Stop ... and just listen to CAM’s new audio exhibition

The USF Contemporary Art Museum makes art of everyday and otherworldly sounds.

click to enlarge Stop ... and just listen to CAM’s new audio exhibition - MARYSIA LOPEZ
Stop ... and just listen to CAM’s new audio exhibition


Each day, we step outside and are inundated with a continuous barrage of sounds. From the obvious rush hour horn-honking and blasting radios, to more subtle sounds such as the rustling of fabric as you get dressed or the faint chirping of birds on your morning jog, we are constantly surrounded by noises that more often than not go unnoticed. A visit to the current exhibit at University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum, however, might make you more aware, and perhaps even more appreciative, of these everyday resonances.

The traveling sound exhibit With Hidden Noise, produced by Independent Curators International, asks visitors to be more attentive to the sounds around them. Curated by Stephen Vitiello, a prominent visual and sound artist for over two decades, the exhibition is titled after famed artist Marcel Duchamp’s readymade work from 1916. Setting a ball of nautical twine between two brass plates, Duchamp asked friend and patron Walter Arensberg to place an unknown object inside the readymade before clamping it shut with four long screws. The title With Hidden Noise refers to the mysterious sound the object made when shaken. Just as Duchamp’s piece aimed to go beyond the visual aspect of art by also appealing to the audience’s other senses, this exhibit asks museum visitors to spend time listening more carefully, revealing the richness of sound that surrounds us on a daily basis.

A single set of surround-sound speakers is installed along the perimeter of this pared-down gallery space, while a couch and several chairs placed atop an area rug in the middle invite the visitor to sit down, relax and enjoy the evocative sound pieces presented. The lighting is dimmed, giving the audience the opportunity to focus on what they hear as opposed to what they see. (But if you’re the type of person who likes to read while they listen, there are several books and catalogues covering contemporary sound art placed on a coffee table in front of the couch.) There are eight sound artists featured, including the exhibit’s curator; the artist’s name and title of each sound piece are displayed on a large black screen.

Sound pieces play back to back on a loop and the entire show is under an hour, making it completely possible for visitors to sit and enjoy in one setting. Steve Peters’ "The Very Rich Hours: Canyons" uses a mix of unfamiliar sounds with those found in nature as a backdrop for two separate monologues, one spoken by a man and one by a woman. Both describe outdoor spaces in a dessert-like landscape. Using expressive language to illustrate the sights and sounds, it becomes apparent that they have great love and respect for the places they speak of. Some sounds in the background of these monologues are immediately identifiable, such as the wind blowing or a woman softly singing. At times, these are counteracted with sounds that the listener might have more trouble pinpointing, such as one point in the piece where it seems as though a heavy, metal-like material is being dragged across sand. It is a calming piece which, through a unique combination of the different sounds and descriptive monologues, seemingly transports the listener to a vast, open landscape perhaps even more convincingly than a visually-focused piece could.

For many, sound art is not as easily accepted or comprehended as visual art. Alexa Favata, USFCAM’s deputy director, explains, “You wouldn’t be as surprised to hear sound at USF’s School of Music, where you expect performance, and music plays a large role in that. When it comes to a visual art museum, people aren’t used to that … it’s a different kind of social space for individuals to walk into.”

The unfamiliarity that many visitors feel when they walk into a visual art museum and find an exhibition that requires listening rather than looking shouldn’t discourage anyone, insists CAM Exhibitions Manager and Registrar Shannon Annis.

“You don’t need a background in music or sound to enjoy it,” Annis says. “It’s an experiential process. Something we really want to encourage is the ability for people to take more time and allow their attention to unfold over time. We’d like to encourage them to do that for all of our shows.”

With Hidden Noise provides an antidote to our noisy, media-saturated society by allowing visitors to explore sounds both recognizable and completely new, pick them apart, interpret them, and experience them in a new, less passive way.

With Hidden Noise closes on July 24 with the event Out in the Open. It will be  a night of live sound and experimental music performances curated by Jesse Vance of St. Pete arts and performance space The Venture Compound.

Working it. The exploration at USFCAM continues with another exhibit happening simultaneously titled Museum at Work. Focused on helping people in the community better connect with both the collection and staff at CAM, a series of free workshops will be taking place every Friday at noon through June. Each workshop will cover a different collection care topic, and visitors will also be able to view prominent works from the museum’s permanent collection displayed in a series of three rotating exhibitions. Audiences will learn directly from CAM’s experts while surrounded by works from standout artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Lynda Benglis. For two weeks (June 26-July 8), audiences will be given the chance to participate in CAM’s first-ever crowd-sourced exhibition by voting on their favorite works from the museum’s permanent collection through several social media outlets. This will culminate in the exhibition’s final workshop on Fri., July 10, when visitors can watch the most popular works being installed while the staff discusses installation techniques.

This Friday, June 12, at noon, Museum at Work will conduct a workshop on caring for your own collections and valuables. Visitors will learn how to best package, store, and move valuables such as artwork, family heirlooms, and other important objects. Also on Friday, there will be a special listening program at 7 p.m. with Stephen Vitiello, the curator of With Hidden Noise. Vitiello will elaborate on three pieces featured in the show by listening along with the audience and discussing them afterward. Whether visiting one or both events at USFCAM this Friday, you’re sure to leave with a new perspective on experiencing and enjoying art.