Finch Me A Vacuum

Artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.

Saw his installation, From Hear to Ear seven years ago at the

He recently had an exhibit in NY (below) of vaccuum cleaners producing sound via strategically-placed harmonicas. In the backdrop of this exhibit, he a magnified a candle flame and kept the camera steady upon it. He then recorded the flame’s sound vibrations as it flickered. When this sound was played back to the candle, it extinguished itself.

There is something about sound within an art installation. Sound obviously sets tone and environment. However, from a potentially-blind perspective, I have grown to become attuned to sound. Each nuance sound in daily life: of pitch, tone, variation, pauses, breaths, and white noise all indicate place, time, and mood. I can sense tension and love through sound. I can feel vibrations in the air. I can taste electrical impulses. When we viewed the exhbit of finches on a labyrinth of wire hangers, there was a chorus of their movements in the air. Sound implies existence. In the large, cold room, one could close their eyes and feel each finch move with a winged flutter and tinge of wire clinging in the air. It was as if you were a tiny finch in this created environment, for a moment.


“French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has casually arranged 13 vacuum cleaners, hoses curled and metal tubes standing at attention. Their indicator lights glow green and each has a harmonica stuck in its nozzle. One vacuum suddenly switches on, a wan yellow bulb attached to its side lights up, and air is sucked through the harmonica, sounding a wheezy chord. As it turns off, another goes on, its harmonica playing at a slightly different pitch. Soon all the machines chime in at intervals, creating the chaotic harmonies suggested by the work’s title, harmonichaos.

Boursier-Mougenot allows chance to conduct his concert: The vacuums’ motors are controlled by hidden sensors (modified electric guitar tuners) that react to sound frequencies, producing live, never identical call-and-response performances. Together with the muffled whirring of the motors and ambient noises in the gallery, the harmonicas evoke incidental pipe organ music, as if John Cage had scored a Lon Chaney film. In its spectacle of technology forming a disembodied choir, harmonichaos also recalls the eerie melancholy of Janet Cardiff’s Forty-Part Motet (installed at P.S.1 and, more recently, MoMA).

Opposite the vacuums is a black-and-white video projection of a candle flame, enlarged to the point of abstraction and flickering in slow motion. Its movement, we learn from a gallery handout, was generated by the reverberations of its own light. The fluttering was translated into sound waves, which were played back on a speaker; the sonic vibrations blew the flame out. But the video is silent and our connection to this process remains as ephemeral as the ghostly image itself.”

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