Devon Turnbull’s Ojas: The sound systems that make you feel like you’re on psychedelics

Over the next decade, while focusing on streetwear, Turnbull began making his own hi-fi systems – avant-garde works he called “sound sculptures” – and he eventually glimpsed a chance to turn the sideline into a new career. Using his old graffiti tag, Ojas, he began producing large-scale brutalist sound systems that stand out for their naturalistic audio quality. As Ojas grew older, Turnbull increasingly felt like there was more to do with the equipment he was building. In 2020, he hired two full-time employees and moved his business from the top floor of his Brooklyn townhouse to an industrial workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Today, Ojas is able to create around 15 custom loudspeaker setups per year. It’s an increasingly robust operation, but still relatively small compared to the growing interest in this unique form of hi-fi audio.

Last year, one of Turnbull’s friends, artist Hugh Hayden, introduced him to an avowed audiophile named Alex Logsdail, the CEO of the Lisson Gallery, where Hayden exhibits his work. Logsdail invited Turnbull to place an Ojas system in their gallery in Chelsea as part of an exhibition called “The Odds Are Good, the Goods Are Odd”, which included works by Hayden and other artists focused on craft sculpture . In a private 390 square foot room at the back of the gallery, Turnbull set up his HiFi Dream Listening Room #1– not a sculpture but a complete handcrafted sound system. At one end of the listening room, which was on display until August, was a wall of brutalist loudspeakers. In the middle were the turntable and the amplifiers that power them. And at the other end were seats where visitors could sit and listen. All components were handcrafted, angular and dull gray or slightly shiny, as if carved from stone or cast in concrete. The feel in the room was equally weighty, thanks in part to careful customizations of the space to maximize the acoustics – this is a place where something big is going to happen. “I really try to create an environment that feels like a temple or a shrine,” Turnbull says, “or some kind of feel-good space.”

The listening room lasted about two months, free and open to the public (as most galleries are) to come and listen to the Ojas system for as long as they wish. Musical offerings included sessions with legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, a selection of ambient music by Brian Eno, and live performances recorded directly to tape and played back over the PA system. Every day the room filled with a mixture of hi-fi fanatics, Ojas acolytes and unsuspecting gallerists of all kinds. Turnbull rolled around the room on a wheeled stool, dropping records onto the Ojas turntable and just listening, as everyone else did, facing the speakers.

One visitor, Chance Chamblin, a 21-year-old film student from New York, knew of Turnbull’s work through social media, but had never had the opportunity to experience an Ojas system by himself. even until he lands in the gallery. “Serenity” is how he describes what he found in this room. “Peace of mind.” He estimates he spent about 30 hours listening to Turnbull’s system at the gallery. On the first day, he sat for seven hours. “I come here to surrender to this beautiful, amazing-sounding system,” he tells me.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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