Ed Purver and Tim DuRoche want to change the way Portlanders think about their bridges — or at least get them to stop and take a closer look.
The two artists will present “The Hidden Life of Bridges,” a temporary public art installation, during the opening weekend of PICA’s TBA:11 Festival. For three nights, they will transform the Hawthorne Bridge into a giant radio and the Morrison Bridge into a cinema that will reveal unseen and unheard elements of the two bridges.
Using microphones attached to the Hawthorne, DuRoche has created a real-time composition blending the sounds created by the bridge and interviews conducted with bridge workers. Over on the Morrison Bridge, video projections on the concrete piers will create a visual image of the sound waves coming from the Hawthorne combined with images and video footage shot by Purver.
The hope, says DuRoche, was to “create something that gives people a moment of pause or some sense of discovery and wonder in structures that we drive by or walk over or see every single day.”
Purver is a Brooklyn-based digital media artist and DuRoche is a local jazz musician and sound artist. Their collaboration grew out of a call for proposals from the Regional Arts and Culture Council and Multnomah County’s Percent for Art program, which funded the project. The two had never worked together before, but they share a passion for transforming architecture and public spaces and a common interest in enhancing and playing with the natural sounds made by bridges.
“We started sharing our past work with each other and discussing what we would do,” says Purver. “It all seemed like fun, so we decided to submit a proposal together.”
We spoke with both artists as they were putting the final pieces in place and working out the technical glitches in preparation for opening night.
OPB: What are people going to see and hear while they are standing on the Hawthorne during the installation?
Ed Purver: What they will see is the sound waves of the audio that is being generated by the Hawthorne Bridge being projected on the concrete legs of the Morrison Bridge — all in real time. The base music of it is generated by the traffic that is coming across the Hawthorne at the time. And that really ranges from the sound of a skateboard running down the sidewalk to a huge truck — we’re picking them all up with different microphones on different points on the bridge.
All of the video is in sync with the sound. So let’s say, for example, that you are standing on the Hawthorne and someone rides by on a skateboard. You should be able to see the sound waves of that sound, that skateboard, rippling across the Morrison in front of you. You’ll have the ripples of the water and the ripples of the sound and the light of the sound reflecting in the water below.
Mixed in with this live music of the traffic, you’ll hear interviews we’ve done with many of the workers who maintain and run the bridges. As you hear the voice, you’ll see the face of the person who’s talking start to appear in the sound waves in front of you. And then we will blend that with footage I shot of hidden spots inside the bridge itself — stairs, gears, hidden corners, pathways, all of the strange patterns that are generated by the metal pattern of the deck — little views that you will only see if you get underneath it or inside it.
OPB: What kind of experience are you hoping to create for people who see this piece?
Tim DuRoche: When we came up with the idea of the hidden life of bridges, on one level we wanted people to see these hidden gears and the things that they never get to see — to understand the bridge physically in a different way. I wanted people to experience the joy and the discovery of the internal music of the bridge. And then as we began to talk we realized that the other really important piece of this was the hidden lives of these everyday people that work on the bridges. How can we create something that gives people a moment of pause or a new way of looking at it or some sense of discovery and wonder in a structure that we drive by or walk over or see every single day?
OPB: Although you’ve done a lot of planning and composing for this project, there’s an element of it that you are leaving up to chance, correct?
Ed Purver: What I’ve learned from doing a lot of these public installation things is you can set up this structure and someone will always do something with it that you don’t expect. If someone figures out that there are microphones underneath the walkway, they could jump up and down and see the “boom, boom, boom” popping on the Morrison. They could ride their skateboard back and forth, if they could figure out where to do it. I would be very happy with that because that is a very playful response to what we’ve set up.
What really excites me about that is it will create new sounds that we haven’t heard before and it will give the sound an extra dimension. People will find ways to interact with it that I have no way of anticipating.
OPB: Going back to the first time you saw and filmed the bridge, what caught your eye as a video artist?
Ed Purver: For me everything starts with site, everything starts with the location. What struck me the first time I saw the Morrison Bridge was I assumed that those massive concrete legs were solid, but then when you go inside them they are like these enormous cathedrals, these big empty spaces. There is a massive counterweight that’s concealed within the legs, which allows them to open those huge bridge sections with a relatively small motor. So it’s actually really dramatic when you get in there.
That was the most fun place to be because it feels very cinematic, quite momentous. You’ve got this massive weight coming towards you, inexorably, you know really slowly, but it’s coming. The sound is very interesting in there, the sound of it all opening, with the constant sound of the traffic above you. And also the change in light is really striking because when it’s closed, it’s dark in there, and as it opens you get all of this natural light that starts flooding this huge space and it completely changes it — it feels really transcendent, like some choir of angels should start singing at some point.
Tim, as a musician, how did you approach the challenge of composing the random sounds coming from the bridge?
Tim DuRoche: I had certain timbres and things that I wanted to go after. We’re processing each of the sounds from the microphones through a series of effects and filters which allows me to take some of the harshness out and “chord” the sounds — in essence harmonize the bridge with itself. There are chordal settings and I wanted to avoid certain dissonances, but I can play with the fundamental pitch of the bridge a little bit. In terms of its compositional structure, some of it is more ambient but I did actually use harmonic changes, like in jazz.
In approaching a piece like this, you need to be comfortable with the fact that you can’t put too many strictures on it and you can’t create too tight of a matrix because traffic patterns can change, conditions on the bridge can change. In many ways this is how jazz works; you want minimal structures that allow for maximum flexibility. There is also a lot of listening going on. We were really listening to the bridge and we were allowing the bridge to listen to the people who use it. You want to know that you have enough latitude to go a certain direction, but you don’t want it to be too tightly coiled because then it loses the amount of playfulness that can occur.
What are you looking forward to when all the pieces are in place and people are there to experience the piece for the first time?
Ed Purver: I’ll be really happy if we’re able to reawaken the viewer’s relationship with their familiar urban environment, if we are able to enliven a place for the people who use it. My work is about trying to make people re-see stuff they are very familiar with or see it in a slightly different way. All we are doing is teasing out the sounds that are already there, the people that are already there and we’re just shining a light on it, amplifying it up a little bit.
Tim DuRoche: I see the project as an opportunity for convening. I think if you can bring a few hundred people down to the river or across the bridge to experience, as a community, a shared vision or a shared value, that’s the piece that really works for me.
Go See It!
The Hidden Life of Bridges
- Sound & Video: September 8-10, 9-11 pm on the Morrison Bridge, Portland
- Sound Only: September 11-October 9, 10 am-10 pm on the Hawthorne Bridge, Portland or by calling 503.713.5852
- Visit website