In his interactive sound installation in Minneapolis, David Byrne has brought together three ideas that fascinate me and have, I believe, significant potential for museums exhibits and environments.
- The building as an object for active exploration and engagement
- Playing with place–an interpretive twist on aspects of a building or site, views, materials, or associations
- Rewarding people for being alert and responsive to their surroundings
Playing the Building takes advantage of the raw space in an 1895 produce exchange building in the Minneapolis warehouse district used more recently by the innovative Theatre de la Jeune Lune (1992-2008). Byrne has converted the building space into an immense musical instrument by attaching devices to exposed pipes and structural elements of the building that activate materials and their sound-producing qualities. When visitors play a keyboard, they activate switches that cause metal beams, plumbing, electrical conduit, heating pipes, and water pipes to vibrate, oscillate, and resonate. The machines produce sound in 3 ways: through wind, vibrations, and striking.
- Wind: A blower forces air through pipes or electrical conduits producing a whistling sound depending on the length of the pipe.
- Vibrations: Machines attached to metal crossbeams cause them to vibrate, producing a low thrum.
- Striking: A small mallet operated by solenoids strikes metal plates on the wall or the hollow columns making a clack or clang sound.
Wire and mechanics are plainly visible. Players sit at the keyboard of an old-fashioned organ in a great pool of light in the dark cavernous space within viewing distance of all the machines, pipes, and beams. Wires neatly exit the back of the organ, sweep up into the great volume of space, and then split off to the devices mounted on pipes, beams, conduit, and columns. Distributed around the space, the mounted devices are spotlit and easy to locate. The experience with sound is also direct. No amplification is used, no computer synthesis of sound, and no speakers.
Children’s object play is characterized by a dynamic between two implicit questions. What can this object do? What can I do with this object? Knowing the qualities of the object and what it is able to do is necessary for a child to play with it: to manipulate it in specific ways, to transform it by giving it symbolic meaning, or to construct a set of rules around it in a game. Byrne seems to be exploring this pair of questions so his keyboard players can as well: What sounds can this building make? What can I do with these sounds?
The installation allows eager toddlers, curious adults, and hesitant elders to explore their own answers to those questions. They sit at the keyboard and, within minutes, play the building. Guided by trial-and-error, trying a quick tap or a sustained depression, a player can find the keys that play the strikers, produce flute-like tones, or cause a humming sound. Perhaps this key produces no sound. A what if? question might prompt a search for a new strategy. Pressing another key or holding it down longer reveals more about how to play the building.
Inspiration for sound exploration comes from the keys, the illuminated devices, possible sounds, players’ imaginations and their experiments. While the installation’s workings are straightforward and as they appear, they are not disclosed all at once. Sound explorers reveal the workings, sounds, and possibilities through their play. What sound does that clapper make? What does this key do? How can I change it? Vary it? Can I make it sound like a bird? A plane? Like a song I know?
Playing solo, duet, and in family groups, players shift easily between being the keyboard player and joining the audience. In each role, they are curious and alert about the effects the keys produce. Finding new sound combinations keep players at the keyboard, trying to make a specific illuminated striker clap or a pipe hum; making them sound off in succession. But movement and sharing is also part of the play. Fingers pointing, eyes following the illuminated sound-making devices, and sometimes running across the floor, children and adults move freely around the large open space. They climb up and down the stairs at one end of the space, stop on the landing for a closer view at a striker, and meet up again with friends and family to share observations and discoveries about how they play this building.