For a small area around the University Center Gallery, you can’t hear any Top 40 songs playing on 102.5 Mountain FM. What you hear instead over that particular frequency is people walking around Jesse Blumenthal’s sculptural installment, Transmission Park. Part of Blumenthal’s exhibit is a radio transmitter that locally overpowers the local FM station and replaces it with the sounds of movement and exploration: buzzes and clicks and fuzz and pops and stomps and zings and pows.
“It’s a felony,” Blumenthal, an MFA graduate student, explains of the override, “but it’s a funny law that isn’t really enforced.”
This playful little trick—which isn’t mentioned or explained anywhere at the exhibit—is about communication, awareness, environment, technology and art, and it’s a perfect point of entry into Blumenthal’s exhibit, which feels a lot like a room in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Strange sculptures sporting gramophone horns and ’80s-era car stereo speakers emit alien sounds, which intensify, pop or disappear as you walk around the space. Electrical cords snake everywhere, with no attempt made to hide them, while woodblock prints of Morse code march along the wall. Even the artist’s statement that greets you at the door is technical and audio-based: It’s a device from a singing greeting card that has been reprogrammed to explain the exhibit.
Finally, near the center of the room, is a raised black platform with a red ramp. As you stomp around on it (after stomping is enthusiastically suggested by the nearby gallery attendant), guitar pickups and other devices create sounds, which are then warped and changed through other devices, like amplifiers and speaker splitters. The result is delightful and odd and just a little creepy, just like everything in the space.
Blumenthal is no stranger to radio, technology or sculpture. With a BFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and extensive training in welding, metalwork and blacksmithing, the lifelong artist has a long work history showcasing sculpture, from the terrain at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (which he designed) to commercial sculptures for play and parks (he made the giant tree structure at the playground in Whitaker Park).
He has also been involved in community radio for many years, including a seven-year stint as a DJ and volunteer at KBUT in Crested Butte. He is now on the board of directors at Missoula Community Radio 105.5 FM, where he also hosts a show on Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m.
“I’ve worked in community radio for a long time, and it seems to bridge other technologies,” he says. “Technology has shifted around it, but we’re still in the age of radio. There are more radio stations than there have ever been, and there are physical radio waves that are transmitted all around us all the time. I want to build awareness of your movement, to think of these layers of entertainment and art and communication in the ‘Now’ age.”
Blumenthal sees radio as a constant presence in recent history as well as a creator of history, and that history’s span is visually represented by the sculptures in Transmission Park, from those gramophone horns and car speakers to a deconstructed boom box from the ’90s.
“I think sound is a really an interesting physical element that exists around us at all times,” he says, “and we don’t often notice it. In Transmission Park, the sound is amplified and distorted and translated through both passive and active means. The intent is not to drive [visitors] to a particular thing, but to raise questions about our environment, about how we’ve gotten to this point through industrial capitalism. I’m not looking for the answer to be objective. I think it’s particularly subjective.”
Transmission Park is on display weekdays until Dec. 19 at the UC Gallery, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.