Interactive art sounds off in Brunswick at Bowdoin College museum

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BRUNSWICK — Most art galleries instruct visitors not to touch anything.

Noisy mobile phones are also typically not welcome.

At the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s new multi-media exhibit, however, that all changes.

On Sept. 27, the college debuted two exhibits simultaneously: “Let’s Get Lost,” a large-scale ink wall drawing by linn meyers, the 2018 Halle K. Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld Artist-In-Residence, and “Listening Glass,” an interactive sound installation created in tandem by Rebecca Bray, James Bigbee Garver and Josh Knowles in partnership with meyers.

The combined exhibit, which will run through September 2019, allows museum-goers to make music with meyers’ drawing by moving their phones over it.

The sounds are made possible through a custom iPhone app developed by Bray, Bigbee Garver and Knowles. Bigbee Garver is a sound designer and composer, Knowles is a software developer and Bray is an artist who has worked in performance, installation and game design.

Bray said the app works by detecting elements of the drawing.

“What’s happening is, it’s being triggered by whether it’s seeing dark or white lines,” she said, adding the sounds also change based on the density of the lines detected and the direction the person is facing.

At the entrance, visitors are instructed to download the free app by taking a photo of a QR code. They can then follow a prompt.

A limited number of iPhones pre-loaded with the Listening Glass app will also be available for visitors to borrow at the museum shop.

In addition to the phone sounds, a low, base-level sound is also constantly playing through large speakers in the round exhibit room.

Because the speakers are capable of picking up high-pitched sounds from phones, Bigbee Garver said, he wanted to create a “counterpoint” with a smooth, low-pitched environmental sound.

He said sounds from the app are of four types: bells, piano, voice and guitar.

The bells and guitar are activated by users on one side of the room and the piano and voice are activated on the other.

Blue lines placed throughout the drawing also trigger what Bray called “big-room” sounds. There are also some hidden elements of the exhibit that are triggered only if all users in the room do a specific gesture at once.

Because the speakers in the gallery are designed to engage with the phones, visitors are asked not to use headphones.

On Sept. 27, meyers, Bray and Bigbee Garver outlined the thought process behind the joint exhibit.

Bray said though people often think of sight as the primary sense by which visual art is experienced, she and her collaborators explored how people can absorb it through sound and gesture.

“We really wanted to create a social, collaborative experience where people were composing music together,” she said. “Using the room as an instrument but really looking to other people in the room.”

Museum Co-Director Anne Collins Goodyear said Knowles and the other app creators broke “new boundaries” in conceptualizing the project. She said when Knowles explained to Apple that the app would be used to give “pure aesthetic engagement” to users it was a challenge.

“It was actually very challenging for Apple initially when they were evaluating the app to understand what the purpose of this was,” she said.

Meyers added the project was not inspired by most people carrying their phones around all the time in 2018, but rather from exploring what could come from all of the artists combining their knowledge.

“It’s so fantastic to be able to ask a visitor to a museum to use the thing that they’re gonna use regardless,” she said. “And not ask them just to hashtag something (but) to actually move in an opposite direction from that and make the thing that they’re carrying around a really integrated part of their experience.”

 Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

This story was edited Oct. 5 to indicate “Listening Glass” was created in partnership with linn meyers.

Co-creator James Bigbee Garver demonstrates how “Let’s Get Lost” and “Listening Glass” work at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s new interactive exhibit.

Visitors are asked to scan a QR code at the exhibit’s entrance to download the free app “Listening Glass” on their phones.

“Listening Glass” creators Rebecca Bray, left, and James Bigbee Garver with “Let’s Get Lost” artist linn meyers at the Bowdoin College exhibit Sept. 27.

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