Building a home for Sound Art

I was recently at the private viewing of an exhibition of sound art. As is usual at gallery events, the space was filled with a hundred voices discussing art over wine. This effectively drowned out the sonic works I had come to hear. I returned the following day. Although the space was empty – this time, I could hear all the works AT THE SAME TIME and, consequently, none of them. Obviously, the old school gallery model is not suited to sound art. This being so, where is sound art’s rightful home?

Since the legendary group show of sound art Sonic Boom at the Hayward gallery in 2001, sound-only works are to be encountered in most contemporary institutions – yet, the institutions themselves seem to have made no changes in their building to accommodate this. The characteristic architecture of the gallery – bare walls, high ceilings, hard surfaces – is particularly hostile to sonic works, amplifying certain frequencies with echoes bouncing off the walls. This environment changes the sound completely – and in a work that is solely sound – this is a disastrous consequence.

The group show can be a particular mess. Sound bleeds from one work into the next. In desperation, curators confine works to rows of headphones or lock them in separate cubicles. Specialist sound curators try sound-proofing technologies, building rooms inside rooms, or putting all the works on a timer so the audience must follow the sound like school groups on a guided tour of the gallery.

Isn’t it time to build a museum that anticipates sound works? Imagine a specially designed space created by acousticians. The rooms would have no ringing resonant frequencies. The walls would be malleable, with interchangeable textures. This gallery would understand that the audience of a time-based media piece may need to sit whilst absorbing the work. Exhibition spaces would be rooms, rather than never-ending corridors, encouraging the participant to listen for the duration of the piece. There would be spaces between each room where people could discuss works without simultaneously destroying them. There would be digital technologies allowing visitors to comment on works silently.

But perhaps this fancy new museum wouldn’t suit the purposes of all sound art works. The thing I love about sound art is its invitation to focus on sounds that aren’t considered musical; to hear the beauty in everyday sounds and noise; to explore our relationship with this sense, which is rated so far below vision; to challenge our categorisation of sound into ‘music’ and ‘noise’, when both can be both and there is a world in between.

Surely all this can be done outside, on the street, at home, in the desert, and anywhere we choose to stop and contemplate the world around us, not just in the confines of a gallery and because an artist has directed us to do so.

So perhaps sound art’s home is everywhere it occurs naturally or can be exhibited considerately, though not necessarily confined to the gallery.

Ruth's illustration edited

Article written by Hannah Kemp-Welch 

Illustration by Ruth Stewart:


One thought on “Building a home for Sound Art

  1. Interesting ideas – i’d love to inhabit a building that had been designed sonically not visually. Sound art or no sound art, this is a very worthwhile venture and would be an amazing experience!

    As for how to house multiple sound art works in an exhibition…
    Sound cannot help but be site specific, and so if there was a sonically designed space the art works would still be reacting with it somehow and thereby the space still shaping it. I wonder if an entirely outdooor exhibition would work – but with installations / performances as well as listening exercises to hear those ‘unheard’ sounds that already exist. Maybe around the outside of the building, instead of inside the building and exhibition space! It would have to be the right building in a relatively sheltered not noisy space… but it could work?

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