A Space for Sound: Curating a Sound Art Exhibition on a College Campus

By Amelia Kahl
Aug 04, 2018

With Resonant Spaces: Sound Art at Dartmouth, co-curator Spencer Topel and I had several goals. The first was to introduce the Upper Valley to sound art, a medium that had never been exhibited in the area. The second was to show the diversity of the practice and to include artists from a range of backgrounds who are at different points in their careers. Our final goal was to look at the interaction between sound and site. The exhibition took place in seven geographically distinct locations across the Dartmouth campus and the town of Hanover, New Hampshire, all within walking distance from one another. Five sites were public spaces, indoor and outdoor, and two were indoor galleries. With the exception of a selection of works by the late Terry Adkins, each of the works displayed in Resonant Spaces was created specifically for its location. This led to a series of questions: How did the public nature of these sites make the work more or less accessible? How may the sites themselves have shaped audience response? How did the type of sound employed play into these factors? Is a college campus a good—even an ideal—place for this medium, or in some ways is it a more challenging venue than a conventional gallery or civic museum space? What curatorial particularities exist in creating an exhibition of sound art on a college campus?

This essay organizes the works in Resonant Spaces within three categories of pairings: works installed in public spaces versus those in gallery locations,1 works with a strong visual component versus those with a minimal or no visual component, and works that were interactive versus those that were more passive. Each of these factors contributed to the audience’s response to the works and to the works’ ultimate success.

Resonant Spaces ran from September 15 through December 10, 2017, and the artists whose works featured in the show included Terry Adkins, Bill Fontana, Christine Sun Kim, Jacob Kirkegaard, Alvin Lucier, Laura Maes, Jess Rowland, and Julianne Swartz. Because the show was so heavily composed of new commissions, our curatorial approach emphasized the artists’ identities rather than the individual works exhibited. This was evident in the brochure design—in particular, in the images we included (when the brochure was produced the works had not been completed yet, so we did not have photography)—and also in the installation design of Hood Downtown,2 the main exhibition space and introduction to the show (fig. 1). This served to highlight the diversity of individuals, and therefore of approaches, ideas, and conceptions of sound art.

Site Selection

The creation of the exhibition entailed an interchange between artist commission and site selection. We invited artists individually. Simultaneously, we scouted potential sites across the Dartmouth campus, finally landing on a group of sixteen (fig. 2) for which we prepared dossiers that we distributed to the artists. Artists then either came to campus to select a site, or consulted with us electronically. Sites ranged across academic departments and College institutions. We looked for sites that would offer a variety of options for artists: very public or more tucked away, sonically quieter or with ample ambient noise, small and contained or large and expansive. Ultimately, matching artists and sites was a relatively painless process, as the artists had different acoustic and visual priorities. Some artists, such as Jacob Kirkegaard, offered different proposals for different sites, allowing us even greater flexibility. Julianne Swartz had an idea that didn’t match up with any of the sites on the original list, so we worked with the library to find a suitable location. Knowing her concept for Transfer (objects) (2017) helped to allay many of the library’s fears about the disruptive possibilities of a sound art piece.

Public and Invisible

Two of the most abstract examples of sound art in the show were Alvin Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo (2017), located in an outdoor amphitheater known as the Bema, and Jacob Kirkegaard’s Transmission (2017), located in the atrium of the Sherman Fairchild Physical Sciences Center. Both of these works were purely auditory and intimately enmeshed with their specific locations. There was no visual component to the works, save that each made the visitors more keenly aware of their surroundings, either natural or built.

The encounter with Alvin Lucier’s 5 Graves occurred slowly, as a sort of creeping awareness. Even for those of us with knowledge of the work there was often a distinct period required to attune one’s senses to it. The sound was low and pulsing, and often confused with a truck rumbling in the distance or some obscure construction project. Some visitors reported feeling it in their bodies—their stomachs or their hearts—more than properly hearing it. The sound moved across the space in a slow circle, what Lucier referred to as “spinning.” It was easy to anthropomorphize, as some great creature under the earth, or as a mechanical interloper into the pristine nature of the Bema.3 Indeed the site, the Bema, is seen on campus as a special place, a natural retreat where one can escape the pressures of academic life (fig. 3). The sound of the space is a critical part of its identity, and is frequently described as silent, but that really means limited to natural sounds such as birdcalls and wind in the trees. Lucier’s work did not barge in on that “quiet,” but rather added an undercurrent—soothing or disquieting—to the location.

It is this subtlety that created the most difficulty for visitors experiencing 5 Graves. The work’s strongest advocates were those who were well versed in sound art and also aware of Lucier’s impact on the field. For those who understood the physics behind the “spinning,” who appreciated the impression of movement that was produced by the interaction of the waves with the location, the work was a wonder. It was a demonstration of an effect.4 For others, it took proper preparation even to hear the work. One of the most successful programs involving 5 Graves was a collaboration with Dartmouth’s Mindfulness Practice Group. Roughly a dozen people met in the space during a beautiful fall day to move or sit mindfully with the piece. Afterward they shared a range of nuanced responses. Frequently, during tours of the exhibition participants would ask what they should be hearing. Is this the work? Does it sound like this this? Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo was the work that received the most inquiries as to whether it was on. (It ran 24/7 and had only a few technical difficulties, but was never completely off.) By far the most abstract work, both in that it was pure sound, and in the type of sound that it used, Lucier’s piece required the most from the listener: sustained attention as well as an interest in sound art itself (fig. 4).

By comparison, Jacob Kirkegaard’s Transmission was dramatic in its impact. Yet it, too, was a relatively subtle intervention. Walking into the ground level of the Fairchild Physical Sciences Center’s soaring atrium, which extends high above the building’s top floor, one might hear deep, resonant rumblings or quieter tones or, sometimes, nothing at all (fig. 5). On the fourth-floor (and uppermost) balcony, the sound of wind and the occasional birdcall greeted the visitor, yet outside the large expanses of glass the trees did not move in synchronicity with the sound.

In developing the work, Kirkegaard collaborated with scientists to gather his sounds from natural rock arches in Utah and Arizona.5 The subterranean sounds were pitched up to make them audible to humans, and Kirkegaard attuned them to the space and played them through four speakers on the first floor (fig. 6). He also took above-ground recordings that played through four speakers mounted on light poles on the fourth floor (fig. 7). In essence, he transferred the vertical acoustic landscape of the southwestern desert to another space. These sounds of the earth seemed particularly appropriate to the building, which houses the Departments of Geography and Earth Science as well as the Dartmouth Sustainability Office. The atrium’s ambient noises included the HVAC system, many people moving to and from classes and work, a concurrent opening and slamming of doors, and the ding of the elevator.

Transmission was the most controversial work in Resonant Spaces. This may have been more a consequence of reluctance regarding any alteration of the sonic environment at the site than an objection to this particular work. Initially, the Fairchild Atrium Committee was concerned about disruption to the numerous students studying in the space, and to sensitive equipment used by faculty in adjacent laboratories. To assuage fears, we used sample sounds to run a simulation a few months in advance of the show, and spoke with faculty and staff then. At the committee’s request, we also agreed to shut the work down for several days during reading period and finals. During the installation process, Kirkegaard gave an introduction to the work and answered questions. We received many positive responses to the work—for example, from a class of introductory architecture students. However, this was also the only work for which we received substantial negative response, including the show’s one incident of vandalism (the work was unplugged). In an email, one student described Transmission as “quite annoying” and complained that she had been driven out of her favorite study place by the “constant background moaning.”6 Still, large numbers of students continued to study in the space throughout the term, though we have no data on whether that number was a decrease from the average. Furthermore, despite some objections to the work from occupants of the Physical Sciences Center, Transmission was frequently praised in press coverage of the show—particularly by Susan Apel, who wrote several features on the exhibition.7

In distinct ways, Alvin Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo and Jacob Kirkegaard’s Transmission strongly integrated their sounds with their settings, making the visitor more attuned to both the auditory and visual aspects of the environment. For the engaged audience they could be spectacularly successful. However, for visitors who encountered the works when coming to their locations to socialize, to study, or for other purposes besides experiencing Resonant Spaces, the works could be either too discrete or too noticeable, transforming from sound into noise. Christoph Cox, in “Sound Art and the Sonic Unconscious,” argues that sound art gives the listener access to a virtual dimension of sound.8 This is the sound that is always in the background and that we perceive imperfectly—for Cox: noise. This great “ocean” of noise is actualized into meaningful sounds, like music or speech. By attuning us to ambient noise and by complicating the boundary between ambient and intentional sound, Lucier’s and Kirkegaard’s work can help us recognize this perceived but unheard world.

Public and Strongly Visual

Like 5 Graves to Cairo and Transmission, Laura Maes’s Spikes (2017) and Bill Fontana’s MicroSoundings (2017) were situated in public spaces on campus. Both were located in transitional spaces, an entryway and entrance, bridging the indoors and outdoors. This was particularly true of Spikes, which consisted of five solar panels mounted to the exterior of Thayer School of Engineering’s Cummings Hall (fig. 8) and connected to 200 small circuits boards attached to the ceiling of the entryway. Suspended on ten brass rods making five circuits (each circuit connected independently to one solar panel) the circuit boards made a clicking sound often described as resembling the calls of crickets or tree frogs. The circuit boards also had LED lights that would blink as they were activated. With no battery, Spikes was completely responsive to the environment. On sunny days, when the voltage was high, the clicks would be loud and fast. On cloudy ones, they were slow and quiet, and the work would fall silent at sunset. Patterns would emerge out of the random clicks, only to shift and degrade as quickly as they formed. The work had a rhythmic, almost natural quality, which seemed akin to the handmade quality of the electronics. The dark wires connecting the circuit board and brass rods had a linear, drawn effect against the white paint of the ceiling (fig. 9).

Spikes was for many the most accessible work in the exhibition, and prompted some of the most positive responses we received. Sonically and visually it asserted itself as something to be listened to and looked at, and was less abstract than some other works in the show. The memorable sound was engaging—particularly in the contained architecture of the entryway (figs. 10 and 11)—and reminded many visitors of the natural world. With its strong visual component, Spikes readily attracted attention from passersby—although we do not know how many stopped to read the label and therefore understood how the work operated, or realized that it was even a work of art at all. In classes and on tours, Spikes was the work from Resonant Spaces that audiences most often mentioned having noticed previously, even if they were not quite sure what it was. Notably, it was the only work that remained up after the exhibition closed. At the request of the Thayer School of Engineering, Maes agreed to keep it installed through the 2017–2018 school year, which also marked Thayer’s 150th anniversary.

Located on a silver slatted structure at the entrance of the Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center, Bill Fontana’s MicroSoundings (figs. 12 and 13) received a similarly positive response. As one approached the building’s entrance, the adjacent structure (originally constructed to control light pollution) came alive with sound: rushing water, low gurgling, or varieties of thumping and hammering. The sound samples themselves, recorded by Fontana from laboratories9 and mechanicals inside the building, had a lot of movement, and they played from six speakers arrayed on the interior of the structure. These recorded sounds would alternate with amplified sounds from the ambient environment heard through two additional speakers mounted on a light pole. This ambient sound was captured in real time by two accelerometers attached to the interior of the slatted structure. MicroSoundings painted a sonic portrait of the building made up of the work inside it, the machines that circulated its air and water, and the people and things that vibrated it during daily life.

Fontana’s MicroSoundings also had an interactive component: during the ambient sound part of the piece, visitors could bang, rub, scratch, or otherwise vibrate the poles of the structure and hear the resulting sound amplified through the light-pole speakers (fig. 14). This aspect of the work was not fully apparent until it was installed. Unfortunately, the all-weather didactic sign we had prepared for it had to be ordered well in advance, so the text did not invite the audience to touch the piece. While this interactivity was a key part of the tours and school groups that visited MicroSoundings, it was missing from the experience of those who encountered the work independently.

Both Spikes and MicroSoundings were widely noticed and engaged with by exhibition visitors as well as passersby. Their locations, at the entrances of buildings, allowed for a large number of people to hear them en route to other destinations. However, it was their strong visual components—Maes’s beautiful array of circuit boards and Fontana’s adoption of an existing architectural feature—that particularly captured attention and invited sustained engagement. People were also able to hear them in a more superficial way, without stopping to focus, as they moved about their day. That quality is shared with Kirkegaard’s Transmission, but not with Lucier’s Five Graves to Cairo. The entryway locations of Spikes and MicroSoundings also made them uncontroversial. They did not disrupt offices, classrooms, or study spaces. (Fontana’s work was faintly audible from the inside the building in the stairway and became familiar to folks who used that space multiple times a day, but no one complained about it while going up and down the stairs.) One Dartmouth student recalled,

I personally immediately connected with the installations at the LSC [Life Sciences Center] and in Thayer because of how well they fit into the spaces. I had class in the LSC about twice a day and passing by the installation was always an interesting experience. It reflected the sounds inside the space well and actually made it sound like it was projecting the sounds from the labs. I went with a few students inside the space as well and everyone had a lot of fun interacting with the installation and the accelerometers. In terms of the Thayer installation, I thought the clicking and the circuitry also reflected the nature of the building well.11

Interactive Work

The interactive quality of Bill Fontana’s piece was shared by two other artists’ works in the show, Julianne Swartz’s Transfer (objects), and Jess Rowland’s The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound (2017) and Life This In Find We (2017). Their interactivity immediately engaged the visitor with the work and encouraged an experience of wonder and discovery. This happened as well with Fontana’s MicroSoundings, but only for those audiences who knew to engage with the piece.

Transfer (objects) consisted of three rectangular objects sitting among volumes of poetry on a bookshelf in Sherman Art Library (figs. 15 and 16). Visitors would pick up each smooth, wooden object and hold its small, central hole to their ear. The act of picking up would activate the work, and after a pause lasting a few seconds, one would begin to hear the sound of writing, as well as a measured female voice (the artist’s) reading a passage aloud. Each of the three objects was uniquely shaped, and each played a separate recorded text.11 The texts focused on the receptivity of listening—in essence, discussing precisely what the work was demanding of the listener. Visual, tactile, and auditory, Transfer (objects) engaged the senses in a comprehensive way.

This was a rather quiet and contained work that was made specifically for—indeed, in response to—the library environment (fig. 17). It asked the audience to think about how one receives information in written and audible terms. By encountering the work in a library, the audience may have been predisposed to engage in a certain kind of way. Lifting an object off a shelf is much different than catching a sound as you hurry along your way to work or class; it takes a certain kind of intention to engage. Laura Graveline, the art librarian, remarked that she saw both individuals and groups enjoy them and that “the subtlety of the objects was actually quite engaging for most people.”12

Like the Fairchild Atrium where Kirkegaard’s Transmission was sited, the art library is a heavily used study space for students. However, because Transfer (objects) is a singular, intimate listening experience (only one person can hear each object at a time), and because it is intermittent (active only when picked up), the library staff did not see the work as a disruption. In contrast to the Fairchild Atrium Committee, members of the library staff were much more open to hosting this work from Resonant Spaces (it is the art library after all), and in fact the library staff assumed the responsibility of periodically recharging the objects as needed.

As with Transfer (objects), interactivity was a key component of the five works by Jess Rowland on display at Hood Downtown. This gallery space hosted the introduction to the exhibition, and featured multiple works by Rowland and by Terry Adkins. It was the only location with multiple artists’ work. The group of objects Rowland created was installed on two surfaces of the wall directly in front of the main entrance to the gallery (fig. 18). These works were selected for their strong visual impact, accessibility, and creativity. The use and manipulation of found material, auditory and physical, helped to unite Rowland’s pieces with those of Adkins, and was a conscious choice on Rowland’s part.

Upon entering Hood Downtown, the visitor first encountered four rectangular works displayed on a wall facing the gallery entrance. These four pieces from The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound initially look like musical scores, with lines arranged on a stripped-down staff. However, the lines are abstracted and rendered in shiny metallic tones: silver, copper, and red. Visually compelling, these works are immediately appreciable for the beauty and liveliness of their form. The two works that were installed on the right side of the wall emit their own sounds, audible if one stands rather close to them. Both the visual score for these works and the sound itself, derived from two pieces of classical music, have been abstracted. Rowland relays the sound through the paper, as if collapsing the distinction between notation and instrument will illuminate it all the more. The two works that were installed on the left require a more focused participation. The visitor must hold the disc from a stethoscope (disconnected from its tubing and ear pieces) over metallic lines traced across sheets of white paper, hovering the scope just above the paper’s surface, to activate a piece of music. To hear the music, once must place one’s ear near the stethoscope disc, quite close to the score—a proximity prohibited when viewing traditional works of art in a museum setting. The visitor must resist the temptation to run the stethoscope directly over the score, as that would stress the magnets and impose one’s own tempo on the piece.

Around the corner, hung vertically on the narrow side of the freestanding wall, was Life This In Find We (fig. 19). Created from an early twentieth-century piano roll, this piece privileges the integrity of that object, with the only visible alterations the shiny aluminum foil that fills the holes that originally allowed the song to play, and the addition of a narrow copper strip running down the side of the work (fig. 20). Life This In Find We is a beautiful visual object, but comes alive when the visitor places one hand on the copper strip, and another on one of the aluminum lines. By completing the circuit, this gesture activates as speaker to produce recorded sound. Depending on where one places one’s hand, three channels of sound can be layered, allowing the visitor to play the piano roll—no player piano needed. Visitors could also link hands, completing the electrical circuit as a group, to play the piece. Life This In Find We was one of the most popular works in the exhibition. This was due to the sense of surprise, discovery, and wonder aroused through its interactivity, and to the tonal quality of the sound produced (Rowland’s work plays a contemporary piece of music, not the song denoted by the title, lyrics, and matrix of dots on the roll).

With Swartz’s Transfer (objects) the visitor had some inkling of how and where sound would emanate from the objects when lifted to the listener’s ear. With Rowland’s The Other Side of Air and Life This In Find We, by contrast, there was a quality of the unknown. While the audience at Hood Downtown was primed to have an aesthetic experience simply by walking into the museum’s gallery space, the playful mechanisms Rowland employed were a delightful surprise. The opportunity for physical interaction with the objects, which violates common museum etiquette, likely added to their appeal. Often visitors received instruction from a group leader, or from one of the Hood’s visitor services staff, on how to operate Rowland’s works, making them much more accessible than the Resonant Spaces installations in more public, but unstaffed, spaces.

Situated in the Gallery

The majority of the Hood Downtown exhibition space was filled with works by Terry Adkins. Suggestive and sublime, his sculpture and video work brought issues of history, biography, and race to the fore. Adkins’s work often asks us to question received histories and narratives, drawing attention to figures that may be under- or misrepresented in American culture. It is precisely his preoccupation with such issues that made Adkins’s work so critical to Resonant Spaces. No other artist in the show dealt with the intersection of culture and sound. Adkins’s work has often been presented as a constellation of pieces and performances, which the artist called recitals, around a particular individual such as John Brown, Bessie Smith, or W. E. B. Du Bois. While all other artists included in Resonant Spaces produced site-specific commissioned works, Adkins died in 2014, so we selected works from a variety of his projects that were united by an engagement with sound. They were also distinguished by their strong visual, and often material, presence (fig. 21).

The most dramatic work in the gallery was Adkins’s Aviarium (Grasshopper Sparrow) (2014, fig. 22). Installed above the audience’s heads, its shiny silver surfaces glinted with tempting tactility. Made up of silver disks—including cymbals—strung on a pole and capped by a trumpet mute, Aviarium is the concretization of the call of the grasshopper sparrow, a small endangered bird. It is one in a series of five related works, each representing a different call. Here something natural and ephemeral, typically shown as something light, and often feminine (think of Cinderella’s relationship with birds), is made into a solid, heavy and fixed form, yet one that shines as it hangs overhead. It is a work about sound that references the notation of sound, yet that is silent. Adkins’s work bridges media. As he said, “I tried to make sculptures as ethereal and transient as music, and when I work with music I try to make it visceral and physical as if to suggest that it was matter.”13

In Aviarium the sound takes place in the audience’s imagination, in their reading of the waveform into the bird call. The physical structure of the work visually implies some sonic information—relative pitch, for example—but leaves out much, including tone and tempo. Adkins similarly allowed space for visitors to bring themselves to the work in Mute (2007, fig. 23), a video work featuring three soundless clips of jazz legend Bessie Smith from her only film, St. Louis Blues (1929). The imagery of her face, hands, and dress is deeply emotional, even as it is silent. The audience is asked to fill in the sound mentally, imaginatively. In a previous installation at the Syracuse University Art Galleries in 2008, Mute was presented as an interactive installation in which the audience could select different sounds to be played in the gallery. Mute seems to refer literally to the work, and also to the ways in which Smith was muted during her lifetime and in which her legacy continues to be silenced.

Three sculptural works, Tambour, Norfolk, and Vasculum (2013, 2012, and 2013; figs. 24–26), all come from Adkins’s project combining the historical and fictionalized interests of two men: George Washington Carver (1860s–1943) and Yves Klein (1928–1962). Adkins brings together the African American scientist and the French artist through provocative, allusive objects. For Resonant Spaces, the use of instruments (or an object that suggests an instrument—a hand drum, in the case of Vasculum) brings us to the hazy middle ground between music and sound art. Much as in Jess Rowland’s work, we hoped that the reference to music would feel familiar to the audience. But Adkins’s works are not musical per se—any sound is simply a reference, a memory, or an imaginative leap in the mind of the visitor.

The principal of juxtaposition is critical in much of Adkins’s oeuvre, particularly in the video work Flumen Orationis (2012, fig. 27). Here Adkins combines stereoscopic images of early flight and World War I with audio from Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” (Band of Gypsies, 1970) and Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967). This work, part of the recital The Principalities, After Jimi Hendrix was inspired, in part, by Hendrix’s brief time as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division in 1961. Adkins wrote of Hendrix’s influence:

Machine Gun, Hendrix’s unflinchingly brave rallying cry, valiantly proclaims that war is murder—that only love and the power of soul can bring about a peaceful end to the carnage for profit that was wrought in Vietnam then as it has been elsewhere with unbridled frenzy ever since.14

The flickering video, alternating between two stereoscopic images, creates a visual energy that speaks to the auditory experience. This work and Julianne Swartz’s Transfer (objects) are the only two in the exhibition that use legible outside texts. Here, sound merges with music and the visual, and in Swartz’s piece with the tactile, eroding the straightforward legibility of the spoken word into something richer, denser, and more affective.

The final video work in the show, Synapse (2004), from Black Beethoven, carries the potential for a moment of surprise similar to the experience of “playing” Rowland’s piano roll for the first time. An image of the composer changes from an older white man to a younger black man (figs. 28 and 29). The timing is slow, almost imperceptible, so one might notice one image on the wall, and then turn back a few minutes later to see it completely transformed. In this work Adkins raises the question of the composer’s possible Moorish ancestry. Beethoven’s blackness was something Adkins heard about frequently as a child, growing up in Washington, DC, in the fifties and sixties, as a kind of “alternate history.”15 Synapse is accompanied by a low sound that plays in the background. The video gives space for visitors to question their own responses to the work and, by extension, their assumptions about race and classical music, and changing cultural canons.

Adkins’s work seduces through the varied textures and patinas of its surfaces, whether physical or digital, the flickering of film or the layers of lace. It intrigues with its suggestion of narrative, of biography, of the potential to reveal some essence of historical ghosts. And yet often the work questions more than it answers. It introduces the viewer to someone new, or newly reimagined, and then leaves it up to us to get acquainted. It works on a variety of senses—hearing, sight, touch (at least imagined)—and though I don’t believe the work had a distinctive smell, it feels as if it ought to. Visitors to Resonant Spaces responded to this, listening, looking, and discussing the work. The gallery space made this a familiar exercise for many. Simply by entering in they were prepared to engage with Adkins work.

The other gallery-based installation in Resonant Spaces was located in the Hopkins Center for the Arts along a busy hallway. A wall of windows allowed many to have visual access to the work, but only a fraction of these entered the gallery to study it further. This seemed an appropriate place for Christine Sun Kim’s Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics (2017), a work composed of fifteen ceramic sculptures and fifteen accompanying drawings (figs. 30 and 31). Visually appealing, the sculptures and drawings were arranged in neat grids on a table and wall, respectively. At first glance the work seemed deceptively straightforward: sculptures in relatively recognizable shapes, such as a vase and a pearl necklace. However, the work was highly conceptual in nature.

Each sculpture and accompanying drawing referred to an experience Kim has had with a type of acousmatic sound, or sound without a visible source. These types of acousmatic sounds were delineated by prefixes—hence Prefixed in the title—written on the corresponding sculpture and drawing. For example, an-acousmatic, meaning without acousmatic sound, showed a cup of water. For Kim, who is deaf, this captures the moment when her ASL interpreter pauses to take a drink of water (figs. 32 and 33). Without an interpreter (or closed-captioning), acousmatic sound is unavailable to Kim. Melding both the impersonal (the terminology) and the highly personal (the imagery), this work posed some difficulty for many viewers. It was about sound, yet silent. Conceptually unfamiliar, and truly accessible only through anecdote, it required some effort on the part of the visitor to truly understand, either through reading the wall text or listening to an instructor. One student wrote:

I really started to connect with the exhibit in the HOP a lot more the more I walked past it and went into the gallery. The more I thought about and played with the concepts the more I began to really enjoy it. I feel like it grew into the space over the course of the term.16

In many ways Kim’s Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics is the perfect counterpoint to Alvin Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo. Both were highly conceptual works that required some outside knowledge to fully appreciate. They also spoke to the histories and oeuvres of their artists quite directly. While one was predominantly visual, the other had no visual component at all. Indeed, Lucier’s 5 Graves to Cairo exemplifies acousmatic sound. The sources are buried underground, undetectable to the eye.

A Space for Sound Art

At the Hood Museum of Art we often teach with an emphasis on the visual. One strategy, called Learning to Look, breaks the process into five parts (observation, analysis, context, interpretation, and criticism), all intended to slow viewers down so that they can better process visual information. This is a skill that we frequently practice and teach. Walking into an art museum, our audiences expect to engage with the visual in some way. Whether seeking education, delight, or challenge, they expect to see something on the walls or floors. This was the case with the works by Terry Adkins and Jess Rowland at Hood Downtown—they had an immediate visual impact. Once visitors learned the exhibition was about sound, however, some audience members engaged further, while others were put off.

In teaching with this work, we had to Learn to Listen. This is involved patience and developing a new vocabulary for describing our auditory experiences. Because much of the work was time based, we also had to identify and discuss moments that had passed seconds before. The sound from some works could be treated as a coherent whole, while others might be broken down to specific and nuanced parts. The five steps of our strategy stayed the same, but the experience of applying them felt different, sometimes richer and more holistic, sometimes more fleeting and harder to grasp. Touring the exhibition involved a greater time component as well. Instead of walking into another room, experiencing the next work often involved a 5-to-10-minute walk across campus. This added time increased anticipation, and left more time for processing works of art as we transitioned, but sometimes led to movement when listening in stillness would have been more beneficial.

For incidental audiences (as opposed to those who sought out installations from the exhibition), the works sited in various campus spaces had to capitalize on or compete with what individuals were doing in that space. While sometimes those intentions fit seamlessly (Julianne Swartz’s book-like objects in the library, for example), at other times sound seemed to compete with students’ immediate priorities, such as studying. Like much of the public art on campus, which is primarily abstract sculpture, some works are noticed and celebrated, while others are unrecognized, criticized, or met with only a fleeting curiosity.

We don’t know the full impact of Resonant Spaces: Sound Art at Dartmouth on the communities that experienced it. It certainly broadened the museum’s reach across campus and allowed us to form and strengthen partnerships with some amazing colleagues. In some ways a college campus, with its emphasis on inquiry and intellectual risk taking, feels like the perfect place for this kind experiment. And most of our partners across campus agreed that the addition of art to their spaces was a benefit. As the field of sound art continues to grow, it will be interesting to see to what extent sound art continues to be integrated into the collections and exhibition programs of institutions traditionally dedicated to visual art.


Amelia Kahl is the associate curator of academic programming at the Hood Museum of Art. She runs the museum’s 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).


[1] A gallery location is, of course, open to the public. And all of the locations I code as “public” are privately owned by Dartmouth, even though they are accessible to the general public. The distinction is meant mostly in regard to the audience’s mindset in encountering particular installations. Are visitors planning to enter the space to see or hear art? Or are individuals encountering art while they go about their day?

[2] The Hood Museum of Art was undergoing a renovation and expansion during this exhibition. While it was closed, the museum maintained a small gallery space in downtown Hanover that featured a series of exhibitions of global contemporary art. This was the main gallery for Resonant Spaces.

[3] One student responded, “I liked the one in the Bema the first time I heard it, but I grew to despise it the next time I went. It was a far less pleasant sound than the [ambient] sound of the Bema at night. I don't think all art ought to be pleasant, but this particular piece was in a public space and never turned off. In the context of [President] Hanlon’s plans to demolish those woods, the installation’s mechanical sound was wholly depressing. It ruined the Bema for me.” Student quoted in email from Kimberly Yu to Amelia Kahl, December 18, 2017.

[4] The piece consisted of five underground speakers, housed in oil drums, that each played a pure tone, a sine wave, between 90.0 and 90.4 MHz.

[5] Kirkegaard’s collaborators included geoscientist Jeffrey Moore and geophysics graduate student Paul Geimer from the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah, who recorded the seismic vibration data used in Transmission, as well as Erik Stanfield.

[6] Email from Flora Cullen to Hood Museum, September 22, 2017.

[7] Susan Apel, “The Big-Bang—Hood Museum’s Resonant Spaces Opens,” Daily UV, https://dailyuv.com/feed/921898; Susan Apel, ”Visual Arts Preview: Resonant Spaces—Sound Art at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum,” The Arts Fuse, September 11, 2017, http://artsfuse.org/163224/visual-arts-preview-resonant-spaces-sound-art-at-dartmouths-hood-museum/; Susan Apel, “Experiencing Sound Art at Dartmouth,” The Woven Tale Press, October 23, 2017, http://www.thewoventalepress.net/2017/10/23/resonant-spaces-sound-art/; Susan Apel, “Make Music. Cider Donut Optional,” Daily UV, https://dailyuv.com/feed/922391.

[8] Christoph Cox, “Sound Art and the Sonic Unconscious,” Organised Sound 14, no. 1 (April 1, 2009): 19–26.

[9] Thanks to biological sciences faculty members Sharon Brickel, Michael Hoppa, and G. Eric Schaller.

[10] Gina Campanelli, email to Amelia Kahl, December 7, 2017.

[11] Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice (Troy, NY: Deep Listening Publications, 2005); Charles Olson, Collected Prose (Oakland: University of California Press, 1997); and Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958).

[12] Laura Graveline, email to Amelia Kahl, December 11, 2017.

[13] Terry Adkins, interviewed by Okwui Enwezor, “A Certain Kind of Luminescence: The Recitals of Terry Adkins,” in Terry Adkins Recital (Saratoga Springs, NY: Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 2012), 221.

[14] Quoted in George E. Lewis, “The Sound of Terry Adkins,” in Terry Adkins Recital (Saratoga Springs, NY:  Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 2012), 116.

[15] Terry Adkins, interviewed by Okwui Enwezor, “A Certain Kind of Luminescence: The Recitals of Terry Adkins,” in Terry Adkins Recital (Saratoga Springs, NY: Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 2012), 220.

[16] Gina Campanelli, email to Amelia Kahl, December 7, 2017.

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).