The streets of Toronto en route to install The Cave of Sounds in Waterloo

In September, The Cave of Sounds was invited to Waterloo, Canada to exhibit as a part of the Waterloo Innovation Summit.

Car and building on the road to Waterloo to exhibit The Cave of Sounds View from the car on the road to Waterloo Inside the car on the road to Waterloo

Our venue was THEMUSEUM, a children’s museum in downtown Kitchener. Up on the third floor, passing through replica of dinosaurs, amber fossils and lizard brains, our space managed to evoke a cave before we arrived, with odd cracks of sunlight poking through blackout curtains and an awkwardly placed metal girder dominating the room. We gained access at 7am on the day of our big 4.30pm opening. With a solid tech runthrough in our hotel room the previous day and an excellent tech team from the venue, we completed our install in seven hours, down from two days at the last show.

Installing The Cave of Sounds interactive sound installation in THEMUSEUM, Waterloo, Canada

The big opening in question was the Interactive Playground, a two hour exhibition for our host’s summit alongside other interactive works. Our audience were tech conference delegates, in suits, networking, but reassuringly open and ready to play, evidenced by wine glass outlines left on the plinths and the familiar peppering of phones as people videoed each other.

As part of our invitation the summit organisers kindly let us stay on in the museum over the weekend letting us open to the public as well. This is a kid’s museum, and besides the staff at the museum, our audience thenceforth were predominantly parents with kids aged around 4-10. The work isn’t designed for children, so it was interesting to see how they reacted.

Instruments of The Cave of Sounds installed and ready for exhibition

The difference in behaviour between suits and kids is not as much as you might think. A few people look but don’t touch. Many go around in a circle trying each instrument out for a few seconds, moving on once they have created a few sounds. Some get immersed in playing one instrument. Everyone has a window of around 3-5 seconds before they will give up on an instrument that isn’t making a sound. Every now and then someone will coordinate a large group to each play a different instrument to make an ensemble together. Always, people connect more with the instruments when others are already there playing.

Participant from the Waterloo Innovation Summit interacting with Mini-Theremin by Sus Garcia, part of the interactive sound installation The Cave of Sounds

The distribution of these roles is similar between audiences that are primarily adult or child. The big difference seemed to be between conference delegates in the Interactive Playground and parents taking their kids to the museum. Many parents would only play to demonstrate things to their children. Context is important, and perhaps being a parent at a children’s museum means you aren’t in the mindset to engage with an interactive sound work. But there was something else troubling me, and I think it was the question of whether the presence of kids playing with the work somehow revoked permission for the grown ups to engage.

Participants from the Waterloo Innovation Summit playing the instruments of interactive sound installation The Cave of Sounds

The situation reminded me of Carsten Holler’s installations of slides at the Hayward Gallery and the Turbine Hall. Whatever your thoughts on Holler’s work, to me it seems to present something of an indictment on our culture that the only way grown ups feel they have permission to enjoy a slide is to put a frame around it and declare it an interactive artwork (with stringent height restrictions no less, keeping the kids out). What we have here is the opposite – the children have reappropriated the work from the adults simply by engaging with it – but the conclusion is the same.

Light spilling into the exhibition space during The Cave of Sounds interactive sound installation in Waterloo

At one point three kids wondered in. The first walks past the installation to the window and pulls back the curtain letting the sunshine pour in. ‘Ah wow!’ His two brothers run over, ‘wow,’ ‘woww!’ Their dad calls them back and off they go. Who needs art when you have a mind free and fresh enough to see the beauty already there. I wonder what they would think of the slides.

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