Pomona Art Installation is All Ears for Community Listening

A mysterious gold-tinted sculpture appeared last week in Bixby Plaza at Pomona College, inviting curiosity, confusion, and questions. With large, phonograph-like horns and dangling cups, the sculpture resembles something out of a Dr.
Seuss book. 

It turns out that raising questions and sparking conversation are just what the installation was meant to do. The work of Scripps College professor Elana Mann, the sculpture is part of a collaborative project to increase engagement in the act of listening. 

“I just notice so much monologuing in our culture—texting, emailing, Facebooking,” Mann said. “It’s a one-way transition. It is kind of a dialogue, but it’s a lot of monologue. So I’m kind of interested in what’s the opposite of that. Where can there really be a dialogue, and how can dialogue be explored?”

The sculpture, which occupies a prominent place on Pomona’s campus near Frary Dining Hall, is part of a project
called “All Ears,” a collaboration between Mann and Pomona Department of Art and Art History Chair Mark Allen. In addition to the sculpture, the project is releasing an e-book with selected visual and written representations of listening

The installation is an acoustic structure, inspired by a technological device used by militaries around the world to listen to incoming planes.

“You’ll notice that the sounds [the installation] really picks up are low-frequency sounds, like the low rumble of airplanes,” Mann said. “High-frequency sound it doesn’t pick up as well because of its design and acoustic properties.”

The piece replicates a war device used in the period between World War I and World War II. This technology, which predated the invention of more advanced radar technology, relied on precise listening and sound.

“I was just so captivated [when] I found these images of the sculptures,” Mann said. “I thought, ‘I really want to build one and see what that feels like and what that looks like.'” 

Since voice pushes air molecules together to produce sound waves, Allen saw a connection between Mann’s work and the theme of this year’s Mellon Elemental Arts Initiative at Pomona, “Air.” The initiative offers monetary awards promoting interaction with art, and its theme rotates every year between four elements: earth, wind, air, and fire. 

While Allen is interested in exploring the dynamics between audience and performer, he emphasized the art’s role as a conversation-starter. 

“I noticed when I walked by that people were coming up to me asking, ‘What is this thing?'” Allen said. “It’s kind of interesting, like an alien landing in the middle of campus. People are talking about it.” 

Students in the Fundamentals of
Design course at Scripps and the Foundations of 2-D Design course at Pomona are participating in workshops
in which they explore different aspects of listening and speaking, culminating in an intensive two-person exercise. In the exercise, one person speaks for two hours while the other listens, and then vice versa. Upon completion, each person will reflect on the experience through artwork or writing. 

Mann said that she decided to engage the classes in the workshop to explore how art and communication are intertwined.

“Art and design is such a communicative field,” she said. “You make a poster, and you’re really trying to
communicate to the viewer, group, client, whoever, and have that person receive
and listen to your message. We thought for this foundation class, it’d be really interesting to bring in these ideas of listening and communication, since it’s so fundamental to what you’re learning to do.”

Jackie Tran PO ’15, a student taking Foundations of 2-D Design, said that she enjoyed the workshop.

“It was different and made me think about what I was really
doing,” Tran said. “Part of the assignment was to not
listen critically, just react to it. I think it resonates really well, because
many times we don’t really listen and just keep speaking in our society.”

Over the last four years, Mann has been exploring the act of
listening. Her interest was sparked by a conversation she had in 2007 with an Iraq War veteran, which continued over the next three years. 

“I would tape and then I
would listen over and over again to just understand what he was talking
about,” Mann said. “And I realized, the artwork was really about listening—that I was
listening to this veteran’s story. Listening was this powerful tool I had
discovered, and I wanted to explore more about it.”

Listening, and conversation, are powerful tools in Allen’s view as well.

“I think an artwork is always most interesting when it provokes conversation and gives people another way to think about things,” he said. “The piece is really about listening, and the construction of community.” 

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