Audio Guide Special – Storylines / Positions
“We took Internet hypertext and transferred it to an audio format”
The sound art duo Serotonin on their “Audio Guide Special”
Interview: Gaby Hartel
Marie-Luise Goerke, Matthias Pusch, let’s talk about names: What made you decide to call your audio guide “special”?
Matthias Pusch: An audio guide that just gives listeners snippets of information and explains different objects doesn’t serve the actual purpose of a museum. That’s our firm opinion. That purpose, to me, is to form a connection between the objects and their “hinterland”. That question includes why these exact pieces were chosen for the museum and not others. Or topics like provenance, which is currently under a lot of scrutiny.
And maybe the different issues that surround an object’s origin?
Pusch: Exactly. The Pergamon Museum here in Berlin has the Pergamon Altar in its collection. Fortunately, you could say, if we think about the recent destruction of cultural heritage that has been happening in the Middle East. But it’s not enough to leave it at that and say nothing about the rather problematic idea of a Western museum as a “safe harbor”. During their formative years in the 19th century, museums were established for much different reasons than they are today.
They were conceived as institutions of teaching, collecting, and learning that met with the support of the educated classes. Museum visitors were well-read; they could already connect the dots. Today text is used to supply those links. Now your approach is to use the polysensory medium of sound art to convey things – a very different principle than text on a wall panel.
Marie-Luise Goerke: At the beginning of the project we started out with the very basic question of how people approach text. We found that today, in the 21st century, linear text is still the standard, even though the entire online world is based on a non-linear structure. We took this basic idea of non-linearity and applied it to a complex text structure in an educational context. Definitely a big challenge.
Pusch: Because there’s still no standard way to do it. We could just hand out portable devices with standard browser-based internet access. It would be a familiar method for implementing non-linear text and visitors would know how to use it. But the screen would come between them and the objects. And the reason why we go to the museum is to be in a room with original pieces, to feel their aura.
Your approach is less about transmitting information, and more about knowledge transfer through remediation, which is to say, moving from concrete objects to a more general understanding. What’s exciting about your “Audio Guide Special” is that it creates direct sensory and experiential links to things that are very distant in time and space.
Goerke: Yes, it’s different than a lexical approach. Most conventional audio guides rely on a text-object correlation. There might be a few breaks – and sound, music, or original recordings could be inserted into the text. But they still dictate a prescribed pattern of how visitors should see and understand an exhibit piece. So they’re basically about describing, providing a description of an artwork or another piece.
What role does the selection of narrators play in your work?
Goerke: An absolutely critical one! I don’t want to start bashing audio guides, but the voices that you normally hear in this context are all wrong: They are either those smooth voices you hear in advertising or they sound clinical and perfect. There is no emotional spark and the voices have nothing to do with what is being conveyed. We decided to use voice as an instrument to appeal to visitors and make them want to keep delving deeper into the exhibition.
Pusch: The subtitle “storylines” already contains the idea of a non-hierarchical, interwoven texture that’s made up of overlapping narrative threads. The concept of storylines comes from the Australian Aborigines, who inspired our work. The Aborigines do not grasp a landscape, or in other words their living environment, as a Cartesian system of cartographic coordinates, but as an individual or collective experience, as a lyrical system in the broadest sense.
Based on an embodied, stimulating “aesthetics of walking” that is currently the topic of spirited debate in art and philosophy. Paths through the exhibition are created as an open design, and you speculate that your storylines will be enriched by the visitors’ memories, prior knowledge, and interests as they decide how to move from exhibit to exhibit.
Goerke: Walking and storylines are interwoven. Visitors don’t move in a progression of numbered objects, for example “one–three–eight.” Instead they try to follow a path that relates to a specific subject – like economic trade in the Golden Triangle, for example. That can take place independently of the objects “one, three, and eight,” but it doesn’t have to. We started by producing our idea as a 72-minute sound mash-up that we provided to visitors during a test and evaluation phase as the “Audio Guide Special.” We also held workshops using a dedicated prototype we developed with HTW – the local University of Applied Sciences. The device contains an interface with gesture recognition and we wanted to test the options for an interactive, non-linear “walkabout” through the exhibition.
You draw your audience to certain thematic “magnets” that you use to show the complexity of life underlying the exhibit. Your approach is more about conveying knowledge than information.
Goerke: That was the plan. For this exhibition we chose key objects – like a typical Chinese shopping bag made of plastic – for certain themes and used them to get to the bigger picture: in this case, the economics of a cultural region, with ideas we thought were important to relate.
In a different case, we weren’t looking to provide an exact description of Mien scroll paintings of Taoist deities. Instead we wanted to get at what motivated the collector Hansjörg Mayer, whose voice we hear in the audio guide, to collect these objects. He tells some really beautiful stories about them, I think. The deities needed to be convinced to leave the paintings before they were sold. Only after this ceremony were the paintings ready to be moved to a different cultural context. The direct narration of this ritual to prepare the paintings for their journey is important in order to grasp the divine character of a scroll painting. A description of the images never could have conveyed that. Our goal was to reveal these different thematic layers.
Pusch: The artistic idea behind our work is that everyone who visits the museum – depending on their educational background and interests as well as their individual story – can understand, feel, and hear it differently. That’s why we set up certain transfer stations where visitors can “dig deeper” if they would like. Basically, we took internet hypertext and transferred it to an audio format.
Your “Audio Guide Special” lends a personal or private aspect to the exhibition although the listener is moving through public space.
Pusch: It does. We wanted to view the relatively manageable number of exhibits as a landscape and give visitors the opportunity to have their own conversation with this landscape, to ask their own questions.
Dr. Gaby Hartel is a curator, art publicist, and radio journalist who works at the intersection of the visual arts, literature, and sound art. Currently, she is a sound art curator at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin for “Art/Nature”, a pilot project in cooperation with the German Federal Cultural Foundation.
The Berlin-based sound-art duo Serotonin is made up of author Marie-Luise Goerke and sound engineer/composer Matthias Pusch. Together they create fictional and documentary work for radio broadcasting and audio books, as well as numerous spatial and sound installations.