kathryn barulich

curating. writing. research.

The Elephant in the Other Room,

or Notes on the Disembodied Voice

Diego Rivera Gallery, April 2015

Considering the traditional exhibition display, The Elephant in Another Room, or Notes on the Disembodied Voice presents a difficulty: how can one create an exhibition focused on sound, specifically the voice, despite an art work’s  long reliance on the visual?  Apart from Jill Magid’s video piece, Trust, the artworks collected in this exhibition are completely sound-based.  Where does the voice fit within a white-cube gallery space?  Our exhibition design creates a variety of listening experiences while exposing the inherent challenges in visualizing of the aural.  The Elephant in Another Room contemplates the experience of the voice through alternative modes such as radio, the podcast, the telephone, and surveillance.

In the center of the Diego Rivera Gallery lies an independent structure for communal listening.  The viewer enters this listening room through a parted curtain that leads them into the past.  It is a space aligned with the 1930s “golden age” of radio, when people would gather around the transmitter, listening together. The program is scheduled and displayed on the exterior of the structure.  Every day, the diverse recordings of hotel stays, telephone interviews, and reflections on our own SFAI archive cycle through their program from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Plexiglas corner of the structure reveals gray carpet, felt walls, and a ceiling covered in egg cartons to reference a recording studio: a space constructed solely for sound.  For inspiration, we turned to the San Francisco Art Institute’s own Tower Radio recording studio.  Minimal furniture and lighting allowed for viewers to focus on the voices broadcast within this space.

Circling around the box, following the sound of a man’s voice, the visitor comes across the sole visual artwork in the exhibition.  Jill Magid’s Trust is displayed on a large square television monitor reminiscent of traditional surveillance monitors.  The pixilation and crackle of the screen transport the viewer to the room where the security man is located.  We listen to him guide Magid through a crowded city while watching her progress on the screen.

Today, with the invention of Internet radio archives as well as radio stations that exist entirely on the web, we usually listen to specific radio programs on our own schedules.  Typically, we hear the millions of audio files available for instant download through our individual headphones.  A radio is no longer a central figure in most homes.  To reflect the contemporary listening experience, MP3 players allow each gallery visitor to select a specific recording to be played on individual headphones.  These stations, as well as the Magid piece, were all visually connected to the communal listening station through a floor design that references the cords and networks of electrical conductivity necessary for this technology to function.

Re-imagining the possible use of the Diego Rivera Gallery, the San Francisco Art Institute’s Elephant in Another Room constructs niche architectures for sound works and the conceptual contemplation of the voice, considering radio’s former presence, current resonances, and future possibilities.