To walk Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo is to witness the city both past and present, as freshly landscaped lawns frame views to the Statue of Liberty and the titular bridge, while new retail and condos lodged in 19th-century architecture overlook the riverside park. Within this recently redeveloped edge of Brooklyn is St. Ann’s Warehouse, located in the 1860 Tobacco Warehouse. The performing art institution’s new app called “HEAR THEIR THERE HERE” (“HTTH”) is now available for iOS and Android, and invites visitors to listen to responses to the park, in the places where they were recorded. Tourists, locals ranting about Shake Shack, park designers, people who come to meditate, people who come to tan in the sun, all have their stories in this soundwalk navigated entirely by chance.
Like the park itself, which is a reimagining of the industrial waterfront, the audio project is a creative way for St. Ann’s Warehouse to engage with the complex environment as a central art presence. “St. Ann’s has moved from this cool speakeasy vibe where you were going to see Lou Reed and the Wooster Group down an alley, to this new crazy public space,” Geoff Sobelle, creator of “HTTH,” told Hyperallergic. “15 years ago, when I started going to St. Ann’s, Dumbo was a different thing. Now St. Ann’s is the art institution in the center of this very public thoroughfare. I was thinking about when I go to London and see the Tate Modern and I think, wow, there’s this beacon of art, and they have a radiant effect on that area. St. Ann’s could do the same, they’re every bit as cool.”
Sobelle, who collaborated on the project with app designer Jesse Garrison and sound designer The Object Lesson, a one-man show staged amid a hoarder’s dream of cardboard boxes, or the upcoming HOME at BAM, where he will lead dancers and designers in building a house onstage. “In the beginning, it was meant to be just my voice and I was going to talk to you and guide you along on this journey,” Sobelle said. “When I got into this, I started talking to people, and there are a lot of New Yorkers with a lot to say, not only about New York, but about this space. I talked to many people in this journey, and one has this beautiful thing they say, which is ‘this park, like every park in New York City, is about contested space.’”is a theater artist. Although his work is frequently unconventional, the sonic experience is a new direction for him as well. He is often very present in his pieces, whether
So instead of Sobelle’s voice, users hear geolocated samples from hundreds of people he interviewed over three months this spring and summer. All he asked these strangers (and some local figures, like Jane Walentas of Jane’s Carousel) was to begin at a moment of observation. Some stick to that, musing on who would buy these pricy condos bordering the park, or the meaning of the Statue of Liberty in an era of Trump’s travel bans. Others veer off into rambles on horse racing, a gum in Italy named “Brooklyn,” having Adam Yauch as a babysitter, or even reading a poem they’re working on. Encountering these narratives is dependent on where you walk, and their locations span the length of Brooklyn Bridge Park, from Pier 6 to the Manhattan Bridge. “The listener never experiences more than a couple of minutes at a time, but the whole point is that these slivers bump up against each other in an interesting way,” Sobelle explained.
On this recent Labor Day, I opened the “HTTH” app at the northern tip of the park, was suddenly catching comments on the rock climbing wall and the cacophony of standing under the Manhattan Bridge. “I guess people come here to get away from the city, but still be in it,” one woman murmured in my ear. As I approached a panoramic view of the Brooklyn Bridge, I heard a man crack that “It’s gotta be intense to be a bridge next to the Brooklyn Bridge. Are you singing back up in that band?” Others remarked on the number of photographs that must be taken here each day, or spoke authoritatively on its history (the app has a caveat that it “reflects the musings and opinions of everyday people, not factual accuracy”).
As I crossed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and wandered into the denser greenery where ponds reflect the sun and trees shade paths, I caught speakers discussing the impact of global warming on cherry trees, and the surprising diversity of birds that visit the park. Being in this place, one person noted, “allows you to stop and listen, to look, to encounter, to rediscover the city you think you know so well.”
The sound design is immersive, so it’s hard to differentiate environmental noise from the app; I had to take off my headphones to tell if a train was currently rumbling overhead or if the noise was some audio from the past, and found myself looking over my shoulder for the physical presence of phantoms. Not all the experiences synced up so neatly (Sobelle said that the geolocation is only accurate to around a 10-foot radius), yet when they did, there was a sensation of time travel to the moment of recording. The sole visual in the app while it’s in use is a constellation-like artwork by Victoria Burge, and just by offhand comments on the weather or political events can you guess when a voice was captured.
“When they’re trying to be interesting, they’re less interesting, and when they’re just being themselves, it’s very revealing,” Sobelle stated. “You get some people with really deep thoughts, and you also get some people who are hilariously themselves, and you get some heartbreaking things, there are some people who are pretty disenfranchised and lost. I think what’s cool is it’s both about people as much as place”
When I saw Sobelle’s The Object Lesson at New York Theatre Workshop this February, I particularly enjoyed exploring the chaos of the set. Towers of cardboard and cast-off objects were everywhere, and the audience was allowed to open any of the boxes. Some had instructions to hand off a box to a stranger, creating unexpected interactions, others contained playful assemblies of objects, like one marked “balloons” that had an inflated balloon and a model hot air balloon. Similarly, there is a lot of serendipity and celebration of the everyday in the soundwalk. “I just really love that kind of work, it’s something really intimate, and it also feels expansive, because it gives the ability for an individual person to mine their own experience, which I think is a really phenomenal engine for art,” Sobelle said.
Somewhere between a documentary and a game of chance, “HTTH” is ultimately about creating a personal experience with a place using sound. And it’s a sonic journey that can never happen the same way twice. “There’s a very strange sense of presence,” Sobelle said. “You’re both in the here and now, but you’re hearing people’s presence from some time ago, and sometimes it feels 100% applicable, and sometimes it feels very wrong because you’re in a different temperature and moment.”