When Margaret Noble was nine, it was her goal to play as much Ms. Pac-Man as possible. "I just remember that first breakthrough moment when you clear a screen and all those colors and graphics come bursting and exploding at you and all those awesome sounds."
Noble grew up in City Heights in the early 1980s, at a time when every neighborhood liquor store had a video game, the sounds spilling out onto the street. For an experimental sound artist like Noble, City Heights --- then and now --- plays like a symphony. She's been walking the streets of her old neighborhood recording its sounds. They'll form the sonic landscape for a mixed-media art installation called 44th and Landis, named after the City Heights intersection where she grew up.
On view at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's downtown location, 44th and Landis features 14 channels of recorded and found sounds, broadcast out of handmade paper speakers. "Some of the sounds I love to this day and I still hear them when I go to City Heights," says Noble. She is extra fond of what some might characterize as a neighborhood nuisance. "The sound of the big car with the boom boom radio, throwing down the low-end bass lines," Noble smiles as she remembers. "And what I love is sometimes they're completely blown out and rattling the car and it sounds crazy and awesome." She also recorded sounds of neighborhood ice cream trucks, barking dogs, video games like Centipede, and children running through the streets.
Noble says she's trying to capture both the fear and sense of wonder she felt growing up in City Heights. While she's grateful for a lot of the things she learned in the east San Diego neighborhood, navigating its cultural and physical terrain wasn't always easy. "I have old baggage with this neighborhood," she says. "And I think that's the reality of making art. You're dealing with things that are unsettled."
Noble has a clear goal for 44th and Landis: "I want to look at history and identity and for me the biggest thing is the lens of children and class." As a young white girl, Noble wanted desperately to fit in to the multicultural world of City Heights. Break dancing, parachute pants, and hip-hop culture were all around her. "I didn't look the part, but I was so young that I think they just thought it was cute that I wanted to learn to break dance and pop."
That was the world outside. Inside the little house she shared with her mother, there were roses and paper dolls. Her mother cleaned houses and she loved Victorian culture. They were poor, and Noble says Victorian culture seemed "classy" to them. "On the one hand I wanted to wear ruffle dresses and parade around with a tiara. On the other, I wanted to wear all black and drive a Cadillac." She pauses and adds: "So I'm reckoning with these two cultures I'm fascinated by."
Noble's installation will feature four hundred cut paper dolls suspended from the gallery ceiling. The sonic landscape plays in the background. Some of the paper dolls wear Victorian dresses colored in '80s neon. Some are in the shape of pitbulls or colorful lowriders. They all feature graphics and ephemera from the 1980s. Look close and you'll see the ghosts of Ms. Pac-Man, the labels from Animal Cracker boxes and Laffy Taffy, and, on the seedier side, signage from neighborhood massage parlors. The paper dolls are pint-sized mash-ups of '80s pop culture and Victoriana. They seem to emerge from Noble's childhood dreams as she tried to make sense of both a threatening and exciting environment.
Noble says she does worry about telling the story of a nuanced, complex neighborhood as a white woman. "I'm not sure if everyone is comfortable with me being the one to tell this story, but the reality is, it is my story. I lived through it and it colored me and it was meaningful."
44th and Landis is on view through January 20, 2013.
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