​Photographs Made Audible

Landscape / Soundscape: Sound artists respond to photographs from Penn’s University Art Collection.


andrew_moore_imagination_station
Photo: / Arthur Ross Gallery

The quietest spot on campus just got a little louder. 

From now until March 26, when you walk into Fisher Fine Arts Library you might be able to catch some musical notes from the Arthur Ross Gallery by the entrance. This is Landscape / Soundscape, the sixth in the series of collaborative exhibitions between the gallery and Office of the Curator that highlights Penn’s University Art Collection. Exploring the intersection between the visual and the auditory, the installations exemplify the potential of photography to convey a sense of sound.

As Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, Associate Curator and Collections Manager for the University Art Collection, wrote in the wall text, “Landscape photographs are replete with signifiers of sound...Sound art, likewise, has the capacity to evoke a sense of place.” Ten pairs of commissioned soundscape compositions and photographs from the University Art Collection fill the gallery space. Moqtaderi explains, “Eugene (Director of Sound and Music Technology and Lecturer in Electronic Music and Recording) and I...were looking at sound artists whom we were familiar with that seem to have a similar quality we found in the photograph...That’s how we matched them up.”

With the abstract and non–material quality of the sounds and the ambient quality of the headphones next to each installation, gallery visitors can easily enter into a flow state, where there are only the tones, the scenery and the self. The works on view are organized by natural vistas, man–made natural spaces and cityscapes. Meanwhile, the corresponding soundscapes were produced by a broad spectrum of sound artists and musicians, from those working with field recordings and electronics to noted instrumental performers.

Some artists interpret the photographs on a personal level and created accompanying musical pieces in a traditional sense. Composer, producer and performer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith responded to photographer Eliot Porter’s Clouds Forming over Mount Baker from personal experiences, but her message transmits universally. Growing up seeing Mount Baker from her house and imaging what it would be like to hike to the top, Smith uses joyful notes in gradual tempo to mimic the feeling of accomplishment of standing at the peak. The vastness of the mountains in the photograph further gives viewers the mental space to wander. The eyes and the ears combine to produce an immersive experience.

In another part of the exhibit, Nadia Botello, sound artist and experimental composer, and Sarah Angliss, composer and sound historian, worked from the sense of mystery and absence in the photographs to compose pieces. In Untitled, Botello uses monotonous and steamy sound effects to evoke the bottomlessness of the imagery of a single cloud. An intermittent thunder–like sound seems to exacerbates feeling of the unknown. Equally uncanny is Angliss’s Not Imagined for Erica Lennard’s long–exposure photograph Villa Lante. The resulting blurry effect is dreamlike and ambiguous. The tension between absence and fleeting appearance and between the familiar and the unpredictable evoked by the photograph is partly captured in the sound piece’s peculiar whisper on repeat: “...it is within me, as without me.”

Other artists are inspired by the cityscape of the photographs and incorporate advanced sound techniques into their pieces. Philadelphia–based audio–visual artist Michael Roy Barker converts the image and digital data of Andrew Moore’s Imagination Station to audio. Barker echoes the urban decay in Detroit depicted in the photograph and uses hydrophone field recordings, electromagnetic field recordings, a plotter and a synthesizer to create multiple layers of dilapidation and chaos. 

A unique aspect of Landscape / Soundscape is its student engagement component, as seen on the gallery’s kiosk at the end of the exhibition, which presents a juried selection of 11 student projects. A web page was also designed for people to view the showcase virtually. Moqtaderi explains the origin of this idea, saying, “I was trying to think of a way that Penn students could be more engaged with the exhibition. What could be more engaging than creating your own work?” 

Participating student artist Sabrina Elkassas (C’18) appreciated this opportunity to compose a piece that the public could have access to. 

“I am a geology major, so when I...look for rocks...the ancientness of what I hold in my hands inspire feelings that I want to feel all of the time,” she explains. “So my understanding of the exhibition theme was to create something that puts the feeling I get when I’m in those landscapes into a piece of music...so that the music and the photograph were able to suggest each other.”

Participating student artist Leo Yuan (C’18) observed the nuance between the main exhibition and the student project. “I think the student projects...are different, because the student component is conceived as a two-part project, a sound part and an image part. But the show itself is...adding music to existing photographs. The soundtrack brings out some of the underlying themes of the photographs that may not be that obvious.”

Landscape / Soundscape is a synergistic project on many different levels. By including student works under the same theme, the exhibition attempts to engage the community that the Gallery serves and enables the viewer to become the producer. Crossing the boundary between visual art and sound art, the exhibition bridges the spatial-temporal gap between modern photographers in the University Art Collection and contemporary sound artists. As acclaimed French film director Robert Bresson noted, “The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient.”


Arthur Ross Gallery (free and open to the public)

220 South 34th St. (inside Fisher Fine Arts Library) 

Hours: Weekdays 10:00 a.m.– 5:00 p.m.; Weekends 12:00 p.m. –5:00 p.m. Closed Mondays.


Related Programs

Feb. 8, 5:30 p.m.: Andrew Moore photography lecture and performance by Michael Roy Barker

March 15, 5:30 p.m.: Student Advisory Board Art Party with performance by Philly beatmaker Christopher “Pow Pow” Powell


Image: Andrew Moore, Imagination Station, 2008. Courtesy of Arthur Ross Gallery


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