Art Outdoors – music to your ears?

Battle of Cable St mural (via

Battle of Cable St mural (via

I occasionally pass by this mammoth mural on my way home – stretching 20m high, it depicts the Battle of Cable St  in East London and is pretty hard to miss.

It got me thinking about public art, and reminded me of a workshop on outdoor arts that I attended earlier this year. (It was a follow-up for all the outdoor work created for the Cultural Olympiad – more interesting than it sounds!). The niggling question on my mind after the session was ‘where does music fit into outdoor arts?’ Other art-forms tend to adapt more naturally  to being outside, so it’s easy for music to become subservient to them. So how can music take centre-stage without just becoming an outdoor concert? On a related note, is it ever possible to make something as permanent and self-sustaining as a mural using music or dance?

Here’s a great playful public installation which answers some of those questions: a set of 21 musical light swings in Montreal (video below, via Colossal). However, the obvious challenge with musical installations is that they tend to generate noise. A giant interactive theremin is another cool example; looks fun, but would you fancy having it outside your house 365 days a year? (Perhaps that’s why it seems to be located in a car park…video below.)

Sound artist Sam Underwood found an ingenious answer to the problem: sonic graffiti. Sound objects are secreted in public places for people to stumble across and enjoy. In reality these are 3.5mm headphone jacks built into surfaces such as walls, allowing people to plug themselves in and experience a piece of sound art within the built environment. Others versions are operated by switches or touch and connected to tiny speakers. The piece remains there until the battery runs out or the device is stolen, so it’s not quite of the scale or life-span of a mural, but it’s a very elegant solution. I’d love to find some others!

(Lots of great resources are available online for those interested in making or commissioning outdoor art. I found two specific to London or the West Midlands.)


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