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Saturday, 26 October 2013 16:35

'Audible Interruptions' questions gender, space and sound at the Contemporary Art Museum

'Audible Interruptions' questions gender, space and sound at the Contemporary Art Museum camstl.org
Written by Brian Benton
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When you visit the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis over the next few months, don't be alarmed when you start hearing strange noises. The voices, rumbles and roars are part of "Audible Interruptions," a series of site-specific sound installations that opened in early September and will run, in three parts, until August 2014.

The first set of installations includes works by two St. Louis artists, video and installation artist Brett Williams and artist, writer and critic Jessica Baran, and will be on display until December 29. St. Louis-based artist, musician and sound engineer Kevin Harris curated the series, choosing the artists and assisting in the production side of the installations.

Baran's work, "A Direction Just Like That," is the more noticeable of the two, both because of the location and the content. As a pair of gender-specific poetry recordings play in the men's and women's restrooms, the work acts as a way to make us reconsider public versus private, as well as question the sanctuary that we often find in restrooms despite the vulnerability and, according to Baran, lack of privacy.

Williams' exists just outside, in a hallway. The installation, "Slow Nature Memory," consists of the sound of a plastic ball being dropped into a metal bowl that was manipulated so Williams could play the sound like an instrument and record the playback. The recording sounds the clearest in the hallway, but exists in various parts of the museum, creating different reactions depending on the location.

The obvious question while experiencing these installations is why the restrooms and why a hallway? Of course, there's an answer for that.

"The 'Audible Interruptions' series was created to occupy the utilitarian spaces in the museum," Baran said. "When all of us who are participating in the series were invited, we had only specific options, mainly hallways, the bathrooms and other areas that weren't the main gallery spaces."

The two poems read aloud in Baran's installation take inspiration from something she wrote prior to the series after seeing a hypnosis performance by contemporary artist Matt Mullican. Baran took her original poem and crafted two new pieces that, in addition to being recorded by different voices, slightly differ due to gender specificity in the word choice and personality. The paradox of public versus private and the vulnerability and normativity exists in both poems. In addition, the recordings play at the same level as a typical conversation, so the words could possibly be mistaken for someone speaking aloud in the next stall, which Baran hoped to accomplish.

"The audio is specifically meant to be audible on a level that is very speech specific...and the idea that someone could just pass it off as someone mumbling in a stall is perfectly acceptable me to," she said. "The piece is also deliberately 13 minutes, which is very difficult to hear in it's totality. I was thinking a lot about the fact that people might revisit this space and may or may not ever hear it in its completion but may hear something different if they go back."

Still, even if someone chooses to stay for all 13 minutes, they likely will not experience the second half of the installation without breaking a few rules. Baran, of course, does not endorse men entering the women's restroom and vice versa, but on a quieter day at the museum, has no opposition to it. Hearing both recordings clarifies the idea of "different personalities" existing in the seemingly similar recordings, and adds an extra layer of vulnerability and discomfort.

"I like the idea that it invites intentional violations of what is one of the few publicly sanctioned, gender-specific sanctions in the world," Baran said. "It was a lot of fun at the opening to watch people feel kind of giddy and secretive about trying to sneak into one or the other."

Baran also explored the roles of gender and assumptions that come with our current interpretations of gender in her installation.

"It's a strange thing how we've become completely accepting of these behavioral norms that are completely arbitrary," she said. "There's no reason why a stranger of the same gender should be less threatening or violating of a vulnerable act than someone of the opposite gender."

While the content of the poems works to express the themes, one wonders if only hearing a minute of the piece would be effective, or sound more like words without adequate context. It would be interesting to see how a woman's voice in the men's restroom, for example, would alter our reaction to the recording.

As a whole, "Audible Interruptions" stands out amongst other exhibitions because it exists purely as sound, with no visual components beyond the informational placards that accompany each recording. The sounds still manage to occupy their respective spaces though, and even without a physical presence, stand on their own as a sculpture might.

It was hard for me to grasp "Audible Interuptions" initially, but I ultimately realized it can almost be treated like listening to music. When you press play and sit down with an album with the sole intention of listening to that album, with no distractions whatsoever, new meanings often emerge. The instrumentation sounds richer, the words bear more meaning, and the stronger emotions come through. You can visualize the story being told by the musicians in your head, or compare it to experiences of your own. "Audible Interruptions" operates in a similar way. When you fully commit to it, it forces you to push aside everything else and dig into the sounds.

The two current installations of "Audible Interuptions" are of course different than most music in many ways, though. "Slow Nature Memory" consists only of a single sound, while "A Direction Just Like That" is purely spoken words. A reaction occurs and emotions are felt, but both are different than what music leaves us with. And exactly what the emotion will or should be, even Baran had a hard time explaining.

"I want people to think about the why and maybe question things that they assume are normal," she said. "But I don't mind if they laugh, too."

"Aubible Interruptions will be at the Contemporary Art Museum until August 10, 2014 with Baran and William's pieces running until December 29, 2013.

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