David Byrne Playing the Building

8 October 2005 13 November 2005

Main hall, Färgfabriken

David Byrne turns the main hall into a musical instrument.

Some years ago Jan approached me through our mutual friend Anne Pasternak about doing something at Färgfabriken. I visited the space during one of my music tours and took photos so I could remember the way it looked. For a while we talked about an exhibition, and some other ideas, but for various reasons those didn’t happen. I seem to remember that both Anne and Jan suggested I do something that might bring together my visual art interests and projects and my musical background.

After thinking about it for a while and looking at the pictures of the space I suggested an installation that would produce sound and would take advantage of the fact that the institution is housed in a raw factory space- with exposed pipes, heating and structural elements (unlike most museums and galleries where these elements are hidden). I also wanted an installation that involved the public, the visitors to Färgfabriken, so this would do that too. It would be more “hands on” than most exhibitions where one can look but not touch. Here is my proposal:

A sound installation in which the infrastructure, the physical plant of a building, is converted into a giant musical instrument. (I use the term musical loosely. It might not play melodies in the conventional sense…but it might.)

To create this various devices are attached to parts of the building structure- to the metal beams, the plumbing, the electrical conduits, the heating pipes, the water pipes – and are used to make these things produce sound. No amplification is used, no computer synthesis of sound and there are no speakers. The machines will produce sound in three ways- through wind, vibration and striking. The devices that are part of the piece do not produce sound on their own, but instead they cause the building elements themselves to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself becomes a very large musical instrument.

It is a way of activating the sound producing qualities that are inherent in all materials. . Their nature and form will be what determines what kind of sound they produce. Everyone knows that if you strike a metal beam with your hand you get a sound- well, this piece does a similar thing, but without hurting your hand, and it will be able to activate materials in different parts of the space simultaneously- something you cannot do with your hands.


A blower forces air through electrical conduits or pipes, eliciting a whistling series of notes, depending on the length of the pipe. (The wind will blow through the electrical conduits by a small air pump. At sufficient pressure the air will cause the air inside the conduit pipes to resonate and produce flute like tones)


Machines attached to the metal crossbeams causes them to vibrate, sending out a low hum and throbbing sound. The girders can be made to vibrate using oscillating motors…and since the girders are of varying lengths they will produce different pitches and sounds. They will need electrical power and another cable running from the keyboard/switcher, which will turn them on and off.There will be maybe four or six of these units scattered around the room, some near and some far away.


The hollow metal columns that line the interior of the space are made to clang and ping. These large iron objects can be struck by mechanical devices- solenoids- much like mechanical bell clappers.

The wiring and the mechanics will be plainly visible- no attempt will be made to conceal any mechanism or wiring.

Switches that activate these machines are triggered by a simple keyboard located at a central position (within viewing distance of all the machines and of the pipes or beams whose vibrations they control, so that visitors might hear what depressing each key does). Visitors are invited to sit at the keyboard and “play” the building. Some keys might trigger machines that activate the specific structures gradually- a quick tap on some keys might produce no result, but a steady depression would allow oscillations to build up and a sound to emerge. A handwritten legend above each note group will describe which part of the building that note activates.

(Possibly the keyboard could be coin operated. It takes a few Kr to make it active for a few minutes. This would emphasize the mechanical nature and place a time limit on “performances”.)

The machines that activate the pipes and crossbeams would not do them any structural harm or damage. There would be no danger to the building or the visitor.

– David Byrne Aug 2005

Playing Färgfabriken

Harvesters and machine guns. It was for the purpose of manufacturing this somewhat odd pair that the factory which now houses Färgfabriken was built in 1889. Helge Palmcrantz, entrepreneur and inventor, was the first owner and the man behind the inventions.

There are a couple of etchings which depict the newly inaugurated factory. They show workers busy welding in an otherwise completely open hall. What must in reality have been filthy and noisy appears almost stark and graceful when rendered in drypoint.

When Palmcrantz died and his empire collapsed, Wilhelm Becker bought the premises. From 1903 until the 70s, they served as a paint factory. Then for a few years – in a state of growing disrepair – as a warehouse, a floorball court and as a site for various painting trials. This was because the owners were not granted permission to tear the building down. Which was probably more a matter of chance than of any conscious strategy on the authorities’ part. Most of Sweden’s factory heritage disappeared when the wealthy and modern nation wielded a wrecking ball to create air and light in the 60s and 70s.

When they were being used as a paint factory, the premises were constantly being remodelled to accommodate changes in production methods and working conditions. A mezzanine was added, interior divisions were erected and a number of spaces within the space were created. The open hall disappeared. But other things were added.

When Färgfabriken was being set up in 1995–6, those late 19th-century etchings were an important resource in returning the building to its original state. Behind all the additions and extensions it turned out that the original structure was intact: a cast-iron construction of hollow pillars in two rows and I-beams between the longer walls.

Ten years later David Byrne has turned the main hall into a musical instrument.

David has created something whose scope I did not at first see. He has turned the architecture itself, the space and its construction, into a musical instrument. The sounds are produced without any amplifiers at all, via vibrations and resonances. Visitors really will be able to “play the building”, with harmonies, bass and a rhythm section at their disposal.

This looks like more than mere coincidence. I can hardly think of a better way to celebrate our tenth anniversary.

Färgfabriken is no museum. We have no mission to fulfil, handed to us by the government or the local council. But Färgfabriken is no ordinary art gallery, either. We have no permanent collection or single sponsor who coughs up all the cash. Purely on our own survival instincts, we have had to define what we can contribute in the current social climate, locally in Stockholm as well as in a broader context.

One side of this is what we call our laboratory of the contemporary. We discovered that the independent cultural platform was a particularly useful tool for sparking a discussion and engendering debate on a wide array of issues. We could shoulder a role which other players – the media, businesses, politicians – cannot, but which they urgently need.

The other side is precisely what Playing the Building illustrates: we collaborate with artists and allow them to develop completely new projects, usually of a character which, for one reason or another, would make them impossible in an ordinary museum or art gallery.

Last year, Doug and Mike Starn went from twenty years of representing light phenomena through photography to actually creating light. The year before that, we had Carsten Höller changing exhibitions every day in order to add yet another element of confusion to the exhibition phenomenon. And before that, Maurizio Cattelan produced a miniature Hitler for Färgfabriken and stood him on his own in the large, empty space.

Playing the Building is something more than a site-specific installation. I’m not quite sure what to call it, but what David Byrne is exhibiting is really Färgfabriken itself. Only reformulated into a musical instrument.

Neither is it your average sound installation. Somewhere, Jorge Luis Borges is surely smiling at this opportunity to try a completely new instrument, like a new alphabet or language. Nobody knows what it may contain – and what music will be made with it. But everyone is welcome to test its possibilities. All you have to do is sit yourself down and play the building.

– Jan Åman, Director, Färgfabriken