An artist offers a memorial in sound for casualties of the Iraq war. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

An artist offers a memorial in sound for casualties of the Iraq war. 

Herman Pearl's art installation Named-Unnamed is a dimly lit enclosure you enter through a curving passageway. Inside, you're bathed in sound -- a pelagic wash, an earthquake rumble and, every so often, a recorded voice that speaks clearly a person's name.

Each of the names spoken belongs to a casualty of the Iraq war. Pearl, a sound engineer by trade, conceived of the project in the war's early days, when U.S. soldiers were remembered in poignant news reports that contrasted starkly with the silence surrounding the faceless but exponentially larger ranks of Iraqi civilians dying right alongside them.

While the names spoken in Named-Unnamed do include those of soldiers, they also include casualties still anonymous: "brother of kidnapped farmer."

"I think it's so chilling, having these vague kind of descriptors," says Pearl.

Pearl, of Wilkinsburg, developed Named-Unnamed with help from a Pittsburgh Foundation grant and collaborators including famed Danish sound designer Andreas Wetterberg and local artists and technicians John Barbera, Ian Brill, Rob Long and Doug McDermott.

The work takes up half of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's 937 Liberty Gallery. Most of the sound audible within the 20-foot-wide enclosure derives from the sound of the names as spoken by native Arabic speakers, most recruited by Pearl in Pittsburgh. Innovative software transforms those tones into both a chant-like suspiration and a bass rumble, with all three layers constantly altering. Pearl calls it "a sound ecosystem."

Subwoofers, meanwhile, make Named-Unnamed a physical experience: Standing on the low wooden platform in the enclosure, you can feel the names being spoken. For added texture, a staticky radio tuned to pop plays faintly in the background.

Pearl is better known as a musician (with bands including Soma Mestizo), and DJ (a.ka. DJ Soy Sos). Named-Unnamed is his first full-scale foray into gallery art, and he says he's gotten only positive feedback -- including from an Iraq war veteran who visited twice.

On June 10, Named-Unnamed will be expanded upon by three dancers from the Staycee Pearl Dance Project (run by Pearl's spouse). That night, dancers will join visitors within the soundscape, each looking ghostly in the almost-dark, or perhaps vanishing altogether in shadow.


NAMED-UNNAMED continues through Sun., June 12. 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown (2nd floor). Site-specific dance performance: 8, 8:30 and 9 p.m. Fri., June 10. 412-471-6070 or



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