Most of us know the anxiety of waking up in a dark bedroom to the sound of a mosquito buzzing around our ears. In his sound installation "Green," Chicago artist Shawn Decker achieves a similar impact.
Decker connected sensors that detect visitor movements or slight changes in the immediate environment and generate noises designed to imitate the patterned sounds of insects and birds in a Midwestern meadow.
The sound comes through 32 inch-and-a-half speakers on a series of plexiglass panels running parallel with each other. As you stroll down Decker's corridor of clicks and buzzes, the overall effect is almost psychedelic.
"Green" is one of the first exhibits in "Sound in Art/Art in Sound." The exhibition acts like a workout to strengthen your listening skills.
Minnesota Museum of American Art Associate Curator Theresa Downing says she brought in eleven different sound artists from across the country so they could be showcased together.
"There hasn't been a museum exhibition in the Twin Cities about sound as a medium in art, and I thought it would be something really fresh for people to come and experience something unexpected, she says."
The gallery at the museum is relatively small and, given the nature of the work, somewhat noisy. Some pieces can be heard only through headphones, which provide a refuge from the din. A few have been constructed to emit their own sounds without speakers, such as Jack Pavlik's sculpture "The Storm."
It's a 25-foot steel sheet, manipulated by a mechanical lever, that undulates like a wave.
Many works combine audio and visual components to dramatic effect. "Urban Echo" is a collaboration between a sound artist and a visual artist. It blends live natural sounds collected around Minneapolis and St. Paul with live voicemail and text messages sent by people from around the Twin Cities. They're responding to the questions "What do you hear?" and "What do you want others to hear?"
One of the exhibition's signature pieces exists on a more meditative plane. "Beacon" by Abinadi Meza of Minneapolis features a hypnotic video of snow swirling around a streetlamp. Stare at it for any length of time and the snow begins to resemble a swarm of insects or a cloud of ashes.
Meza set the images to a soundtrack of snowflakes pinging on a metallic surface, captured by a set of contact microphones, and snowplow recordings slowed down to 1/20 their normal speed.
"It was one of those snow emergency nights so of course everything gets really quiet and people are moving their cars elsewhere," Mazi says. "There are those moments when you look around and you're the only person and there's that really muffled quietness. And if you look up on the hill and see a streetlight, it's kind of like a beacon, which is where the name comes from."
It could be argued that all art is an exercise in raising awareness of the world around us. Sound art emphasizes this perhaps more than any other discipline.
As J. Anthony Allen, the sound artist who collaborated on "Urban Echo" puts it, "Sounds are amazingly easy to ignore," he says.
Sometimes sounds need to be isolated or pushed to the forefront to be heard, which Allen says is what a sound art exhibition at a museum can do for a visitor.
"Now they're expected to listen to it and focus on it, and it becomes actually really interesting; what's going on around you that you're trained to ignore," he says.
What it says about our culture--that you have to come to a museum to really hear the sounds around you--is perhaps the subject for another museum show.