Satellite Sound Bridge Cologne – San Francisco (1987)

TITLE: Satellite Soundbridge Köln – San Francisco
AUTHOR: Bill Fontana
YEAR: 1987
MEDIUM: sound

DESCRIPTION: Remote performances with sound have been called «telematics» or «networked performance», a slightly different practice emerged in the 1980s: «translocation», brought forward in the contexts of the works by the American sound artist Bill Fontana. Already the term involved shows a more intense reflection about the question of space: Whereas telematics or networked performance stress the element of linking, the prefix «trans» implies a «going beyond», a transgressing, so in this case going beyond locality. This is taken literally: two different spaces are involved, and the site-specifity of the chosen localities is of high importance; mostly, these projects work with specific outdoor spaces, often in urban contexts. The following example is considered to be a historical moment in media history.

In summer 1987, Bill Fontana installed 18 microphones (or clusters of microphones) at different locations in San Francisco Bay, mixing and then playing back the recorded sounds in real time to a public square in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern art (this installation was called «Sound Sculptures through the Golden Gate»). At the very same time, an identical though completely independent procedure was chosen in Cologne, Germany, where again 18 sound sources were mixed and projected to now another square in Cologne, the Heinrich Böll-Platz (the installation was called «Metropolis Köln»). Thirdly the two site-specific works were linked – again in real time –, so that some of the sounds from Cologne could be heard in the public square in San Franciso – and the other way round. This actually was the very first satellite bridge in the history of radio, so the composition was called «Satellite Soundbridge Köln – San Francisco»; besides the two site-specific places in San Franciso and Cologne it was the more aired by different radio stations:


A listener in the respective urban settings perceived a superposition of different levels of space and spaces:

  • on the one hand, a listener perceives the real sounds, the soundscape of the chosen place;
  • secondly a listener hears the sounds from the loundspeakers, interweaving very densly with the soundscape already there – and introducing a very unsettling irritation: the sound transmission by electronic means passes with light speed – whereas the real acoustic events transported through the air are much slower. So, the effect, that occurs is, that a listener can hear the sounds in the loudspeakers before they arrive by natural way to his ears – an effect which was by the way very successfully orchestrated in Fontana’s work «Acoustical Visions of Venice» (1999), where twelve locations in Venice were recorded by microphones and transmitted live to the Punta della Dogana:

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  • thirdly: a listener can hear sounds from an other cultural context (foghorns in Cologne);
  • and fourthly: all this is of course in reference to the concrete architectural, spatial but also cultural context in which the sound installation is placed.

So more generally speaking: In his work Bill Fontana has been interested in projects which redefine with sound one’s sense of place in an urban landscape, and develop a sense of awareness about the world of sound and about the ways we are constructing spatial arrangements: his sound art compositions in various ways explored the idea of hearing as far as you could see. So that the audience is contemplating a visual panorama through the medium of live sound transmission from different simultaneous points from the visual distance. This distance is collapsed as all those parts of the landscape are acoustically brought together.