New Haven

Whispering Galleries

Public library art, courtesy of a shopkeeper from the 1800s.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Starting with a nineteenth-century diary, Amaranth Boruk and Brad Bouse created an interactive screen-based artwork, on view in New Haven libraries through August. View full image

Whispering Galleries gets right in your face. You can see your own colorfully, artistically blurred reflection in a computer screen even as you’re reading entries from the diary of an anonymous mid-nineteenth-century New Haven shopkeeper. In this mesmerizing interactive artwork, on a screen in the New Haven library, the words literally take on new shapes.

“Up at the usual time,” one entry reads. “People are going oystering.” Another: “I remained at home all day. Had a bad cold + boil on my arm.” But wave your hand over a sensor at the base of the terminal, and the prosaic text blisters and bubbles on the screen. Some words fade away, and the diary entries are transformed as strange new statements emerge: “It… rained… in… measures… I… commenced… to… sing.” “A stormy… Page… a… ledger… swept… of… Rain.”

Unveiled in late April, Whispering Galleries is located on the first floor of the main New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street. (It’s also in every branch library and will be on view through the end of August.) It is the brainchild of artists Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, a couple who live in Washington state. Borsuk, a literary scholar and poet who grew up in Connecticut, found the shopkeeper’s diary in the Yale Manuscripts and Archives collection. “This was not a famous person,” she says. “It’s not a diary we’d ordinarily know about. I liked that it was a text by someone who worked with his hands.” Bouse, a software developer, created the modern technological context for this old New Haven commentary, allowing each viewer to create his or her own spatial and gestural relationship with the text.

Site Projects, a New Haven–based nonprofit that funds public art, commissioned the work in partnership with the library as part of the Connecticut Humanities program “CT at Work.” Best known for Night Rainbow, an installation that beamed colored light from the top of East Rock Park last spring (see Scene on Campus, July/August 2013), Site Projects had been looking for another project with broad appeal. The Whispering Galleries commission had been put on the back burner—until Site Projects learned that the state of Connecticut and National Endowment for the Humanities were funding the yearlong statewide arts-driven exploration of “Connecticut at work.” The shopkeeper’s diary fit neatly into that theme.

“I know this can be seen as deconstructive,” Borsuk says of her text-driven (and text-driven-away) creation, “but I see it as a constructive mode of reading, because it asks us to listen to this voice that would otherwise be forgotten. Writers don’t always think about the experience of the reader, the physical interaction with the text. I’m grateful that Yale is preserving this material, so we can find these new methods of engaging with it.”

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