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Most galleries and museums have concrete walls which cause a lot of reflection and standing waves. Most of the time a lot of effort is put into making a place look good, but does it also sound good?

An exhibition of multiple sound installations also will not work, as the sounds will interefere with each other. So it seems like a venue created to show visual art is not suitable for sound art.

Can you think of a solution for this?

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All the above are good workarounds. Headphones can be used inventively: Gertrude Art Spaces here in Melbourne, Australia had a show of 100 sound art works recently in a space about the size of a small house, pretty much by hanging 100 sets of headphones from the ceiling.

The ideal solution, though, would be for future galleries to be designed with acoustics in mind too.

Traditionally sound-based works and visual art occupy different spaces and regulate movement differently. Places designed with sound in mind - theatres, concert halls, cinemas - assume a seated audience with their attention in one spot. If there are multiple works these are ordered in time, not space, and the audience encounters them in order. Architecturally they're designed to broadcast a single work throughout a large space.

Most art galleries, on the other hand, assume a mobile audience and multiple works ordered in space, not time. (It'd be entertaining to set up a gallery on the broadcast model, where the audience walks in, sits down, and stares at, say, a painting without being able to wander around. Heh.)

It gets tricky when artists start wanting to use a gallery setting to present works where the sound is important, especially when there's more than one work with sound at a time. But then I think about my local multi-screen arthouse cinema, which manages to have about 8 rooms, none of them all that big, which are sonically isolated from each other and sound decent. It makes me think of a space something like a tiny multi-screen cinema with 80% of the seats removed.

The ideal space would have non-parallel walls, a mix of absorbent and reflective surfaces and, I guess, doors between different exhibits. Plus relatively soundproof walls. It'd cost a lot more than an ordinary art gallery to build but probably a lot less than a concert hall. I daydream about setting a place like this up one day! How it would fund itself is a tricky question: sound-based works seem harder to sell than paintings and sculptures, and government funding can be erratic. Dreams are cheap though..

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Sound art can still be displayed effectively in traditional galleries. The first method is obviously to create the sound art for the space and embrace the problems with reflective surfaces and acoustic spill. Installation artists routinely consider what can be seen through and past their work. The second approach is similar to the use of portable iso booths in recording studios where absorption panels or materials are erected at strategic points to isolate the piece from the complex auditory backdrop. A third approach is to use headphones, which sounds obvious but is still effective, has been used regularly and is often requested by gallery visitors. The final approach is to keep everything quiet, encourage the listener to get closer to the source and really listen.

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  • Good answers. I wouldn't like to use headphones, as they tend to separate the visitor from the space and create a distance between the 'sound space' in a visitors head and the physical space. – Hugo Mar 16 '10 at 15:47
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Nice question. I often go to sound art exhibitions to only feel frustrated with the sound quality. The space can really hurt a good sounding piece.

Iain's suggestions are good ones. Here are a few more similar thoughts:

  • A sound art space does not need to replicate the look and feel of a visual art installation, so the white hard and reflective walls could be replaced with carpets and curtains.
  • Using near-field monitors may help a bit with reflections.
  • Acoustic panels could blend in quite nicely in an art space and either go unnoticed or used to compliment. An other artist could even use the panels and bass traps as a canvas for their art. Could be interesting.
  • The artist could use dryer sounds as it's source material, so the room would give it the reverberation or the space for the sound to live in. If visiting the space before starting the commission is an option, it could help during the creation process.
  • I like the quiet idea too. If the exhibition is quiet, not only may the audience be more attentive but the neighboring installation will not be disturbed (or not as much).
  • Educating the curator about the difficulties of controlling sound.
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  • Nice idea to use absorbers and bass traps as a canvas :) I also agree with your fourth point. The architecture of a space and its acousitcs should be taken into consideration while creating a site-specific work of art. Would probably be best to work with a convolution reverb and make an impulse-response of the space? – Hugo Mar 16 '10 at 15:50
  • @Hugo that's a good idea about getting an IR of the space, I wonder how that would turn out in practical terms. If you every try it, I'd love to hear how it works out. – Andrew Spitz Mar 17 '10 at 9:12
  • I've never tried that, Andrew, but if I do I will let you know :) – Hugo Mar 25 '10 at 15:58
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I don't know as I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing a sound art exhibit, but this sprang to mind: House your work inside a series of sound deadening passages, ie. have the listeners pass through a small "maze" of gobos (what we called iso panels back in school) to get to the exhibit space, then exit through a symmetrical baffle on the opposite end. Two immediate problems would be crowding and fire code issues, but you could really cut down on the ambient noise if your audio space was located in its own "room". Make sense?

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One exhibition I visited used speakers housed in parabolic domes suspended from the ceiling. You only heard the sound when you were directly below. It was stereo too, I think. I don't remember if there were carpets to absorb sound reflected from the floor. The sound pieces sometimes associated with video, other times not.

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  • @Jim I had that exact idea. I thought it would be a great way to present a sound exhibition. How did it turn out? – Andrew Spitz Mar 19 '10 at 22:11
  • The auckland mueseum here in New Zealand does that. Nothing to absorb reflections it on the floor though, sounds ok but bugger all bottom end as to be expected... – naturesounds_nz Mar 21 '10 at 6:17
  • In this case it worked well. I think quality of result could well be a question of budget. These installations are not cheap. I've been looking at : browninnovations.com (I have not heard their equipment yet, so this is not a recommendation!) Also, just occurred to me that the Tate Modern used highly directional flat speakers for an installation in the turbine gallery not so long ago. That was cool - but very specific to the space. I can't remember the name of the piece or artist. – Jim Mar 21 '10 at 15:08
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As sound is always connected to space and time, the question of exhibition qualities of "sound art" is somehow misleading. Firstly, I don't believe in the assumption that presenting sound as "artwork" means that it can necessarily stand on its own. Sound always needs to be understood within the context in which it is presented. This is why many works fail to communicate much of what they were intended to, because the artists and curators do not fully consider the context, that is the properties of the space, the technology and the materials used. Simply trying to isolate a sound based work in a special box or with headphones is not really a solution and more often than not leads to further frustration or confusion for audiences.

To look at this from another angle lets consider that sound as a medium contains an inherent complexity. This becomes clear when you make a formula that combines the material elements that make up a sound work, the space in which it is contained, the mood or state of the observer and even the air that carries the waves. Therefor "sound art" cannot be reduced to a "minimal" format in the same way that visual work can be. In fact the whole notion of attempting to fit "sound art" into what is essentially a visual art world is rather absurd as I see working with sound much more related to architecture, social communication and more "exotic" fields like biology and cognitive science.

Whether or not people are willing to accept this is another issue. It will take time and a good deal of discussion and inter-disciplinary research to find a suitable format for conducting and presenting sound based creative work.

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