When sound-installation artist M.W. Burns was about 12 he surreptitiously recorded a family dinner, then played the tape for everyone. “It was pretty disturbing how very noisy it was,” he says. “No one had realized how much turmoil was going on.” When he was 15 he recorded some “scary wailing” about ten minutes into a blank cassette. “I hid the recorder in my closet and turned it on and invited my younger brothers to come in and play with the family Ouija board. Ten minutes later they ran out screaming. It scared the crap out of them, and I got yelled at.”

One of Burns’s earliest audio memories is of the sound of a television on almost all the time, a kind of disembodied sound he finds throughout our culture. “You hear pieces of conversation while walking down a street. There are speakers in the subway, announcements coming over PA systems in schools and malls. These are a part of our lives.”

Burns installed one of his early sound pieces in a Philadelphia park in 1983. “I got some PA speakers and a generator. The speakers played short phrases that when repeated over and over again started to sound like something else. ‘Structure’ became ‘you’re stuck,’ ‘en route’ sounded like ‘routine,’ ‘economics’ became ‘sucking on me.’ The parks commission didn’t like the word ‘sucking.’

“I set out to make a very clean recording, something that didn’t have the buzz of the machine, but I had a hell of a time. Buses rumbled outside, the neighbor’s dog ran about in the room above, the phone would ring. But the words that I was recording ended up being boring anyway. So at a certain point I realized that my difficulty in making the recording was more interesting than what I was actually trying to say. That was a real turning point–I haven’t stopped thinking about the way interference works.”

Three of Burns’s sound installations, all of them shaped by his sense of the disembodied sounds of public places, are now part of an exhibit called “Mediations” at Tough Gallery. In Qualifier two speakers opposite each other play phrases–“appears to be,” “in the case that,” “in most circumstances”–spoken by Burns. “You’re hearing something being qualified,” he says, “without ‘it’ ever being talked about.”

In Distance two speakers in two corners of the room play, among other things, Burns’s voice talking about “what happens when we tape-record ourselves and then don’t think we sound like ourselves–‘That’s not me, that’s not my voice.’ The voice grows increasingly removed, like we’re hearing a tape of a tape.

“My work is playing around with the predicament that we’re put in by information, by language. In speech we’re constantly trying to fill in blanks or resolve some kind of break in understanding. Participation in a conversation has to do with the need to resolve something, but it’s often impossible to check whether one of us has understood the other. But we’re participating regardless, and that seems to get us someplace.”

“Mediations” will be at Tough Gallery, 415 N. Sangamon, through March 29. Hours are Thursday through Saturday, noon to 5 PM, and by appointment; call 312-733-7881 for more. –Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.