Catacomb Memories Captivates Viewers
by Kolleen Roberts
Tempe, AZ
February 1, 2000


A small crowd gathers in the doorway of the gallery, curious but unsure whether to enter. A sound like raindrops pattering on a roof has intrigued them, and the hostess encourages the viewers to walk into the display. Overhead, a grid of wires is suspended from the ceiling, supporting long cardboard tubes and delicate mallets. It is the sound of the mallets tapping lightly on the tubes that the listeners hear.

This is "Catacomb Memories," the first sound exhibit installed in the Computing Commons Gallery since it opened in 1993. The installation makes use of sub-audio tones that

At the same time, rasping voices and old-fashioned songs are trickling through the background of drumming sounds from the tubes. Recorded voices are playing through sheets of fax paper that sway in the breeze created by the movements of the visitors. Piezo transducer clips have turned the paper sheets into speakers. In this way, each page "tells" the story that is printed on it.

The work's title refers to a cave in Minnesota, the Catacombs of Yucatan, which artist Dan Senn visited as a boy. However, he wrote in his exhibit notes that "the meaning and metaphor here is mostly your ownand belongs, only after a considerable distance, to me."

April Bruns, a gallery hostess, said she always is careful to ask visitors whether they want to know more about how the display is constructed. "Sometimes they don't," Bruns said. "The experience itself is enough for them."

The components of the artwork have their own history, which includes a subtle but poignant commentary on social attitudes. The limestone cave of Senn's childhood was originally a Native American burial ground. The area was later inhabited by dairy farmers, and during the 1930's, an attempt was made to commercialize the cave with a dance hall and overnight cabins. This enterprise failed, but it has been preserved in local folklore. "It awakened the dreams of so many local people during the Great Depression," Senn wrote.

Stories played in the installation come from interviews Senn conducted with residents of the area. On a screen, Senn projects images of the persons telling the stories and of the cabins built in the region. The images have been digitally altered so that washes of pure color overtake the faces, distorting features and turning them into abstractions. The color spills onto the walls of the gallery and alters the balance of light in the space, where the normal lighting has been lowered to dim, cave-like levels.

The physical components of the work are as eclectic as its historical elements. The effects the artist intended, of sounds and images that spread in time and space, are elegantly and even delicately achieved by using everyday objects in unusual ways. As viewers move into the display and study it more closely, the attention the artist has paid to smaller details appears. Red and blue disks on the mallets turn out to be poker chips. The counterweights are wooden beads and sewing thread spools.

Senn writes that an earlier version of the Paper Tube Canopy Lyre was installed in an old-growth rainforest, suspended between tree trunks over a small rushing brook. Metal resonators were fastened to piano wires. The wires, struck by pine beaters, were set in motion by the stream.

"In solving aesthetic problems," the artist said, "I consistently begin from an action-based and languageless sense which is stimulated by play and imagination."

The exhibit runs through Feb. 24, 2000. The gallery is located on the first floor of the Computing Commons on Orange Street west of McAllister Avenue. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visitor parking is available in Structure 1 on Apache Boulevard. Metered parking also is available near the Bookstore on Orange Street.

Additional information about the gallery and a schedule of upcoming exhibits can be found online at