Designing for Sound Art
By Georgia Rodgers
19 March 2014
Max Fordham is associated with some of the leading art galleries in the UK. We design the internal environment of these spaces to make sure that art, generally visual art, is shown in the right conditions. It seems that listening needs to be included in the environmental design considerations for galleries, to ensure that art involving sound is heard under the best conditions possible.
In recent years the display of multimedia works involving sound has become increasingly common. Sound and video artists such as Bill Fontana and Bill Viola have works included in the collection of Tate Modern; in 2010 Susan Philipsz became the first sound artist to win the Turner Prize.
Art as it is meant to be heard
Acoustic guidance for galleries is generally limited to the suppression of noise. A noise rating may be specified in order to control noise emitted from mechanical systems. But if sound or video art is presented, other issues become pressing.
Limited sound separation between different areas of a gallery can cause problems. Rachel Cass, Development Manager at the David Roberts Arts Foundation in Mornington Crescent, says that “it is often difficult to present more than one exhibit involving sound at a time, due to sound travelling from one part of the gallery to the next.” Perhaps isolated sound art rooms could be considered, or movable screens to section off parts of a larger space.
Hard finishes usually preferred in galleries result in a lot of reverberation. Excessive reverberation changes the spectral content of sound; it loses clarity and becomes blurred. There is an analogy with colour rendering in visual art, whereby the colour temperature of lighting affects our perception of the work. Writer and musician David Toop recently spoke to me about the problem of presenting his video piece in the large, reverberant atrium of the Ashmolean in Oxford. “It’s too loud,” he complained, “it just doesn’t work!” Acoustically absorbent finishes can prevent reverberation becoming a problem.
Lastly, galleries which are interested in sound art should invest in good quality audio equipment and technical training for their staff. Communication between the artist and gallery should be encouraged, to make sure that sound requirements can be met with no last minute surprises.
Sound has enjoyed an increasing amount of attention from the art world in the last few years. To make sure that sound art continues to flourish, it is important to respond to this trend in gallery design work.