Museum Visitors Can Play This Wall Art Like an Instrument

An artist, musician, experience designer and app developer meet for coffee. This multi-sensory installation is the result

"Let’s Get Lost" by linn meyers at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (Diana and Dennis Griggs)
smithsonian.com

With patient, deliberate movements, linn meyers spends hours transmuting her individually drawn lines into one of her pulsating drawings or installations. While she plans out expansive roadmaps for her pieces ahead of time, she also leaves herself open to the bumps that will inevitably come up during her process, letting these new movements guide her abstract explorations to new places.

As the name of meyers’ recent large-scale wall drawing, “Let’s Get Lost,” attests, the installation, which debuted this fall at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, is the very intentional embrace of following yet another unexpected fork in the road.

This time around, her distinctive lines don’t just respond to the architecture of the space, but were also tasked with something new: to establish the physical parameters that pull out the invisible sounds embedded in “Listening Glass.” A complementary installation that debuted in tandem with “Let’s Get Lost,” “Listening Glass” was created by Rebecca Bray, an artist and experience designer (whose past credits include chief of experience design at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History); Jimmy Bigbee Garver, a sound designer and composer; and Josh Knowles, an app developer, in partnership with meyers.

If those were a lot of words to digest, the result, a synesthesia-like participatory art experience, is—by design—easy to grasp. Essentially, “Listening Glass” lets you play “Let’s Get Lost” like an instrument. Visitors armed with cell phones download an application created by Knowles to uncover the audible music notes in meyers’ piece. By holding their phones up in the installation, the app can uncover sounds as they explore meyers’ large-scale drawing, which play in concert with sounds already thrumming from speakers set up in the gallery.

“Let’s Get Lost” and “Listening Glass” (any Alice in Wonderland connotations were unintended) came out of an unplanned communication between the artists’ previous works. In May 2016, meyers unveiled her largest work to date, “Our View From Here,” an ambitious 400-foot-long drawing that snaked its way around the donut-shaped second floor hallway of Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture. While the piece was on view, Bray and Garver independently ideated “Framing Device,” an interactive audio work, which takes cues from an earlier sound and performative art collaboration by the artists called “Silosphere.” In “Silosphere,” participants placed their heads inside globe-like devices fitted with a screen and speakers, to create a contained experience with the only connection to the outside world coming from video feed piped in from an exterior video camera. Building on that in “Framing Device,” a piece that reframes the art gallery audio guide, participants were given masks and wireless headphones, which tuned into two different channel options—an (actor-portrayed) audio tour of the museum and an interior monologue of a self-conscious visitor—to prompt participants to re-see the landscape of an art gallery.

“It can feel quite limiting, the way that we are expected to—or we expect ourselves—to experience art in a typical institutional or curated setting,” says Bray. In their collaborations, she and Garver are interested in creating participatory art that “asks something of the viewer and invites [them] in, in a way that changes the relationship.”

“Framing Device” came together for “Sound Scene,” an annual festival in celebration of listening, which just so happened to be hosted by Hirshhorn for the first time in 2016, when “Our View From Here” was on display. Because of that, meyers’ work became part of “Framing Device”’s audio tour, something meyers herself was unaware of until she happened to come to the event and listen to the piece herself.

“She came up to us afterward and said, wow, this is so interesting. I’ve never really seen my own work in this way,” Bray recalls.

The artists started having coffee together to talk about the ideas they were exploring and how they might work together. meyers works without templates or tape to draw the thousands of flowing lines that come together to create her final pieces. Her unmistakable process compels you to look at the art and think about why it takes the shapes it does. But she was interested in how Bray and Garver might be able to make someone slow down and engage even more deeply with her lines. “Let’s Get Lost” and “Listening Glass” was what resulted from that challenge.

“What the project became was an evolution that paralleled our conversations,” meyers explains. In some of their earliest talks, the artists toyed with trying virtual reality and augmented reality, but they moved away from that idea out of concern that the technology might overwhelm the art. They wanted to create an interactive art experience where the technology was serving the art, not the other way around. They brought in Knowles, who Bray has known for many years in the interactive technology and art space, to help translate their working idea, intertwining meyers’ art with Garver’s sounds.

It wasn’t immediately apparent how to go about doing that. “Am I going to make music that sounds like your drawings or draw something that sounds like your music?” says Garver. “We both changed a lot.”

Each of the four of them had little overlap among their skillsets, which forced them to have to really be deliberate with each step of the ideation process. “Because each of our pieces of this thing were deeply connected with everyone else's pieces, there was not somebody going off into a room and doing their piece and presenting it back to everyone,” says Bray. Instead, they had to continuously talk through their different mediums and tease out the compromises and opportunities of each creative decision.

“It’s really hard stuff to talk about, and we had to almost come up with our own language, which was interesting in and of itself,” says meyers. What helped, she says, was that they all knew they were coming at the work with a shared set of values and a shared vision. At one point, Bray even wrote them down. The idea they were working toward, meyers says, was to “create a piece that engaged with the audience in a way that the audience would complete the work.”

There was a lot to negotiate: there was the architecture of the space, meyers’ art, Garver’s sounds (both made in phone, and sounds they decided they wanted continuously playing in room), the technology, how to bring it out through movement, and of course, the audience. “We made a bunch of documents, diagrams and spreadsheets to help each other understand,” Garver says.

The audience experience was what they circled back to the most in their conversations. One of the biggest negotiations in interactive art space, says Bray, is creating something that has few barriers of entry—“generous” is a term she uses a lot—but is also able to transform the way something is viewed.

“How do we bring people closer to the art? Not just physically, but to slow down and consider the lines themselves; the pieces of the art as well as the whole?” she says of the challenge they were facing.

They wanted to make the space a conversation between artist and viewer. In a retreat over the summer, meyers drew four preparatory drawings on the walls of Bray and Garver’s living room. They then invited people to play with the app and interact with the wall drawings.

That led to more tinkering. For instance, the software had problems distinguishing the fleshy color that meyers was using to fill her “shadows of a void” with the room’s wood floor and the window trim. To ensure the sound remained particular to the element it was being pointed at, meyers added a blue line to each quadrant so the device could better distinguish the art from the surroundings.

The sounds themselves, which can be brought about through movement and location, include a piano-like sound, a plucked sound, a voice and a bell. “They’re very kind of vanilla,” says Garver. “The beauty is the interesting thing that happens when people pick it up and use it.”

Garver continued to strip down the compositions with each iteration of the project. What he came to realize was that the more complex and composed the sound, the harder it was to understand whose actions were generating it. “I was just trying to facilitate the moving of the instrument and not make music. That was new for him. "I've never done anything like that before,” he says. “Even to this day,” he says, he wonders about the work, “Does this sound like these lines?”

The journey through the gallery can feel like swimming through ocean. “It’s kind of an overwhelming experience, because there’s a huge wash of lower pitched sounds that you’re in front of and all around, but as you move through the space you’re making small sounds,” says Garver. That’s how Bray and Garver’s 7-year-old son describes the immersive experience: “like a fish, floating through the waves.”

Knowles’ app, which is available for download on iTunes (and can be played outside the gallery, too), isn’t wedded to the sounds its currently programmed to play. The software can be adapted, and the artists have already spoken with Bowdoin about the possibility of having students compose new sounds for the installation and choreograph a performance in the gallery. The idea is that performers with phones strategically placed on their bodies could play a musical composition in the room with their movements.

When the installations first debuted in September, Bray watched as people used their phones not for texting, but rather as a wand guiding them through the story of the gallery. “We really saw people taking their time, and following a line or following the kind of curve that linn was drawing,” she says.

This isn’t meyers' first collaborative venture. “I love working on my own,” she says, in reference to her studio work. “I love the solitary activity of it, and I wouldn’t ever want to give this part up.” But throughout her career, she’s been drawn to building ideas with other artists. “It takes you into territory that’s less comfortable and less familiar,” she says. “You can do that on your own, but it’s harder.”

Her next collaborative venture is working with fellow Washington, D.C-based artists Tim Doud and Caitlin Teal Price to open an affordable studio space called STABLE. Slated to open in February of 2019, the 10,000 square feet of studio space located in the eastern edge of Eckington aims to better connect artists and foster a community among them in the district. The idea, says meyers, is to make D.C. “more friendly to artists and a place where artists want to stay.”

Fittingly, while “Listening Glass” can be played solo, there’s something richer that happens when those in the gallery come together to create compositions. If all the visitors at a given time make the same gesture at the same time with their phones, they can unlock a special sonic effect.

"Let's Get Lost" and "Listening Glass" are jointly on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through September 29, 2019.

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