Cinema for the Ear

In this art gallery, you can close your eyes

Joan Schuman is not the first person you'd expect to curate a show at Dinnerware Contemporary Arts.

"If I had my druthers," she says, "the walls would be blank."

That's because the art won't hang in front of people's faces; it will seep in through their ears.

Schuman has converted a corner of the gallery into what she calls the "Sound Lounge"--a couch with two listening stations where people can put on headphones and listen to "sound art."

Don't confuse this with the audio programs you rent at big museum shows, in which some voice natters on about the art you're looking at, nor should you associate this with the ambient sound that accompanies a lot of art installations these days. Although some of the Sound Lounge items may have been plucked from fuller multimedia projects, they are all presented here as self-sufficient art works.

Not only that, but most of the two- to 15-minute pieces follow, albeit circuitously, some sort of storyline.

"Nineteen or 20 people submitted the 44 pieces I chose from," says Schuman, "and a very large portion of the work was totally sound-oriented. Those are the ones that aren't going to get into Sound Lounge."

Schuman's work--and the pieces she's chosen to showcase--represent a minority movement among sound artists, and aren't the sorts of things that get the most publicity in the sound-art world. For example, Kenneth Goldsmith's useful overview of the history of sound art in this month's online issue of the American Music Center's New Music Box ( focuses mainly on sound art as a sort of aural sculpture, or as music fabricated from found sonic elements. Schuman, in contrast, sees herself more as a storyteller, although she does not necessarily build her stories upon a linear narrative.

"The bulk of my work is text-based," she says. "I did a radio series once called Right-Ear Dominant, because the right ear corresponds to the left brain, which is the language center."

Schuman's own Sound Lounge contribution is called "Taboo Box." According to Schuman, the piece "investigates women's dream narratives and weaves them together with a fragmented story of betrayal and kinetic sounds of boxed entrapment."

"Taboo Box" begins with a woman telling of a dream in which she walks into a wash, shedding her clothes, and then lies down and lets the rain wash away her flesh. Interlaced with this is the sound of Schuman scratching around in a big cardboard box. More dreamers are heard: One woman dreams of having a full-body orgasm that suddenly stops when a little voice in her ear credits the experience to Jesus; another guiltily recalls a childhood dream of killing a threatening gypsy couple, who turn out to be her neighbors in costume. Meanwhile, Schuman knocks around in her box and utters fragments of a conversation that suggest two women in a relationship, struggling with an act of betrayal.

"The sounds in the box are almost as important as the words; that's the idea that came to me immediately when I started thinking about this piece," Schuman says. "But if you're just going to use sound, how are you going to engage anybody in a narrative?"

Schuman's previous work has appeared mainly on the radio, including NPR, adventuresome community-radio stations and some foreign networks. (She's also a former Weekly staffer.) She's a bit concerned about how "Taboo Box" will work in a gallery setting, particularly in the headphone-free premiere at the Dinnerware opening March 27.

"Because I work with story and voice, it doesn't translate as intimately in an open space as it does on the radio," she says. "I think this piece would work better as a Web installation, available through a Web page with links to other dream pieces.

"For Sound Lounge, I'd like to belt people into their seats so they can't get up, like in a theater, but that's not practical for a three-week show," she adds.

During the audio exhibition, people can sit down, don headphones and listen to any or all of the 10 pieces by as many artists, all but Schuman's less than 10 minutes long. If things go according to Schuman's plan, the only visual stimulation will be a little book containing brief artist bios. (One of Schuman's dreamers--the one whose flesh washes away--is Dinnerware co-director Lucinda Young, who has visual art inspired by that dream displayed elsewhere in the gallery.)

Sound Lounge, and the installation's special March 27 opening presentation, does include at least one fairly textless work, by Brit Angus Carlyle.

"He commutes on the train," says Schuman, "and he created a piece on the fly from his laptop, just a couple of minutes of sounds on the train. You hear a lot of snoring."

More typical of Sound Lounge fare is a piece by Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler of Flagstaff, which layers the comments of undocumented migrants crossing into Arizona from Mexico against author Charles Bowden reading a chapter on that topic from his book, Blue Desert.

As for "Taboo Box," Schuman describes it as the most abstract, sparse piece she's done.

"I didn't layer on a lot of audio tracks," she says. "I've started to think that layering means you fear the narrative, you fear the linearity of the single voice telling the story.

"Story is what interests me, even if it's told in a kind of avant-garde way. Even in experimental film, what you talk about is usually narrative. What I do is cinema for the ear."