The Bain Project, the ambitious, site-specific art installation that closed Sunday in Southeast Raleigh's Depression-era Ernest Bain Waterworks Plant, never shrouded its intentions with subtlety.
To blur the past into the present, industry into art, disuse into use, and vice versa: An old building crumbling after decades of essential service and subsequent atrophy acted as the muse for 12 young artists combining their energy into statements about their surroundings' past and present.
The Bain building lies at the amorphous threshold where downtown Raleigh suburbanizes into the shopping-center bedroom of Garner. It was built in 1939 with Public Works Administration funding to pump up to 20,000 gallons of water into Raleigh and adjacent unincorporated areas, and closed in 1987. Since, the building has sat mostly fallow, offering temporary shelter to the homeless and to encroaching wildlife. In 1997, the Wake Historic Preservation Commission bestowed landmark status on the property, and in 2006, Empire Properties snagged the building with plans to develop it into a mixed-use space with restaurants and retailers. First, though, the forgotten space was to be reintroduced to its community as an extended art project.
A call for entries and months of collaboration between a dozen artists and as many volunteers later, that mission succeeded on multiple levels. Over four days split between two weekends, more than 1,500 people filed through Bain's capacious lobby, filling out registration tags modeled after old water-service activation applications, wandering into rooms where mulberry branches grew from strewn electrical wires, and participating in a high-concept mix of performance art and studio installation inspired by a government structure-turned-artist playhouse.
For a city that's long seemed reluctant to engage atypical art, the smeared demes of Bain's crowd—especially on its final weekend, when the city's safe art syndicate, Artsplosure, happened just two miles away—looked a lot like evidence that Raleigh's art-audience interface continues to expand.
What's more, a fantastic 17-track, 52-minute compilation—appropriately titled The Bain Music Project, humbly printed on recycled cardboard cases, music stamped on a faint green CD-R—blurs its own boundaries and deserves as much notice as the Bain fortress and its temporary artistic accompaniment. Bain gathers area favorites like The Rosebuds and Lonnie Walker alongside local outsiders such as saxophonist Bob "Crowmeat" Pence and industrial sound choppers Le Machine. Captured in Bain's sound-bouncing acoustic environment, the hard edges that define these bands—Tender Fruit's familiar folk intimacy and Razor Wire Safety Nets' serrated jazz textures; The Rosebuds' sharp pop beats and Mount Weather's tense rock atmospheres—soften, rubbing comfortably against one another like shoulders in a packed concert hall.
Jazz musicians sit in with pop bands, and visual artists elicit a symphony of roaring tones by spinning rusting metallic blades within the building's water tanks. All told, Bain presents a cartel of highly innovative, interactive Capital City bands making music that corrodes the long-standing Raleigh Rock trope.
Like The Bain Project's visual art, these sessions reflect the civil service's function—to clean and distribute water to half of Raleigh and its hinterlands—and architecture—galleys, pipes, pits, high ceilings, spiral stairwells, empty space, close quarters. That environment presented both obstacles and opportunities. Thomas Costello played every instrument on the splendid track "High Horse," as Mount Weather. He laughs as he recalls his often painful sessions: Minus power and heat in the building, he pulled his fingers from his pockets only long enough to play guitar.
Then there was the issue of capturing that sound. Walking through the waterworks, the building's natural reverb—or its ability to cause and contain echoes of a source sound—is perciptible when speaking even at a conversational volume. The waves bounce. Bands often add (and over-add) reverb with effect pedals and computer processors, augmenting their basic sound with the impression of wide-open space. Carefully selected or constructed recording spaces can add reverb, too. Beneath Capitol Records' iconic cylindrical headquarters in Los Angeles, for instance, Les Paul—the electric guitar and multi-track recording pioneer—helped design eight concrete reverb chambers 25 feet underground. Speakers at one end of a room send in a normal signal. A microphone at the other end picks up the sound, abetted now by the room's reverb.
Tim Kiernan, one of the Bain artists, recognized similar potential in this place. His original motive, he admits, was to hear local bands he loved perform in the idiosyncratic structure, to hear their sounds refracted by the long hallways and deep pits, the walls of concrete and the machines of steel. He started gauging their interest. In November, Tender Fruit—a duo playing gorgeous, elegiac folk over simple drums and acoustic guitar—gathered beneath the building's row of 18 clerestory windows. As soon as they played, Kiernan realized that live performance wasn't actually possible at Bain. Too many hard surfaces scattered and too many open spaces swallowed the music. Everything blurred.
"There are interesting problems in recording in a space like this. There's so much reverb in here, it was difficult to get things to sound," explains Christopher "Xopher" Thurston, who mixed the music that Kiernan, sound engineer David Crawford and Bain co-founder Daniel Kelly recorded.
Thurston means that, because the sound bounces so much indoors, microphones had to be carefully placed and frequency levels had to be monitored to render the sound of an instrument on tape at all. Costello, for instance, played his electric guitar quietly and muted its high notes as much as possible.
But recording can be a bit like sorcery: To the ear, a song might sound incomplete or awful while being recorded. What skillful engineers capture with their microphones and tapes, though, can be mixed into your new favorite masterpiece. So Costello's guitar—played with cold hands, with one-third of its sound all but eliminated—mesmerizes on record because it sounds tremulous and hesitant, making his brazen lyrical imprecations (he's not talking about his high horse, mind you) that much more compelling.
After recording Tender Fruit with microphones that were placed very close to the band, Crawford later returned with the basic track and played it through small speakers in the waterworks' main hallway. He recorded that sound and blended the two. "Middle State," then, opens as though from a distance, Staci Sawyer's drumbeat and Christy Smith's guitar melting into the sound of a small but insistent marching band playing on the other side of a hill. As Smith starts to sing, the sound comes into focus. Walking through the space, one can imagine opening the elevator and hearing the music pour from the other end of the room, bouncing around the plant's 13 collecting tanks and pumps and pipes.
"The biggest instrument involved was the room because it colors everything," explains Kelly Crisp. Her band, The Rosebuds, exploited that by handing its song's melody over to a saxophone, which sounds like a distorted dream in the waterworks. A percussion track that consisted of Crisp beating on pipes with a wrench she'd found augmented the drumkit. "You could walk around and see how your voice could sound in different parts. It was something you could use."
To close their session, The Rosebuds gathered many of the visual artists in the space to chant the tune's wordless hook at night by the light of a generator-powered lamp. Many of the same artists performed Dana Raymond's John Symphony—an excerpt of which serves as the disc's haunting instrumental introduction—by climbing into the plant's water-cleaning pools to push and pull on metallic arms, filling the space with strange harmonies. When Raymond, a professor at N.C. State's College of Art & Design who has long worked in local galleries, discovered the musical properties of those pools, the symphony was just an idea. Sunday afternoon, an hour before The Bain Project closed, it turned into a live performance, just as Kiernan initially envisioned: The artists spun the blades, and the throng lining the hallway marveled at the sound.
"It was bound to happen," Costello said several hours after Bain shut its doors that night. "Raleigh is at the point now so that there are all the mechanisms there for people to connect and make something happen, whether it's in a space like this or one of the regular art institutions. These people have a tendency to pull together, to reach out and work with other people, regardless of whether or not it's making headlines."