Capturing the Audience: A Primer for Sound Art in Public Spaces



[Update: This post was eventually revised and published in Leonardo Music Journal Issue 24 (2014).
Find it online here.]

I teach sound art at Columbia College Chicago.

When my students create sound art installations, they do it in visual art galleries or public spaces.  The first hurdle they must clear is capturing the audience's attention. Here are four rules I've devised to help them do so.

Rule #1: Don’t use headphones.

Headphones are for solitary listening. People often socialize while visiting a gallery, and you can’t socialize while wearing headphones.

Expecting a visitor to stand in front of an audio player with headphones, like they’re sampling a track at the record shop, is unrealistic. A few people will put on the headphones. Most won’t.

A number of artists have made brilliant sound work that uses headphones. (Janet Cardiff and Letitia Sonami spring to mind.) What these pieces frequently have in common is awareness and specificity of place. The headphones in these works allow the listener to engage their surroundings in a new and meaningful way, not possible otherwise. The sounds heard on the headphones would lose much of their impact (or would not be possible) if the headphones were moved to a different location.

If the sound art could be experienced on headphones anywhere, the work probably belongs on radio, web, or podcast.


Rule #2 Be a good neighbor, or face the consequences.

Sound cannot be contained in space. It bleeds, affecting everyone in earshot. As R. Murray Schafer has pointed out, humans do not have earlids. There are hard limits to humans’ tolerance of sound. When sound art tests those tolerances, there are consequences.

 I’m not suggesting that sound art must be “easy-listening”. But consider that, though the curator supports the work, the gallery assistants, security personnel, or building maintenance staff may not welcome it as the soundtrack of their workday. If a sound piece becomes intolerable to someone, they can and will take steps to silence it.

Koan for sound artists: If a tree falls in the forest, and someone unplugged the speakers, does it make a sound?

A few strategies for being neighborly

  • Quiet and/or localized sound: directional speakers (unfortunately, very expensive), low volume levels, or acoustic treatments
  • Interaction: requiring the audience to “play” a sound work
  • Motion detectors: These can be used to turn a work on and off. It saves electricity, minimizes wear, and can be added after the piece is complete. (Home Depot carries a plug-in motion-activated lamp controller for $24, which I’ve used for several installations.)

Rule #3: The gallery is not the theater.

 Students approaching sound installation art often have experience in theater venues (as musicians or filmmakers, for instance). It’s important they understand how the gallery (and the gallery audience) is different.

Theater:

•       Acoustics emphasize what is on stage. Sound reinforcement systems allow even the quietest sounds to be heard clearly throughout the space.

•       Low lighting helps the audience forget their environment and physical presence.

•       The audience is stationary, in chairs, and expects to stay seated for a length of time.

•       The experience starts and ends at the same time for everyone. The audience is passive and quiet for the duration.

•       All of the above directs our focus to the work being presented on stage.

•       Audience attention span = hours.

 

Gallery:

•       The hard, flat walls and floors reflect sounds throughout the space while making it difficult to hear any one sound.

•       The bright lighting increases visitors’ awareness of their environment.

•       The audience is standing or walking.

•       The experience starts and ends at different points in time for everyone.

•       The audience is active, moving, and often vocal.

•       Galleries must be configured to create (visual) focal points. Public spaces may not have focal points.

•       Audience attention span = seconds. (There are a number of surveys on the amount of time a gallery visitor spends looking at a work of visual art. While the results vary, all are measurable in seconds-- single digits, even-- and not minutes.)

Public spaces, of course, could be any combination of the above gallery or theater traits, or none of the above. Which brings us to Rule #4.

Rule #4 Survey the site before you create.

This borrows from architecture – survey the site, then design for it. When I’m creating a new installation, I observe the site as much as possible. I take notes, and consider questions like:

•       How long are people in the space?

•       What do they do while they are there?

•       Where do people focus their attention when they are there?

•       What are people using their ears for?

•       What are people using their eyes for?

•       What impact does the space have on people moving thru it?

•       What sounds are already present? What aesthetic impact do they have? 

•       What sounds are repeated?

•       What are the natural rhythms of the space? (These aren’t limited to the auditory. For instance, traffic lights at a crosswalk, and the pedestrian/vehicular movements that follow.)

•       Are the sounds signals?

•       How do people react to the sounds?

•       How do people interact with the sounds?

In my class, we don’t have a designated public place to install work, so we install guerilla-style: we park a portable amp in a public place, connect an mp3 player, and let it play for 15 minutes. We loiter anonymously, or from a distance, to watch the “audience”.

The locations are chosen by students ahead of time, who then survey their sites, and create for it. Success can be measured by audience reactions—a slow, dawning smile, a thoughtful pause. Oblivious passers-by indicate failure. The behavior of strangers is a powerful teacher.