Sam McManis

Discoveries: Sit down, hear the latest on public art

So many competing sounds – just noise, really – ambush your auditory senses along Market Street.

If it’s not the hiss and shudder of Muni buses rumbling by, it’s blaring car horns and periodic screaming sirens. If it’s not the clatter of skateboarding hipsters zooming over brick sidewalks, it’s the chuffing of the portable generator attached to a halal cart. And, everywhere, people walk briskly and talk volubly – on cellphones or just to themselves.

At times, it seems, you can barely hear yourself think.

Yet at perhaps Market Street’s busiest nexus, just west of the O’Farrell Street-Grant Avenue junction, sit two 8-foot tall, 8-feet wide concrete parabolic disks, spaced 50 feet apart on each side of the pedestrian walkway that leads to the Yerba Buena Gardens. It is as if satellite dishes from atop adjacent financial district high rises had come crashing down between the Coffee Bean Cafe and the Four Seasons Hotel and somebody decided to place a single wooden chair in front of each disk. Either that or the NSA has really stepped up its surveillance program.

In case merely the sight of the installation weren’t lure enough to gain attention, a curved red sign explains its sudden appearance last month with this message:

Here: take a moment. This space is an experiment. It’s a disruption in the everyday stream, a place for something unexpected to happen. So, step out of the rush. Mess around a bit, follow an impulse, get your hands and body going. See what you make of this space.

There are no instructions, per se, to this piece of public art and science – official name: Whispering Dishes – which is a collaboration between the Exploratorium‘s “Living Innovation Zone” program and the city’s Office of Civic Innovation.

But people quickly get the gist. They are supposed to sit in each chair and talk, either in a normal voice or even in a whisper. What will happen is something strange and wondrous. You can hear the person 50 feet away, loud and clear and perfectly enunciated, while the rest of the cacophonous city fades to mere background mumbling.

You have entered an acoustic vortex that focuses the very ions of the air in a way so that two people can have an intimate chat across a vast expanse of sidewalk.

The delight that spreads across people’s faces as they pause, some for as little as 30 seconds, to sit and chat is infectious.

Let’s listen in to this exchange by two buddies, David Smith and the Rev. Michael Peterson, both San Franciscans.

Peterson: “I can hear you clear as day.”

Smith: “It’s just like standing next to you.”

Peterson: “Yup, I can hear you perfectly.”

Smith: “Now, I can get rid of my soup can and string.”

OK, so it’s not exactly Pinteresque dialog. Then again, Alexander Graham Bell could only muster, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” when he made the first phone call. So the conversational bar isn’t high.

Most of the exchanges were even more curt, like this between Jake Saltz and Lindsay Macias of Oakland: “Hi. Hi. Whoa, that’s crazy. We gotta go.”

The goal, Exploratorium officials say, is to get people to think, even briefly, about science and, according to its website, “bring learning to the streets.” For the city, it’s a “new way of using its public spaces for public good and new forms of urban design.”

Daly City resident and science geek Robert Venegas – he works as an IT specialist – lingered at the site during his lunch hour. He’s paid several visits to the Whispering Dishes in the first week since its construction.

“My wife asked me, ‘How do they do that?’” he said. “I explained to her it’s the concave or the dish effect, essentially sound waves pass through that curved space.”

He laughed, then added, perhaps only half-joking: “We probably don’t realize how much information, how much chatter, is swirling around us right now that you can pick up. But I think things like this are good for the city. They should do this more.”

More is planned for other areas along Market Street for the next two years. In fact, two other installations already border “Whispering Dishes.”

One is a stationary bicycle with an outlet plug so that people can charge smartphones while under their own pedal power. The other is the “Singing Bench,” which is designed so that two people can sit with their bare arms on the metal plate arm rest, and hold hands with their free arms. What they say results in a song that plays as an electrical current goes through a circuit.

I bribed my city-dwelling son to lounge with me on the “Singing Bench” but, alas, we did not create beautiful music together. Seems there was a gaping hole in the middle of the bench. A missing part, perhaps?

That’s one concern about interactive public installations: the wear and tear from use and possible abuse.

San Francisan Olga Dombrowskya paused at the bicycle charging station, pleased to see it functional.

“It was broken – the pedal –last time I was here,” she said. “I’m happy to see that.”

It looked as if taggers had already hit the inside of the concrete dishes, but had been expunged by gray paint from city maintenance workers. Saltz, the Oaklander, was a tad skeptical about the long-term future of the current and future sites.

“It’s great, as long as it doesn’t become bum central,” Saltz said. “That’s really the only thing we have to worry about urban art. They just put this up in the last week or so, and it still looks good.”

In a lull of street traffic, I coerced my son to sit in the dish across from me. The only thing he said – and it came across clear, drowning out even the sirens bouncing off the buildings:

“Can I get my free lunch now?”