Soundscapes exhibition at the National Gallery in London

Let us go with the flow and find out where it takes us

 Soundscapes is a temporary exhibition that has gone on display at the National Gallery in London from 8 July to 6 September 2015. It seeks to encourage visitors to experience paintings not only through what they see but also through what they hear. This being the case, the museum has commissioned six renowned musicians and sound artists to choose a painting from the museum’s collection that has some resonance for them and to create a sound installation in response to it.

As I notice museums increasingly engaging in a number of initiatives mobilising sound through several different approaches in recent years, bad reviews about them seem to have become the norm. In fact, together with many others, the Soundscapes exhibition is also being severely criticised, particularly by art critics who consider the museum to be tethering the visitors’ imaginative responses to the paintings to someone else; it is claimed that the sound interferes with the sight, the paintings do not need the emotional prompt of music, or the museum is making a ridiculous attempt to “groove with the kids”, among other things. I could not disagree more. Although it is true that we live in an era of economic self-management for cultural institutions, which leads museums to seek cultural glamour by means of producing easy to consume semiotic contents in order to reach a larger audience, what the strategies such as those adopted by the National Gallery represent, from my point of view, is a more serious effort to acknowledge and reflect the remarkable shift in the philosophies and practice of museum studies that are giving rise to new challenges and responsibilities for curators and museums.

More specifically, a new quest for social responsibilities has come under the spotlight, requiring museums to arouse new levels of interest and resonance for the several different communities of visitors, with a view to shaping individual and collective subjectivities and thereby decreasing identity exclusions and inequalities. As sound has been acknowledged as producing more compelling artifacts, thereby connecting diverse community groups more easily than vision, it is becoming more popular as part of the fulfilment of new museum social programmes. At the same time, new learning theories have established that experience is the leading resource to allow knowledge to be encountered, enacted and created (rather than transmitted) in museums. This being the case, the expanded and pluralised museum studies has highlighted sound as an inductor of emotional experience, ascribing an increasing emphasis to its potential for visitors to engage rewardingly with the exhibits.

In addition to this, particular attention to questions of representation of the subjects addressed in exhibitions is being paid from the perspective of academic disciplines and the knowledge they produce. This has resulted in a demand for museums to release reality with different gazes and interpretative layers, in other words, to deliver innovative narratives, towards a now diverse, plural and active public.

On the other hand, sound studies is gaining weight as a vibrant disciplinary field, leading us to reflect on the potential of sound for knowledge dynamics1. Among many approaches and practices being adopted within the field, sonification is receiving a lot of attention because it proposes ‘[…] to move data and experience between the sonic and non-sonic registers’2. In other words, sonification entails the assumption of plasticity between the sonic and the non-sonic. This leads to the use of sound to convey meaning and in this way to somehow supplement visual displays.

The National Gallery initiative builds a substantial case for the above-mentioned framework. More specifically, what the exhibition is proposing to its visitors is a challenge to their understanding and experience of the paintings by delivering novel interpretative forms in which sound plays a part. What is in play is a new interpretative framework made of different layers of experience, thereby disorientating and yet stimulating interpretation for museum-goers, rather than a quest to impose a sound narrative within the scope of competing accounts between sound and vision, a view which is grounded on the idea that the use of one sense diminishes the other.

However, this approach has consequences and risks in that there is no such established interpretative behaviour for museum-goers or for critics by which they can easily engage in such an un-ingrained approach. As a matter of fact, both museum-goers and critics have long been trained in the idea of silence being paramount for them to become visually aware of the depth(s) of a great work of art. As visual interpretative skills have been endowed with the ability to give full access to knowledge for centuries and have thus developed into canonical modes of interacting with the world, the resistance towards alternative modes of seeing has increased.

The sound installations were commissioned to Susan Philipsz and the duo Janet Cardiff and George Miller, who work within the realm of sound as an established part of contemporary art, Nico Muhly, Gabriel Yared, both from the world of classical music, Chris Watson, who works only with natural sounds, and Jamie XX from the world of electronic music and currently a member of the urban dance music band XX.

The exhibition is revealed in a sequence of seven rooms. The first presents a 20-minute introductory film showing interviews in which each musician / sound artist talks about the processes underlying their work, and this is followed by six specific rooms, one for each paired painting and sound installation. The works are separated from each other by sound-proofed corridors which provide good sound insulation, except for the two final rooms. The rooms are spacious, with black walls, floors and ceilings and no explanatory texts, and the space is kept totally in darkness except for brilliant spotlights highlighting the paintings. The sound is present at all points of the rooms, channelled through multiple speakers placed at specific locations according to the sonorous effects required.

Personally speaking, I loved it, especially the sound installations of Chris Watson, the duo Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller and Jamie xx. The sounds gave me great pleasure and the fact that the paintings are exhibited alone emphasises them in a way that I have never seen in a conventional art exhibition, where each painting is surrounded by the ‘noise’ of many other paintings.

I would also like to give some thought to the introductory film as I truly found it to be of great interest for analysis, since it serves as an introductory text to the exhibition and, in my opinion, it is very effectively “written” As such, while accurately profiling the musicians / sound artists and presenting additional and insightful descriptions of their own sonorous response to the paintings, this introductory ‘text’ uses the first person. This therefore prevents the danger of the artists’ narrative becoming easily crystallised as the ‘truth’ and so as the definitive sound version of the painting. More specifically, this approach gives the visitor the ability to agree or disagree with the personal sound responses that they are about to encounter. Ultimately, the introductory film adequately informs the audience about the subjective circumstance of the ideas that follow.

Last, but not least, what surprised me most was the reaction of the public. On purpose, I stayed in each room long enough to observe the reactions of visitors and they were, in general, very positive. People stayed quite a long time in each room, avoided speaking with each other and displayed very contemplative and concentrated behaviour, which led me to believe that the experience was engaging visitors. I hope the National Gallery is taking this opportunity to collect the museum-goers’ first-hand experiences so that museum professionals and curators will be able to deeply consider what their next steps might be the near future.

[1] PINCH, Trevor, BIJSTERVELD, Karin. ‘New Keys to The World of Sound’. In: Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 3-35.

[2] STERN, Jonathan, AKIYAMA, Mitchell. ‘The Recording that Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification’. In: Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. p. 545

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