The Bell Clock is an art project by Jim Wheaton that sits, for now, in his backyard in downtown Sebastopol. Jim sought to create the same kind of feeling with sound that church bells create in town, but he wanted to hear bells playing secular music instead of sacred hymns. He wondered, though, would his art project run up against the town’s noise ordinance?
In this episode, I talk to Jim about his project which makes a claim on public space for sound. He talks about the playlist that he has programmed for the Bell Clock and we hear samples of the tunes in the podcast. I also talk briefly to Jim about the Chimera Arts and Makerspace, which he is involved with in Sebastopol.
For more information on Jim’s Bell Clock project, see his project website.
Here’s a short video of the Bell Clock in action, playing “Here Comes the Sun".
I spotted the Bell Clock, not knowing what it was, in July and featured it here. I made the connection with Jim then, but he said he wasn’t ready to reveal the clock until now.
Secular Bells with Jim Wheaton
Dale: Welcome to Sebastopol City Limits. I'm Dale Dougherty.
I am here with Jim Wheaton who has an unusual art project he's been working on.
Jim: I created this project. I call it the Bell Clock. Somehow it doesn't trip off my tongue as easy as I want it to, sometimes. I keep saying bell tower sometimes. The idea behind it-- I'm an audio guy and I am a musician, and I listen to sound sometimes in the environment and try to hear them as music, and I live downtown and I have a hot tub. On Sunday mornings I go out in tub and I hear church bells, which I love the sound of church bells and I think it's way better than trucks and motorcycles and happy to hear them.
One time I think I recognized one of the hymns that was being played and I looked it up. I looked at the words and I said it was something about "Jesus being the only way" or something, which is fine, but I got to thinking about how that public space that we are all in where we can hear the sounds, the churches seem to have monopoly on that kind of sound, or at least on the playlist that they use.
Dale: You mean monopoly in terms of permission to...
Jim: That's what I wanted to look into. And I thought, Hey, wouldn't it be cool? I'm a Buddhist or an atheist in some sense, but I'm not ashamed of that.
And to me, if I could hear John Lennon's Imagine played on church bells or bells, maybe not church bells, I would find that interesting in the sphere of First Amendment and the public space, that would be some sort of balance that I would appreciate without being too obnoxious. So I looked into what would it take? At first I thought I'd put a speaker on my roof and be gorilla broadcasting, but I didn't really wanna do it in front of all my neighbors. And then I also looked up the noise ordinance in Sebastopol and it is rather interesting. It's rather severe.
It says you are not allowed to have sounds emanating off your property louder than 55 decibels or 65, I think if you're in an industrial zone. That's not very loud. But there were exceptions and the exceptions were for natural phenomena. You're not responsible if your tree falls and makes a big noise.
But “any bell or chime from any building clock, church or school.” There were no definitions of church or school. It's pretty common sense and/or building clock. So I decided, okay, I'm gonna put a clock onto my speaker and then it becomes a building clock because it's a clock on top of a building and it could be moved around.
So I built this portable unit. It's got a big 20-inch speaker and a 20-inch clock below it and a little house, and it looks like a cupola. And my idea was to broadcast sounds on a regular basis into the public sphere.
Dale: And is it operating?
Jim: It is. It's run pretty well for the past eight months now.
I have it on top of my office. I have a little office downtown across the street from Grateful Bagel, this little garage in the back. It is facing the mortuary and into that parking lot of Hop Monk.
Dale: If you walk to the trail as I was once, I came across it and I thought, what is this old clock? And I had this story made up in my head that it somehow was a remnant of the train station.
Jim: So it requires power and internet. It's got a little computer in it and I have a fail-safe mechanism. There's a power strip that goes off at a certain time of day, so it can't suddenly go on and blare out in the middle of the night.
It's been pretty reliable. But the hands have been the hardest thing, the little hands on the clock. It's a very tiny mechanism in it, but I think the ones I have in there now are working well. So it has been on a schedule and it plays every day, Monday through Friday, and it plays the Big Ben Church Bell sound at noon, and that every hour on the hour, one through five, it makes a single bell sound.
And then at once a day, right now at 4:20, it plays a song or a part of a song. And currently the playlist includes:
John Lennon's Imagine,
All You Need Is Love by the Beatles,
Get up. Stand up by Bob Marley and the Wailers,
Here Comes The Sun, which is sometimes ironically inappropriate these days.
And I'm trying to remember the last one I have in there. But I've had to record these sounds myself. I have a list of other things I want to record and maybe on certain holidays have a sound.
Dale: So you're not just playing recorded music?
Jim: I am. I am playing recorded music.
Dale: In the sense of commercial, like you're not playing the commercial version of the Beatles song.
Jim: I have a synthesizer that generates bell sounds and I bought a Glockenspiel, and sometimes I record the Glockenspiel, and sometimes, I synthesize up a thing.
I work in the music rights field too, and there is a publishing rights issue, but I feel pretty safe in the bounds of the Fair Use clause, which says if you're doing something that's art or parody, I don't believe I would owe royalties to John Lennon's estate for this use? If it came down to that and I had to pay a subscription to use the catalog, maybe I do that just as part of the exercise of understanding. Most of the church music is in the public domain, so they don't have to worry about that.
Dale: Very nice. How would you like people to respond to your art?
Jim: I would like to move the bell clock to a more populated space. Perhaps there is a business owner downtown facing the plaza that would be willing to have it up on their roof for a year as a installation and art project, and generate comments perhaps.
Most of the people right around me, I've talked to, and they like it they don't want it to leave. They've gotten used to hearing a bell sound on the hour, and they just know, it doesn't take over the mental space too much. And I would never want it to devolve into a--- I guess that's my biggest fear is by pushing the envelope a little bit, somebody else would do it and somebody else would do it. Maybe we'll have different speakers on different buildings. Playing, competing stuff. I guess that would be the worst outcome. But the best outcome would be it's a single one in the public space. And the playlist that I get to generate is perhaps user generated or people can make requests.
Maybe I play happy birthday once a day at some time, cuz it's everybody's birthday somewhere. Something like that.
Dale: I think what's intriguing is sound can be a public space in a way. And your sense that the old notion of a village playing the church tower bells was not only an indication of time, but it was a connection to the people that lived in the town that they shared.
Jim: Yeah. If you were a member of the religion, it was a call to prayer. Usually was you. It was time to remember your version of God. I picked 4:20 as the time of day knowing its reference to the cannabis world. But to me, that is an honoring of the moment that if you do partake in that, I want to honor also and to have different sounds.
I'd like to do more sounds of sort of civil rights and other music that can remind people in the public space to think about this thing. And it'd be great if it was related to the day of the year or the month or a particular holiday. You could certainly have something on Martin Luther King Day that was just special for that day, for example.
Dale: That's terrific. While I have you, just for people listening, you're involved with Chimera as well and Chimera's done pretty well coming out of Covid, hasn't it?
Jim: Not only did we survive Covid, the Chimera Arts and Makerspace, we call it Downtown Sebastopol but we just unbeknownst to everybody, including me, we missed it. We had our 10 year anniversary of being a nonprofit. We have managed to survive and thrive with a small community of volunteers for a long time. And we do that by offering classes to the public. And if you wanna use our tools, you can become a monthly member. And those are our sources of income and we seem to be able to just keep on going.
Dale: That's great.
Jim: We're going to combine forces with the Sebastopol Area Time Bank and have a repair cafe at our space on January 28th. So we'll be putting the word out about that.
Dale: All right, Jim, thanks for talking to me today about the bell clock, which you don't mind if we call it the bell tower.
Dale: You don't have any sounds to play right now, do you?
Jim: I might. Let's see.
Dale: Send us .out with a tune
Jim: Here we go. Let's try this one.