While most are familiar with art you can see, Jack Straw Productions celebrates 50 years of art you can hear. The small production facility at Northeast 42nd Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast is unique to the Northwest in its specialization of the audio arts, or what executive director Joan Rabinowitz refers to as “any art forms possessing some aspect of sound,” including music, spoken word and more.
This year marks Jack Straw’s 50th-year anniversary, which was appropriately celebrated in the form of 50 hours of live audio-art performances. Two different venues — a studio and New Media Gallery — featured 25 straight hours of alumni artist acts also streamed on-line at hollowearth.org.
Currently in the New Media Gallery, you will find “Outside In/Inside Out: The Inner Life of Jack,” a tribute to its anniversary. You enter the gallery to a dark room, until your eyes adjust to the live, upside-down view of passing cars and pedestrians projected on the wall: a camera obscura of Roosevelt Way. Meanwhile, a looped audio track captures the essence of the company, containing bits of current and archived radio programming interlaced with music and sounds. In the studio, you might find a marimba band, a poet or an advocate.
At Jack Straw, they are concerned with more than just music or poetry.
“It’s about being creative and pushing boundaries,” Rabinowitz said. In this video and technology age, “so often people are asking us, ‘Do you have a video of that?’ But audio leaves more room for your imagination to fill in.”
Audio artist and educator Steven Barsotti’s imaginative work extends beyond the sonic palette we typically tune into.
A track entitled “Terraces” on his most recent album is a 25-minute-long, carefully dissected, mashed and pieced track containing audio from the boom of fireworks to the squeak and rub of bumper boats scraping up against a dock. There are bits of sound from Italy and segments of the track’s co-artist’s dream. The final product is a compilation of noises that can no longer be associated with the original objects that created them. Instead, Barsotti attempts to evoke a feeling through his work.
Barsotti, who is currently the Seattle Art Institute’s Audio DesignTech program director, began working in audio art with no musical background. Before getting involved with Jack Straw, he worked primarily in photography.
Now, audio is his primary form of artistic expression. He also makes his own instruments, but you won’t find any pianos or guitars in the mix. Most recently, he discovered cigarette boxes glued together with spring metal rods and rubber band attachments create a warm noise when amplified by a contact microphone.
For Barsotti, the appeal to audio arts lies in its indefinite nature.
“It goes beyond maybe the traditional understanding of music,” he said. “Music has its own sort of history lexicon and will respond to other music that has been created. Audio art does not.”
Before it became home to the expanse of audio-related programs and performances it is today, Jack Straw was a radio studio. Working out of the same Roosevelt location, formerly a small warehouse, it originated in 1962 as KRAB-FM, one of the first non-commercial radio stations in the country. Although the station was sold in 1984, Jack Straw has continued to preserve and promote the sonic arts since.
One way in which it accomplishes this is through their array of audio
education programs. Staff work with Seattle’s youths — specifically English-language learners and the disabled — and adult population.
Whether it’s in-studio or in the classroom, according to Rabinowitz, Jack Straw is quite literally an outlet for people to have a voice. “We’re giving people a way to tell their stories,” she said.
And that’s precisely why a career in the audio arts is less about landing a pop hit and more about a passion and appreciation for the sound.
“You’re not going to be the next Justin Bieber,” Jack Straw administrative coordinator Levi Fuller guaranteed.
Like other art forms, its career paths are as indefinite and varied as the art pieces themselves.
“There is certainly an audience for experimental audio work” such as Barsotti’s, Fuller pointed out, “but it’s not the same size [as for mainstream music], and nobody thinks it’s going to be.”
Some audio artists are synonymous with radio hosts; others could also be classified as musicians or poets, while still others could not be confined to any of these titles.
“We have a hard time using the terms ‘audio art’ or ‘audio artist,’” Rabinowitz admitted. “It often seems too narrow. It’s just art.”
From warehouse to art gallery
Despite its niche-audience nature, the foundation is developing a more public face, Fuller said. Currently, the setup resembles more of an outdated office than a modern art venue, but that’s all about to change.
Among Jack Straw’s 50th-birthday presents are a new Steinway piano and plans for a remodeled facility. In an effort to increase visibility and accommodate the expanding arts, the studio will ditch the brick and carpet and opt for glass and open spaces.
Jack Straw’s lead engineer noted that, with the help of the Internet, the audio arts are also gaining momentum on an international level.
“I’m assuming we have a bright future,” Jack Straw’s lead engineer Doug Haire said, “because art is the only thing that makes the world go round.”
Rabinowitz is likewise confident that that there will be another Jack Straw crew to celebrate the next 50 years. Whether its turning a cigarette box into a musical instrument or a warehouse into an art gallery, she predicted that the future will hold even more “determined, passionate and feisty [artists] that will make things happen with next to nothing.”