The University of Chicago campus will be more abuzz than usual on September 27. Nine local artists will stake claim to the nooks and crannies of the historic university grounds, installing speakers in unexpected places, to project newly commissioned compositions by the Smart Museum of Art.
“The Chicago Sound Show” is the brainchild of Laura Steward, the Smart’s curator of public art, who joined the museum in August 2017. “I spent my first bit of time here wandering around the campus, looking at it, exploring it with artists, hearing what artists had to say about how best to use this open resource,” she says. “And one thing that a number of artists commented on was the number of spaces that had really interesting sonic properties and sonic environments.”
The participating artists made multiple visits to campus, exploring the sounds and environments to conceive their pieces. Multi-hyphenate artist Stephan Moore spent days on the roof of the Searle Chemistry Laboratory, recording individual sounds of the building’s ventilation system. The piece, “Six Accompaniments for Solo Voice,” will be installed nearby to draw attention to the building’s noise pollution while showing the beauty of industrial sounds.
Blind artist Andy Slater recorded campus sounds including human voices, random environmental noise and things that only blind people can hear. By projecting audio captured while using his cane as an echo locator, the Wieboldt passage will be sonically activated with strange, directional sounds.
Katherine Young’s “Resonance, and the Inhibition of,” will be installed by the idyllic Botany Pond. Around the turn of the last century, the department used the pond to propagate plants that botanists brought back from international travels. Young originally envisioned her piece as a “speculative soundscape” of what the area would sound like if those plants were all still there, “like a fantasy ecosystem.” While conducting research, she decided to change direction when she was struck by the historic scarcity of women in the department.
The work turns on the scientific contributions of two female scientists who completed their PhDs at the university, Sophia Hennion Eckerson and Gloria Long Anderson. Young tracked down their dissertations and three vocalists will read snippets of that text, which will be mixed with abstract sounds.
“It’s…a sonic enchantment of the pond and the surrounding gardens, but with this hopefully subtle undercurrent…recognizing and appreciating these women’s work,” Young says. “The text is scientific rhetoric, but I’m rearranging it…in a way that I hope will have a suggestion of a feminist questioning of how women’s work is thought about in our culture and has been historically.”
Media artist and composer Olivia Block took inspiration from the multiple architectural styles on campus for “Indiana Karst.” The multi-speaker installation will be located in the outdoor walkway between the Brutalist building Pick Hall and the neo-Gothic Walker Museum.
“These really different shapes are on either side of you if you look up,” Block says. The interesting stylistic juxtaposition of the two buildings led her to think about how material relates to ideas around shape and architecture. While researching buildings on campus, she learned that most were made from Indiana limestone. She traveled to the quarries where the limestone was sourced to capture the sounds.
“Those recordings of flowing water and dripping water will be superimposed onto that walkway,” she says. The work will be a reminder about where materials come from, using water as a scale of geological time. “It’s almost like this juxtaposition of two different scales of time and then different kinds of shapes. The cool thing about using sound in installations is that it’s a way to superimpose two kinds of architectures in a way that’s really uncanny, that you can’t do with just two kinds of visual images.”
Block appreciates Steward’s curation of this groundbreaking exhibition, a rare opportunity to showcase the city’s vast, eclectic sound art scene. “I think it’s a really cool statement that she’s making that sound art is important and it’s current,” Block says. “It’s recognizing this huge, rich, vibrant community that’s just here. It’s a nice way of making that part of the art world.” (Kerry Cardoza)
“The Chicago Sound Show” at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 South Greenwood from September 27 through December 2019