Can We Tune the Museum? Laurie Spiegel and Other Experiments in Spatializing Sound

"Laurie Spiegel: From a Harmonic Algorithm" (installation view), 2023. Espacio de Experimentación Sonora del Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo. Photo: Barry Dominguez. Image courtesy MUAC/UNAM.

“The Sound-Sweep,” a 1960 short story by J. G. Ballard, takes place in a world where normal music has been supplanted by soundless, uncontaminated ultrasonic music. Noise is virulent here, “the greatest single disease-vector of civilization.” It lives in architecture and can cause walls and furniture to throb for days with sonic residues that make the air heavy and space virtually uninhabitable. Mangon, Ballard’s aurally gifted protagonist, is part of a team of “sound-sweepers” tasked with sweeping the world’s noise away with their “sonovacs.” He makes his rounds every day, methodically drawing out the remnants of sound that are lodged in the nooks and crannies of his various clients’ homes until achieving blissful, though momentary, artificially produced silence.

Ballard’s treatment of sound as a material entity that dually shapes and is shaped by the built environment is a useful framework for considering the ways that sound sculpts our physical, collective, and social experiences. The story vividly portrays how its propagation in space provokes unexpected images and sensations among its characters (traumatic memories, headaches), and hence becomes something that must be eliminated, controlled. This extreme aversion to sound resonates across multiple settings but might be most pointedly read as a critique of the sterility of the museum—the sound-sweeps analogous to the multiple ways that objects are silenced and shielded from sound through museological systems of preservation and display. Sound, the literal movement of airwaves, is fundamentally incompatible with the static, reverential museum.

Laurie Spiegel: From a Harmonic Algorithm (installation view) 2023. Espacio de Experimentación Sonora del Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo. Photo: Barry Dominguez. Image courtesy MUAC/UNAM.

Laurie Spiegel’s solo exhibition From a Harmonic Algorithm defies this unspoken rule. In the Espacio de Experimentación Sonora, a centralized listening space within the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City, the electroacoustic composer’s curlicues of synth freely bounce off the room’s powerful, multichannel sound system. They stretch and metastasize throughout its wooden sound diffusers. Over the course of twenty minutes, four pieces from Spiegel’s 1991 album Unseen Worlds play out as an emotional narrative: a sonic journey that begins with the ominous, minimalism-inflected track “Three Sonic Spaces II” and ends with the twinkling composition from which the exhibition takes its title. Different notes surface depending on where you choose to sit. If you move around, they swell and recombine into polyphonic layers of sound. The space rejects any kind of visuality apart from the array of speakers positioned throughout its Jenga-like walls—designed to scatter sound throughout the room—achieving a rare kind of audience engagement that’s exclusively about listening. And because of an algorithm drafted by sound engineer Roberto Morales, the emissions of each channel vary with each loop so that the works sound slightly different each time, like a live performance enveloping you in vibrations whose sources you can see but really only hear and feel. The room itself comes close to feeling like an instrument that is being played in real time, one that sounds better the more bodies there are in the space to absorb its waves.

Shared aural spaces like these within museums are an anomaly. Despite the institutionalization of sound art of the past roughly two decades, and the various attempts to incorporate performance and time-based media into their programs and collections, contemporary museums continue to inherit the visual biases of their colonial predecessors. Localized sound is inherently antagonistic to the hard walls and ceilings of museums, which create echoey environments that hinder conversation, listening, and gathering. Most radically, to attend to sound and its acoustics within the museum means to also deprivilege sight as the primary means of aesthetic experience and objecthood as the primary material of aesthetic consumption. To swap the fragmented, isolated “viewer” for the more embodied, collective “audience,” which challenges the foundations of an enterprise created by and for an objectifying gaze. Sound has the potential to “literally start shaking buildings apart,” Merrill, an arranger of ultrasonic music, worries out loud in “The Sound-Sweep.” If left unswept, “the entire city will come down like Jericho.”

From a Harmonic Algorithm proposes that in order to significantly prioritize different sensory engagements within the museum, its very architecture must function like a breathing organism, as it does in “The Sound-Sweep,” that absorbs and reacts to the sounds it is fed. The installation makes masterful use of the Espacio de Experimentación Sonora’s customized sound setup by mapping Spiegel’s suite of music across its 22.2 channels through a generative feedback system, itself a sort of self-referential wink at the artist’s computer-crafted compositions.

Laurie Spiegel in 1971, photographed by Stan Bratman.

Spiegel’s first encounter with a machine able to generate and process sounds was the Buchla synthesizer, which she was introduced to while studying at Juilliard in 1969. She went on to work as a researcher at Bell Labs from 1973 to 1979, choosing to forego traditional musical composition in favor of the greater autonomy that came with working on nascent programming technologies, like the Buchla and other digital synthesizers being developed. She made some of her best-known works at Bell Labs, including her legendary computerized rendition of Johannes Kepler’s book Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the Worlds), which Carl Sagan included on the Golden Record that was launched into space in 1977 on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft.

It was also at Bell Labs that Spiegel made her first full-length album, The Expanding Universe (1980), using Generated Real-Time Output Operations on Voltage-Controlled Equipment (GROOVE). With its computers interfaced with modular synthesizers, GROOVE allowed Spiegel to process sounds live and incrementally add sonic complexity and variation inspired by sources ranging from folk music and Bach to the cosmos itself. When Bell Labs decommissioned GROOVE, Spiegel began developing her own personal music-making software to generate sounds with the movement of a mouse. Music Mouse, as she called it, publicly debuted on Unseen Worlds, an unpredictable album that mutates often and quickly from the jarring momentum of bass drones and prickling reverbs to a melodic musicality reminiscent of Spiegel’s early works with analogue synths. The MUAC installation beautifully translates the almost haptic texture of Unseen World’s timbral variety, as if Spiegel were pushing the sonic fragments around with her mouse behind the walls.

At a much larger scale, Shifting Center, an exhibition curated by Vic Brooks and Nida Ghouse last year at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) in Troy, New York, was similarly designed to tune the architectural acoustics of its concert hall, proscenium stage, and two studios to the needs of the works being presented in them. Hugo Esquinca’s commission, CONDICIÓN_1023 (2023), for example, attempted to harness the varying sonic energies of each performance space. The artist placed speakers emitting the same sounds into the venues; yet when he played the sounds back, they all sounded different based on each space’s acoustic profile. Esquinca then merged these various emissions and projected them onto EMPAC’s lobbies, hallways, and stairways until the entire building became saturated with its own reverberation.

Or, take Micah Silver’s sound installation in the theater, Weather in a Lagrangian Sky (2023), which reanimated an unfinished loudspeaker arrangement designed for the venue by the late sonic pioneer Maryanne Amacher. Fascinated by the ways sound moves in space and causes unexpected psychoacoustic phenomena, Amacher was experimenting in the years before her death with the hidden placement of twenty-four subterranean speakers and subwoofers, installing them in the orchestra pit, beneath the seating of the theater, and in interconnecting rooms beyond the performance hall. Silver added another eight speakers around the house to increase the spatialization potential of Amacher’s original installation, taking what was previously an unfinished piece of research and using it to send his invasive, unruly musical gestures trembling and resonating throughout the theater’s floors and across the space around and above the audience.

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork, Variations in Mass #3, 2022. Installation view, Made in L.A.: A Version, 2021, The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly Gallery. Photo: Joshua White.

I don’t attempt to argue strictly for the implementation of spaces with flexible acoustics, but I do think that artworks and exhibitions that approach architecture as a source of sounding have the potential to destabilize conventions about how we move through and come together in museums. In her current solo exhibition at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Poems of Electronic Air, Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork recasts Le Corbusier’s Brutalist building through a cluster of wool and fiberglass columns that both mimic the center’s existing concrete columns and absorb its bass frequencies. The sculptures sit atop a bed of stones with contact microphones that visitors are encouraged to walk across, sending signals as they do into a live-feedback system that then amplifies the sounds back into the gallery. The artist is interested in the ways audiences change their behavior when they hear their movements reflected to them, plunging them into an intensified form of self-awareness with the sound of each crunching, pulsating footstep. While the work most overtly points to the performative aspects of spectatorship, listening to ourselves and to each other in this way can also unlock sociality and empathy. Kiyomi Gork offers a model to rethink the exhibition as a communal form of activity rather than a one-sided relationship between artwork and audience.

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork, Olistostrome, 2021. Installation view, Empty Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong. Photo: Michael Yu.

Like Poems of Electronic Air, Spiegel’s soundscape facilitates an embodied listening in tandem with the building’s acoustics that is as introspective as it is decidedly social. Her melodic algorithms pulsate against the tranquility of MUAC’s galleries, which suddenly feel muted after one emerges from the shared sensorial experience. We might also consider this akin to the romantic idea of architecture as penetrable sculpture that Mathias Goeritz articulates in his “Emotional Architecture Manifesto” (1954) to describe his Museo Experimental el Eco—Mexico’s first self-coined “experimental museum,” whose asymmetrical walls and near absence of ninety-degree angles were designed to facilitate “emotional” encounters with art. The museum emerges as an animated, clamorous site rather than an assemblage of static walls and ceilings, where sound is a material to be manipulated, embraced, and sculpted.

Though this gesture runs counter to the task of Ballard’s sound-sweepers, it is not so different from how Mangon is able to shape the presence of aural fragments, as if they were clay. Spiegel’s, Esquinca’s, Silver’s, and Kiyomi Gork’s sculptural treatments of sound similarly carry the potential to transform and disrupt, challenging the supposedly immoveable terms of art viewership in favor of messier, more demanding visual ways of listening and sonic forms of seeing.


Correction 3/25/2024: An earlier version of this omitted the names of the curators of Shifting Center, Vic Brooks and Nida Ghouse.

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