Marlin Underground, 2012. Found objects, audio equipment, and sound, installation view.

Speak, Materials: Dan Steinhilber’s Way with the Everyday

Do you remember the sound of your parents’ basement? The drone of the dehumidifier, the steady whir of the dryer, the hollow thump made by Uncle Kent’s college trunk? Dan Steinhilber does. Marlin Underground, his installation on the lower level of the Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC, (on view until December 29) consists of an ensemble of assisted readymades, given voice through wired circuitry that attaches them to a computerized control center. The title evokes the type of college garage band in which Steinhilber played while also referring to a fish trophy—just one of dozens of objects unearthed in the Kreeger storerooms. In keeping with the flexible tenets of a post-studio practice, Steinhilber transforms the museum into a creative space where he becomes the composer of a sound sculpture made by performing materials.

The Kreeger, former residence of David and Carmen Kreeger, was designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1967. Today, it is as well known for its Modernist architecture as it is for its outstanding collection of 19th- and 20th-century art. Since the museum’s inauguration in 1994, the family traditions of displaying art and hosting concerts in the harmoniously proportioned halls have continued. Temporary exhibitions are situated in what was once the family basement. Steinhilber has thought long and hard about basements in general, and the Kreeger family basement in particular: as psychological spaces, as domestic environs for activities such as laundry or ping-pong, and as repositories for objects such as dehumidifiers, packing crates, plastic tubs, metal pipes, and outdated equipment. The often neglected foundation of the home, the basement exudes a certain honesty of place.

In 2003, Steinhilber was the first DC-based artist chosen for a Directions exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In many ways, that show set the tone for his subsequent practice. His use of common, commercially produced objects, including soda bottles, paper-covered hangers, and plastic bags, put him in the company of sculptors such as Tony Feher, Tara Donovan, and Tom Friedman, with whom he has since exhibited. Even at this early phase of his career, however, Steinhilber demonstrated an uncanny knack for uncovering “the sculptural DNA of a form and invent[ing] unforeseen roles for his materials,” as Sarah Tanguy wrote (Sculpture, April 2004). Since then, he has continued his in-depth investigation into the innate properties and manipulative possibilities of materials “we have all worked with,” as he puts it. Chewing gum, packing peanuts, and household appliances—this is a truth to materials that Josef Albers might not have imagined.

In a 2006 installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Steinhilber added a kinetic component, using leaf-blowers, industrial fans, and Roombas (robotic, self-propelled floor vacuums) to shape the space by blowing torrents of Styrofoam packing peanuts through the air and across the floor. Another example of sculpting air, Breathing Room (2010), at Mass MoCA, transformed a gallery into a lung-like environment in which fans inflated and deflated white plastic sheeting lining the walls. Viewers inside the space experienced a sense of wonder alternating with claustrophobia. At the Kreeger, Steinhilber further develops the association between built, architectural space and a body cavity, reconfiguring a room-sized, inflatable sculpture originally designed for the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina (2011). Using tools like a mulching mower and special hot “griddle shoes” cobbled together by the artist, the structure is constructed from sheets of white greenhouse plastic melted together to enclose thousands of bits of mulched plastic bags, also ironed to the membrane. From the outside, the sculpture looks like a giant listing figure; from the inside, like an Impressionist or Pointillist landscape. At the Kreeger, the improvised shape opens up to a large window, doubling the interior/exterior experience as the viewer first approaches the outside of the sculptural skin, then enters the colorful cavity, and from there encounters the landscaped woods outside. This dialogue between artificial and natural worlds takes on an almost nostalgic tone at a time when plastic bags are increasingly discouraged or banned for environmental reasons. Though Steinhilber often displays an affinity for plastic, in the other half of his Kreeger exhibition, he adopts an all-encompassing approach to materials with his Duchampian transformation of found objects.

For Marlin Underground, Steinhilber has, as he says, “recruited” an extensive array of objects, some belonging to the Kreeger family, others found in the basements of his friends and family members, all with embedded sounds and histories. Steinhilber notes that in his field research on basements, he found “a very low demand on visual aesthetics. This is the aesthetic I chose to adopt, and with it, the freedom to focus on the less obviously visual nature of sound; the mental space that music happens in.” Each object emits one or more unique sounds, recorded by the artist, resulting in 48 separate musical components that can be mixed in endless variety. Recognizing that sounds consist of vibrations, a transducer consisting of a magnet and a coil of wire is attached to each “instrument” of the basement “orchestra” and translates electrical current from low-volt amplifiers into vibration from the material. The object becomes its own amp. The analog sounds are then converted digitally in the computer at the center of the installation. Using the Logic program, Steinhilber is able to change pitch, amplify and repeat sounds, and establish sequences of sounds. He has “sampled” these tracks and composed original music and cover songs, coming up with a set list that plays continuously. The laptop controls become the brain at the center of the wired ensemble of parts, with an empty chair indicating that the artist is present, virtually anyway.

Untitled, 2006–08. Styrofoam packing peanuts, floor fans, and electronic components, dimensions variable.

As an homage of sorts to composer John Cage in the centennial of his birth, this electro-acoustic installation combines recorded sound with ambient sound, demonstrating Cage’s incorporation of chance, silence, and quotidian noise into musical compositions. His works, including the influential 4’33”, also emphasize the element of duration in performance. By staging a performative installation with sound source events, Steinhilber includes the component of time as the viewer navigates the environment. The experience of sound depends on how the objects are arranged in the space, where the listener is, and how the sounds are composed within the viewer’s mind. Each object has narrative possibilities that vary according to the viewer’s subjective associations, memories, and generational relationship to the mostly vintage objects. Perhaps the pile of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans sitting on a plastic trash can pedestal will transport you back in time to your college party days, or the sound of the pop top will signify the good times of a picnic. In any case, the memory jolts a mental reconstruction of an experience or place from your own life.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard famously explicated the house as a repository of elemental emotions. Drawing on Jungian psychology, Bachelard identifies the cellar as the locus of unconscious fears, darkness, and subterranean forces. In phenomenological terms, we experience descent into the basement as a downward journey into a dark, unknown entity. Yet it is also the sturdy foundation of the house. The cellar is a place of refuge from the most violent storms. Steinhilber accentuates the mid-century modern role of the rec room, a space devoted to family entertainment. All of these emotions come into play in the experience of Marlin Underground.

Musically speaking, the work draws on the circuit-bending, low-tech-for-high-tech-people experimentation practiced by conceptual digital artist Cory Arcangel, his band BEIGE, and the German groups Bodenstandig 2000 and Kraftwerk. Circuit bending is a type of improvised technology. By opening up old toys and tampering with the electrical circuitry of a Game Boy or Nintendo, new electronic sounds can be created. “Chiptune” musicians go a step further by programming synthesizers from the 8-bit sound cards in old video game consoles. Modifying antiquated 8-bit technology such as Atari 800 and Commodore 64 video game systems, Arcangel creates chiptunes and videos displaying graphics such as Super Mario clouds. Programming with the simplest possible coding language, he releases what he sees as the personalities of these obsolete 1980s computers. Of course, the blips and bleeps of Super Mario Brothers offer a limited sound palette, but when a whole archive of synthesized sound is available, myriad possibilities open up. Kraftwerk, which recently exhibited and performed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, produces electronic music that reflects the integration of technology into contemporary life. Assuming a robotic appearance, the musicians incorporate computers, synthesizers, and video projections into multi-sensory performances. Founded in 1970 by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, the group explores the modern human identification with machines.

An earlier art historical precedent is the visionary new media work of Nam June Paik—in particular, his collaborations with cellist Charlotte Moorman in the mid- to late 1960s. Moorman’s performance of TV Bra for a Living Sculpture (1969) fused music, performative art, technology, and interaction. The notes played on the cello became optical signals on the screens, which also displayed the spectators in the chamber. Steinhilber’s musical animation of everyday objects through current technology and engagement with the viewer certainly recalls the Fluxus spirit.

People project anthropomorphic qualities on to machines, but at the same time, machines have become more human. Hal, the ominous, controlling computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, has become the helpful, companionable Siri inhabiting the iPhone. Steinhilber’s use of Roombas as a kinetic element, as in his Baltimore installation, similarly reveals our identification with these small robotic cleaners. Self-propelled, they zoom about the gallery space, redirecting when they hit a wall or barrier. They move the packing peanuts around, forming patterns on the floor. Though they do not accomplish any other function, they seem friendly and are absorbing to watch. We like to think of such devices as tools or aids that we control, yet technology shapes our environment and life experience in ways that we cannot control.

The viewer’s experience of the technological machinations in Marlin Underground is likely to be one of amused wonder rather than implied threat. It is exposed-pipe technology: we can see how everything is connected and how the sounds are being produced. Like circuit bending, this has a DIY feel. It also has an improvisational, never-ending feel. We are unlikely to hear the same songs repeat, and the line-up may change in the course of the show. The combination of the vintage-looking objects with the laptop computer controls gives the appearance of an excavation in progress at an archaeological site while, at the same time, conjuring the future.

As technology increasingly impacts our lives, it also affects definitions of art. How does kinetic and programmed art shape sculpture? Marlin Underground is a sculptural environment that is also a theater in which the materials are performing. Steinhilber acts as a 21st-century sorcerer’s apprentice, animating the exhibition space. Just as he previously found ways to sculpt air, at the Kreeger, he sculpts sound and time, again rendering the invisible visible. The viewer is assumed to have an intimate relationship with these artifacts. By amplifying their identities, transforming them via technology into sentient beings, Steinhilber creates a seismic shift in that interplay.