Noises Off

A discreet card perched on the reception desk at the Museum of Contemporary Photography informs visitors that they’ll have to take a hike if they want to see one of the pieces in the current exhibit, “Audible Imagery: Sound and Photography.” That wasn’t part of the original plan, but just before the slick, 13-piece show went up, the powers that be at Columbia College decided one work–M.W. Burns’s Posing Phrases–might be a problem. Burns’s outdoor sound installation, devised to interact with Michigan Avenue pedestrians in front of the museum, can now be encountered a couple of miles away on the relatively unpopulated 900 block of West Washington.

Maybe the administrators were spooked by the show’s catalog essay, written by Christoph Cox. It describes Burns’s piece as humorous but also “alarming,” drawing from the verbal “ejaculations” of the fashion photographer, transforming “dictatorial commands” into “a disembodied sonic superego” that “barks orders at passers-by.” It also mentions Michelangelo Antonioni’s hard-partying 1966 freak-out film Blowup as an inspiration. What respectable academic weenie wouldn’t be nervous?

But stroll down the south side of Washington Street near Sangamon and you’ll wonder what the fuss was about. If you’re not engaged in conversation and if there’s not too much of a buzz from traffic, you might notice a voice–husky, gently urgent, male–addressing you as you pass in front of the one-story brick building that houses Donald Young Gallery. “Look natural,” it’ll say, in a friendly way. “Keep going. Hold it right there.” You might wonder for an instant if the words are meant for you, and if you look around you’ll spot their source–a row of motion-detector-controlled speakers mounted on the building. “Come forward,” one will say as you approach it. “That’s good. Now go, go, go, go.”

The voice belongs to Burns; the setup is his means of exploring a paradox. He says people are at their most private when they’re out in public. “Walking down the street, they have blinders on; they don’t want to talk to anybody and don’t want to be spoken to. When they’re home, it’s kind of a flip–they’re open to the world, willing to let all sorts of information pour into their lives.” Posing Phrases is a disruption of public privacy, however mild. In the shadow of 9/11, Burns says, that might look like a problem to the college administration. Without the terrorist attacks, “I think the work would have been installed and no one would have said anything.” As it is, “there’s something about putting a disembodied voice on the street–maybe they felt it would create some kind of discomfort at a point where all people really wanted was to feel more comfortable with being out.”

Museum director Sarah Anne McNear has a simpler explanation: “He didn’t know and I didn’t know that the city has an ordinance that controls sound on the sidewalk. It requires a permit. We were working with our architect on the speakers, and he found out about it.” Donald Young “came to the rescue” when he agreed to install the piece outside his gallery. “It was an issue of breaking the law, an institutional decision,” McNear says. “The college has to play by the rules.”

The ordinance the college is invoking forbids sound “clearly audible to a person with normal hearing at a distance greater than 75 feet.” Burns’s device isn’t triggered unless someone passes directly in front of it and isn’t audible from more than a dozen paces beyond the speakers. He’s done this kind of installation before and says it’s never been a problem. Young does not have a permit.


“Two years ago, no one would have dreamt it,” says Chicago Opera Theater general director Brian Dickie of the news that COT will take last season’s production of Orfeo to the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music for four performances as part of BAM’s Monteverdi festival next spring. It’s no coincidence that two years ago was when Dickie arrived at COT and began to remake it, renouncing its mission of doing operas in English and quashing any delusions about competing with the Lyric. Under Dickie the company has specialized in works too small in scale for the Civic Opera House, and he’s changed the dates of the season to minimize Lyric overlap. He’s also imported talent–like Orfeo’s British conductor Jane Glover and New York director Diane Paulus–while recruiting the cream of the local crop (directors Mary Zimmerman and Michael Halberstam, for example, and members of the Newberry Consort). And maybe the BAM invitation shouldn’t be a big surprise: it’ll be COT’s first time, but not Dickie’s. He took the Canadian Opera Company there in ’93, when he was its general director. “When it became clear to me during rehearsal of Orfeo that we had something special on our hands, I called Joe [Melillo, BAM’s executive producer],” he says. Melillo came, saw, and was immediately smitten. COT has received $40,000 for the New York production from a single donor (the One World Foundation); Dickie says that’s about 10 percent of what it’ll cost. BAM will come up with the rest.

Home for Strays

Sixteen of Chicago’s scrappiest galleries will get a taste of big-time promotion at this weekend’s Stray Show, produced by Thomas Blackman Associates. Blackman hustled up free space in a soon-to-be-redeveloped warehouse at 1465 W. Hubbard and is footing the bill for walls, lights, and labor for the three-day fair (Friday, December 7, from 7 to 11 PM, Saturday from noon to 8, and Sunday from noon to 5). Among the young, low-budget, and off-the-beaten-track exhibitors: Joymore, Law Office, the Suburban, and Boom.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.