“The Sky Opens Twice”—why Abinadi Meza’s sound installation is the must-hear event of Northern Spark 2014


Meza during a sound check at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) earlier this year. Photo by Hyeonmin Ghim.

It was a cold winter morning when Abinadi Meza arrived at the MIA from his home in Austin, Texas. Meza, a sound artist, filmmaker, and professor at the University of Houston’s School of Art, received a prestigious Rome Prize this year, an award given to just 30 emerging artists and scholars, and he was in town for a few days serving as a mentor in the Artists on the Verge Fellowship program. During some downtime, he came by the museum to talk about a commission for Northern Spark. What might he do with all three floors of the museum’s Target Wing Rotunda, where Jennifer Steinkamp’s fascinating video projection “6EQUJ5” fills the ceiling?

Six months later, here we are. Abinadi’s 13-minute looping sound installation “The Sky Opens Twice” will premiere at the MIA on June 14 as part of the city-wide Northern Spark festival.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Sky Opens Twice” along with excerpts from my recent conversation with Abinadi about his sound projects and the inspiration for this work in particular.

Christopher Atkins: How will “The Sky Opens Twice” work, and what are the challenges of pulling this off?

Abinadi Meza: First of all, it’s amazing to have this unique space to work in. I’m developing the installation as sonic layers that intermix and move through the architecture. I want the piece to have a sense of physical magnitude. I’m also trying to tell a story about longing and vast distances—the urge to communicate across inconceivable space and time envelopes.

CA: So, when people come enter the rotunda on the ground floor they will see and hear a space filled with sound. Where did you find these sounds?

Meza attaching a flex sensor to the tree for his "Vein of Sky" project that used climate data to generate sound. Photo by Brandy Tribble.

Meza attaching a flex sensor to the tree for his “Vein of Sky” project that used climate data to generate sound. Photo by Brandy Tribble.

AM: The script and sounds of “TSOT” are original rather than found. Much of the script references historical interstellar transmissions, which happen to be very fantastic and mythological in nature. But there certainly were other “voices” playing in my mind as I worked, like scenes from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and Tarkovsky’s Solaris—ethereal textures of numbers stations and other mysterious transmissions. I was interested in things that exert uncanny attraction on the human imagination, like the sea and space. At times, there were too many voices in the mix—poem stanzas of Machado, fragments from Donald Crowhurst’s logbooks, Melville and Opal Whitely. They all made an appearance at one point but eventually I removed them. Erasure is sometimes my compositional method. But those voices are still there in the extra-dimension of the piece, or as Duchamp might have put it, in the infra-thin layer.

CA: Now that you’ve mentioned space, talk about your background in architecture, studying at SCI-Arc. As a sound artist, how do you relate to architectural space?

AM: After art school, I wanted to expand my work further, so I went to architecture school—well, an intensely experimental architecture school. At SCI-Arc, we had classes with Curtis Roads, Sylvere Lotringer, Benjamin Bratton, and Manuel DeLanda…. Lebbeus Woods would be at our critiques. I’m interested in the experiential qualities of space, in space as a consciousness instrument and as political material. Space is mutable, and mutates.

The Target Wing Rotunda, where Meza's "The Sky Opens Twice" sound installation will premiere on June 14 as part of the Northern Spark festival.

The Target Wing Rotunda, where Meza’s “The Sky Opens Twice” sound installation will premiere on June 14 as part of the Northern Spark festival.

CA: Architecture as a “consciousness instrument”—in the sense that buildings and spaces can shape human consciousness, how we think and feel? Museums and civic buildings, for example, feel much different than walking into a baseball stadium.

AM: Yes, certainly! In a sense, all our various attempts to mark or utilize space generate “architecture.” I also think humans create or appropriate “interior” spaces within generalized space, if we can say such a thing exists [generalized space]. These interior spaces work in an existential or psychological way. We carve them out; they are mirrors. I don’t think of space as a neutral envelope; it’s marked by human intention, desire and anomalies—accidents, if you will.

CA: It’s interesting to think of architecture as a combination of both intended and unintended effects. Since sounds have their own anomalies and accidents, especially when they echo through large spaces, I’m curious what happens when you create sound installations with this concept of architecture in mind.

AM: It’s a dynamic process that involves the unexpected. For the MIA installation, I’m trying to inhabit the three-story vertical space of the rotunda with an atmospheric narrative, both aesthetically and thematically. It is designed to create an immersive and contemplative space.

A still from "Melencolia," Meza's film using footage from the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

A still from “Melencolia,” Meza’s film using footage from the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

CA: Let’s talk about outer space. “The Sky Opens Twice” references space exploration and is installed just beneath Jennifer Steinkamp’s “6EQUJ5,” which is based on a fascinating deep space transmission that was received in 1977. Can you talk about some of your other projects inspired by these themes of communication and transmission, and how they informed this piece?

AM: Outer space has fascinated me for a long time. I was in elementary school during the Reagan years, and in school we watched films telling us we would live on the moon, farm on the moon, etc. There was a kind of space-utopia craze back then, but it had a kind of sci-fi, manifest-destiny quality and was extremely technological (Star Wars Defense, etc). For me that notion of space-utopia collapsed when we watched the Challenger explode, live in our classroom. It wasn’t broadcast live on television at that time, but we had a live feed in our school because a teacher was on board—the first teacher in space. Actually, my two-channel video installation “Melencolia” [which premiered at the 2013 Texas Biennial] is made from footage of the Challenger launch and disaster. The installation is an infinite loop: you see the faces of people at the launch, their expressions of apprehension, hope, happiness, wonder. In my version, the flying body never explodes. I’ve also made other works related to radio, transmissions, layered space and time, memory, the unknown. I think of “The Sky Opens Twice” as an “aural film”—I think it’s pretty cinematic.

“The Sky Opens Twice” is curated by Christopher Atkins
Experience it at Northern Spark 2014, the all-night art festival, on June 14 from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the Minneapolis Institute of Art