The Ideal Conditions for Sound Art and Office Productivity Aren’t So Far Apart
In case you haven’t been tracking the progress of group exhibitions of sound art, a short history would be: they are generally a disaster, with many works either impossible to hear adequately in the situation or impossible not to hear while you are trying to listen to something else. “It is in sound’s nature to be free and uncontrollable and to go through the cracks and to go places where it’s not supposed to go,” as the sound artist Christian Marclay said, in an interview, in 2005. Meanwhile, the institutions that are devoted to art exhibition—galleries, museums—are all about placing art works where they intend them to stay. “I think it’s great that there is this interest in sound and music,” Marclay said. “But the over-all art-world structures are not yet ready for that, because sound requires different technology and different architecture to be presented.”
In the nearly fifteen years since Marclay gave that interview, little has changed in regard to the exhibition of sound. But then, little has changed in the fundamental architecture of the institutional spaces for art. The modernist “white cube”—a term coined by the artist Brian O’Doherty in an article for Artforum, in 1976—remains, for all its postmodern twists and digital-era turns, the predominant archetype for galleries and museums. “Some of the sanctity of the church, the formality of the courtroom, the mystique of the experimental laboratory joins with chic design to produce a unique chamber of esthetics” is how O’Doherty characterized the phenomenon, and not with admiration. He continued:
The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off.
Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light . . .
The discreet desk may be the only piece of furniture. In this context
a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object, just as the
firehose in a modern museum looks not like a firehose but an esthetic
conundrum. Modernism’s transposition of perception from life to formal
values is complete
O’Doherty could have been describing a modernist office as well as a gallery. The isolation of the white cube—from the outside world, from other people, even (as O’Doherty went on to argue) from our own bodies—is the same isolation found in most twentieth-century office design. The architecture of modernist office buildings and art institutions has been entangled from the get-go via the Bauhaus, and Alfred Barr’s adoption of Mies van der Rohe’s ideas for a museum of modern art. The Seagram Building and the original MOMA were two sides of the same coin, there on West Fifty-third Street. The white cube is also the white cubicle.
The historian of technology, Emily Thompson, in her book “The Soundscape of Modernity,” makes this connection explicit in terms of sound. The first modernist skyscraper in the U.S., the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (completed in 1932, the same year that an Alfred Barr exhibition launched the term “International Style”), was also the first to successfully control sound inside its spaces. Using the latest technologies of acoustical ceiling tile, sealed exterior windows with internal H.V.A.C., and office partitions built from Insulite so that “neither typewriter clatter nor telephone jingling can penetrate,” the P.S.F.S. building created a newly “silent” workspace. “Quiet reigns!” shouts a contemporary advertisement for the building. “Efficiency is enhanced. Concentration is possible. The silence you have wished for is available.”
Co-working spaces—the voguish real-estate container for desk workers in the gig economy—are intended to disrupt precisely this sort of design. If you contrast them with older office models, some of the most striking differences relate to sound. Gone are the sound-absorbing dropped ceilings and acoustical tile, cubicle dividers, wall-to-wall carpets, and upholstered chairs. In their place are reflective high ceilings with exposed H.V.A.C., hardwood surfaces, mesh chairs, and lots and lots of glass. The goal is a buzz, similar to the free-flowing coffee and beer that many provide to their clients. A common citation in the literature that promotes co-working is a 2012 study from the Journal of Consumer Research that concludes the right amount of ambient noise—seventy decibels, roughly the level of a household appliance like a vacuum cleaner, or about the volume you might typically use for a radio or TV—“enhances performance on creative tasks.” Apparently, too much (eighty-five decibels) or too little (fifty decibels) both suppress that behavior.
Sound is also a crucial way that co-working companies articulate the different uses of the space that they manage. A Boston-based chain, WorkBar, explicitly maps out areas for users according to four different sound “neighborhoods.” The “café” has (piped-in) music, and allows the use of phones. “Commons” has no music, and no phones, but encourages chatting. The “study” has no music, no phones, and no chatting—plus a white-noise machine. And the “switchboard” has “phones, phones, phones”—this is where sales and telemarketing people do their thing, with the sound of others doing the same lending their energy (think “Sorry to Bother You”). Meanwhile, sound-isolation booths—for private calls—dot all co-working spaces, just as they do recording studios, where they are similarly used to isolate vocals.
WeWork, the dominant player in co-working—they manage forty-five million square feet of it and are growing exponentially—doesn’t maintain such an elaborate articulation as WorkBar of their “hot desk” spaces, but they do micromanage sound to the point that identical music is playing in every single one of their U.S. locations. Until recently, you could even tune in, should you want, through the “Work Radio” station on the iHeartRadio app and web site. “Music has always been a huge part of the WeWork experience,” said the press release announcing that partnership. “The music we play in our locations helps to set the rhythm and energy of the space and fuels the productivity of our global community all over the world.”
Community is the key buzzword, because it is what co-working spaces are selling above all—ultimately, that’s what sets them apart from plain old subleased space, or a home office. The WeWork mission statement proclaims, “Community is our catalyst.” The place where you park your laptop isn’t just rented desk space. Rather, it’s “A place you join as an individual, ‘me’, but where you become part of a greater ‘we’.” An open keg and a coffee machine are a small price to pay to signify “community.” But liquids alone don’t make the magic—ask any band. The fairy dust in co-working spaces, just as it is in night clubs and recording studios, is sound. It’s sound that makes you feel you’re not alone at your desk. “Sound wants to mix,” as Emily Thompson has said. It forms a community on its own, often despite our intention.
Which brings me to a group show of sound art that I experienced in a Boston branch of the co-working company The Yard. Like many of its competitors, The Yard hosts social activities for clients—to emphasize the “we”—that run the gamut from networking to yoga to cultural events. Still, few, if any, artists or curators I know have much of an experience with co-working spaces. And so it was a largely bewildered group of experimental-sound aficionados that entered this particular space last December. “What is this place?” I heard more than one cluster of attendees mutter, as they wandered its meandering hallways and passed through its various gathering areas. Work-positive slogans adorned walls and columns. The uncluttered lines of designer furniture and light fixtures clashed with the detritus of information-age desk jobs: take-out containers, clumps of cables, whiteboards littered with V.C. jargon. “It’s distilled alienation,” said one particularly dry wit. “Like communism without any of the cool bits.”
Any disdain in the crowd turned to happy surprise once it started to interact with sound in this space. The Yard had opened not only its communal spaces for the event but invited artists to install sound works in any of its unoccupied offices. Wandering those hallways became a fascinating aural exploration as sounds from various glassed-in offices emerged, enticing us into their semi-private domains. Each office—built for aural privacy, but not visual—was sufficiently insulated from the others for the individual sound works to register fully. But none were completely isolated. The glass walls of co-working spaces are deliberately kept clear to insure social interaction between users, and their sound insulation is sufficient for privacy but not so thorough as to kill the feeling of activity in its shared environments. As a result, the audience never disappeared into these rooms; we were still a crowd, even as we splintered into smaller groups attending to individual works. What’s more, enough sound from each work leaked into the hallways to lead listeners toward them; and to mix intriguingly with the leaked sounds from other installations, making this truly a group show.
Meanwhile, the more public gathering spaces sprinkled throughout the space—coffee bar, lounges, greeting area—were dense with the chatter of an art opening, none of which spilled into the glass offices to interfere with the sound installations. There was even a series of live performances in the main entrance hall—some of them quite noisy—that didn’t disturb the installations within. The co-working space was, in short, the best architecture for a group sound art exhibition that I had ever experienced. Perhaps sounds are simply better co-workers than cubicle dwellers. Or could it be that the gig-economy office structure—one art professionals might be quick to disdain, and not without good reason—has stumbled on a new way to let sounds do their thing in space?