Art and Science Collide in Newly Restored Monolith

Walk by this deceptively simple structure at the right time, and you won’t just see it, you’ll hear it. 

By: Shannon Manamtam

17 April 2019

[Audio: "Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra" by György Ligeti,

performed by The Bavarian Radio Orchestra, Francis Travis]

Shannon Manamtam: This may seem like a strange and unearthly sound,  but if you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, this track may be familiar to you. In the film, it is played, every time the monolith appears… a tall matte black rectangular structure of mysterious origins.

 

And if you ever find yourself outside watanabe hall at the university of hawaii at manoa, you’ll find a structure just like it. This monolith was designed by graphic designer Bruce Hopper in 1973 and stands at 18 feet tall, and 6 feet wide, dwarfing any person that walks past. And while it was originally colored a matte black, decades of rusting caused it to fade to a pale grey that caused it to blend with its surroundings.

The Krypton monolith before and after renovations. 

(Left by Manoa Public Art, right by Shannon Manamtam) 

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Photo by Rick Holt for Sculpture in the Sun (1978). At this time, the structure still retains its matte black coloring.

Students walk by Krypton as it plays music. The new sound system speakers can be seen on top of the structure. (By Shannon Manamtam)

Hopper was commissioned by the state to create a piece relating to the physical sciences, as  the Physics Department is housed in Watanabe. He designed the monument inspired by Kubrick and named it Krypton, after Superman’s home planet.

 

Just like any of Kubrick's works, there’s a lot of debate on the symbolism of the monolith in the A Space Odyssey. But it’s the general consensus that these monoliths appear in each new step of human evolution, such as early primates learning to use tools. Actually, an early test cut of the film had a voice-over that described the monoliths as being made by extraterrestrials to teach humans how to take their next step, but this was cut for the theatrical release.

 

So, whether through teaching or observation, the monoliths are present for each era of new discovery.

 

2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Kubrick’s classic sci fi space epic. But it that very same year, Manoa’s monolith was actually about to be removed.

Derek Erwin: Somebody on campus contacted us originally, they were concerned about visible corrosion at the bottom of the monolith. So they were concerned that the internal framing could potentially fail and fall over.

Shannon: That’s Derek Erwin, the Conservation Coordinator for the Hawaii State Foundation On Culture And The Arts…There are over 600 commissioned works across the Hawaiian islands, and Derek oversees all of them.

Part of his job is to decide what pieces get restored, how they get restored, and what, if any, needs to be removed. And because of corrosion at the base of the monument, Derek says his first impression, was that Hopper's Krypton could be in danger of falling.

Derek: Our first focus is health and safety, so with health and safety first doing this type of restoration… we don’t always have the manpower. The plan was actually just to hire somebody to remove the monument but people from the building came out and were concerned and they wanted to if possible keep the thing. So I hired a structural engineering firm to inspect it. They found there was no corrosion on the inside, so it was structurally sound, so I made the decision to restore it.

Shannon: When restoring a piece of art, it’s important to know not only understand how it was made, but also the artist’s intent behind their methods. Because, when you change the look and feel of the art piece, you run the risk of also changing it’s message.

But here’s the problem, we don’t know for sure what Bruce Hopper’s original message even was. We know he based it off 2001, but he also named it Krypton, a reference to a completely different work of science fiction.

There was a lot of dispute over what the Monolith was officially made out of. Old articles at the time reported it was made of bronze and painted, while books like “Sculpture in the Sun” state it was chemically treated to give it a dark hue.

 

Laura Ruby, a local artist and founder of UHM Art Consulting Committee makes the case the monolith was chemically treated.

Laura Ruby: I went back to the 1970s “Sculpture in the Sun,” and I took that and they talked to them at the time. My best guess is it was a chemically treated steel of some sort. What it is is a patina, that means its an artificial way of aging a surface. For example copper is a bright reddish color, but when its petinaed it turns a reddish brown color. [Much like the aging of Krypton.]

Shannon: Now that the Krypton monolith is restored, it's glossy black finish makes it much more noticeable, and gives the piece a mirrored finish.

 

But the restoration process didn't stop there.

 

But there was one thing the Krypton monolith was known for… a deep and perpetual vibrating sound that was turned off less than a year after it was constructed. This sound was meant to mimic the music heard whenever the monolith would appear in the 2001 film.

 

There is no recorded audio of what it sounded like before, but the vibrations were playing at 60 hertz, so it might have sounded a bit like this…

[Audio, 60 Hz vibrations]

 

This was achieved with an electric device was originally installed within the structure and connected to a larger speaker. However, in response to noise complaints and an energy shortage, the  humming device was disconnected in 1974, merely a year after installation.

 

Those present at the time say the sound was so persisting, you could hear them in the offices, and even the classrooms.

Kevin Croker: You can’t have this thing just going wild, because it’s going to be very disruptive for students. And if you do a lot of low frequencies which is what a structure like that is going to be good at, because its very big and so it’s going to resonate at low frequencies.
 

Shannon: Kevin Croker is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of physics. He used to work for an underground radio station as an undergraduate, and has a personal interest in interactive art, so when he heard Krypton was being restored, he jumped at the chance to get involved.

Kevin: Derek actually reached out to us, and he was like you know i think this would be the best arrangement if you guys had control of what was coming out of the structure. And I agreed with him because I thought that would be the best way to get people on board with the idea to put the sound back in. I could definitely say that All the undergraduate and graduate students are definitely about the thing make sound. The coolest thing about the thing is that every time I walk by it there’s always someone staring at it or touching it, it just has such a cool presence. People see it now and people are curious about it and I think it’s a great opportunity to get people involved and understanding what we bring to the community.

Shannon: Kevin is one of the few people to have access to Krypton’s new sound system, which, for now has to be powered through a large extension cord from one of the Watanabe classrooms to a weather box hidden behind the shrubs. From there, he can connect to his phone and basically play any sound wave, song or frequency.

 

There are of course no plans to have the Krypton monolith constantly play a permanent sound, but that doesn’t mean it will be forgotten. They’ve already used it to play music at the Physics open house, and are planning to use it for sound studies. Kevin also says he’s looking forward to collaborating with other departments on future projects.

 

With it’s restoration, Bruce Hopper’s Krypton definitely went through some changes. But, along with updates in technology these changes are better suited to the needs of the people closest to it. Not only that, because the keys to the sounds system were given directly to people in the department, there is now so much more room for experimentation, collaboration, and interactivity.

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