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