Listen, Touch and Wander: DMA’s speechless: different by design

Misha Kahn, *(T3)* (8)* (J~) * ([..”) * (7^) * (4=) * (F]) * (llii.) * (A) * (!s) * (11) * (‘.v:’)*, designed and produced 2019, plywood, vinyl, silk, paint, pastel, foam, metal, resin, toothbrush bristles, yarn, gel, glass, ceramic, water, blowers, pumps, and fans, commissioned for speechless. Photography by John Smith.

Think back to your first visit to an art museum as a child. Before entering, it’s likely that the first words out of the mouth of your chaperone were, “Don’t touch anything.”

It’s unlikely you’ll hear those words when stepping into the Dallas Museum of Art’s new exhibit, speechless: different by design, on view through March 22.

Steven and William Ladd, Scroll Space, designed and produced 2019, wood, textiles, pins, rubber bands, and glue, commissioned for speechless, in collaboration with over 1,700 Scrollathon participants in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas, Texas. Photography by John Smith.

“Feel free to take off your shoes and lay down,” New York-based artists (and brothers) Steven and William Ladd say invitingly, as visitors peer into a room the size of a giant walk-in closet. Nearly every inch of the whimsical space is filled with scrolls of fabric of every shade of the rainbow. Some appear to be barely an inch wide. Others have a diameter of at least two or three inches. It’s like a tactile Klimt painting. Named Scroll Space, each rolled piece of fabric contains a small wooden dowel inside bearing the initials of the person who rolled it. Of the thousands of people who participated, approximately 1,000 came from Dallas, including participants from the Center for BrainHealth and the Callier Center for Communication Disorders at the University of Texas at Dallas. The walls of the room surrounding Scroll Space are adorned with photos of each person who contributed.

It’s one of the six works within speechless, an exhibit representing a crossroads of neuroscience and aesthetics, curated by DMA’s Sarah Schleuning, who says the idea came from a personal experience as the mother of a child with a communication disorder. “I’m deeply vested in this idea of how to use what I see as my superpower—which is to use design as a communicator—and think about how to use it without words. And that’s so much the genesis of this project.”

Laurie Haycock Makela, speechless: different by design, designed 2019, printed and bound in Minneapolis by Shapco Printing, Inc. January 2020, published by the Dallas Museum of Art, distributed by Yale University Press. Photography by John Smith.

One of Schleuning’s first steps involved assembling a scientific advisory panel of eight local experts in fields of brain health, occupational therapy, speech pathology and communication disorders. Once the artists were chosen, she brought them together with the panelists in what she describes as a convening. “I wanted really interesting, creative thinkers, artists and designers—people who I felt would be really open to a project like this,” she says. “Then get them all together in a room and say, ‘Let’s share information and let’s learn and understand these different ideas together and see how building a community and building these networks can strengthen us.’”

Schleuning points out that there’s no linear path to the show, which is divided into six sections. The intent is to let the visitor pick their path of exploration. Near the Ladd brothers’ colorful space is a mysterious, dimly lit room with a large, black metal sphere in the center. Sound artist and designer Yuri Suzuki says his Sound of the Earth Chapter 2 aims to demonstrate how sound connects people. When a visitor places their ear against the surface, they hear recordings that were crowdsourced by people from different parts of the world, ranging from what sounds like busy shopping malls to quiet parks with chirping birds.  Though the black globe seems ominous at first sight, it’s the aural experience that creates the imagery of life’s art.

The installation that perhaps offers the ultimate orgy of the senses is Brooklyn-based designer Misha Kahn’s  *(T3)* (8)* (J~) * ([..”) * (7^) * (4=) * (F]) * (llii.) * (A) * (!s) * (11) * (‘.v:’)*, a psychedelic setting of inflatable plastic sac-like objects suspended from the ceiling and draped in sheer billowy silk. The floor was specially constructed to send air from below to inflate the sacs periodically, almost as if they’re breathing. Visitors are allowed to sit on, touch, and squeeze other various forms in the room.

2. Ini Archibong, theoracle, designed and produced 2019, blown glass, brass, and water, commissioned for speechless. Photography by John Smith.

Ini Archibong’s theoracle is the subject of the speechless graphic resembling a microphone. Twelve oval-shaped glass objects fixed on brass pedestals contain bulbs that change color when pivoted. A custom synthesizer creates an ethereal soundscape of pure sound waves that gives the room a sense of humming electrical currents.  At the front of the room, a shallow square black pool of water ripples in response when visitors turn an obelisk, which tunes the sound to a range of bass tones.

The unique part about the remaining two projects within the exhibit is that they’re both centered around its creation. Graphic designer Laurie Haycock Makela documents the journey through a publication of conversations between the designers and Schleuning, while providing a visual story of the installations. Filmmaker and designer Matt Checkowski’s Glyph gives visitors insight about the other designers and their creative processes through recorded conversations, which are then translated by a computer and illustrated with images pulled from an internet search at the same moment.

Matt Checkowski, Glyph, designed and produced 2019, two-channel video, color, sound, one-channel custom generative software, color, silent media player, computer, internet connection, projectors, running time: 6:34 minutes, looped, commissioned for speechless. Photography by John Smith.

Schleuning says she set out to push the boundaries of what people think about art museums and how to explore the role of art and aesthetics in our daily lives. It’s deeply rooted in the idea that it’s for everyone, whether our differences are defined as a disability or not.

“This show is an experiment and we just need to let people be a part of that experiment,” she says, leaning back on one of the cushiony, latex covered forms in Misha Kahn’s room. “Because these projects—we didn’t really know fully what they were going to be. So for me, the show is only halfway done. Now, it’s all about how people engage.”