The Guggenheim Brings Silence to NYC
New York, the city that never sleeps, is at the moment the noisiest city in America. However, that could be changing, and right now there is one place in the city where you are actually guaranteed to experience almost complete silence. An immersive acoustic installation, currently presenting in the Guggenheim Museum, takes the visitor into a unique and impossible world. Here, the acoustic and optical stimulation are completely controlled to create the condition of almost perfect silence and the visual illusion of infinity.
The creation is the work of the experienced West Coast artist Doug Wheeler, and is inspired in the vast natural silence of the Northern Arizona deserts where he grew up. While the original plans and drawings for the “PSAD Synthetic Desert III” were drawn up nearly 50-years ago, the difficulty and expense of actually executing the project has meant a long wait for the artist to see the finished product. Finally, the artist’s work has come to fruition.
This technically challenging installation, which took weeks to install, consists of a hermetic room created within another room. The silent chamber rests on special gaskets which reduce the amount of sound passing from the museum's structure. Steep pyramids made of high-tech materials which dampen noises soundproof the room further. While total silence is impossible to obtain, the artist hopes that the installation will achieve a level of just 10-15-decibels. The illumination of the space makes it appear to be limitless, with no boundaries, and visitors sit or stand on the suspended viewing platform to enjoy a unique experience of vastness and silence. Mr. Wheeler says his aim is to “induce a sensate impression of infinite space”.
Only five people can enter at a time to reduce any noise pollution made by the visitors. A stomach rumble or the rustle of a jacket sounds amplified beyond belief in the super-quiet environment, and the artist would have preferred that visitors entered one at a time. Tickets need to booked in advance, although walk-ins are available at some times, and entrance time is sold by the minute. The maximum time permitted inside the installation is 20-minutes, as after about 40-minutes in the super-silent anechoic chamber people can start to experience hallucinations. Shorter times, however, are described as having an “elating” effect.
The logistics of identifying and eliminating every external noise possible was a time-consuming and complicated procedure. The process was not unlike the Sonyc (Sounds of New York City) project where researchers from New York and Ohio State universities are identifying sources of noise pollution in the city. Over a five-year period, they are recording short audio snippets from strategically placed high-tech sensors and analyzing the results. While their objective is not to turn NY into a silent city they do hope to find ways to reduce the noise levels, which are currently regarded as unsafe according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards.
In a city where a whisper can register 30-decibels, New Yorkers can look forward to a quieter and healthier environment with the Sonyc project, and meantime, experience a unique and stimulating sensation in this exciting Guggenheim exhibit.