Interview with Ben Valentine

I interviewed Ben Valentine, Exhibition and Program Coordinator for Exhibit Columbus, about Exhibit Columbus, an extraordinary celebration of modernist and contemporary architecture that I had a chance to experience this year. Exhibit Columbus included an audio AR piece to complement the wide array of physical components and I wanted to share why they made this non-obvious design choice.

We often take the sounds of a city as a given—but they are there by design, whether thoughtful design or not.

What is Exhibit Columbus?

Exhibit Columbus is the flagship program of Landmark Columbus Foundation, whose mission is to care for the design heritage of Columbus, Indiana, USA and inspire communities to invest in architecture, art, and design to improve people’s lives and make cities better places to live. Exhibit Columbus is an annual exploration of architecture, art, design, and community that alternates between symposium and exhibition programming each year, and features the J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize.

What do you as organizers hope that visitors to Exhibit Columbus will gain/learn/remember?

We hope that visitors of any background recognize the value of good design in their lives, and see that the community is an integral aspect of that process. Thousands of people visit Columbus for its design heritage, and we want those visitors and locals alike to know that this unique legacy is alive and still transforming the city to this day.  

What is the Hear/Here app?

Hear/Here is an interactive location-based audio app that offers an aural exploration of the exhibition and invites visitors to upload their own voices to be shared with other visitors on-site. Historic audio clips, insights from community members, and interviews with exhibition participants come together in the Hear/Here app—creating a new way to interact with the exhibition and experience the city’s design legacy. 

Historic audio clips, insights from community members, and interviews with exhibition participants come together in the Hear/Here app—creating a new way to interact with the exhibition and experience the city’s design legacy. 

Why did you want the exhibition to include an audio AR component?

Exhibit Columbus wants to provide an enjoyable and meaningful experience for all ages and backgrounds. To do this, we wanted to create multiple ways to enter and experience the exhibition. Simply having the work in public is not enough. We provide a free Exhibition Guide that is written by our team and designed by Rick Valicenti of Thirst, but we also provide a Family Activity Guide, which this year was designed by Rosten Woo. Each one of these “guides” provides a different experience and entry point to the exhibition and opens up the city and the exhibition to many audiences.

I feel that augmented reality with solely audio, as opposed to more visual didactics, offers a great way to ingest additional context-specific information without getting too much in the way of the excellent architecture that our visitors are looking for.

Since architecture is so much about space, I feel that offering a location-specific experience throughout the streets of Columbus, not only where the exhibition installations are located and at the most famous buildings, but also in the interstitial spaces between them, makes a lot of sense and is very exciting. I feel that augmented reality with solely audio, as opposed to more visual didactics, offers a great way to ingest additional context-specific information without getting too much in the way of the excellent architecture that our visitors are looking for.

How can audio and architecture interact? Are there any specific examples related to Exhibit Columbus pieces?

Architecture is created and molded by those who desire it, fund it, and occupy its space. It is never a static object empty of context. The Hear/Here app allows us the opportunity to insert voices and ideas that were integral to the architecture that defines Columbus, as well as the new installations of our exhibition. It humanizes and contextualizes the forms, allowing them to speak and share with the audience in a new way. 

For instance, when you stand in front of I.M. Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library, you hear I.M. Pei discussing its design and you hear the former Mayor discuss the library’s importance in the community. This provides historical context and brings the building to life. But what is equally exciting to us is that you can also hear visitors and people from the community sharing their own thoughts as well, thereby widening range of who gets to speak for and about the architecture of the city. 

How does location-based audio enhance architecture?

So often we forget how important sound is to our environment until there is a sudden shift. Everyone has had an experience where a change in music completely energized (or killed) a party. We often take the sounds of a city as a given—but they are there by design, whether thoughtful design or not. Billboards, plaques, signs, etc… are always present, teaching us or guiding us to perform in certain ways, and the same is true for sounds. What is exciting about Hear/Here is that we can insert specific soundbites in a curated way to enhance the experience of the city and the exhibition in specific ways. The sound files are there to educate, describe, and bring joy to the city, but there is also the lovely ambient background music which facilitates a calm meandering through the city.

What were the challenges of implementing an audio AR component to your exhibition?

The biggest challenge for us is making the barrier of entry to the app as low as possible. Nearly every design decision about the app was made with the intention to create as easy and inviting experience as possible. As an outdoor exhibition without one singular entry-point, our guides are very important as they are often the main way visitors receive information about the exhibition. Even with our best efforts, we still find that some people miss the instruction to download the app or do not understand how to use this technology. If there isn’t someone there to help them in that moment, the opportunity is lost and it can result in a frustrating experience. We work hard to ensure there are a lot of ambassadors to our exhibition that can support visitors as they experience the exhibition.

Hear/Here screenshots

Do you see a future in which digital augmentation becomes a significant part of spatial design, including architecture? How so?

Yes I do. Unfortunately, I imagine this most likely implemented for advertising in a more invasive way than billboards and signs currently fight for our attention. I imagine the science fiction streetscapes as seen in Minority Report or Blade Runner 2049 as being quite possible. As the “Internet of Things” comes online, more and more items are hooked up to massive networks—to us and the data we make and desire—and the ability to make much more responsive and adaptive design will become cheaper and cheaper.

In the 1980s, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte was being laughed off for the idea that touch screens would become pervasive, and here we are. Our phones are interfaces to our networks. This is increasingly true: our watches, thermostats, TVs, etc… Soon our walls will be as well. And just as our phone design became all about how to feature their screen and make that screen as interactive as possible, the same will happen with those walls.

Sonic Succulents

As a keen, but amateur field recordist, I was excited to see an exhibition advertised at Brooklyn Botanic Garden called Sonic Succulents. Created by Los Angeles–based Adrienne Adar it promised handmade sensors would amplify familiar plants so we could hear them through gentle touch and sound. So excited was I that I dragged my partner, my radio producer friend and his mum along. 

The first room had headphones next to a range of plants, a fair few of them cactuses. There was a lot of hiss to hear, and not much else. You could hear something if you pinged the spikes of the plants, or tapped them, but you couldn’t really hear much else. 

Similarly we strained our ears to hear corn growing through large yellow cones and failed. Farmers apparently have said they could hear this without the cones. Regardless it was a quite an underwhelming exhibition all round, redeemed only partially by the delicious elderflower served in the cafe.

listening cones at Sonic Succulents

The Deep Listener

The Deep Listener is the winner of an open call, put out to artists early this year, asking for projects which imagined city spaces in AR to be deployed on site at London’s Serpentine Art Gallery. The Serpentine is a prestigious gallery, with an extension by architect Zaha Hadid, and it hosts some of the major contemporary art exhibitions of the city, so when I heard the project was an audio AR project and involved field recordings (at least that is what I assumed “organic source material” that was mentioned on the site’s blurb meant), I was quite excited to check it out. 

I visited the Serpentine not long after the app launched accompanied by two art loving friends. They are not audio AR aficionados, like me, however they do love art in all forms, highbrow and lowbrow, and both work as developers, so are keen on art/tech combos. Unfortunately we were all disappointed.

The piece is site specific and the app has a map which tells you where to go to listen to the audio recordings. We found the first easily – plane trees – but it became apparent immediately that it was going to be hard to hear the recordings as both the phones we had managed to download the app onto (one of them apparently wasn’t modern enough for the app) glitched horribly. 

The idea of the piece made by Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen, was to allow audiences to journey through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park to both see and hear five of London’s species: London plane trees, bats, parakeets, azure blue damselflies and reed beds. My friends were baffled by the visuals which neither seemed to represent the animals or plants, or to be an artistic representation of them. I felt slightly kinder towards the artist knowing how hard 3D modeling can be.

The sounds were tightly built around five points of the park and it could be tricky to find them. Some were discernible field recordings – the parakeets for example, or the hydrophone recorded reed beds. The bats, damselflies and plane trees Steensen had taken more artistic license with, sounding more composed. Both approaches were fine, but I found the piece sonically incoherent. 

I also found it lacking the immersion I had been promised. There were large gaps between the content which threw me from the experience. All in all, I was disappointed by what appeared on all accounts to be a major commission. I liked Steensen’s concept, but the realization of it was distinctly underwhelming. 

Living Symphonies

Living Symphonies is a spatialized generative audio composition, broadcast on speakers in London’s Epping Forest as part of the Mayor of London’s National Park City Festival. 

Hidden in a small part of the large east London forest are speakers placed up in trees or hidden in the undergrowth, each playing musical motifs representing different plants, animals and trees in the area. These motifs change based on the weather under the theory that the weather changes the behaviors of the represented flora and fauna. This is a “living symphony”, a musical composition and installation that is meant to grow in the same way as a forest ecosystem.

The area in which Living Symphonies plays is confined, so when we visited most of the audience were sitting under the trees listening not undertaking the sonic walk we had anticipated. But once we accepted the diminutive scale, we too took our seats. The experience was rather like being in a spatialized outdoor concert; a very pleasant one at that, not in part due to the July heatwave London was experiencing. We brought a picnic with us and spent perhaps two hours listening to the various tree and animal samples as they appeared in varied combinations, re-composing themselves through the dappled sunlight. 

How responsive or living the piece really is was hard for us to tell, and perhaps it was the shade from the unusually hot UK sun, but the idea that the piece was being generated in real time captivated us and we found ourselves humming what we later found out were the string tree motives as we made our way out of the forest. 

Living Symphonies is just on for a week, which is a shame as it was a lovely experience. I hope they will repeat it in more parks and forests soon. 

Beyond the Road

Beyond The Road transforms a music album into an immersive exhibition. As it says on the tin, it really does offer audiences “a chance to lose themselves in a multi-sensory world led by sound”. 

The music is by Unkle, a British DJ, who has dissected his album into stems and samples, and placed them around the Saatchi gallery in multiple rooms layered with videos and sets created by a variety of artists. 

I was unfamiliar with Unkle, but the music lent itself well to being overlaid throughout the various spaces in the gallery. Designed by two members of Punchdrunk – Colin Nightingale and Stephen Dobbie – visitors walk seamlessly from one room to the next, poking their head into chapels with pools of water and light installations, watching fragments of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, or lying flat on white beds hearing the various music samples around you bleed into each other. 

Music comes not only out of speakers but from telephones, TV speakers and a phone box. Like much of Punchdrunk’s work, the aesthetic is slightly goth and glossy and I found it captivating. I traversed the full space twice, each time having a different experience due to my physical location in the space linking up differently with the musical “location” in the looping album.

Field Notes: A Father’s Lullaby

Take a breath. Close your eyes. Imagine yourself on a busy street corner as a passerby: cars rushing by, vibrating your body from the core of your feet; people in fast motion racing to unknown destinations; a screeching siren and blue flashes of light that disturb even your closed eyes. Do you see a mother caressing her baby’s arm? A man, texting, trips on cracked sidewalk. Do you hear taxis honking their horn loudly, or those two drivers arguing over a parking space? These are layers of memories of a public site.

From July 2018 through October, if you were a passerby on Tremont Street, by the historical city block of Boston Center for the Arts (BCA), you would have heard the voices of men singing lullabies from treetops, waves of sound moving through your body as you moved through the space.

A Father’s Lullaby, site-responsive public sound installation, Boston Center for the Arts public plaza, July-Oct 2018

If you paused and got closer to sources of the sounds, motion sensors would trigger another layer of sound, audio documentaries, fragmented narratives, memories of fathers on federal probation. The soft voices, withstanding noise of wind, cars and chatter, demanded your attention and invited you to listen.

This was the first in a series of public sound installations titled A Father’s Lullaby. My hope is to install these in many cities in United States—if possible, simultaneously. Every local site will become a place where the sounds are collected. I will then work with local artists/composers to create a series of sound compositions to be projected at the site. The companion website for the project will offer recordings of the sounds on a virtual map. Over the past two years, the project has included two other participatory public art installations, including a multimedia installation at Villa Victoria Center for the Arts from November-December 2017, and a multimedia installation at HUBweek in October 2018.

Read the full conversation with Rashin Fahandej and fellow artists Halsey Burgund and Andrew Demirjian here: Sound That Surrounds

Consider the public place as a site of collective experiences and for art to emerge without you knowing that it is art. Consider that public art can enable moments of pause, deep thinking, and actions. Consider a public site as a critical site to contemplate social issues, to construct new meanings, new social memories.

A Father’s Lullaby is part of a larger multi-platform, documentary-based project. The project highlights the role of men in raising children and brings attention to the absence of fathers in communities of color as a direct result of mass incarceration. Incarceration impacts the lives of children who are left behind, weighing on women and lower-income families. The cyclical structure of the criminal justice system in the United States is punishing the most vulnerable, and the most poor. As a result, fathers’ absence has become an intergenerational problem that is experienced through the bodies of children and mothers.

A Father’s Lullaby invites all men to participate by singing lullabies and by sharing memories of childhood, home, and father. My approach is what I call the Poetic Cyber Movement for Social Justice.” It reveals the possibility of mobilizing and bringing together a plethora of voices while utilizing public places and virtual spaces to ignite a more inclusive dialogue in both spaces to effect social change.

In this project, art, new media, data information, and personal accounts come together with underrepresented stories as the focal point.

A Father’s Lullaby, site-responsive multimedia installation, HUBweek “We The Future”, Boston City Hall, 2018

The project is being developed with community members as creative collaborators, and with many local artists and partner institutions in different stages of the project, including the MIT Open Documentary Lab, Boston Art Commission, Boston Center for the Arts, Federal Probation Office, and The Office of Returning Citizens in Boston.

To collaborate or host this project in your local community please email You can learn more about my work at

This article was commissioned by and originally published on Immerse. It is cross-posted here with permission and much appreciation.