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Reflections on Aspect 281

In the Pennsylvania system of railroad signaling, Rule 281 means “all clear and proceed.” The various rules are indicated through specific colors and positions (also referred to as aspects) of railway signals. A two story mural designed by John JH Phillips contains cartoon-like red, yellow, and green renditions of various aspects of train signals painted horizontally and vertically. The mural, sponsored by Mural Arts, will remain on the wall bordering a parking lot at 990 Spring Garden Street long after the Site/Sound festival ends.

Other materials designed by Carolyn Healy in this immersive installation will inhabit this lot for another week and then be carted away. I trip over a winding set of ¼ scale train tracks that lead from nowhere to nowhere: the chain link fence at one end of the lot to the wall on the opposite end. I stumble into a pile of wood arranged in a halo of light. Several smokestacks scattered throughout the lot are lit by stage lamps that cast sharp shadows on the wall. I spot a pile of anthracite illuminated by icy white-blue light that causes the black coal to shimmer as if coated in silver. Next to the coal lies rusted railroad spikes in a pool of warmer light.

The circles of light on the wood, coal, and spikes evoke an ethereal nostalgia and significance around these objects, as if they’re appearing in a dream to notify the dreamer of some important metaphor. But the cleanness of their presentation decontextualizes and beautifies them to the extent that the real-life dirt, labor, and movement associated with these materials is totally absent. The humans who carted the fuel and hammered the spikes are nowhere to be found.

The only motion I see is that of the bodies of the onlookers wandering through the installation, and in two videos projected onto the wall adjacent to the mural. One depicts moving images of trains, processed through an analogue video synthesizer that appear as waves and color dancing on the wall. The other video contains still images of abstract lines, dots, and squares, animated through the same video synthesizer and made to resemble railway signals.

Musicians from Gene Coleman’s Transonic Orchestra play below an arch dotted with railroad signs. Although there is no exact relationship intended between this musical composition and the installation, I can’t help but hear Shinjoo Cho’s bandoneon, and gamin’s saenghwang as train horns; Adam Vidiksi’s percussion as a train rumbling as it nears; Kinan Abou-Afach’s cello and Layale Chaker’s violin as the screeches of wheels on rails coming to a stop.

The concert offers a focal point in the space that sharpens my attention. The juxtaposition of the musicians’ precise choices and the random happenings in the surroundings, such as the intermittent hiss of steam blowing out of the installation’s smokestacks, creates an unpredictability that wakes me up. Behind the musicians, Spring Garden Street is framed by the stage arch. The sounds of cars and passersby are largely drowned out by the concert, which creates a silent film-like illusion, except the film is of the present day and the viewers are planted in a terrain that contains relics from the past.

As the music volume quiets, the street noises emerge from the blanket of tones, offering a window into the sounds of the everyday––people’s laughter and voices as they walk by, car engines and tires streaming past––this street music cross fades with the Transonic Orchestra as their music waxes and wanes.

It begins to rain and musicians race to protect their instruments and gear. It seems that Vidiksis’ ensemble, BEEP (Boyer Electroacoustic Ensemble Project), comprised of his students from Temple University, will have to cancel their set. But they begin to play music from their iPads, unamplified, as they hop and shuffle along the train tracks. I ask Vidiksis what’s happening and he replies exuberantly, “they’re improvising!”

Aspect 281, Carolyn Healy and John JH Phillips with guest artists, BEEP, directed by Adam Vidiksis and the Transonic Orchestra, featuring Miya Masaoka (koto and electronics), Layale Chaker (violin), Dan Blacksberg (trombone), gamin (saenghwang and piri), Shinjoo Cho (bandoneon), Nick Millevoi (e-guitar), Kinan Abou-Afach (cello and oud), Adam Vidiksis (electronics and percussion), and Gene Coleman (musical direction), 990 Spring Garden Street, October 12, 2019. One more performance on October 19 with guest artists Michael Reiley McDermott and BEEP, directed by Adam Vidiksis.

Reflections on Aspect 281