LOS ANGELES — The room is dark. The walls shake. Before my eyes can adjust, I hear overbearing, mechanical rumblings emanating from two speakers. I feel a vibration in my stomach, and it makes me anxious and uneasy. Part of me wants to rush out of the gallery, but another part of me wants to linger, touch the walls, feel the rattling shoot through the tips of my fingers.
The Port of Long Beach Recordings is transdisciplinary artist Phil Peters’ second solo exhibition at Canary Test. Over the course of many visits, Peters went to the nation’s second busiest port to capture the soundscape, and now bottles those noises inside the sparse confines of a gallery. He creates a fully immersive installation with subtle visual spectacle, producing a somatic sensation that is unlike a typical documentary project.
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The main visual focus, which is hard to fully perceive in the darkly lit space, are two towering, custom-built subwoofers. They taper inwards, resembling futuristic obelisks. On top, barely visible, are cylindrical embellishments that evoke the smokestacks adorning the tanker ships which dot along the port’s horizon.
Deep, cavernous sounds emanate from the speakers. At times it feels like you’re trapped in a container ship among the cargo, haunted by the reverberations that shake the steel walls. Your body works as a conduit for the sonic circuit; it ran through my feet and into the pit of my stomach, replicating the onset of an anxiety attack. Despite my uneasiness in the space, I found myself compelled to amplify the sensation by placing my hands upon the speakers’ gritty surface.
Unexpectedly, the sound’s perspective seems to be coming from the ship itself. Instead of more traditional field recordings from the port — like longshoremen shouting, pallets slamming together, or seagulls squawking — Peters created a custom microphone with a geophone, a device commonly employed by geologists measuring seismic activity, and embedded the device a few inches into the ground. This picked up the port’s disembodied rumblings and the eerie gurgling sounds from the Pacific Ocean.
Though the sound and speakers are the highlight of the exhibition, there’s one more component Peters has added to his show: another room, behind the subwoofers, that displays the vellum schematics created for the subwoofers. In three glass frames illuminated by pin lights, Peters layers blueprints and floor plans to create a mosaic of architectural drawings. This makes the exact details of the artist’s custom creations hard to decipher, but phrases like “inner baffle” and mathematical notations pop out.
Tucked into the back of this room is the modified sound equipment used for the field recordings, all safely coiled up in the bright orange case used to transport it. Though this inclusion doesn’t draw much attention, it presents an easter egg for acoustic engineers who want to unpack the design process.
Peters’ decision to pull sound from the underground of the Port of Long Beach highlights its structural importance in a massive global economy. The sounds at Canary Test are only a sliver of something much more domineering — something that can be captured statistically but cannot be fully portrayed through a single artwork. This sound represents more than 9 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) moved by more than 300 thousand employees at the port; over 750 million TEUs are exchanged across the globe each year.
Peters’ recordings are made more complex by the time frame during which they were captured. Peters made most of his sound recordings in December 2021, two months after President Joe Biden announced that the port would change its schedule to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This was in response to a bottleneck at the Port of Long Beach and its neighbor, the Port of Los Angeles (which together account for 40% of all the imported goods in the United States) and a fear that holiday presents wouldn’t land on eager doorsteps.
Peters came to the port at different hours of the day and night, capturing late night movements that, potentially, would have been calmer before the Presidential order. Thus, The Port of Long Beach Recordings also represent the globe’s hunger for commodities, the ever-expanding growth of imported products, and the enormous system of infrastructure that is still insufficient to process it all.
Surprisingly, despite all the headlines celebrating the switch to 24/7 operations, the Port of Long Beach never actually achieved that schedule. As of February 2022, a worker shortage has hindered the manpower needed to make this happen. Inadvertently, Peters harnessed a prescient soundscape for a failed achievement, producing an even more foreboding exhibition than intended. The show produces a soundtrack that conveys the continual frustration citizens feel with the government’s tendency to make grand, empty, promises, making the unnerving, sinister rumbling feel even more fitting.
While The Port of Long Beach Recordings may initially overwhelm some viewers, sitting with the discomfort slowly reveals the nuances of the colossal infrastructure it represents. The trembling sounds convey not just the movement of container ships, but also the echoes of a global supply chain that began on the other side of the world. Despite the expansive infrastructure underlying the global trade economy, logistics are still failing to meet the demand of humanity’s materialism. Take stock of the vibrations coursing through your body and ask how you’ve contributed to the cycle.
The Port of Long Beach Recordings continues at the Canary Test (526 East 12th Street C, Fashion District, Los Angeles) through May 11. The exhibition was curated by Kell Yang-Sammataro and Ben Logan.