Place (to Listen)

UAMN’s The Place Where You Go to Listen has reopened this month after major renovations to the 15 year-old art installation. Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, John Luther Adams and team have upgraded the computer, lighting, and audio hardware, as well as re-tuned the musical composition and overall look of the gallery.

Made possible through ongoing support by the Rasmuson Foundation, The Place Where You Go to Listen is “a constantly changing, never repeating ecosystem of sound and light.” The composition is guided by the seasons, the time of day, changes in the phases of the moon, and moment to moment fluctuations in atmospheric haze, wind, aurora activity, and Alaska’s earthquakes.

The realtime performance and 14-channel immersive experience, relying on live data streams, has always been technically problematic, deeply esoteric, and challenging to interpret. However, it’s likely a far purer artistic vision than trying to immerse the public in digital Van Gogh when even the smallest of painted masterworks are intrinsically immersive to begin with. This is kind of the point with original works of art.

A week ago, I delivered a reading from a chapter of my novel in progress. As the novel involves multiple fictitious museums, I attempted to illustrate just this, the personal, private relationships we have with artwork, their absorptive qualities, our ability to hear their hundred voices at once, our inability to divorce experience from architecture, no matter how abstract or how figurative the work.

Standing in-between work and witness is fraught, however well-meant our lonely intentions are to make a particular composition in the world more accessible. So, as we complete the renovated museum installation and make plans to update the interpretation to reflect the performance’s new audio-visual architecture, I am reminded what it’s like, what it’s always been like, to make these sorts of plans. 

It’s usually, perfectly clear what should be done, because while not scientific, interpretation is instinctual, an informed breed of the personal. What’s far less clear is to whom we can afford to reveal our planning, given office politics has a way of dulling the edge of imagination. It’s by design. Committees tend to believe they are brought together to make decisions when, really, they are at best a forum for listening. Full disclosure. I love a meeting. I love conversation about a thing. You know, two or three people. I detest committees. Long story. My problem. Sometimes I’ll place my pike against the heart of a word. To me, committees come with torrid expectations built in. They are not a place I go to listen. I’m sure somewhere they work like a charm, but too often I find the inharmonious discourse is more about what cannot be done, what shouldn’t be done. And if we allow ourselves to collect all the reasons not to do something, the not-doing is going to be disastrous. Sometimes it’s best just to listen to the artifact, the object, the artwork. Take a shot and then refine.

Far better to walk into the room or the Zoom call with an project fully formed, the thing done. Double down and then listen, and perhaps the amplitude of the pink noise is focused, present, specific to now. And if the idea is then killed, well that’s effort on somebody’s part. Applaud that. And at least the idea was explored. At least the discussion was grounded. And despite the odds and the glory of momentum, fully formed projects certainly are killed all the time. The time spent is usually good towards the next project. If not, life should be entertaining when not explicitly practical.

I once gave a talk at a conference where the group of us on the panel were there to discuss “Failed Exhibits and What We Learned from Them.” And I just love airing the dirty laundry. And I think the not-so-nice side of me loves finding out what scares people.  Let’s do something outrageous and difficult. Let’s just make a mess for once. Blame the fiction writer’s faith the end is what it needs to be.

I’ve attended too many conference talks about this and that project and how pleasantly they came along, as if agency program managers were in the audience with suitcases full of cash, ready to green light sequels.

What I’m saying is sometimes these projects have to be difficult children, difficult as novels and narrative rabbit holes—and we should all be less risk adverse. We need to listen, but we don’t need to listen all the time. We should be more concerned with time spent inventing, and add perspective instead of finding the theoretically perfect one. Spectacular failures serve a purpose. We always learn from them. A colleague once attempted to explain to me that we could only afford to spend 10% of our time being creative. Ok. You do your thing.

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I knew two things going into the meeting. One: the Director of Exhibits and the contracted exhibit designer had budgeted $50,000 to hire a firm out of Australia to create a synchronized, multi-screen, thematic opening exhibit for the new art gallery. They called it the Niche. And two: this deep into the project, the general budget was wearing thin.

Even the textual interpretation across a half dozen gallery themes was slated to be cut. Though not because of budget. The then Museum Director had imaginative ideas about the possibilities of interpretation. She wanted an essayist friend to wax poetic with it, whereas the Exhibits Director and committee of allies couldn’t go there. Everyone had valid points of view and in the end the element was dropped rather than allow the work to proceed, to take a chance at failure, listen to what emerged. Then refine. The money probably went into light bulbs. Respect for art, the E.D. called it. Well, fifteen years on, that gallery is still scant interpretation beyond the tombstones. But that’s another story waiting to happen, committee-trussed and lacking present courage.

But that day, in that meeting—in a design lab since become alcohol specimen storage—I knew going in all the media installations were about to be cut from the gallery design. I also knew knew what the designers had in mind—and I had taken the silent opportunity to prepare a working prototype of the proposed multi-screen installation, demonstrating how we either already possessed, or could acquire, the media we needed—how I could make this happen for next to no cost, like magic, but for my own time, which was cheap. I was young.

The contract designer conceded, against their usual better judgement, the museum could do the work in house. I got a cost-saving gig, and thankfully those machines ticked over for ten years before we replaced them and upgraded the media. It was fun.

At the same time, an entirely separate project, The Place Where You go to Listen was taking form in the gallery next door. And amid the political in-fighting of the day, the future prize-winning composer and the Director of Exhibits had found each other’s stubborn ends. They fought over what it meant to call the exhibit “permanent.” They fought over typeface and nature of the entry. The D.E. at one point referred to the entire composition as derivative of something-something done already in Europe.

Oh, the real-time performance art piece was going to happen. Powers on high made sure of it, but the Director of Exhibits determined the interpretive panels needed to be installed within the performance space itself. It was all wonderfully territorial. It usually is. And she had a point. Proximity is key.

But the composer did not agree, arguing this would diminish the work. Everything beyond the entry doorway was work of art. He had a point too, and as a result of the impasse, that part of the project was cut, just as it was for the art gallery next door. I was dismayed because talking about the stuff in a museum was why I came here. In academia, everyone can argue this and that about Joyce and Borges, Woolf and Achebe, and there’s no fixed amount of paper to go round. But museum walls are precious airtime, measured in minutes remaining on a parking pass.

I worked for neither of these characters, but I really wanted to develop interpretation for The Place much in the same way I really wanted to make an installation of synchronized films for the art gallery. Because it would be interesting. Because it would be challenging. Because it beat grant writing. Because the institution could learn by doing, and I was already tired of a culture and a consensus that to do anything technical, we had to contract the work out. Because non-profit museums exist to complain they don’t have the resources to innovate. How else do you ask for money?

I decided the museum’s education department, where I worked at the time, would create a public program to “talk about” The Place. A “public program” is a fantastically transformative thing. It’s a perfect doppelgänger. I worked with the composer to gather images and sound clips from the composition—and then built a digital kiosk without telling anyone what was really being made. Digital is the invisible man. Live aurora and earthquake data. The kiosk could demonstrate the musical composition at different times of the year. It could display the phase of the moon and the state of forest fires in summer. When the new galleries opened in 2006, I installed the program on a mobile media cart used by education programming for docent tours. And when the Director of Exhibits saw the finished project, we were far enough past the stress and bickering, she allowed the cart to live outside The Place for several months as part of the opening push. The composer was equally satisfied. The kiosk was outside the performance space. It appeared to be entirely temporary. Subsequently, I was allowed to install the kiosk in an adjoining lounge area. When I took over the Director of Exhibits job, years later, I moved it yet closer.

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In advance of the current phased renovations to The Place, I paid a visit to the composer’s south Harlem condo in 2016. I was already in the East visiting everyone I had a phone number for, and spent lunch on John’s patio to discuss the forthcoming sequence of events. July, and John was proud of a new awning he’d installed to keep the sun off the bricks and the broad penthouse windows. He’d installed the awning without prior permission of the building committee. I suppose he didn’t want to listen to what they wanted to say. Not knowing enough about NYC building covenants, I wouldn’t have wanted to place bets on who would win that fight, but I appreciated John’s quiet confidence. There’s a time and place for listening. Sometimes we just need to make a thing happen.

John knows I have continuing plans for his work beyond the performance space, and after fifteen years perhaps he trusts me a little. Perhaps not. He likely knows I’ve thoughts I haven’t yet shared with anybody, including him. If that makes him nervous, I’ll take it. I mean, the guy has entertainment lawyers who don’t mess around. Those fucks are scary, and at some point we all need to put our cards on the table and listen to what they have to say.

I could say I’ve taken my cues from the best, but no. I think I’ve been like this a very long time. Kindred spirits then, and yes, we’re each difficult to work with. I know my Meyers-Briggs is atrocious, if you believe in that sort of thing. No, I don’t know my place. Never have.

I do know the committees are coming for me. That’s okay. It’s all Zoom calls now, and when those aren’t easy to ignore, I expect I can rely on their inherent dysfunction, their cyclic noise, long enough to keep moving ahead. “I’m tentatively interested,” John says over the phone. “Uh huh,” I say. “Sure. I’m listening.”

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