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Penn Commissions Sound Artists to Respond to Landscape Photographs

The University of Pennsylvania commissioned 10 sound artists to respond to 10 landscape photographs in its art collection.

Andrew Moore, “Imagination Station, Detroit” (2008), archival digital print (courtesy University of Pennsylvania Art Collection)

PHILADELPHIA — For Landscape / Soundscape at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery, 10 sound artists were commissioned to create soundscapes responding to ten landscape photographs in the university’s art collection. “I spent a lot of time just meditating on the photographic images, and I began yearning to hear some sort of sonic interpretation of the imagery,” co-curator Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, who is associate curator and collections manager at Penn’s University Art Collection, told Hyperallergic. “I felt that a balanced experience between sight and sound would most effectively convey this idea.”

Installation view of Landscape / Soundscape at the Arthur Ross Gallery (courtesy the University of Pennsylvania)

Moqtaderi collaborated with co-curator Eugene Lew, director of sound and music technology and lecturer in electronic music and recording at Penn, to invite an eclectic group of sound artists from around the US and UK. The “landscapes” on view are both wild and urban, naturalistic and abstract, with the “soundscapes” being similarly diverse. Additionally, the gallery features a kiosk to explore an accompanying virtual student exhibition, which is also explorable online.

Each framed image is joined by headphones, so all the soundscapes aren’t blasting at once, although on a quiet day you can detect their distant drones. “I think the sound of all 10 pieces mixing together in a quiet gallery is especially enthralling,” Lew said. And some are quite cacophonous when you put on the headphones. For instance, Michael Roy Barker’s composition for Andrew Moore’s 2008 “Imagination Station,” a photograph of Detroit’s decaying Michigan Central Station looming over two abandoned homes, transformed the digital data of the image into audio. Then Barker layered synthesizer and field recordings into a manipulated track that blared its own kind of deterioration.

Marinna Guzy, meanwhile, responded to the darkroom manipulation of Jerry Uelsmann’s 1971 “Navigation Without Numbers,” in which hands reach from waves along a beach towards a hovering house, with layers of found sound and electronic noise, beginning with the ocean as a foundation. And Olivia Block considered the visual distance in Elliot Erwitt’s 1969 “Mies van der Rohe Building, Chicago” with a sonic mix of recordings made at the architectural site, washed in aural texture.

Above, you can hear one of these pairings, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s soundscape for Eliot Porter’s “Clouds Forming over Mount Baker, Washington, July 30, 1975,” a chromogenic print of the mountain’s peak below a vista of the sky. “Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s approach to Eliot Porter’s photograph of Mount Baker is really enchanting, and I think it captures the feeling of the vast landscape in the image,” Moqtaderi said. “It is no surprise, because Smith actually grew up on Orcas Island in Washington State, where Mount Baker is a visible landscape feature.” While a good photograph can stand on its own, evoke its own sense of time and place, the audio does encourage a longer pause than a visitor would likely make for either work individually, offering a deeper connection with the visual and sonic perspectives.

Elliot Erwitt, “Mies van der Rohe Building, Chicago” (1969), silver gelatin print (courtesy University of Pennsylvania Art Collection)
Installation view of Landscape / Soundscape at the Arthur Ross Gallery (courtesy the University of Pennsylvania)
Jerry Uelsmann, “Navigation Without Numbers” (1971), silver gelatin print (courtesy University of Pennsylvania Art Collection)
Installation view of Landscape / Soundscape at the Arthur Ross Gallery (courtesy the University of Pennsylvania)

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Landscape / Soundscape continues through March 26 at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania (220 South 34th Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

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