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Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound at the Museum of Arts and Design

September 22, 2017 - by Evan Levy
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The Museum of Arts and Design generally deals in hands-on materials, like wool or glass or clay. For the new exhibition Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound, the “material” they're dealing with is sound, and they’ve turned the museum into a multi-level sonic playground in which the visitor becomes an integral part of the experience.

More than 20 artists contributed to the exhibit, which views sound as almost a physical component that can be, yes, crafted. Many, if not most, of the mini exhibits use electronic circuits and signals, as well as physical bodies, to transmit the sound. The exhibit takes up not just the three floors of the museum, but also one the stairwells; it even meanders into the Turnstyle Underground Market at the 59th Street subway station. The vastness serves to underscore that idea that sound, in its many permutations, is of course all around us, all the time.

Sonic Arcade Naama Tsabar

Propagation (Opus 3), 2015.  Wood, speakers, amplifiers, mixers, wires, cables, piano strings, bone, cable holders, contact microphones, brass, sheet rock. 6.5 meters high x 6.8 meters wide.Photo: Rodrigo Dada.

The exhibits that often leave the strongest impression are often the ones that have a strong visual component that distinguish them. In “Sine Body,” for instance, artist Julianne Swartz takes glass and ceramic vessels that she’s made and uses an electronic feedback process to read the air mass in each container, then locates a sine tone or repetitive oscillation that resonates in each container. (Will visitors understand all the science? Unlikely. Is it necessary? Probably not.)

“Polyphonic Playground,” designed by Studio PSK, a British design firm, may look like a child’s play set, but it actually contains conductive material and electronics to create a body-activated MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller. The museum invited artists Steven Reker and Stephanie M. Acosta to be in residence during the duration of the exhibit, and visitors can both observe and participate as the duo develops new performances pieces, which will be performed at the end of their residency in 2018. (Try to go during Play Time,” during which visitors can interact with the exhibit; select Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings.)

As you descend the steps in Stairwell B, make sure to pause along the way, because some of the most interesting (and most engaging) work is to be found here. Duo Foo/Skou use smartphone technology, computing graphics and sculpture to create Format 3, a “sound experience” that encompasses the stairwell. They’ve actually come up with an “alphabet” composed of 81 “sounding symbols.” Don’t bother with the terminology: This one’s fun.

Xylophone Porcelain Bangles

Arjen Noordeman Christi Wright's Xylophone Bangles, 2010. Made with porcelain. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Collections Committee, 2011.

If you’re a fan of arcades/flashing lights/sensory overload, check out “Knotted Gate Presence Weave,” in which visitors travel through an “environment” marked off by archways, which triggers a change in the feedback system. It can be overwhelming and perhaps even a little much—but perhaps that’s the point.

The one caveat, in fact, is that you may well experience a kind of sound overload by the time you’re done—which one had the synthesizers? The porcelain jewelry? What was the difference between the radio broadcast and the radio messages being broadcast from various beacons?

Still, the idea of playing with altering sounds and allowing the audience to become a part of the exhibitions is interesting. You’ll certainly leave with, if not melodies, at least a variety of echoes buzzing around in your head, enforcing the idea that sounds, at least here, are in the ear of the beholder.

Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sounds runs at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) through Feb. 25, 2018. For more information, visit

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