The Art of Collecting Voices: An Interview with Sound Artist Halsey Burgund

Halsey Burgund, sound artist, musician, fellow at MIT’s Open Documentary and Media Lab and creator of Roundware, an open source audio platform, is fascinated by the human voice. He has been collecting voices for over a decade. Over the years, he has created little communities of voices, songs, sound installations, and all sorts of musical spoken voice related pieces from his aural collections. As an artist, Burgund is fascinated by the nuance of the human voice, from the emotions and experiences conveyed in a spoken word to its rhythms and, as he hears it, its more musical aspects.  This year, during Miami Art Week, Miami had the privilege of having Burgund’s sonic creativity and documentary interest focused on our city with unreserved, a sound art project that uses voice recorded into a smartphone app as the medium.

Inspired by the desire to free up space for expressive freedom in Wynwood’s increasingly curated landscape, Burgund, in collaboration with Fordistas, dreamed up a sonic intervention that would get people to open up and leave an audio imprint, like a form of audio graffiti, and called it unreserved. The project, which was previewed at the Perez Art Museum Miami during its Third Thursday Poplife Social Event on November 19, 2015 and launched as a sound installation at the Fordistas Gallery in West Wynwood during Miami Art Week, remains available for download on the APP Store as part of an evolving collage of sound.

Culture Designers recently had the chance to chat with Halsey Burgund to learn more about the inspiration behind collecting voices, participatory sound art and unreserved.

Preview of unreserved at the Perez Art Museum Miami. PHOTO CREDIT: Cris Ramos

You are both a musician and sound artist, how would you define sound art? 

I would define it as anything auditory that is arranged in some way by human interaction. My brand of sound art is very close to music in that I use the standard musical elements of pitch, melody, rhythm etc., but I generally consider it sound art instead of music because it contains lots of spoken voices, exists in space, is evolving over time and is experienced flexibly by different listeners.

As its creator, how would you say open source, participatory software such as Roundware, has changed the way people experience art?

Open-source software has certainly had a very significant effect on the production of art as artists continue to embrace new technology and hack it for their needs and this behavior is at the core of the open-source movement. Also, open-source software tends to be cheaper, more flexible and often more esoteric than commercial options.

As far as experiencing art goes, software in general has allowed for a full emergence of interactive and participatory artworks. People no longer expect that a work of art is a single static entity, but rather could be something that they have some effect on and that they will experience in a unique way. Open-source software plays a large role in this emergence, but proprietary software plays a significant role as well.

 

Preview of unreserved at the Perez Art Museum Miami. PHOTO CREDIT: Cris Ramos

What inspired you to begin collecting voices?

 I don’t know why I became fascinated with voices but there’s something about the spoken voice that’s so personal. It’s like an audio fingerprint and so much more is communicated with speech, with spoken voice than with text. Text communicates the semantics of the words, but it doesn’t communicate any of the emotion and the experience that people bring to it. There’s so much nuance that happens as I’m speaking right now and there’s so much of who I am that’s coming through in very subtle ways. As an artist, I like to take advantage of those subtleties and use the voice not only as a way of diving into who people are but also in a very musical way. As I’m speaking right now there are pitches, there are rhythms, there are these musical aspects to my voice that are fascinating to extract in more musical ways.

And now, with technology, I can reach out very far. I feel like I have little microphones that I can stick out anywhere in the world, just by having people download an app and participate.

Engaging with unreserved at the Perez Art Museum Miami. PHOTO CREDIT: Cris Ramos

How would you define unreserved as a project?

I could define it in so many different ways. It’s a sound art project. It’s a music project. It’s a collaboration between myself as the artist and everybody who participates in the project. It’s a very participatory project. It’s a project that is evolving over time as more people contribute. The more people contribute, the more layers are built up and the more diverse the project becomes.

How is unreserved unique in relation to other projects you have worked on?

The basic concept of creating an evolving location-based and contributory augmentation of a physical space is consistent with much of my work recently.

The big differences for me were first, working in a culture that has two dominant and equally important languages. In the past, I have separated languages into silos, but that made zero sense in this situation since Spanish and English are used interchangeably throughout all of Miami.

The gallery installation was a new element as well. I have had gallery installations in tandem with “on-the-street” installations, but this one was more integrated and designed in a different way than previous ones. I like the idea of participants making recordings in-situ and then having them gradually “migrate” to the gallery where they can interact with each other in ways that are very different than how they interact on the streets.

Official launch of unreserved at Fordistas Gallery in West Wynwood during Miami Art Week. PHOTO CREDIT: David Turk

Official launch of unreserved at Fordistas Gallery in West Wynwood during Miami Art Week. PHOTO CREDIT: David Turk

What has it been like working with a platform like Fordistas for this project?

We have a really nice overlap. I don’t do marketing very well. My work is invisible and therefore it needs that help and thought process. Fordistas and the Product 81 team is very experienced with that and they’ve brought a huge number of ideas to the table that have affected what I’m going to do aesthetically and, of course, what we’re going to do from a getting it out there perspective. We both are conceptually bound to the same ideas and we have very different areas of expertise that are complimentary.

I think I should have you guys follow me around for every project I do and it would be much, much better.

What do you envision people getting out of their participation with unreserved?

I hope to encourage participants to think and look at their surroundings in a more creative and flexible way. I am trying to create an environment in which people will open up and be inspired to contribute something about them that is unique and meaningful to them.

I also hope they take some ownership, for example, leaving a recording in a specific spot that other people will be able to hear in the future, for years. I hope people gravitate towards the idea of taking ownership of a certain location and putting a stamp on it, a non-physical stamp that nonetheless is there.

Can you describe the most beautiful thing you see?

That’s one of the questions within the app right now and it’s a wonderful question because a lot of times people don’t think about the beauty that’s around them.

There are a lot of beautiful things. I have a hard time answering that question right now because I’m from Boston. I flew down here this morning and it’s cold and not colorful. I’m down here now and I’m like, WOW! We’re standing here on the bay and I see buildings, I see lights, I see the colors purple and orange on the bridge, and there’s this beautiful curve that the bridge makes and there’s another bridge down there that’s reminiscent of that one and behind us is the wonderful Herzog & de Meuron façade, which is incredible.

View from the Perez Art Museum Miami. PHOTO CREDIT: Catalina Ramírez

It’s kind of a lame answer to say that there are so many things and I can’t decide what’s the most beautiful, but I think the most beautiful thing is the fact that I’m here right now and I’m experiencing it and, you know, it’s something I’ve got to remember.

I hope you do…!

INTERVIEW BY: Catalina Ramírez

unreserved is currently available for Download on the APP Store. Record your audio graffiti.

FORDISTAS is a platform for emerging arts and culture powered by South Florida Ford. To learn more, visit Fordistas.com.

 

 

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