Published OnlineEdited and Accepted Articles

Explorative Listening: A Phenomenological Approach to Sounding Artworks at Museums / Linnea Semmerling

Linnea Semmerling
PhD Researcher – Maastricht University

Reference this essay: Semmerling, Linnea. “Explorative Listening: A Phenomenological Approach to Sounding Artworks at Museums.” In Sound Curating, eds. Lanfranco Aceti, James Bulley, John Drever, and Ozden Sahin. Cambridge, MA: LEA / MIT Press, 2018.
Published Online: December 15, 2018
Published in Print: To Be Announced
ISBN: 978-1-912685-55-4 (Print) 978-1-912685-56-1 (Electronic)
ISSN: 1071-4391
Repository: To Be Announced


Ever since artworks have incorporated sound in contemporary art museum spaces, scholars have either looked at the materiality of these sounds, or sought to read them conceptually. Consequently, little is known about the ways in which museum visitors actually listen to sounding artworks. Exploring the boundaries of contemporary art theory, museum studies and listening phenomenology, this paper sets out to investigate the contemporary art museum as a space for listening, and seeks to define ‘Explorative Listening’ as a possible manner of listening in the museum. This stance is developed from a visitor’s cultural disposition towards and phenomenal experience of Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001), a sounding installation that has been exhibited in a variety of museum and non-museum spaces worldwide. As an open, active, and embodied manner of aesthetic listening, ‘Explorative Listening’ may prove to be insightful for curatorial considerations.


Sound Art, museum, curating, listening, phenomenology

‘Mich bewegend nähere ich das Ohr um zu hören.

(Edmund Husserl) [1]

At contemporary art museums, scholars have long looked at sounding artworks trying to understand the sounds through their physical materiality or through the physiology of our ears. More recently, Seth Kim-Cohen has proposed the conceptual reading of a non-cochlear sonic art that moves beyond the materiality of sound as its core concern. [2] While this is an interesting approach that has brought forth very successful exhibitions, it forestalls a straightforward investigation of our experience of the sounds that pervade the spaces of contemporary art museums. In between looking at sounding artworks and reading them, we have apparently forgotten to ever listen to them. This paper sets out to explore the contemporary art museum as a space for listening at the boundaries of contemporary art theory, museum studies and phenomenology. In particular, the visitor’s listening experience will be investigated on the basis of personal experiences, observations of fellow visitors’ behaviour and phenomenological scholarship.

Until some decades ago, the art museum was silent with the exception of a few reverberating footsteps, hushed conversations, the ticking of the thermo-hygrograph or the humming of the air conditioning. All the while, practical listening was still essential to a museum visit, be it listening to a fellow visitor’s remarks, a guide’s explanations or a guard’s announcement of the closing hour. By now museums have become increasingly sonorous with artworks on display demanding visitors’ aesthetic listening as well. [3] These works are not only so-called sound art works, but sounding artworks that come in a variety of shapes. Many of them cross the formalist boundaries of sound, sculpture, video, installation or performance art. This paper is dedicated to such sounding artworks that openly resound throughout the exhibition space, so their experience involves a kind of listening that precludes the use of headphones or carpeted black boxes. This specification is necessary to investigate the particular kind of listening that comes to the fore in contemporary art museum spaces, which still tend to be white, spacious, light, and rather quiet. It is likely that these spaces do not only determine their visitors’ experience of sounding artworks through their acoustics, but also through the socio-cultural listening situation they afford. While a variety of scholars have reflected on such socio-cultural preconditions of aesthetic listening experiences outside the concert hall, few of them have hitherto devoted further attention to the peculiar case of the museum. [4] What happens when a contemporary art museum visitor encounters a sounding artwork inside the gallery space?


Listening to Museums

A plea for listening to museums has been advanced by Salomé Voegelin and John Kannenberg. They argue for an artistic, curatorial, and scholarly soundwalking practice at museums, such as the Tate Modern or the Art Institute of Chicago, which is meant to showcase the sounds of these visually biased institutions. Voegelin describes how “exploring [a museum] through listening allows us to experience not what it appears to be in its visual immediacy but hear all it could possibly be in the temporal and ever-changing invisibility of its sound” [5]. The present paper does not attempt such a conscious shift away from looking towards listening, but instead endeavours to learn more about the ways in which visitors listen while they are looking at art museum displays. However, Voegelin’s and Kannenberg’s museum listening remains relevant with its important emphasis on “the curator’s responsibility to do soundwalks as part of his/her curatorial practice” [6], so they “become more actively engaged with the soundscape of the buildings their objects inhabit” [7]. Only a curator that knows her building’s acoustics as well as its sounds can install an artwork in a sonically productive manner. However, as few of her visitors are likely to be soundwalking, it might also be relevant to investigate the ways in which non-soundwalking visitors might encounter the sounds of the exhibition spaces, the sounds of their fellow visitors, and the sounds of the artworks on display. The aim of this paper is thus not to “let the invisible ghost of sound into the gallery,” [8] but to learn more about the ways in which this ghost reveals itself to us – visibly and invisibly – in the gallery space as it is. Unsurprisingly, this process of ghost hunting is likely to reveal much more about the hunter than about the ghost.


Phenomenology of Listening

Naturally, a listening experience at the contemporary art museum, where a visual tradition is currently being inscribed with auditory practices, must be visual to begin with. [9] This visual bias is what Husserlian phenomenology is commonly accused of. Its supposed deficiency in deriving descriptions of our auditory perception from observations about our visual perception might thus be particularly revealing when it comes to understanding a museum visitor’s listening experience. As part of its visual emphasis, Husserl’s thinking is marked by a directional dynamic, in which a consciousness turns towards the objects of the world. While this dyadic approach might be an overly simplistic rendering of our natural perception, it is characteristic of the visitor’s situation at the museum. As she is usually aware that an exhibition has been conceived and installed for her, she tends to approach its displays in an intentional manner. Another important point of criticism is Husserl’s essentialism, which has featured prominently in recent sound art theory. Whereas Seth Kim-Cohen follows Derrida in his deconstruction of the Husserlian trust in the phenomenological reduction, Salomé Voegelin practices this very reduction to achieve a ‘focused listening’ that is reminiscent of Schaeffer’s ‘reduced listening’. [10] Brian Kane has criticized these approaches as producing a dichotomy between sound and society, one by following the Schaefferian approach, and the other by inverting it. For as long as Voegelin listens to sounds only as sounds and Kim-Cohen reads sounds largely as concepts, there appears to be no room to listen socially, let alone “hear in sounds their sociality.” [11] This paper sets out to reconnect sound with society by concretizing the relationship of listener and sound as that of visitor and artwork in a museum exhibition. In its attempt to understand an inherently social manner of approaching sounds, my endeavour may be understood to reverse Husserl’s direction of thought from natural life towards the essences of things. [12] Rather than applying Husserl’s phenomenological method, I take his thinking as a starting point to understanding the manner in which art museum visitors actively direct themselves towards the objects on display with a fundamental trust in these objects’ perceptual immediacy.

In its attempt to reinstate Husserl’s relevance for the peculiar situation of the art museum visitor, this paper strives to overcome listening phenomenology’s past preoccupation with either complementing or countering the domination of the visual in Husserlian thought. Many phenomenological accounts directly relate auditory experiences to their supposed opposite in the visual, and consequently characterize listening as passive rather than active. A recurrent example of such passivity would be the human inability to control the ear in the way that we can control our eyes. There are no ear lids to shut us off from the auditory world and every attempt to focus our listening on a particular sound will only make the surrounding noise become more dominant. This is a basic passivity that most phenomenologists agree on before they split in two groups. The Husserlian strand tends to emphasise the more physiological side of listening and its timely nature as opposed to the spatiality of the visual, which functions as a basis for introducing ‘akumena’ (that which is to be listened to) as auditory counterparts to the established visual phenomena. This research tradition remains, like Husserl, very much bound up with classical music as the object of aesthetic listening. [13] However, due to the opposition of looking and listening, Husserl’s clear directionality in the subject’s intentional relation with the world tends to be abandoned in favour of a listener that passively follows the timely procession of the music, and is unable to actively focus. Heideggerian phenomenologists go further when they aim at turning the passivity of listening into a new paradigm for understanding a world in which we are always already embedded in an environment, towards which we are fundamentally open. His style of writing is based on the subject’s receptive ‘being-in-the-world’ (‘In-der-Welt-sein’), a state that is marked especially by ‘letting-be’ (‘Sein-lassen’), which has often been described as being indebted to metaphors of listening. [14] This approach is primarily concerned with understanding our practical listening to the environment of everyday life, or to voices in conversation. [15] Consequently, none of these two strands of auditory phenomenology appears to be appropriate in helping us understand the experience of a sounding artwork in a visually biased environment. At the museum, we should do away with the division of an actively focusing visual sense and a passively embedded auditory sense in order to be able to think listening from looking. This is what Husserl did, who thereby endowed us with a certain openness to our understanding of listening. It is precisely this openness, teemed with the possibility for activity, that we require to explain the listening experience of a museum visitor, whose main historical characteristic is her curiosity.


Curiosity on Display

The Renaissance’s early culture of display developed simultaneously with a notion of curiosity, bringing together desiring subjects and desired objects through a combination of scientific knowledge and religious belief. [16] The private set-up of those sacred and secular curiosities ranged from practical apothecary’s cabinets in studies to dramatic open orderings in large representative spaces. In those creative philosophical frameworks, the entire universe was supposed to be represented through the display of objects. An ongoing process of gathering and (re-)arranging, but also touching, smelling and conversing about these objects was not only meant to inspire wonder, but also led to the construction of meaningful shared narratives. [17] However, curiosity’s appreciation and its modes of display lasted only until the empirical sciences were firmly established towards the end of the 17th century, when cabinets had to become specialized and classified to serve these systematic sciences. It was only for as long as curiosity was no longer frowned upon as a vice and had not yet evolved to be despised as a superficial whimsy, that it shaped people’s open interaction with the objects of the world, inciting a desire for exploration and discovery. [18] But how does this historical curiosity relate to the exhibition of sounding artworks at museums?

Cultural historian Stephen Bann has connected the early modern history of curiosity, with its culture of display, to contemporary art museum practices. His analysis is based on the conviction that:

the regime of curiosity itself was tributary to certain established ways of displaying objects and communicating through them, even if the very precondition of curiosity signalled a shift in the world view, or the epistemic matrix, that had underwritten the earlier regime. [19]

From this point of view, curiosity can best be understood as a more general attitude towards the collection and display of objects. According to Bann, this attitude of curiosity is currently experiencing a revival, which he describes as “a kind of historical ricorso to curiosity whose effects are […] perceptible […] in the conception and display of immediately contemporary works of art.” [20] When this curiosity enters contemporary art museums, it tends to undermine the modernist and scientific systems that confine artworks within normative chronological orders and traditional sensory hierarchies, and promote a more intimate, personalized encounter. Such an encounter values the role of agency and interaction in the process of determining the meaning of an artwork. This is achieved through its experiential impact, its stories and its associations, rather than through a priori systems of classification. [21]


Figure 1. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Cabinet of Curiousness, 2010. Installation view at Luhring Augustine Gallery. © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo © Luhring Augustine, New York. Used with permission.


In their sounding sculpture The Cabinet of Curiousness (2010), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller demonstrate the relevance of Bann’s observations. At first sight, the sculpture appears to be a found object, which is an antique oak card catalogue cabinet with many small drawers. While every drawer reveals the same black loudspeaker to the visitor’s eyes, they reveal very different things to her ears. The opening of each drawer releases a different type of recorded sound, ranging from music recordings to field recordings, and further to recordings of speaking voices. The sounds also contain references to the underlying recording practices, such as the cracking noise of analogue recording technology or a speaking voice’s explicit announcement of her recording activity. It becomes clear that recording technologies have introduced the possibility for sounding curiosities. However, the cabinet only discloses its sounding curiosities to a visitor that is driven by her auditory curiosity to actively explore the different drawers. The Cabinet of Curiousness thereby not only exposes the curiosity of the catalogued sound objects, but the auditory curiosity of the visitors that set out to explore the sounding artwork through their listening. For many visitors of contemporary art museums, curiosity might thus be a matter of both eyes and ears.


Situated Listening

As an aesthetic and essentially situated form of listening, Explorative Listening can be described most clearly in reference to Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001). The choice of this work is motivated not only by the installation’s aesthetic qualities, but also by its development from a sacred music piece and its extraordinary popularity, which has enabled the work to travel through a variety of museum and non-museum spaces. While the former allows for a detailed analysis of the differences between listening to the music piece in a concert setting and listening to the artwork in an exhibition setting, the latter facilitates a comparative approach to the different exhibition spaces’ influence on the experience of the artwork. The music piece in question is the Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in Alium. Cardiff describes herself as having ‘reworked’ this piece by recording the voices of a Salisbury Cathedral Choir performance individually, assigning each singular voice recording to a separate high fidelity loudspeaker. The loudspeakers are mounted on stands, so they are on average head-height and set up in a large oval shape in groups of five, which corresponds to the eight choirs of five in Tallis’ composition. In the middle of the oval, which tends to coincide with the middle of the exhibition space, two benches are located. The music piece takes approximately eleven minutes, which Cardiff complements with an intermission consisting of a brief silence followed by the choir’s preparatory chattering. The 14-minute work is looped, so the visitor can enter the installation at any moment during this cycle. Since the artwork’s premiere in 2001, the two sets of the installation have travelled extensively, and they continue to travel up until this day. The artist prefers for the work to be installed in exhibition spaces that have some natural light and spatial proportions that are suitable for the speaker set-up. [22] In the exhibition history of the piece, three types of exhibition spaces can be discerned. Those are: a few lavish period rooms, many desecrated church spaces, and a vast majority of contemporary art museum spaces. The latter are mostly White Cube types of spaces with open enfilade access, plain white walls, ceilings with either natural or artificial lights, uncluttered interiors, and sometimes a bit of an industrial touch. Even though almost all of these spaces can live up to the artist’s basic spatial demands, they are likely to shape the experience of the installation in very different ways. That is because Cardiff’s reworking of the music piece creates a situation, but it does not evoke a time or place different from the one in which it is set up. The period room, the church nave, and the museum space stay perceivably intact to evoke their respective socio-cultural associations and conventions. Consequently, the listener is likely to encounter the work as a tourist, worshipper, visitor, or probably a combination of or a variation on these. How might that influence her listening behavior?

The Canadian National Gallery’s Rideau Chapel and the Austrian Johanniterkirche Feldkirch present two interesting examples of church spaces that have hosted the work. Whereas Rideau Chapel is a demolished 19th century chapel that has been restored and then re-erected inside an art museum as an exhibit, Johanniterkirche Feldkirch is a deconsecrated 13th century church that is now regularly used as an exhibition space for contemporary art installations. Neither of these spaces could thus be described as truly sacred places, and both of them have long become involved with art exhibitions. Thus, even though people might enter with the curiosity of museum visitors, the chapels’ appearance with their high vaulted ceilings and colourful decorations are likely to soon supersede their awareness of the spaces’ actuality as either an object on display or a deconsecrated exhibition space. The religious setting and the pious music of Cardiff’s work easily merge into an indiscernible whole, which the visitor is likely to experience as an immersive environment. Through her natural visual preoccupation and her familiarity with the sight of loudspeakers on a sanctuary chancel, the sound work readily assumes the status of background music that she listens to in an atmospheric manner. After all, it is not uncommon for recorded choir music to fill open chapels. Suffice it to summarize here that there might be a fundamental difference between the work’s experience at church and at the museum. Whereas a church visitor might be more likely to listen passively, possibly even distractedly, for as long as she is admiring ceiling frescos, statues or pulpits, the visitor of the White Cube might be more inclined to straightforwardly explore the work on the basis of her curious disposition.


Figure 2. Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis 1556), 2001. Installation view at Johanniterkirche Feldkirch. © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo © Johanniterkirche Feldkirch, photograph by Markus Tretter. Used with permission.


When The Forty Part Motet has been presented at contemporary art museums, including Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin, MoMA New York or BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art Gateshead, visitors have often been able to hear the sounds of the singing choir at some distance from the installation site, which leads to an overlapping of the auditory and visual scenery. While curators can easily channel a visitor’s visual experience through partitions, their auditory experience is more difficult to shape. When exhibiting The Forty Part Motet, some curators have enhanced this effect deliberately to suggest the presence of a real choir in the museum space. [23] While the presence of such a choir might indeed be quite surprising to a museum visitor, the mere appeal to her auditory faculties is not likely to astound her. That is because the curious visitor finds herself in a state of premature or provisional intentionality. Just as she is looking around for visual objects on display, she is also listening attentively for something, not yet knowing what that something actually is. Martin Heidegger has described this kind of general auditory attentiveness without any concrete object as ‘horchen’. In his studies on Heidegger’s philosophy of listening, David Espinet conceptualizes this notion as it occurs in different phases of Heidegger’s work and poignantly summarizes that “‘horchen’ is listening in an attentive manner.” [24] He describes ‘horchen’ as the basis of all listening when it leads from the first interruptive awareness of a sound (innehaltendes aufhorchen, aufhören) to an attentive listening (hinhören) and further towards a dedicated listening to (zuhören). It is the attentionality of the ‘horchen’ that thus leads the Heideggerian subject from pre-intentional openness towards intentionality, and continues to accompany any intentional listening activity. Espinet summarizes how the notion of ‘horchen’ thus implies “[…] that intentionality – in relation to listening – does not only mean listening to something, but in fact and first of all the possibility of listening to something.” [25] At the museum, a curious visitor is not passively open and receptive, but actively searching the space for visual and auditory triggers that might pique her curiosity. She is thus moving through the space already ‘horchend’. This implies that she will not be interrupted, but will rather invite any out-of-the-ordinary sounds that reach her ear. As a curious visitor, she welcomes these sounds by smoothly transforming from her state of general auditory attentiveness into an attentive listening and further into a dedicated listening to. In order to make that last transition from attentive listening to dedicated listening, she has to be able to identify the object of her listening, which could be a sound source (real choir, loudspeaker) or a sound work (Tallis’ composition, Cardiff’s installation). [26] But the sound object does not only have to be identified, it also has to appeal to the visitor (Anklang finden). [27] The listening visitor’s point of departure thus appears to be somewhere in between that of the everyday life listener, for whom an interruptive becoming aware of sound (aufhorchen) precedes all directional attempts to hear or listen, and that of the concert listener, whose attentive listening (hinhören) is source- as well as object-oriented from the very beginning. Once she has proceeded from her general auditory attentiveness to listening dedicatedly to Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, the visitor’s curiosity is about to evolve into an exploration of the work.


Explorative Listening

As Husserl’s descriptions usually separate the perception of time and space, the following account of Explorative Listening will proceed accordingly. However, the temporal and spatial experience of the work are closely connected, for “[t]emporal extension is a sibling of the spatial. […] Like temporality, spatiality pertains to the essence of the appearing thing.” [28] Things always appear in both a spatial and temporal perspective. For Husserl such perspectivity is the invariable mode of givenness of perceived things. When he analyzes the human listening to musical tones and melodies in particular, the phenomenal experience of time and our consciousness thereof stand central. He clearly distinguishes between an objective time and a subjective or phenomenal inner time, both of which are primarily concerned with duration as the unit of time perception. [29] While the former describes the measurable time of an eleven-minute music piece, such as Tallis’ motet, the latter describes how these eleven minutes can feel to the individual. Whereas they would constitute only a short part of a concert evening, they would make for a rather lengthy encounter with a museum object. [30] Clearly, we never just perceive the time of the artwork, we always also perceive the artwork in time, which is related to a time frame. These different layers of the time perception of an artwork are all integrated in a dynamic flow of consciousness. Husserl describes how

[t]he running-off phenomena elapse in the flow of the phenomena of the constituting consciousness, in a unity of consciousness in which the enduring object continuously appears. The object continuously appears, but precisely in the form of duration running its course as the living present, to which the continuity of the appearance of the elapsed duration attaches itself. [31]

In the flow of consciousness’ constitution of the artwork’s melody as duration in the living present, a thrust of expectation develops, unfolding in forward movement, and leaving shadows in its wake. These adumbrations or off-shadings of the melody, which are similarly intended by the overarching flow of consciousness, are what Husserl describes as a melody’s retention and protention. With every new tone or motif, the melody’s mode of appearance changes, but the melody remains the same intended entity. [32] This changes significantly when the melody stabilizes through repetition. While the visitor’s initial encounter with the motet was characterized by a forward thrust as part of the melody’s living present that is likely to constitute momentum in the museum space, her realization of the piece’s repetition in the loop of the artwork solidifies the previously fleeting and irrecoverable present. This turns the melody into a stable, almost sculptural entity. To this entity, the visitor can listen as if she were exploring a material sculpture or installation. Explorative Listening is thus marked by a peculiar combination of the visitor’s flow of consciousness attempting to grasp its own flowing as well as the fleeting present of its temporal object: Tallis’ motet. It is the temporal object’s relative stability in the loop that renders it sculptural. This sculptural temporality is further complicated by the music’s imitative counterpoint. Due to the polyphonic piece’s spatial set-up, the explorative listener’s consciousness does not only have to connect tones into melodies, it also has to distinguish between many simultaneous melodies from different loudspeakers, and connect successive yet similar melodies from different loudspeakers into one coherent music piece. Accordingly, the visitor’s exploration of Cardiff’s work does not only evolve on the basis of the artist’s temporal adaption, it is also a consequence of her spatial presentation of the motet. [33]


Figure 3. Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis 1556), 2001. Installation view at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. © Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo © BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2012. Photograph by Colin Davison. Used with permission.


What is temporally present to the visitor’s consciousness is complemented by what is spatially present with respect to her lived body (Leib), which is the body as experienced from within. This body is positioned in between the subjective sphere and the material world and thus curiously perceivable from both outside and inside the body alike. As the body perceives itself from the outside, it perceives all the things from the outside in relation to itself. [34]

In virtue of its faculty of free mobility, the subject can […] induce the flow of the system of its appearances and, along with that, the orientations. These changes do not have the significance of changes of the things of the environment themselves, and specifically, they do not signify a movement of the things. The Body of the subject “alters its position” in space; the things appearing in the environment are constantly oriented thereby […]. But whereas the subject is always, at every now, in the center, in the here, whence it sees the things and penetrates into the world by vision, on the other hand the Objective place, the spatial position, of the Ego, or of the Body, is a changing one. [35]

In Husserl’s understanding of the lived body as the centre of perception, its capability to self-govern movement is one of its defining features. The foundation for this kind of thinking is the awareness of an open and explorable world that is there for us to discover its displays, and will always further expand its perceptual horizon as we move ahead. Moving around an object on display, a museum visitor can thus take in different adumbrations of it to synthesize them into one coherent experience.

The visitor’s impression of The Forty Part Motet also relies on a synthesis of multiple modes of appearance. That is because the work does not only suggest one ‘sweet spot’ as perspective paintings or stereo loudspeakers do. Granted, there is a bench in the middle of the circle of loudspeakers that the visitor probably aims at in her first encounter with the work. However, already on her way from the entrance towards the bench, she realizes that this position is only one among many. The bench invites her, but it does not position her once and for all, so she is tempted to probe many other possible relations with the speaker voices with their human height and torso-like shape. The work’s open-ended address is reminiscent of the theatrical kind of spatial presence that Michael Fried despises in Minimalism. [36] He conceives of theatricality as the opposite of absorption in his study on the reception of 18th century genre painting in France. Whereas the motif of immersed figures achieved an absorbed manner of contemplation by neutralizing the beholder’s presence in front of the painting, theatrical representations reinforced this bodily presence. [37] In the auditory layer of Cardiff’s installation both absorption and theatricality are equally at play. This is possible because the installation does not work with pictorial motifs, but with sound, which Husserl has described to be simultaneously directional and encompassing.

We attribute to sound not only a point in space from which it radiates and thus an appended localization […], but we also attribute to it a migration through space and a filling of space. It fills the space insofar as it is heard everywhere in the space […]. [38]

By moving around the inside of the sounding installation, the visitor discovers these different dimensions of the sound. While they are usually constant and co-present, Cardiff’s work gives her the opportunity to move from one dimension of sound into the other. It is up to the visitor to either sit down to immerse herself in the harmonious choir sounds that reach the centre of the space, or to move along the speakers in a circle, or stay standing with one of them in order to experience the intimate presence of a singer singing to her. She may also deliberately experience the simultaneity of the two dimensions when moving back and forth towards the in- and outsides of the installation. Through her movement, the visitor gains access to one or the other realm as if consciously shifting focus. The experience of the work is thus strongly dependent on her interaction with it. There are multiple valid perspectives and many points of experience that need to be explored through movement. It is the journey of discovering these points of view and these points of audition that characterizes the experience of The Forty Part Motet most significantly. Curious, and with open eyes, the visitor is moving about the space, following her ear. Explorative Listening thus evolves at the intersection of the visual and the auditory, the spatial and the temporal, the objectivising and the personalizing, the sculptural and the ephemeral, the static and the dynamic. But can the visitor’s curiosity ever be satisfied? When will her explorative journey come to an end?


Playful Listening-About

Husserl tends to listen to sounds as present rather than meaningful. I argue that, in the case of The Forty Part Motet, it is precisely the manner in which the sounds become present that makes the work meaningful. This enables the explorative listener to gain a comprehensive understanding of the work that goes beyond analytical reflections on religious polyphonic music or sentimental accounts of choral singing. As the sculptural motet engages and quite literally moves the visitor, she is unlikely to become immersed in a spiritual atmosphere or put forward an abstract musicological analysis. Instead, the visitor develops an embodied understanding of the piece’s spatial polyphonic dynamics as fleeting yet present, absorbing yet theatrical. As this experience evades completion, the visitor’s curiosity is never truly satisfied, but perpetually revived with new auditory discoveries, as with new rounds of a game. Consequently, it might be appropriate to extend Husserl’s definition of visual curiosity as “playful looking-about” [39] (spielerische Umschau) to encompass auditory curiosity as ‘playful listening-about’ (spielerisches Umhören). Just as Husserl directs himself at a world that is there for him to be perceived, the museum positions its visitor in an artificially constructed situation of display. In this visually biased context, the visitor’s approach towards the exhibits will always evolve from her looking towards her listening. While she is curious and hence attentive with both eyes and ears from the beginning, she will listen dedicatedly only once she has exhaustively appreciated the visual appearance of the artwork. She then sets out to explore the work by playfully listening-about, moving through the space, following her ears.

Explorative Listening has thus been ventured as an open, active, and embodied manner of aesthetic listening situated at the contemporary art museum. There are many more works that have inspired me to listen exploratively. Among them are invisible works, such as Bruce Nauman’s Für Kinder (2011), wall works, such as Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011), installations, such as Susan Philipsz’ Part File Score (2014), video works, such as Doug Aitken’s Interiors (2002), or performances, such as Lucy Raven’s Room Tone (2012). Naturally, Explorative Listening remains just one among many possible ways of experiencing sounding artworks at museums. Its exemplary development wants to draw attention to the shared task of curators and artists to not only understand the sounds of the exhibition spaces and the sounds of the works they are presenting in them, but also the situation of their visitors. Salomé Voegelin suggests that

it is through walking the galleries with his/her ears, from the midst of things, that the curator can revisit the museum and subsequently the visitor can join in to produce spaces that do not hold and represent multimodal and sonic works but that encourage and facilitate multimodal engagement […]. [40]

While she pertinently describes the curatorial aim of facilitating and encouraging multimodal engagement, her strategy does not elaborate on the peculiarity of a museum visitor’s cultural disposition and phenomenal experience. This paper has attempted to incorporate such a visitor’s stance through a socially, historically, and culturally situated phenomenology. Certainly, a lot remains to be learned through empirical investigations of visitors’ actual listening experiences, which can also factor in personal idiosyncrasies and practical constraints. [41] For the time being, Explorative Listening is not meant to standardize visitors’ scope of engagement with sounding artworks, but rather encourage discussions among curators and artists about who their visitors might be, and how they might listen in museum situations. It is meant to inspire them to think beyond the dichotomy of the space and the work, and towards their recipients that are visitors whose many peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and quirks remain to be explored.


Author Biography 

Linnea Semmerling (born 1989 in Hannover, Germany) is currently working on her NWO-funded PhD project ‘Listening on Display. Exhibiting Sounding Artworks 1960s-now’ at Maastricht University. Prior to receiving her PhD grant, she worked as Assistant Curator at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, where she was responsible for the organization of exhibitions and the editing of publications about sound and other phenomena in contemporary art. Semmerling holds a BA in Arts and Culture from Maastricht University, and wrote the present paper in 2013 as part of her MA in Art Studies at the University of Amsterdam.


Notes and References 

[1] Edmund Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch, Husserliana Volume IV (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1952), 56. “Moving myself, I bring my ear closer in order to hear.” Translation according to Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Second book, translated by Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989), 61.

[2] Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-cochlear Sonic Art (New York, NY: Continuum, 2009).

[3] In Virilio’s dystopian world of Art and Fear, the sound of artworks mutes their recipients and the sonorization of everything results in the pitiless aesthetics of the audio-visual regime of contemporary art. This paper will be less condemning of sound, as it does not grant the artwork all the power to determine the receptive situation of the visitor. In this light, also Virilio’s ideological charge of silence with mutism can be recast as a productively open quietude. See Paul Virilio, Art and Fear, translated by Julie Rose (London: Continuum, 2006).

[4] See for example Gascia Ouzounian, Sound Art and Spatial Practices: Situating Sound Installation Art since 1958 (San Diego, CA: University of San Diego eScholarship, 2008), or Joanne Demers, Listening through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford/ New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[5] Salomé Voegelin, “Soundwalking the Museum: A Sonic Journey through the Visual Display,” in The Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory, and Space, eds. Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 120.

[6] Ibid., 128.

[7] John Kannenberg, “Listening to Museums: Sound Mapping towards a Sonically Inclusive Museology,” Museological Review 20 (2016), 8.

[8] Voegelin, Soundwalking the Museum, 129.

[9] This is an ableist statement that excludes many people. My current research project aims to resolve at least parts of this problem by learning about visitor experiences from visitor books, observations, and interviews.

[10] Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear, and Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (New York, NY/London: Continuum, 2010), 34-35.

[11] Brian Kane, “Musicophobia, Or Sound Art and the Demands of Art Theory,”, no. 8 (2013), (accessed February 20, 2015), 16 (Kane’s italics).

[12] It is also interesting to note Husserl’s investigations of the cultural conditioning of experience in the concept of the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) and the situational conditioning of experience in his descriptions of the concert hall, for example. See Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die Transzendentale Phänomenologie, Husserliana Volume VI (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1935/1976), 141 and 108-111 and Edmund Husserl, Ideen zu Einer Reinen Phänomenologie und Phänomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch, Husserliana Volume III (Den Haag: Nijhoff. 1913/1976), 92-93 [81-82].

[13] See for example Fidelis Joseph Smith, The Experience of Musical Sound: Prelude to a Phenomenology of Music (New York, NY: Gordon & Breach, 1979), Marc S. Muldoon, “Silence Revisited: Taking the Sight out of Auditory Qualities,” in The Review of Metaphysics 50, no.2 (1996): 275-298, and Daniel Schmicking, Hören und Klang: Empirisch Phänomenologische Untersuchungen (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2003).

[14] Don Ihde and Martin Jay both oppose Husserl’s visually derived metaphors to Heidegger’s thinking in auditory metaphors. See Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 217, and Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1993), 269/270.

[15] See for example David Espinet, Phänomenologie des Hörens: Eine Untersuchung im Ausgang von Martin Heidegger (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

[16]  Neil Kenny, Curiosity in Early Modern Europe Word Histories (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998),15.

[17] Barbara M. Stafford & Frances Terpak, Devices of Wonder. From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institutes, 2001), 9-11, 148-157.

[18] Arthur MacGregor, Curiosity and Enlightenment. Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (New Haven, CT/ London: Yale University Press, 2007), 30-56.

[19] Stephen Bann, “Shrines, Curiosities and the Rhetoric of Display,” in Visual Display. Culture Beyond Appearances, eds. Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995), 15.

[20] Stephen Bann, “The Return to Curiosity: Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Museum Display,” in Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium, ed. Andrew McClellan (Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 118 (Bann’s italics).

[21] Ibid., 125. Bann’s argument has been elaborated by more recent scholarship in museum studies investigating the role of historical curiosity in visitors’ sensual encounters with museum objects and in cultural sociology defining the ‘curiosity-driven museum visitor’. See Constance Classen, “Museum Manners: The sensory life of the early museum,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007):  895-914, 907, and Jay Rounds, “Strategies for the Curiosity-Driven Museum Visitor,” Curator: The Museum Journal 47, no. 4 (2004): 389-412, 407/408.

[22] Heather Galbraith, “Janet Cardiff: The Forty-Part Motet [sic]. Exhibition Notes” (Exhibition brochure, City Gallery Wellington, February 2010), 3.

[23] Ibid., 2. This emphasis on the choir also reinforces the artist’s intention of allowing her audience “to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers,” see Janet Cardiff, “Comment by the artist,” (accessed February 22, 2015).

[24] “Horchen ist hören in der Weise der Achtsamkeit.” David Espinet, Phänomenologie des Hörens, 141. Translation by the author.

[25] “dass […] im Bezug auf das Hören Intentionalität […] nicht nur Hören von etwas bedeutet, sondern eigentlich und zuerst die Möglichkeit etwas zu hören.” Ibid., 136 (Espinet’s italics). Translation by the author.

[26] Ibid., 135. See also Edmund Husserl, Ding und Raum, Husserliana Volume XVI (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1907/1973), 66-67. In Husserl’s descriptions the violin can easily be replaced by a loudspeaker.

[27] David Espinet, Phänomenologie des Hörens, 147-149.

[28] “Die zeitliche Dimension ist verschwistert mit der räumlichen. […] Wie Zeitlichkeit so gehört Räumlichkeit zum Wesen der erscheinenden Dinglichkeit.” Edmund Husserl, Ding und Raum, 65/66. Translation according to Edmund Husserl, Thing and Space, translated by Richard Rojcewicz (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), 55.

[29] Edmund Husserl, Phänomenologie des Inneren Zeitbewusstseins, Husserliana Volume X (Den Haag: Nijhoff, 1893-1917/1969), 234/235 [368/369].

[30] According to Johan Idema, the average duration of a MoMA visitor’s encounter with an art object is only 30 seconds. See Johan Idema, “Museum Minutes,” (Exhibition brochure, Kunsthal Rotterdam, February 2012), 9.

[31] “Die Ablaufsphänomene laufen im Fluß der konstituierenden Bewusstseinsphänomene ab, in einer Einheit des Bewußtseins, in dem stetig das dauernde Objekt erscheint. Es erscheint stetig aber eben in Form einer als lebendige Gegenwart sich abspielenden Dauer, an die sich die Kontinuität der Erscheinung der abgelaufenen Dauer anschließt.” Edmund Husserl, Phänomenologie des Inneren Zeitbewusstseins, 232 [366] (Husserl’s italics). Translation according to Edmund Husserl, On the phenomenology of the consciousness of internal time, translated by John Barnett Brough (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991), 377.

[32] Edmund Husserl, Phänomenologie des Inneren Zeitbewusstseins, 234-248 [368-382].

[33] This is in accordance with the music piece’s historically informed performance practice, as Tubridy has shown. See Derval Tubridy, “Sounding Spaces Aurality in Samuel Beckett, Janet Cardiff and Bruce Nauman,” in Performance Research 12, no. 1 (2007), 7/8.

[34] Edmund Husserl, Ideen II, 161.

[35] “Dank seinem Vermögen der freien Beweglichkeit kann […] das Subjekt das System seiner Erscheinungen und damit die Orientierungen in Fluß bringen. Diese Änderungen bedeuten nicht solche der Umgebungsdinge, speziell nicht ihre Bewegung: der Subjektleib ‘wechselt seine Stellung’ im Raum, die Dinge seiner erscheinenden Umgebung sind dabei immerfort orientiert […]; aber während das Subjekt immer, in jedem Jetzt, im Zentrum ist, im Hier, von wo aus es alle Dinge sieht und in die Welt hineinsieht, ist der objektive Ort, die Raumstelle des Ich,  bzw. seines Leibes eine wechselnde.” Edmund Husserl, Ideen II, 158/59, see also 56-59. Translation according to Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Second book, translated by Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989), 166.

[36] Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood. Essays and Reviews (Chicago, IL/London: The University of Chicago Press, 1967/1998), 155-163.

[37] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley/ Los Angeles, CA/ London: University of California Press, 1980).

[38] “Dem Klang schreiben wir nicht nur einen Ausstrahlungspunkt im Raum zu und damit anhängende Lokalisation […], sondern auch Wanderung durch den Raum und Raumerfüllung. Er füllt den Raum, sofern er in dem Raum […] überall gehört wird.“ Edmund Husserl, Ding und Raum, 67. Husserl continues by criticizing the notion of a space filled with sound as a visualist metaphor, but keeps using it nevertheless. See also Don Ihde, Listening and Voice, 75-77. Translation according to Edmund Husserl, Thing and Space, translated by Richard Rojcewicz (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), 56.

[39] Edmund Husserl, Die Krisis des Europäischen Wissenschaften, 332. Husserl coins this definition in his later work as a part of his attempt to reconnect the sciences with the lifeworld (Lebenswelt). Translation according to Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, translated by David Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970), 285.

[40] Voegelin, Soundwalking the Museum, 128.

[41] I am currently working on a PhD project, entitled ‘Listening on Display. Exhibiting Sounding Artworks 1960s-now’ (2015-2019), that investigates artists’, curators’, and visitors’ listening experiences in sound exhibitions at contemporary art venues in Germany and the United States since the 1960s on the basis of archival research and sensory ethnography.