Intonarumori at SMFA: Betsey Biggs

As the first speaker in the Intonarumori series, hosted by SMFA in affiliation with Hearing Modernity, Betsey Biggs surely started off the program on suitable ground. Toward the beginning of her lecture, she described sound as waking us to the hear and now – reminding us of the present. On the other hand, though, she continued on to describe sound as also being an experiential form, helping us to dream and remember – a sort of document of space and place. Biggs describes hearing as something less literal than vision, which seems to allow her a sort of manipulation more broad than that of a visual representation. This sort of overarching duality seems evident in all works she presented as part of this talk, and these concepts seemed to be the point of entrance for Betsey’s auditory investigations.

While the work that Betsey makes deals with contemporary sociocultural topics, as well as historical context, her work retains an element of playfulness, inviting the viewer to participate in a truly inviting way. This becomes very clear in works like Shadow Mix Trinidad or Shadow Mix Fairyland, where the audience is invited to participate in a form of “sonic navigation”, exploring sounds of the city through the body of the viewer. Such works use the viewer’s shadow as a sort of compositional element – manipulating the auditory environment through movement in a physical environment. Yet, as made clear by the video documentation presented by Biggs, this sort of movement-based participation retains a clear element of spirited playfulness, as the audience’s involvement in the work approaches an almost dance-like form. This element of participation is important to Betsey’s practice, for as she stated, without participation they would no longer exist.

These sort of works involved another investigation; one of space and place. She described a set of place “types”, that her work seems to directly explore. There is physical place – as that of topography and architecture. There is kinetic place – as pathways through space. There is social place – as the place of crowds vs. the place of privacy. Emotional place – as our memories, our narratives, our emotions. And finally, there is aesthetic place – as a sort of order coming out of chaotic fragments. Her more recent work seems to involve these themes very directly. These themes are quite evident in both her many sound walks, as well as her project titled Foreign Exchange.

Betsey’s sound walks take a variety of different approaches toward an investigation of space and place. She presented a couple of pieces under the title of Park Bench Cinema, which appear to tend more towards this idea of emotional place. In Park Bench Cinema: 11 Dreams of Red Hook, Betsey created eleven different soundtracks for eleven specific locations in the neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, NY. These soundtracks are an attempt at inducing a sort of waking dream – a heightened experience. Betsey described these locations as having a sort of personal resonance, and her goal was to create a personal emotional map of such a specific location. Each of the eleven pieces exists as a smaller, specific fragment, paralleling the cultural and aesthetic fragmentation of the neighborhood.

Foreign Exchange, a more recent project of Betsey’s, seems to focus in upon her idea of both the aesthetic and kinetic descriptions of place. In this project, Betsey travelled to Hong Kong. Upon arrival, she was enthralled by the seeming lack of quite space in such an overwhelmingly urbanized location. So, she decided to investigate this lack of “silence”. This project resulted in an immersive installation, attempting to place the viewer in a Hong Kong-like experience – more specifically a reenactment of her own experience. The place is displaced, but the space remains.

As a final note, Betsey presented her most recent work – a piece titled The Providence Postcard Project. Unlike her other works, which deal with the sonic in a very direct way, as a medium, this work seems to branch off in another direction. This piece is one that very clearly invokes all Biggs’ descriptions of place at once, in many different facets. The Postcard Project was triggered by an interest in mail – as a form of communication that has sort of fallen away as more contemporary digital communicative forms begin to grow in popularity. Through conversation, Betsey selected a series of locations across Providence, RI that held some sort of importance for local individuals. She then created postcards of these locations, and had them distributed throughout public libraries in the area. The audience was invited to share their own experience of these locations by writing on the postcards, and these postcards were then sent back to Betsey. All these stories were then presented publicly, as a multiplicity of places within space – a multiplicity of narratives within a narrative.

In the question and answer that followed the lecture, there was a particular point brought up regarding time in relation to space and place. In the case of Betsey’s sound walks, which she has made available online, the ever-shifting state of both physical place and historical context play a very direct role. As these works are durational and were made at a specific time, Betsey expressed that some of these pieces just don’t work the same way. In her Park Bench Cinema: Beyond Grand piece, the environment involved in the walk has completely changed, making the piece exist as something it wasn’t originally intended to be. While it’s hard to gauge whether these shifts make the work more or less successful, Betsey described these pieces as a sort of “document of time.” So, although the place may change, the space will forever remain in the document itself.

All of these seemed to culminate in Betsey’s final statements of intention. That she is attempting to induce an attention and a mindfulness of listening that will exist outside of the direct experience of her works. That she is interested in creating a temporary space, creating different contexts within ordinary contexts. That her viewers, in participation, become part of the work – a giving of permissions to pursue these newly formed contexts.

Whether directly or indirectly sonic, Biggs’ auditory interventions certainly appear to succeed. The duality of space and place successfully rearranged and reformed, and the viewer most definitely immersed in the heightened experience that Betsey is driven to induce.



– by Simon Remiszewski

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