The journey to MoMA

As a part of the first assignment for the sound and video course, we were asked to go on a sound walk and write our reflections on the same.

For people reading this who have no idea what that is, the wikipedia article is a good start. Link

The ITM Sound+Video has a nice collection of sound walks which can be found here. (If it’s not available, drop me a comment and I will send you the links).

From the ones on the list, The one on ‘Whale creek’ and ‘Central Park’ caught my eye because of the location.

  Dull, grey and FULL!

Dull, grey and FULL!

But New York rains have the uncanny ability to show up when it’s the most inconvenient. Which is why I found myself on a grey, dull morning at the MoMA. (Central heating should be a human right!). The audio walk is called ‘Dust Gathering’ by artist Nina Katchadourian.

She takes the listeners on an audio journey across the MoMA through the unusual perspective of dust in the museum. Her idea of making the invisible visible caught my attention and I was looking forward to the experience which I expected to be similar to one of my favorite podcasts 99% Invisible. Add in the temptation of finally seeing a Picasso, Matisse, Monet and ‘Starry Night’ up close, I was sold!

The nuts & bolts:

The audio walk is divided into 14 audio pieces which are around 2-3 minutes long and they start on the first floor of the exhibition and end on the 5th floor.

The audios are accompanied by an audio guide which can be found here.

My experience:

One of the things that I forgot to consider was that this audio-walk was done 3 years ago which in MoMA time is ancient history. Artifacts are moved around, new exhibits come up and there is a general flux on the floor which makes it pretty unlikely that the original pieces will be found in the same location. Which threw a big curve-ball during the end of the walk. But more on that later.

The walk started on the first floor which was milling around with visitors and finding a spot to start listening to the walk became a challenge with people moving hastily in and around you. Throw in children, groups moving together and security guards hustling you along it became a big challenge. The audio walk settled into a good groove once the 1st floor talks were done but it did take away from the experience while having to look over your shoulder all the time.

One of the first things she mentions is the presence of a big dust catcher below the reception floor and invites the user to touch the vents to feel the layer of dust on it.

The vent was conveniently located next to the main door and a cop stood next to it. I was not really sure that as a brown-skinned guy, I could muster up the confidence to squeeze past a cop to touch a vent. So HARD PASS. And that brought me to my first observation:

When an audio talk invites people to touch and feel the environment, what assumptions are we already making about the person listening to it? As an international student who is on-alert all the time and would wish to do nothing to stand out, what kind of an audio experience would actually make me go touch and play with an alien environment?

The audio tour is essentially trying to make the invisible visible by a series of interesting facts about dust, its role in the museum, the weird places it gathers and the unusual ways of cleaning it. This is done primarily by the authors narration followed by interviews with a museum staff. The snippets are not information dense, the staff interviews are clear, insightful and are accompanied by a single image on the app.

This creates a situation where the listener does not have anything to look at except a picture and is busy staring at the distance while listening to the piece. This can get very distracting by the sheer amount of activity on the museum floor and I found myself zoning out even though I wanted to hear the whole thing. Through this whole experience, a bunch of questions were rapidly going on through my mind:

What kind of a narrative structure works for stimulating a person’s imagination? Could it have done with a tighter narrative and soundscape (ala 99% invisible and Radiolab)? How much freedom of movement do you give to your listener? What is the appropriate soundscape for use in noisy environments?

  The eyes of the ladies of  The Young Ladies of Avignon  speak of the horror of being drenched in someone else’s spit. FOR ETERNITY.

The eyes of the ladies of The Young Ladies of Avignon speak of the horror of being drenched in someone else’s spit. FOR ETERNITY.

The peak experience was an old museum staff talking about how she regularly cleaned a Picasso with her spit.

WITH HER SPIT!!

BUT THE PICASSO WASN’T THERE!

Because the audio recording is so old, the museum shifted the pieces around and the Picasso mentioned in the talk was replaced by a completely different artist. But, no matter, I went and found a Picasso, stood in front of it and imagined a frail, matronly lady going over the whole painting with her tiny brush and spit.

It does make you giggle. A LOT.

  Look on my Dust, ye Mighty, and despair!

Look on my Dust, ye Mighty, and despair!

The final interesting event that happened was that as someone coming from a country where dust is a part of your existence, I never noticed it while I was in India. It’s only after coming to the USA and not feeling it everyday, that I understand what dust-free means. But I was wondering if someone else would notice its presence.

Which lead me to my magical experience during the audio walk.

As the narrator was describing the sheer impossibility of cleaning the Bell-47D1 helicopter while I was pondering the same, a bunch of kids ran past me screaming, “It’s so dusty!”

That was pure joy. Would recommend 10/10.

Final thoughts:

While the audio walk was a pretty sub-par and broken experience, it still managed to create few moments of serendipity which suggests the inherent power of the medium. It will be interesting to see the possibilities which open up with location awareness, machine learning, environment detection and esp. augmented reality! The walk really opened my eyes up to the possibility of creating powerful experiences with sound and I hopefully will be able to incorporate a lot of this in my work in the future. I also, at some point, will be able to do the ‘Central Park’ and ‘Whale Creek’ ones and experience what people have been raving about.

Onto the ITP sound walk assignment! The sounds that we collected can be found here.

Currently listening: Sunday morning-Lou Reed