Public Audio Art: Denver’s Soundwalk

During the “giant No. 2 pencil” excursion I described in last week’s post, I happened upon a really interesting art installation. On Curtis Street between 15th and 16th Streets in downtown Denver are six grates in the sidewalk, fifty feet apart:

They look like air vents, but these are no ordinary grates. If you (or anyone) get close to them, a motion-sensor triggers an audio soundtrack to play on speakers located under the grates. Among the normal hustle and bustle of city sounds, you might hear a subway (Denver has no subway), cows, chickens, horses, yodeling, water gurgling or growling. I don’t have the full list, but it’s amazing to hear what seems to be chickens under the sidewalk mixed in with traffic noise. Pig sounds are standouts, too!

This installation is called Soundwalk. Sound artist Jim Green installed it in 1992.

Here is his artist statement from his website:

I have used sound as my primary medium for thirty years and since 1984, focused on site-integrated work in public. The intent is to playfully integrate unexpected sound into existing environment. I am drawn to common environments and find them successful sites for my playful style of public art. My people-oriented approach uses sound to engage the public with humor and surprise to produce a social, interactive experience. I believe public art functions best when it humanizes public space. I also have extensive design team experience which includes teamwork with other artists, architects, engineers, contractors, administrators and community.

I had read about the grates before, but I didn’t realize I was encountering them when I was there. Until I heard a subway, which I know to NOT exist in Denver, and it stopped me in my tracks. Then I figured out I was experiencing the Soundwalk.

Another of Green’s creations is the “Laughing Escalator” in the Denver Convention Center. I’m pretty sure I’ve been on that escalator, but I don’t recall anything sounding out of place. However, there were a lot of people there for the auto show, so maybe it just blended in with the ambient noise. And that seems to be one of the characteristics of Jim Green’s art. The sounds are not louder than regular ambient noise; you have to be paying attention to experience it. It’s a clever way for art to interact with the public in situ. It was so intriguing to hear audio art that isn’t music and that is integrated into ordinary things in ordinary places. I feel edified to have experienced it.

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