Arthur Ross Gallery exhibit showcases photographic sound

The sounds emanating from the headphones that hang under each photograph combine to create a constant accompaniment, setting the tone for the unique “Landscape/Soundscape” exhibit on display at the Arthur Ross Gallery.

For each of the 10 photographs, chosen from the Penn Art Collection, a sound artist was commissioned to create a custom piece. Visitors can simply put on the headphones to listen.

“‘Landscape/Soundscape’ is an innovative, cross-disciplinary exhibition that challenges the auditory and visual senses,” says Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Arthur Ross Gallery director and University curator. “It’s a unique way to discover the University’s photography collection, and introduces sound artists to the gallery's audience.”

Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, art collections manager and associate curator of the Penn Art Collection, came up with the idea of combining landscape photographs and sound art in this way.

“I thought it would be a powerful, innovative experience to have the entire exhibition combine image and sound,” Moqtaderi says.

Penn lecturer Eugene Lew, director of sound and music technology in the Department of Music in the School of Arts & Sciences, worked with Moqtaderi to design the exhibit, which will run through Sunday, March 26.

“When visitors walk in, they encounter a true soundscape,” Lew says, referring to the sounds emitted from the headphones throughout the gallery space. “If they want to examine one more closely, it’s there. It’s not something they turn on. It’s a matter of them stopping and looking, or listening, or passing by.”

Moqtaderi selected the photographs, and along with Lew, invited sound artists to respond to particular images. The only restriction was that the piece had to be two to five minutes in duration. Some of the artists have been guest speakers in Lew’s electronic music classes.

After much discussion about how to play the soundscapes, Lew and Moqtaderi decided to use headphones—two sets for every image, each playing the pieces through a battery-powered iPod, concealed in custom-made wooden boxes.

The approach is a first for the Arthur Ross Gallery. Combining art and sound is used in museums and galleries around the world, Moqtaderi says, but implemented in different ways.

“I wanted it to be presented in the most balanced way possible, between the two senses, sight and sound,” she says.

Some of the sound pieces are more musical than others. Lew’s, for example, consists of field recordings made in the streets of New York to accompany a collage of images created by photographer Karen Riedener.

The collage just happened to be where Lew grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, near the Brooklyn Bridge. The sounds in his piece include swooshing traffic, police sirens, and car horns.

The photos were taken from a car window, so I made it a point to walk along those streets to grab all the source material from a pedestrian’s perspective,” he says.

In conjunction with the exhibit, 11 original photographs and accompanying sound art pieces produced by Penn students are included through a digital touchscreen kiosk in the gallery, and online.

“It was special for me to engage with these students and affect the way they work and think, and explore their art form,” Moqtaderi says.

The exhibit opening on Jan. 14 was one of the most successful in the Gallery’s history, she says, with more than 250 people attending.

“I couldn’t be happier in terms of the interest in this concept,” Moqtaderi says. “It’s wonderful to see people enjoying the exhibition, walking around and taking their time.”