The Gift of Sound and Play (Video)

Steven Reker strolls through Studio PSK’s “Polyphonic Playground” on the second floor of the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), knowing few will resist the chance to jump on a swing or climb the sonic ladder. Reker, along with MAD performing artists-in-residence Stephanie Acosta and NIC Kay, has provided the music for this installation instrument, which acts like a body-activated MIDI controller. Hop on the swing, and your movement composes a song. Climb the ladder, and conductive materials shoot out sonic blasts from a nearby speaker based on your route.

Even an institution as impressive as the Museum of Arts and Design can’t help but be a little excited by the scope and scale of its latest exhibition, Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound. Its vision is daring, and the show, featuring six solo exhibitions and two group projects, has been in development for the past two years. But, as MAD’s William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator Shannon Stratton reminds me, “This is not the museum’s first foray into sound.” Just over a year ago, MAD presented Atmosphere for Enjoyment, an exhibition that highlights both sound and sculpture. Still, Sonic Arcade feels bigger, bolder, and even more hands-on.

Today, as Barbara Tober—the chair emerita and the chair of the international council of MAD—and Stratton show me around the museum, we start our experience with Julianne Swartz’s “Sine Body.” This multi-sculptural installation uses feedback to read the air mass in a sculpture and then finds a perfect sine tone—a smooth repetitive oscillation produced by a continuous wave. “Swartz,” explains Stratton, “recorded the tone inside each vessel. Then she inserted a contact microphone inside the orifice of the vessel and recorded the feedback between those electronic particles.” The exhibition notes call “Sine Body” a “chorus of pure sound,” since the feedback recordings add no overtones. For me, there’s something beautiful and elegiac about the composition, mostly because what sounds are often about out in the world where they are heard are very different than what they really signify.

As Sonic Arcade continues, through the long passageways of MAD’s stairwells, there are touch-reactive sculptures by the Danish-born duo Foo/Skou. Some look like wooden wind chimes, which you can gently squeeze and, as an engineer tells me, the paint will react to touch to form a unique sound. After speaking with him for a moment, I realize that when you put a dozen or so people together—artists, engineers, musicians, fundraisers, curators, visitors—there will be magic happening because everyone is working together for a common goal, creating a moment of collaborative poetry. “At MAD,” Barbara Tober enthuses, “we specialize in art exhibitions that combine the iconic and the innovative in surprising ways.”

She’s right. For one, rocking on a swing in a museum is something I don’t think I’ll ever do again (although I have gone down a slide before). And—as I get to know on my second visit to the museum—there is a great sense of adventure and accomplishment in climbing a sonic ladder. Amid the synthetic pop sparkles coming from the speakers, you feel a weird sense of creation. Here, safe within this space, everyone’s laughing, everyone’s making music, and everyone’s having fun.