GLAMi nomination: “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” Sonic Walk

nominated by: Stephanie Pau, SFMOMA, USA
institution: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
category: Exhibition Media or Experience


SFMOMA’s new mobile app combines indoor positioning with outstanding narrative content to create a range of immersive stories that reflect on and interact with the visitor’s surroundings. Our submission in the Exhibition Media or Experience category is an immersive, location-aware sonic walk through the exhibition “Bruce Conner: It’s All True.”

Bruce Conner “favored paradox, complication, and complexity” ( Bruce Conner: It’s all true , p. 333). The exhibition audio tour, delivered via the SFMOMA app, reflected the artist’s fluid identity, experimental urge, and personal engagement with many cultural scenes over time (with an emphasis on the San Francisco Bay Area). We aimed to deliver an eye‐opening, mind‐bending experience that matched Conner’s restless aesthetic and refusal to defy all manner of categorization. In following, the audio did  away with the traditional one‐to‐one relationship of audio stop to artwork, in favor of sonic “zones”–each delivering a location‐aware cinematic soundtrack that painted pictures for the mind while freeing the eyes to engage with the art. The project team worked with the curatorial team to determine these zones (for example, we avoided areas with speaker‐fed audio).

The sound design gives equal weight and importance to words and sound as tools for storytelling. Aside from the “introductory” audio zone, which was required to onboard visitors to the idiosyncratic nature of the experience, we avoided scripted narration as much as possible. Some zones featured a collage of voices culled from both archival and newly-recorded interviews, intermixed with music and sound effects. Others comprised nothing more than music and ambient sound. For example, the gallery of Conner’s “Inkblot” drawings featured a specially commissioned, original music composition from former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud (track “Bruce Conner Z11 Inkblots” in the playlist). A gallery full of Conner’s “Angel” photograms features nothing more than the sound of cricket chirps, realizing a vision that never came to fruition during Conner’s lifetime– that of presenting his “Angels” alongside a soundtrack of live crickets (track “Bruce Conner Z9 Crickets” in the playlist).

The stories emphasize the personal over the institutional; subjective over objective; experiential over didactic; impressionistic over defined. The free‐flowing nature of the sonic walk allowed visitors to wander in any direction through the show, and to draw their own connections between the soundtracks and the artworks on view. All of these qualities made for a most untraditional “audio tour” whose core audience is cultural omnivores, rather than academics or fact finders in search of didactic content.

Traditionally, museum audio tours have by default featured voices from within the institution – curators, scholars, and art historians. However, SFMOMA’s new audio content engages with a wide variety of artists, makers, thinkers, and community members from a range fields and perspectives. Featured voices on the “Bruce Conner” sonic walk include: Bruce Conner, Dennis Hopper, Michelle Silva, Greil Marcus, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Henry Rosenthal, Dara Birnbaum, Toni Basil, and Beth Pewther.

When launching the app and navigating to the “Immersive Walks” menu, visitors were greeted with the following description, which previewed both the content and transparently tipped listeners of the experimental (and therefore, somewhat quirky) nature of the audio:

In this sonic walk through the exhibition Bruce Conner: It’s All True, you’ll hear a collage of distinctly San Francisco sounds that transport you to the many scenes he changed and was changed by over his five-decade career. Hear the voices of Conner and those who knew him—including actor Dennis Hopper, dancer Toni Basil, filmmaker Henry Rosenthal, writer Greil Marcus, and many more.

In the spirit of the artist, we’re experimenting. This is a beta test for a new kind of audio experience, one that functions less like a traditional audio guide and more like a soundtrack to the exhibition. You can wander from room to room, and you’ll hear the soundtrack change, depending on where you are. (Don’t worry, the guide also knows when you are in a film space and will go silent.) Because this is a beta, your experience may be less than perfect. Please help us improve by letting a staff member know what you find! If you are feeling less adventurous, or simply want more control in choosing tracks, feel free close out of the tour and use the “Nearby Audio” feature instead. The same content is available there.

Project Credits:

  • Executive Producer: Stephanie Pau with SFMOMA
  • Featured voices: Bruce Conner, Dennis Hopper, Toni Basil, Greil Marcus, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Henry Rosenthal, Dara Birnbaum, Beth Pewther, Michelle Silva
  • Scriptwriter and Producer: Christine Murray with Antenna International
  • Sound Design: Peter Dunne, Luisa Beck