Oliver Beer’s Sound Projects : Exploring the Acousmatic Possibilities of Visual Spaces

Jasmine Sihra
Oliver Beer Vessel Orchestra, installation view, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2019.
Photo : Wilson Santiago, © Metropolitan Museum of Art 2019
Imagine, briefly, walking into a museum or gallery, ascending a staircase into an exhibition space. What do you see? Do you see objects cluttered in a small room? Or do you see a space that resembles a white cube, with paintings hung on the walls at eye level? Now, think about what you can hear. Can you hear the voices of other visitors? Can you hear anything else? Do the objects make a sound? Of course not, because when we enter a museum we expect to strain our eyes in a silent space, looking at and taking in the visual qualities of a painting, sculpture, or artefact. But for British sound artist Oliver Beer, “the museum is like a vast multi-layered chambered instrument just waiting to be played.”1 1  - Lauren Rosati, “In Conversation: Oliver Beer’s Vessel Orchestra and the Democracy of Sound,” interview, August 2, 2019, www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2019/oliver-beer-vessel-orchestra-interview This might be a strange way to describe museum collections, but many of Beer’s projects are centred around activating different spaces by unleashing hidden sounds. For example, his project Household Gods (2019) presented at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in the Marais district of Paris displayed an array of objects as instruments, such as a tiny pot in the shape of an Egyptian god and part of a chimney salvaged from the Palace of Westminster in London, England, after a fire in 1834.2 2  - Oliver Beer, “Household Gods, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris Marais,” last modified February, 2019, accessible online. In the summer of 2019, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City held a similar exhibition by Beer called Vessel Orchestra (2019), featuring thirty-two vessels, statues, and sculptures from The Met’s collection as musical instruments. Like Household Gods, Vessel Orchestra challenges the assumption that artworks should only be looked at. Instead, the exhibition asks, What would these objects tell us if they could sing?
Oliver Beer
Vessel Orchestra,2019.
Photo : © Oliver Beer, permission de |courtesy of and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Upon entering the gallery in which Vessel Orchestra is on display, visitors see a variety of objects with wires sticking out of them resting on pedestals. Visitors quickly realize they are not only meant to visually consume the objects but to listen to them as well, because there is a keyboard and synthesizer positioned in the centre of the piece that automatically commands the vessels to sing. Visitors are therefore constantly aurally exposed to the vessels’ songs and tunes. Beer explains that he arranged the vessels in the installation based on the kinds of sounds that resonate from them, so they would add to the overall harmony of the orchestra.3 3 - Seth C. Walls, “He Turned the Met Museum’s Collection Into an Orchestra,” The New York Times, July 16, 2019, accessible online. To unleash the sounds hiding in the objects, Beer tested each vessel’s resonance, placed a microphone in it, and then used a keyboard to trigger its sound. For example, a Joan Miró vase resonates at a low F, whereas other vessels resonate at the pitch inherent in the material and geometric properties.4 4 - Ibid. Beer states that when we tune into sonic qualities, objects originating from cultures too often overlooked, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, sing in harmony with objects created by famous Western artists, such as Joan Miró, Ettore Sottsass, and Gaston Lachaise. What ensues is that the Miró, the Sottsass, the Spouting Jar, the Canaanite Jar, and the Lachaise transcend hierarchies, destabilizing the visual narratives at work in the gallery. Constance Classen and David Howes point out that museums have historically collected, and likely stolen, objects and artefacts with varied symbolic and utilitarian uses from different parts of the world. Removed from their places of origin, the objects are forced to conform to a set of values imposed by their host institutions, which almost always place emphasis on vision. In the modern museums founded in the nineteenth century in the West — institutions in North America, Europe, and Australia — objects are so strongly associated with visual signs that it is almost impossible to approach them in ways that don’t privilege sight.5 5 - Constance Classen and David Howes, “The Museum as Sensescape: Western Sensibilities and Indigenous Artifacts,” in Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, eds. Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, and Ruth B. Philips (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2006), 199.

This article also appears in the issue 103 - Sportification
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