, to be affected by them in this strange, abstract way, so I sculpted forms on the scale of the human body. The intense colors, slick surfaces, and elusive figuration seduce further. You can’t place it – it’s what Freud called the uncanny. The slippery forms are so smooth, so synthetically sexy, they beckon to be caressed.

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I also wanted the blobs to respond to human touch: physically with vibrations, and then emotionally, through the wide array of sounds that I created in the studio. I sensitized the skins of these masses with numerous unseen “zones,” which must be found through hands-on exploration. Touching different parts of these blobs generates different responses. The entire surface of the blob also acts like a speaker; your hands pick up sounds that cannot be heard and our ears pick up vibrations that might not be felt.

Can you talk a little about the technology at work in the piece?

Each blob has an electronic brain. Wires connecting the numerous sensitized zones of the skin send primitive signals to a microcontroller–sort of like a brain stem–which interprets it according to the significance of that zone. It sends a very specific bit of coded information about this zone to a mini PC, which executes the particular command is associated with that zone.

That command is output to a transducer embedded in the surface of the blob, which activates the skin to act sort of like a speaker – which is very important because these blobs have no mouths. They have no eyes or ears, for that matter. It’s all about touch and vibrations.

How do the Beach Boys figure in?

I borrowed the title for this project from what is considered by many to be the most important pop album ever made. It will always be the touchstone for my creative process. Brian Wilson’s studio work on the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece was certainly one of the most open creative processes of its time, while still yielding an emotionally meaningful and aurally complex collection of songs, which are still accessible to a wide spectrum of listeners today. Pet Sounds is still influencing musicians…

It was the first pop recording to use the Theremin, an electronic instrument that responds sonically in relation to the proximity of the musician’s body – an idea that captivated me as a youth and is part of what I wanted from this project. During the recording of the album, Brian was bringing in sounds like bicycle bells, rattling coke cans, dog whistles, and dog barks, mixing them in with the sublime vocals of the band and dozens of instruments not associated with pop music.

This project is something of a homecoming for you, as New Yorker who moved to LA fairly recently. Is Pet Sounds a reflection of New York?

I still consider New York my home… I’ve seen a lot of great bands and a lot of great art in my 21 years of living here. And I always think of this place as the collective mind that I draw from and contribute to. What New Yorkers think of what I do here matters a lot to me (you people have very high standards, which I am gratefully challenged by). The freshness of the work has less to do with a California Beach Boys style than with my excitement for a very unique engagement with New York and its visitors.

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You once collaborated with Stereolab – did you have any musical collaborators on this project?

It would be a dream to collaborate with the Beach Boys, who reunited this year for a 50th anniversary tour (they played the Beacon on May 8 and 9; I would love for them to see this project!).

But for this installation, I was interested in creating a very abstract experience for the viewer/listener, so I didn’t want the kind of nameable presence a musician would bring. If I could have removed myself from the project, it would have been perfect. But I think that can still occur, because the vast majority of visitors will not know my name or care who I am. They will simply enjoy the project on their own, making music as they wish, trying to figure out how to get the sounds they want from the blobs. I presume they will have a good time.

Pet Sounds is on view in Madison Square Park until September 9.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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