The Museum of Modern Art has turned down the volume on Yoko Ono’s atrium art installation Voice Piece for Soprano in response to complaints from visitors and employees.
The installation features a microphone, speakers, and the instructions to visitors: ”Scream against the wind/ against the wall/ against the sky” on the far wall. But according to museum employees, the loud, sporadic screams that resulted startled visitors, while staff members strained to speak to museum-goers over the noise. “It was disturbing to the staff at the information desk,” said one employee who wished to remain anonymous because MoMA discourages its staff from commenting on artwork or internal affairs.
The Ono piece is featured prominently at the entrance to the museum’s just-opened “Contemporary Art from the Collection” exhibition, a radical re-installation of its collection that adds nine Ono works. One employee said that the fitful, high-pitched screams caused visitors and even guards to jump with surprise. “Visitors complained,” he said. (One woman apparently used the installation to find a lost companion, shouting, “Jeffrey!” Shortly thereafter, a muffled, “What!” came from the second-floor galleries.)
While the decision to tweak an artwork to fit the needs of a particular space and audience is not entirely rare (curators and technical staff often play with the volume of video and sound installations), the decision to muffle Ms. Ono’s piece is notable because, according to a museum employee, it occurred shortly after the artwork went live and directly in response to visitor and staff complaints. MoMA officials played down the extent of the change, noting that the curators added a third speaker facing the performer while “slightly” turning down the other two speakers. (This contradicts an account from an employee who works in the area daily, who stated, “They lowered it a lot.”)
Some employees feel the decision goes against Ms. Ono’s wishes. “Yoko Ono didn’t want us to lower it,” said an employee. “She comes by sometimes. They’ll probably louden it when she comes and then lower it again [after she leaves].” Certainly, the installation is popular. When asked if lots of people have been performing Voice Piece for Soprano, book specialist Sean Fuller, who works across from the atrium, responded wryly, “Unfortunately, yes.”