“There are so many sounds in museums that we usually ignore that are absolutely engrossing once you take the time to focus on them,” says artist John Kannenberg, who’s been recording museum noise for 15 years. “Standing in a space like the Great Court at the British Museum is so amazing to me — all that reverb and swampy, thick and thin sound. Sitting in a very quiet gallery while people whisper to each other, that dense amount of silence with wispy little bits of unintelligible dialogue, practically gives me goosebumps.”
Last month Kannenberg released “A Sound Map of the Art Institute of Chicago” with 3LEAVES, a Hungarian label focused on field-recording-based sound art. The hourlong soundscape is Kannenberg’s second in a series of museum portraits using their quiet and cacophonous elements. Back in 2011, also with 3LEAVES, he released a sound map of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the project that started him on turning his museum field recordings into psychogeographies of the institutions.
Smuggling his audio recorder into the Egyptian Museum by pretending it was a phone, Kannenberg returned over and over to different spaces, listening to the gasp of controlled air systems in the mummy chambers and the blistering pops of the old fluorescent lights. “Months later, when I started editing, I began trying to piece together a very linear walkthrough of the galleries, but it didn’t feel right — it didn’t seem to accurately reflect the memory of how I felt while I was in the museum,” he told Hyperallergic. “So I scrapped that and began listening even more closely to the forms of the sounds, then pieced them together in a way that I thought sounded engaging while communicating the different emotions I felt while spending time in the museum, which led me straight to psychogeography.”
Psychogeography, that catchall term for mapping through an alternative sense of time and place, does seem especially suited to museums, with their rhythm of preserving a set, specific history while visitors rotate in a performative state. “When I’m in a museum, time seems to act differently: I lose track of it completely, and yet if I’m inside a history museum I’m intensely aware of time as a concept, so there are these two parallel experiences of time going on in my mind,” Kannenberg explained. “And I think a large part of that involves the sensory experience inside museums — losing yourself in a crowd, hearing massive amounts of reverb in huge spaces, then walking into a tiny gallery with only three people in it and everyone’s whispering and you become intensely aware of every sound in the room.”
The sound map of the Art Institute of Chicago (the artist’s current home city) feels immediately familiar as a museum: the build and hush of voices from entryway to gallery, the snippet of conversation from a tour group, the clicks of digital cameras, sirens from outside blaring into the space, lunch at the cafe, even a cameo of Lindsey Buckingham walking by a Henry Moore sculpture. Kannenberg spent time in almost every part of the museum in the spring and summer of 2013, from its original building to the 2009 Renzo Piano–designed Modern Wing, wrestling the sprawl of sound down to a single composed hour.
Below is a 10-minute preview of the Art Institute of Chicago sound map:
John Kannenberg’s “A Sound Map fo the Art Institute of Chicago” is available on CD from 3LEAVES.