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Exploring Sound + Space at the RISD Museum

Exploring Sound + Space at the RISD Museum

Architecture students present an interactive, multimedia performance piece that brings the RISD Museum’s Grand Gallery to life.

Architecture students engage with paintings in the RISD Museum’s Grand Gallery in an original interactive performance piece.

A hush falls over the audience seated in the center of the RISD Museum’s Grand Gallery as multimedia performance piece Galapagos in C gets underway. Two Architecture students silently enter as mimes, gaze at a large 18th-century family portrait by Jacques-Luc Barbier-Walbonne and then strike a pose mimicking the subjects in the painting. High above, moving images are projected on the vaulted ceiling: a young woman painting at an easel, blinking eyes superimposed over those of the surrounding paintings, the score of Terry Riley’s minimalist composition In C.

Musicians stationed around the room – violinists, pianists, a trumpet player, a xylophonist and composer and Architecture Critic Michael Harrison on tamboura – enter the aural landscape one at a time, creating a pulsing, hypnotic score that envelopes the gallery. Vocalists add shifting patterns of sound, shadows and silhouettes move through the projected images, and more and more mimes move purposefully, seriously through the gallery striking poses – first raising their arms in the posture of Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian and then draping an arm over an invisible shoulder, reflecting a gesture in Charles-Alexis Apoil’s Portrait of an Artist and His Son.

The 21st-century audience peers around the room taking in the multifaceted performance along with the scores of faces from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries covering the surrounding walls. We look up at them and as we really see them, they appear to see us, too. And that, it seems, is the goal of this piece – to engage this centuries-old gallery and the even older paintings it houses in a completely new way.

“We’re trying to build something in here,” Architecture Critic David Gersten explained last week as the students in his Galapagos studio prepared for the performance. “This room is very powerful. And it’s the exact geography that Charles Darwin turned away from when he sailed to the Galapagos and had his encounter with the natural world.”

Gersten is founding director of Arts Letters & Numbers, a nonprofit education, theater, film and publishing organization dedicated to creating new structures and spaces for creative exchange across a wide range of disciplines. He has been teaching in RISD’s Architecture department for years, but this semester he collaborated here for the first time with composer Michael Harrison, who taught Outside the Guidelines, a studio focused on the improvisational investigation of space. “I give [Architecture Department Head] Laura Briggs BArch 82 a lot of credit for having the courage to suggest that we try this,” says Gersten with a smile.

“We developed a conversation with the figures in these paintings over two months,” he adds, “creating duets with them, listening to them. They are the audience for the performance as well as the actors.” The Terry Riley piece, he notes, is architectural in itself. Its phrases build, multiply, recombine and dissipate.

“The whole idea of this piece was to create a dialogue with the gallery and the paintings,” says Harrison. In C was revolutionary because only 43 of its modules were notated. At any given moment you might have five or six modules overlapping, which creates a complex multidimensional experience. We’re doing similar things with the performance: using layers to create form and structure, and in the process creating new ways of seeing and knowing.”

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