Demon amulets and building codes: a sound installation that'll "bowl" you over

Them YBCA devil bowl domes sound real nice (starts Tues/6)
Architectural Rendering by Michael Ramage

At a recent sunny day preview of The Bowls Project at YBCA, I was very confused. I had spoken with Jewlia Eisenberg of the group Charming Hostess a few days earlier on the phone, and she had given me the impression her new sound installation at the gallery was about ancient Babylonian incantation bowls used to summon demons for help in the domestic arena. “I refer to it as apocalyptic intimate,” she told me, “they're things from the home, but they have angels and demons, things you have to deal with.” She read to me from wild inscriptions she's found through research on these bowls, which serve as some of our only records of female voices from the era. They include curses against gossips that their “tongue should cling to the roof of their mouths,” calls for Anwar next door to become “inflamed, heated” for the commissioner of the bowl – even an ode to the overthrow of the heavens. It was rad. But there I was, at the YBCA, listening to the description of -- a sustainable architecture project?

Michael Ramage is a muscular, clean cut man in an orange Cambridge University sweatshirt. He looks roughly approximate to his profession, which is teacher of architecture and structural engineering at aforementioned school. How he and Jewlia Eisenberg, who is the theatric, charismatic creator of an experimental music ensemble, came together is perhaps testament to the mesmerizing pull of the past.

The two met at MIT, where Ramage was studying the construction of  masonry domes using traditional methods and non traditional materials. Eisenberg was taking part in an artist residency program at the university, and had just discovered the bowls' existence in a “fusty dissertation from 1972.” She wanted to recreate the bowls' magic for a modern day audience – how amazing would it be to stage the exhibit in a bowl-like space on which actual inscriptions could be etched? She says she “told [Ramage] about the project, and four years later we're doing it.”

Many art installations involve some sort of structure to stage the work within, but none I've ever seen can match the forethought, and fortitude of The Bowl Projects' domes. Ramage specializes in a style of building called Catalan vaulting, a school of building perfected thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, and used well into the approximate modern day by architects like Rafael Guastavino and Gaudi. It requires little by way of materials; the bricks in Catalan vaulting are held up largely by the pressure they exert on each other.

Charming Hostess (Jewlia Eisenberg second from right) is laying down the welcome mat at the Bowls Project. Photo by Robin Hultgren Esprite Photographie

Of course, that was a bit difficult to describe to the Department of Building Inspection, who allowed the structure to be built on two conditions; it be reinforced, somehow, and it be earthquake ready. These seem to have been but piddling roadblocks for Ramage – the architect hit upon a light, sustainably produced mesh to reinforce the air bubble filled concrete bricks, and set the structure atop a remarkable system of bowls (natch) and ball bearings so that, should the big one hit, the whole thing will just roll around and surf the tremors out. The two connected domes form an elegant mix of low-tech, lightweight, and environmentally sound; nearly all the energy expended on the project was powered by human muscle. Prince Charles, Eisenberg told me, wants Ramage to build one like it in the Prince of Wales' own garden.

Which is all really cool. But what exactly will be happening inside this fabulously produced space (which is for sale after The Bowl Project is packed up in August for what one of the project's engineers pinned at “a low, low price of we'll talk about it." Incidentally, he thought it'd make a great winery tasting room – any takers?) once it opens to the public? Bring it back to the demon bowls. Much as women back in the day would endow the amulets with their domestic secrets, Eisenberg is currently collecting hidden truths from the public on her website and hotline. These will be projected as a 360 degree sound experience within the domes.

But that's not all. The bowls represent “that ecstatic exploration of sex and magic,” says Eisenberg, and to that end, she hopes they'll be used for self-reflection and celebration by the community. She's planned a full slate of musical performances, art workshops, meditation days, and public rituals by such local holy people as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for the space. 

So, all kinds of cool stuff. But the truly amazing thing about the Bowl Project may just be that it was made at all. Architects, engineers, union masonry workers who have been contributing their labor pro bono, museum folk; a new band of partners-in-crime for this concept musician. “The collaboration has been intense, and amazing, and I've learned a ton,” says Eisenberg. A sentiment which begs for a bowl inscription of its own.


The Bowls Project

Opening night ceremony: 

Tues/6 6-8 p.m., free

(through Aug 22, $7 YBCA gallery admission)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Sculpture Court

700-701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787