Views / Backstage Pass London

So those weird grey electrical boxes scattered around town - they're actually art

You may have seen those grey electrical boxes stuck to posts downtown — or maybe you haven’t. They can be overlooked easily enough. If you listen close, though, you’ll notice they emit strange snippets of electronic sounds. And, they’re actually art.

Giles Whitaker is the playful mastermind behind the boxes and a Western University master of fine arts student.

His installation Structural Breakdown (part of a larger McIntosh Gallery exhibition) uses audio-synthesizer chips controlled by a computer to generate crackling and static. All four of the boxes are on Dundas Street between Wellington and Clarence.

“The weird noises alert you to the fact there is something not quite right. It gets you to stop and listen to the sounds around you. You see it and it looks like it’s supposed to be there. You don’t need to worry about it, or maybe you do,” says the artist, originally a scientist from New Zealand who quit his job researching plant diseases for the government to pursue a degree in fine arts.

Whitaker’s installations examine the rules of public and institutional space along with the nature of sound itself.

“Sound has a political dimension. It affects people’s moods and signifies what the expected behaviour is in the space,” he says. “It’s an unconscious type of information we receive.”

Another exhibition by Whitaker, called Listening Space, is also on display at the McIntosh Gallery. This one mimics the sounds you might hear inside a gallery, like quiet footsteps and doors opening and closing.

“If everything is really quiet, it creates a reverent atmosphere. It makes you think, ‘This is art, it’s really important.’ We treat galleries like churches. Are they really worthy of our respect?” asks Whitaker.

When you take art out of the gallery and put it on the street, it can operate in quite a different manner.

“When it’s on the street, maybe it doesn’t have to be identified as art,” Whitaker says.  “It could have the same psychological effect, but maybe it takes away the reverence.”

The electrical boxes and exhibition at the McIntosh —  which includes a series of drawings by Thea Yabut titled Lines of Necessity — will continue through Saturday with a closing reception at 7 p.m. Thursday.

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