Searching for Stillness at the Guggenheim

by Lara Schweller

Panoramic photo of the Guggenheim rotunda by David Heald.

When David van der Leer moved to New York, he was shocked by how loud it was. A search for stillness inspired him, in his role as an associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum, to come up with stillspotting nyc, a series of interactive performance pieces, installations and events exploring noise and silence in the city.

The program's finale event last Tuesday was a variety show of expert panels, musical acts, presentations and even guided meditation. In collaboration with Unsound, organizers transformed the Guggenheim’s proscenium stage into a sound laboratory. As the event made clear, stillspotting has evolved into an exploration of the nature of collective experience in the contemporary city through the barometer of sound.

Aerial photo of the Bronx by Iwan Baan.

Artist and musician Sergei Tcherepnin opened, setting the stage by framing sound through the lens of architecture. Speakers embedded in cardboard cutouts, whose shapes evoked the Guggenheim’s iconic curves and angles, were slowly moved around the auditorium and layered, demonstrating how sound can literally be built in space. Experts from the Department of Transportation, universities and cultural institutions expounded on issues like city ordinances designed to reclaim city streets for peaceful spaces to the contemporary phenomenon of noise-induced hearing loss. A highlight was professor Robert Thurman’s talk on cultivating internal stillness rather than searching for stillness in the city. He demonstrated this by guiding the audience in meditation. Architect Charles Renfro encouraged people to embrace the noise of the city as a sign of its vitality.

While these performances were articulate, thought-provoking and often moving, before heading upstairs for the second part of the evening, I found myself questioning whether the collective experience of sound and stillness in a city as diverse as New York could be fully addressed solely by those invested with the capital of academic, cultural and professional institutions. I found myself wanting to hear more from more New Yorkers.

"Audiogram" event in the Bronx, organized in collaboration with Improv Everywhere.

Stillspotting seems to have asked the same question. Perhaps this is why van der Leer took the project beyond the space of the museum. When the program began two years ago, organizers asked students at Columbia University and The School of Visual Arts about how locals and visitors can escape, find respite, and make peace with their space in this "city that never sleeps." They used results to create data sets and visual maps that delimited, defined and sourced issues of sound and noise in New York. With this data in mind, artists enacted events in each of the boroughs. These ranged from "an audiowalking tour that braided history with fantasy" to commissioning personal stories from Queens writers.

For the second part of Tuesday's program, the audience was ushered into the Guggenheim lobby rotunda, where they were invited to re-experience the events of stillspotting that had been initiated throughout the five boroughs. Having wandered upstairs after most of the crowd, I entered a room humming with voices, including the experts, the audience and people from each borough who had volunteered to participate in the program. It was the type of space where Renfro, who had just given a talk, was now acting as bartender. It was a collaborative and collective space where people were enthralled and exploratory, where they continued to engage with sound, stillness and each other.

Lara Schweller is an intern in the Guggenheim's education department and is completing a Ph.D. in visual studies at the University of California, Irvine. This post reflects her own thoughts and does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else, including those of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Credits: Photos from the Guggenheim Museum.

+ share


  1. what an innovative and inspiring approach to curating, bringing art outside the usual gallery experience and making it more interactive. i'd love to find out more about the origins of these ideas. perhaps a stillspotting book is in order?