Andy Behrle is a mad scientist disguised as a regular guy.
You’ll see him around town in a Red Sox hat, doing regular-guy things at regular-guy places. He’s got a wife and a kid. In conversation, he seems normal and down-to-earth, especially for a visual artist. Like, if you met him at a party and he told you he worked for an ad agency or a bank or a nonprofit health care organization, you wouldn’t be surprised.
But what Behrle, a Zillah resident, actually does for a living is pretty far out: He builds machines that translate sight into sound and sound into sight, so people can hear light and color and see music.
For instance, one of the highlights of his new Yakima Valley Museum exhibit, “Phantom Transmissions,” is a piece called “Astrotone,” a mid-century record player he rebuilt as a music box to play a composition based on star charts. The turntable is studded with bits of metal corresponding to the stars’ positions in the sky, so when it spins underneath the music-box mechanism, it is (in a manner of speaking, anyway) playing the night sky as a song. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to listen to the result on headphones.
That idea — what sight sounds like and what sound looks like — has been a theme in Behrle’s recent art, including a pair of pieces he exhibited in last fall’s Central Washington Artists Exhibition at the Larson Gallery. Those works, “Radio Falls” and “Cathedral,” combine digital video and audio with antique radios, playing with our notions of timelessness and juxtaposing natural against artificial.
They’re in a brand new context in “Phantom Transmissions,” which matches Behrle’s work with items from the museum’s collection. His piece “Cyclon-o-phone,” for instance — an antique radio cabinet in which the guts have been replaced with a lab flask full of spinning water — is installed in a sitting-room setting decorated with museum pieces. People will be able to sit facing the radio, as people did in the pre-television area, and watch as LED light shines through the water and is displayed on the dial read-out. They’ll also hear that light translated, by sensor, into soft background noise.
“It has a much different presence when you get to sit down with it,” Behrle said.
He and Mike Siebol, the museum’s curator of collections, sifted through all kinds of historical artifacts — some of which have never been displayed before — to create the exhibit.
“Mike was really excited to do something with some of this stuff,” Behrle said. “He’s been really great about combing through the collection to find stuff for me to choose from.”
Perhaps the most interesting combination of art and history is in the exhibit’s display of “Nouveau,” a 1940s-era radio console retrofitted to display video shot at Lake Celilo along with sound recorded by a microphone floating on its surface. Like “Cyclon-o-phone,” it’s installed in a sitting room scene. But this “room” is decorated with a stuffed bald eagle and a painting of the same area before the Columbia River was dammed to create the lake. Back then it was Celilo Falls, not Lake Celilo.
The combination of art and history, as well as that of technology and nature, allows the work to explore ideas of perspective. The damming of the Columbia and loss of the falls mean different things to different people.
“We have two perspectives on the same place,” Behrle said. “The technology and artistry of the dam itself, it’s a marvel. But it’s a tragedy. And there’s no reconciling that. ... I don’t know that, that all comes through when people come and sit down. But it’s not really, for me, about telling the story. It’s about people letting their imaginations flow.”
The eagle, too, is loaded with political and cultural implications, depending on perspective. For Behrle, it’s particularly noteworthy because bald eagles were there before the dam and remain there now.
“There’s something beautiful about that, the tenacity of nature,” he said. “And there’s no way I would ever have had access to an eagle outside of a collection like this.”
Aside from all of that, the machines themselves are just cool. Behrle, who made a splash in Yakima in 2014 when he projected video footage of natural Yakima Valley scenes on downtown buildings, had to teach himself how to build them. He had to figure out the mechanisms of turning sight into sound and vice versa.
“I knew nothing about electronics,” he said, laughing during a tour of the exhibit. “I didn’t even know how to solder. Most of this stuff I learned how to do through YouTube videos.”
But, whereas a regular guy might use those skills to fix broken radios, Behrle used them to answer questions like: “What does the sunset sound like?”
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