Julianne Swartz

By Amelia Kahl & Spencer Topel
Aug 02, 2018

Transfer (objects)
Mixed media
Sherman Art Library, Carpenter Hall

Transfer (objects) asked us to consider the act of reading through the act of listening.

In our increasingly digital world, physical books have become less ubiquitous. Yet a book offers a particularly tactile and personal experience. You hold a book in your hands and give it your attention. It is enigmatic and then becomes known through your investment of time, effort, and touch. It transfers information, triggers emotion, and can transport you to another place and time. It functions as an interface: a physical object that allows an exchange between reader and author. A library is one of few meditative places in our culture—one goes quietly and with attention to seek or wander. It is a place for internal and educational exploration and enrichment that functions through a currency of trust.

—Julianne Swartz


Building on the qualities and expectations of the library environment, Swartz set up a series of three listening objects that sat on shelves. When visitors picked up an object, it activated and emitted sound. The objects resembled books in scale and weight, but they were more amorphous and less angular: solid objects, meant to be held and listened to by one person at a time. This one-on-one relationship dictated the objects’ form and function. They were made of soft, hand-hewn wood in shapes that invited a tactile encounter. The subtle sound they produced was audible only to the person holding the object, a private, singular experience that echoes the act of reading.

Each object transmited a short piece of specific text. Swartz transcribed each text and spoke it aloud at the rate of transcription, trying to release the words vocally only as she wrote them. So the pen rushed to catch up with her voice and her voice slowed to stay in time with the pen in order to “absorb” the texts more slowly. She recorded both the sound of her voice and that of the writing simultaneously on different tracks so she could mix them together in varied combinations.

Swartz chose texts that spoke of the poetic transmission from writer to reader, and of receptivity—that is, the receptivity of listening as akin to the receptive state of reading. The three texts, one for each object, are Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice by Pauline Oliveros (Deep Listening Publications, 2005); Collected Prose by Charles Olson (University of California Press, 1997); and The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (Presses Universitaires de France, 1958).

Transfer (objects) asked us to consider the act of reading through the act of listening. It suggested the echo of language in our minds as we read to ourselves, and it reminded us of the other sounds that accompany what we often think of as a silent act. As such, it questioned how we receive information and develop knowledge and wisdom in an increasingly complex and noisy world.


Julianne Swartz (born 1967) lives and works in Stone Ridge, New York. Her work has been exhibited broadly including at the Tate Museum, Liverpool, UK; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the New Museum, New York; the Jewish Museum, New York; MoMA PS1, New York; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts; and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. She received the Anonymous Was a Woman Fellowship in 2015.

The Contributors

  • Amelia Kahl Headshot

    Amelia Kahl is the associate curator of academic programming at the Hood Museum of Art. She runs the museum’s Bernstein Center for Object Study and teaches with the museum’s 65,000-object collection across the Dartmouth curriculum. Her exhibition projects for the Hood have included "Water Ways: Tension and Flow" (2015), "The Stahl Collection" (2015, co-curated with Barbara MacAdam, Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art), and "Emmet Gowin Dreams of Stars" (2014).

  • Topel Headshot

    Spencer Topel creates installations and performance pieces that are immersive experiences, fusing sound, visual components, and interactive expression. Trained in music conservatories as a composer and violinist, he produced work for orchestral and chamber ensembles for over twenty years. In 2011 he collaborated with sculptor Soo Sunny Park on a yearlong installation titled Capturing Resonance, presented at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Since then, Topel’s practice has expanded to include visual art in a distinctive body of work that engages artwork as observer and listener, where installations gain agency in the interactions between visitors and environments.