The Sound of Art
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The Sound of Art

Photo of Sonic Boardwalk by Kristi Allik.

With the strike over, it’s finally easy to visit Centre Island once again. While the park is often associated with picnics and bike rides, in the summer it’s also home to two interactive art installations.
Commissioned by New Adventures in Sound Art, Sonic Boardwalk appeared on Centre Island in 2006 and Synthecycletron in 2007. Even folks familiar with the island’s many charms may not have noticed these installations, though. This may be due to the unobtrusive signage near the sound sculptures, or it may be because the sounds created by both works aren’t aggressive—they’re distinct but blend effortlessly with the sounds around them.

Sonic Boardwalk, created by Kingston artists Kristi Allik and Robert Mulder, is located near the west end of the boardwalk. The piece consists of twenty-four boards with clusters of brass bells underneath. Step on the boards and bells ring, like a life-size xylophone or a mini-acoustic version of the huge piano at FAO Schwarz. Different bells ring depending on which boards you step on, how much pressure you put on the boards, and where you jump on each board. Take board five, for instance: jump on the top end of the board and high-pitched tiny bells ring; jump on the lower end and lower-pitched bells clang. “Each board makes its own little melody,” Allik told us.
As we watched passersby, many on the boardwalk didn’t seem to notice the sound sculpture nearby (the sign for the sculpture also sits quietly on the ground), but as soon as one person jumped on the boards, a crowd would quickly gather, and, one after another, people in the crowd would hop on the boards. They’d smile brightly and laugh while jumping from board to board. Ringing bells mingled with the sounds of waves crashing against the rocks on the other side of the boardwalk
Grimsby resident Jason Hauser, 11, jumped on the boards for a few laughter-filled minutes with his buddy Wyatt Lowry. “It was pretty cool,” Hauser said before hopping back on his bike.
But the piece isn’t just for children. Adult visitors like Colleen Clarke also trotted across the boards. Clarke, who wore black high-heeled sandals, giggled as she jumped from plank to plank.
There’s evidence Sonic Boardwalk has welcomed many visitors. Of the twenty-four slats in the installation, about eleven no longer ring their bells. They look worn from use. Fortunately, the boards that do still work—especially numbers five, six, and seven from the west edge—are enough to make even the grumpiest person break into a smile. And that’s the point, Allik says: “If you’re an adult, I’d like to awaken that child within you.”
She hopes the installation gives visitors “a respite from their worldly cares,” and helps them feel “a bit better about themselves and the world.” But mostly, she wants visitors to have fun.

Photo of Synthecycletron by Nadene Thériault-Copeland, courtesy of New Adventures in Sound Art.

Toronto artist Barry Prophet has similar hopes for those who visit his piece Synthecycletron. Located just a few minutes away from Sonic Boardwalk, Synthecycletron sits in a field northeast of the bike rentals and south of the boat rentals. The work consists of four stationary bikes aligned with the points of the compass. The bikes face outward and are connected to an eight-foot-high tower. The tower and the bikes are painted white and speckled with blue, yellow, and red dots. Like Sonic Boardwalk, some tourists walking near Synthecycletron didn’t venture over to the sound sculpture, but as soon as one brave soul climbed on a bike, people flocked to the work.
By riding the bikes, participants generate electricity that activates synthesizers inside the tower, which then release sounds. There are two distinct sound sets: a north-south one and an east-west one. Asked to describe the sounds they heard, participants said the east-west sound set sounded like a ball being bounced or bubbles or galloping. Those who rode the north or south bikes said they heard bird-like sounds. “It sounded like something was going to take off,” said Karin Newman, who hopped on one bike while her granddaughter rode another.
Building a sound sculpture where participants must cycle to hear something encourages people to engage with the artwork. “It’s not a passive experience; it’s an active experience,” Prophet says.
And it’s one that visitors found refreshing. “We’re all trained not to touch artwork,” said Martine Johnson, who smiled as she pedalled the south bike and then the east bike.
While adults, teens, and children rode the bikes, one toddler was too tiny to reach the pedals—he stayed on the ground and used his hands to push the bike pedals around. Watching a toddler interact with a sound sculpture isn’t something one sees everyday, but that’s evidence of the work’s success: Synthecycletron is intended to make sound art accessible to the public.
“This is not playing a radio tune, a melody, or a rhythm section,” Prophet says. “This is sound art. And it’s exposing them to sounds they wouldn’t necessarily be experiencing [otherwise].”
Similarly, Mulder and Allik say they enjoyed creating Sonic Boardwalk because it’s “a way of getting art out of the gallery [and] bringing it where the people are.”
Sonic Boardwalk and Synthecycletron continue until October 31.