Pittsburgh is familiar with unusual venues for music and performance art. Over the years, it’s seen art rock in a junkyard, and theater both on a river barge and in an empty swimming pool.
Subsurface was likely a milestone, though. The Carnegie Mellon University event last year was probably the first ever around here held in the labyrinth-like setting of a limestone mine.
Subsurface resurfaced this past weekend for its second iteration. For an afternoon, the inactive mine in Brady’s Bend, Pa. – about 90 minutes north of town, in farm country – was the region’s go-to spot for subterranean sights and sounds, a mix of performance art and experimental music.
About 250 patrons (many of them CMU students or staff) boarded coach buses on campus. The mine, run by Brady’s Bend Corporation, is accessed through an unassuming cinderblock entryway built right into a wooded hillside.
Inside, visitors accessed just a small portion of the mine’s 600 miles of passageways, carved out over the roughly 110 years it was active. (Brady’s Bend says the floor space is 50 million square feet, more than that of the world’s largest building.)
The air is cool, not cold, a constant underground temperature of about 55 degrees, and it’s dry rather than damp. Most of the passageways are 20 feet wide, with ceilings you’d need a ladder to reach.
A tall stepladder, in fact, figured into one of the first installations visitors came upon. A young woman wearing an orange ski mask and catsuit complete with traffic-cone bustier danced on the ladder and then descended to ride a bike through the crowd, while three musicians in white coveralls played a tune on recorders.
Some performers were tucked into indentations in the walls, highlighted by colored lights – purple and green were favorite hues. One installation involved a robotic bagpipe. There was also some abstract projected video playing across the mine’s seamed and pitted ceiling. Perhaps surprisingly, the artificial cavern is not echoey. But sounds do carry a long way down the passageways, some of the straight, others curving.
About 50 performers participated, including students from the classes of co-organizers Scott Andrew and Jesse Stiles. Andrew, an art professor, works with a group called Activated Animorphs that specializes in wearable sculptures. Other characters at Subsurface included a figured in a long white cloak dotted with LED lights, and wearing a headpiece like a translucent birdcage made from slender tree branches that also glowed from within.
Stiles, a music professor, created Subsurface last year with CMU art professor Rich Pell. Pell was seeking a venue for a project for his class Art in the Anthropocene, exploring creativity in an age when humans have left their mark in every corner of the planet. They learned of the mine, and discovered that owner Dan Bruce was a graduate of CMU’s Tepper School of Business. Bruce’s family has owned the mine for a half-century, and since the 1970s has been using inactive chambers to store boats and cars, along with some paper documents. (The underground environment is naturally climate-controlled.)
Still, it’s the mine’s earliest history that Stiles harks to.
“There’s … conceptually some really interesting links between this facility and the work we do at Carnegie Mellon,” he says. U.S. Steel, the mine’s previous owner, was created partly on the industrial legacy of Andrew Carnegie, the university’s partial namesake. Moreover, says Stiles, the limestone dug here was used to produce both steel and concrete. “So this negative space that we created in the earth is the byproduct of the existence of Pittsburgh,” he says. “It’s negative Pittsburgh.”
It’s also irresistible to creative types. “Personally I’ve never been anywhere on this planet that is similar to this environment, and the way that it reflects sound is just amazingly interesting,” he says. “If you want it to be, it can be the darkest place you’ve ever been, or the quietest place you’ve ever been, and that’s an incredible canvas if you’re a musician or an artist.”
Subsurface performers included two music groups Stiles is part of, Bombici – which plays music inspired by Eastern European brass bands – and experimental group the Exploded Ensemble.
On Saturday, visitors were free to wander the passageways at their own paces. But everyone seemed to congregate for the finale, a 15-minute number that included a full-ensemble musical performance for percussion trumpet, saxophone, tuba, violin, electronics and more, including musical saw. Some musicians were adorned with colorful, glowing wires, while others wore full costumes composed of long strips of fabric that gave them the look of shaggy beasts.
The beat, alternately hypnotic and driving, provided the setting for ritualistic-looking dances by the costumed characters. The hour-long event concluded with a processional out of the mine, during which visitors were handed kazoos to play along with the musicians.
Subsurface is funded mostly by Carnegie Mellon. (Tickets were just $5, and sold out quickly.) Brady's Bend Corporation donated the use of the mine.
Many of the attendees were at the inaugural Subsurface. First-timers included Melody Harris, who works at Chatham University, and learned about Subsurface from a friend at CMU.
“I thought it was super interesting and psychedelic and a little scary, and I felt like I was on another planet breathing different oxygen and it was populated by friendly monsters,” said Harris.
“It was kind a like a weird mashup of avant-garde art show and kind of like a horror movie,” said Ben Pyles, a teaching artist and another first-timer.
Stiles says the series should continue with another installment next year.