MCA recap: Our Sonic Playground
At the beginning of the evening, on Tuesday, October 25th, visitors gathered under the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)’s Kern Terrace for a short introduction to the program titled Our Sonic Playground. Eric Leonardson spoke elegantly of the relationship, mediated through sound, between living beings and their environment. Folks were encouraged to actively engage through concentrated listening at the pop-up listening stations and among the black faux-marble floors, steel columns, and industrial lighting of the MCA. Paper and pencil were handed out to participants as they deployed themselves around the museum. Trace, gesture and sound patterns were to emerge in a process of multi-perceptual experience. Listening next to the sliced mobiles of Alexander Calder one might have literally drawn a distinction between sound that is omnidirectional and vision that is unidirectional. Emphasized throughout the program were exercises that led listeners to create, share, and connect with each other around content relevant to the core mission of the MSAE while remaining uninhibited to construct their own meaning from experience.
Pop-up listening stations were separated between three levels of the MCA and staged to introduce unconventional entrances into deeper listening. In short these pop-ups were an assembly of small listening systems that included inductors applied in an electromagnetic field, contact microphones submerged in thawing ice, friction mallets spontaneously stricken on smooth MCA surfaces and resonant structures, accelerometers placed on the museum’s signature staircase, and a parabolic reflector collecting and converging sound energy toward the focus of distant sources. Depending on which pop-up, sounds were diffused by either headphones or speakers. Collectively these systems generated a central question that asked how it is we interpret sound phenomena that embody specific places. Leonardson touched on this in his opening address, ”Sounds are all around us, creating our environments, our sense of place and influencing our social interactions.”
In the Kanter Room a remote listening station was devised by SAIC faculty member Lindsey French with the input of students enrolled in her Sensing the Landscape course. A hand-drawn map of the city of Chicago was projected onto the wall with different points of light on the map vibrating and distorting according to an audio signal. Each of these points corresponded to live audio signals streaming from domestic interiors. These sounds were played on speakers inside the darkened and semi-isolated Kanter Room. It was transfixing to watch points of light swell and recede according to the amplitude, attack, and familial occupation of sound. Philosopher Jean-Francois Augoyard reasoned in Sonic Experience: A Guide To Everyday Sounds that sound should be understood primarily as temporality. The illuminated expansion and contraction of sound depicted on French’s map seemed to underpin Augoyard’s proposition; pointing further towards the paradox that embodies sound: that which is used to propagate it also extinguishes it. (Time).
For the phonography performance at the end of the evening unfamiliar participants brought an array of their own collected field recordings to play back as an ensemble. In the sound ecology formulation, hi-fi soundscape is generally associated with sparse wilderness and rural landscapes and low-fi is often associated with urban and industrial soundscapes. Over the thirty minutes of this improvised performance disparate soundscapes were merged inconceivably, collapsing narrative and leaving only texture in its wake.
By continuing to provide these kinds of participatory programs the MSAE teaches us that sounds are subjective and connote ways of human knowing and best supported through multi-directional content experiences. The MSAE is serving as a ”platform” that connects different users who act as content creators, distributors, consumers, critics, and collaborators. While this means the MSAE cannot guarantee the consistency of every participant’s experiences, it does open up new ways for diverse people to express themselves and engage with the institutional practices of acoustic ecology.
SAIC faculty: Lindsey French, Eric Leonardson Listening stations: Laura Campuzano, Nicholas Davis, Devin DiSanto, Guido Gambo, Tom Haigh, Peter LaRue, Neal Markowski, Kyle Nilan Phonography performance: Chad Clark, Dan Godston, Norman Long, Monica Ryan, Jessica Speer