Sights and Sounds: Professor Creates Art and Music at Diefenbunker

Carleton music professor, Jesse Stewart, is this year's artist-in-residence at the Diefenbunker. (Chris Roussakis Photo)

Jesse Stewart is no stranger to making art in unusual spaces – whether it’s a geodesic dome, public swimming pool or inside the skeleton of a blue whale. This year, as the 2015 artist-in-residence at Ottawa’s Diefenbunker museum, the Carleton music professor is using his artistic and musical talents to showcase the bunker in new ways.

“This residency was kind of perfect for me, in part because it enabled me to draw on my background in both fields – the visual arts and the sonic arts,” says Stewart, who is an award-winning composer, percussionist, visual artist, sound artist and instrument builder.

The Diefenbunker is a four-story, 300-room, 100,000-square-foot underground bunker created during the Cold War to protect Canadian government and military officials from a nuclear attack.

As artist-in-residence, Stewart was commissioned to spend the year composing a series of musical performances and creating a visual art exhibit for the museum, drawing on spaces and objects in the Diefenbunker as inspiration.

He held his first performance of the summer in the bunker’s 120-metre-long blast tunnel, using an IV bag to drop single beads of water onto a bass drum.

“The sound waves from that single droplet of water striking the drum, they would travel down the tunnel, hit the back doors and travel back,” he says. “So it created this sort of naturally occurring delay.”

Stewart likes to think of the spaces in which he performs as musical partners and aimed to incorporate the bunker into each performance as much as possible. For a piece composed in the cafeteria, he played on steel pots, pans and dishware, while in the bank vault he incorporated the sound of falling coins and an air raid siren.

He’s also added a series of sound installations throughout the museum “as a subtle way to interact and engage with the history of the space.”

Using objects from the bunker’s original structure – such as sprinkler heads, mounts for old fire extinguishers and cages that enclosed light bulbs – Stewart also created a visual exhibit called Geometries and Auralities of Survival, which he sees as a metaphor for life in the bunker.

“For example, the cages for the lightbulbs – the idea of a cage, an enclosure, something that’s designed to protect, but is also a form of entrapment,” Stewart says.

While the bunker’s interior design includes an abundance of geometric patterns to create a sense of spaciousness, Stewart says they also gave a similar feeling of entrapment.

“There’s these big concrete columns that jut out into the halls and they’ve painted vertical stripes on them supposedly to make them feel less claustrophobic,” Stewart says. “But it kind of has the opposite effect.”

He was so intrigued by the designs that he decided to capture them in a series of photos for his visual exhibit.

While the Diefenbunker may be an unconventional place to create music and visual art, Stewart hopes his work will give visitors a new way of understanding its history.

“What I really tried to do in terms of the way I interacted with the space was try to see it and hear it in a new way,” he says.

“The performances, the sound installations, and the exhibition – hopefully they’ll do that too for other people.”

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