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ROUND : Cambridge a participatory soundscape by Halsey Burgund


Now this is a guaranteed first date win. I jest but it's true: Halsey Burgund's new public art piece, a participatory soundscape encompassing the whole City of Cambridge, is an engaging and memorable way to while away an evening. You might even capture the sound of that stolen kiss.

Presented as an exploration of public art in Cambridge, ROUND is much more than that alone. Using GPS coordinates, Burgund's custom-built smartphone app (available both for Android and iPhone) locates you in the physical city and situates you within its virtual counterpart, an expanding composition of music and voices, site-specific to the city block. The project's name comes from the musical round (think: row, row, row your boat) and the name of the software that powers the walk, but it also fits the contraction of around.

When you launch the app—it works anywhere within the limits of Cambridge, indoors as well as out—you'll be prompted to LISTEN or SPEAK. Option #1 will play Burgund's composition, a rhythmic succession of chords punctuating ambient drones, and bring a lope to your step. Landmarks, artworks, city sights will prompt a sudden vocal interjection: strangers' voices enter the soundscape to whisper a secret in your ear, describe what they saw, felt, smelled in the very spot you now stand in, tell you a story about the object beside you or their opinion of the artwork... These different cadences, pitches, accents and languages are seamlessly woven into the sound piece and fade out just as naturally as you wander on.

Option #2, SPEAK, enables the recorder on your phone so that you may add your own voice to the composition. The interface suggests a few ideas for topics, either playfully relating to the pre-existing public artworks— "pretend you are this work of art and tell us about your day"— or to the space around you—"give directions to another place in Cambridge that is important to you." I'd add: use it as a confessional, as a diary, as a living history book, a time capsule. Almost immediately upon submitting your recording, it is uploaded and incorporated into the sound composition. It may echo in your ears later, if you retrace your steps. The contributions remain anonymous, which brings the whole listening experience both candor and mystery, as if you were privy to the inner thoughts of strangers. It's a palimpsest of past walkers.

For Platform 3 at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in the summer of 2010, Halsey Burgund developed Scapes, another site-specific participatory sound piece using the same software. Scapes focused on the topography and artworks of the Park. Visitors could check out a smartphone at the front-desk and wander the grounds picking up on prior reactions to artworks as they drew near a piece. Some locations were tagged with personal, at times heartbreaking stories—I remember a young soldier sharing her fears in the face of her first deployment to Iraq. Here, even though the project has only just launched, it feels as though it could reach its full scope. In the sheltered and idyllic space of deCordova, the experience was primarily an artwork about art, its perception and reception. While ROUND : Cambridge starts off as this, I imagine endless storytelling possibilities. What if inhabitants start contributing from their living rooms or kitchens, telling the stories of their days or lives? Beyond the public art in Cambridge, there is daily life, architecture, city noise. There are tourists and students and business owners and families and recent immigrants.

For now, in spite of a heavily dotted map, there are still too few contributions to know what ROUND : Cambridge's potential is. Commissioned by the Cambridge Arts Council, the piece will be operational for two years, after launching in September with an accompanying gallery exhibition at the CAC gallery. It's an exciting venture for the city, reminiscent of some site-specific sound works by Janet Cardiff, though full of unexpected elements given its collaborative nature. While Burgund retains some curatorial control over the frequency and content of contributions, for the most part he allows the composition to evolve naturally and rarely censors the recordings.

Next time you're in Cambridge, or if you call it home, listen in. Lead us through your city. Make us privy to the inner wealth of your memories or to the workings of your mind.

Download the iPhone app / free
Download the Android app / free
To experience ROUND : Cambridge, head anywhere within the city limits and launch the app.
Headphones recommended.
Halsey Burgund's website

About Author

Stephanie Cardon is a cross-disciplinary artist from France and the United States and is the former executive editor at Big Red & Shiny. She works as a Visiting Lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art & Design and is a 2013 recipient of the Art Writing Workshop from the AICA-USA and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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