Over the last few months I’ve had the privilege of working with some of my favorite writers and a cool new museum to create a different kind of literary experience. The project uses audio recordings and latest-and-greatest tech, but of course its success really should be credited, as always, to the thoughtful work of the writers. I’m so pleased with how things came together, thanks to everyone’s generous participation, not to mention that rarest of things—a healthy budget for poetry, provided by the museum.
The project is called Under/Standing. It’s an audio installation I curated for WNDR Museum in San Diego (and which will soon open in other locations in the US, including Seattle, Boston, and Chicago). It features recordings by 10 writers: Stephanie Barber, Amelia Gray, Kate Greenstreet, Gabino Iglesias, Dorothea Lasky, Ada Limón, Jamie Mortara, Jae Nichelle, Mary Oliver, and Bud Smith. The exhibit launches this week.
WNDR Museum is “an interactive experience: a multi-sensory showcase of art and technology” (as described at wndrmuseum.com) and that’s how Under/Standing fits in. We use “audio projectors” to create a sound cone, from inside which a visitor can hear a poem-ish thing read in the writer’s voice. It’s as if the listener is enveloped by the sound.
Of course, you can’t see hearing, so there are cool little floor mats signifying where to stand to hear the piece. There are a few of them around the museum, each one looping through a few of the writers’ contributions.
I think there are two unique things about the experience: the enveloping character of the audio beam, and hearing a solitary voice within the frenetic atmosphere of the museum.
For the most part I received new work from some of my favorite writers in the PGP network. I found this recording from Kate Greenstreet to be startling, even in its quietude. Can you imagine walking around a crowded museum, then passing through an area where everything gets silent but Kate’s voice?
For accessibility, the exhibit also features a page where visitors can read the text, as well as descriptions written by Emily Anderson, of how each piece sounds when performed by the writer. For instance:
ADA LIMÓN This confident speaker is close to the microphone, so the sounds of their breath, tongue, and mouth contribute to the rhythms of this poem. For instance, the small sound of the speaker’s throat closing punctuates words like “offering.”
JAMIE MORTARA The speaker starts out with a deadpan, comic hesitancy. But when the moon comes into the poem, the voice transforms; it’s filled with steady breath and wonderment.
It was truly an honor to work with the museum’s director, David Allen, on putting the exhibit together. He gave me the general idea and the push, and was so receptive to everything after. He even went for my naming idea, “Textual Healing”—though eventually that didn’t work out. But generally what he told San Diego Magazine about the museum was true of our experience working together. “Curiosity is the beginning of empathy,” he said.
David coordinated a lot of other amazing new pieces at the museum, too. I got a preview of INSIDEOUT, the award-winning multimedia piece from German-based artist Leigh Sachwitz and flora&faunavisions. It’s a light show inside a room that seems to have a bodily effect, both soothing and invigorating.
Here’s information about how to attend the exhibit, if you happen to be in the San Diego area. If you go, I hope you’ll tell me about it! And I’ll post more about other openings as they happen.