The analog phones that hang on the wall of Space Gallery in Portland look out of time and out of place. They resemble old public pay phones, which once were ubiquitous but have all but disappeared from the urban landscape, made obsolete by our obsession with personal technology.

“Hotline,” an interactive group exhibition featuring sound artists, gives older folks a chance to reconnect with the past and those who are young the opportunity to know the feeling of being tethered to a phone by a cord. It’s the latest in a coincidental series of art installations around Maine that ask viewers to participate in a hands-on manner. At Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, it’s OK to take framed photographs off the shelves of the Theaster Gates’ installation in the museum lobby and pass them around. At the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen have constructed an undulating wooden boardwalk as part of their gallery-wide installation, so people can navigate the art directly, one step at a time.

At Space, by all means, pick up the phone and listen. What you will hear on the other end are songs, poems and soundscapes created by a dozen artists, musicians, scholars, performers and writers. There are eight phones in the gallery, each one a listening station with three or four songs or audio tracks. Each time you pick up a receiver, a phone plays a track, and you can shuffle among tracks by clicking on the phone’s hook switch. There’s hold music, a jarring barrage of distorted noise and the soft voice of poet Richard Blanco reading one of his poems.

Jason Lescalleet, a sound artist from Berwick, has one piece in the exhibition, “Telephone Love.” It’s 4 minutes long and includes a series of analog telephone sounds that we don’t hear anymore – the click of someone picking up or disconnecting, the rat-a-tat-tat of a rotary dial – followed by excerpts of phone conversations and voicemails, and the empty sound of wondering if someone is on the other end of a hissing line.

“Hello? Hello?”

Lescalleet performs around the country and around the world, though rarely in Maine. Much of his work deals with memory and nostalgia. His primary working tools are analog sound equipment and tape recorders, and old cassette tapes. His piece for “Hotline” examines the ways we use the phone to communicate and how those uses have evolved with phone technology.

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“Hotline” features eight pay phones playing different tracks of songs and sounds. Photo courtesy of Jason Lescalleet

“Telephone conversations are less and less common today compared to the past,” said Lescalleet, 50. People of a certain age, he said, were more dependent on the phone in their relationships. It was a critical link, and the kind of nuanced communication that happened over a phone had more depth and layers than a text or a digital video call of today, he said. “The telephone involved using your imagination a lot more than any type of face-to-face communication, and that is why I am attempting to use it in my art. It stimulates the imagination.”

He likes to use tape recordings of voicemails in his art, because they have a fuzzy quality to them that prompts emotional responses. “A message recorded on a tape has a distinct sound to it, and it’s a recognizable sound and it takes people back to memories they have about leaving a voicemail or receiving a voicemail,” he said.

Elizabeth Spavento, visual arts programmer at Space, said the idea behind “Hotline” is to turn toward non-digital technology, to appreciate the form and function of the pay phone and to make room in our ever-insular lives for shared public space. The gallery walls are painted white, and the phones, with their black receivers, pop off the walls.

“Hotline” encourages visitors to prioritize senses other than the visual. The white cube suggests we should approach the art in a formal way, but the phones demand that we interact with it and raise other questions about how to be a part of a group while interacting with the art on an individual basis.

The mystery of the old technology offers an invitation to explore, Spavento said.

Visitors listen to “Hotline” at Space Gallery. Photo by Joel Tsui, courtesy of Space Gallery

“Sometimes when you think about obsolete technologies, there is a little bit more room for imagination,” she said. “It’s not totally laid out to you in this very direct way. You can explore, you can choose and you get curious in a different way that’s not being fed to you in the same way that we are used to getting this live feed of images on a screen all the time.”

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Raven Chacon, a sound artist from Toronto, said curators struggle to construct effective sound-art installations because the sounds of one piece often bleed into the sounds of another, creating the need for headphones, which can be cumbersome. “This installation is really interesting to me,” he said, “because it solves all those problems. You can listen to them individually and each one is contained in its own system.”

In total, the 22 pieces add up to about 80 minutes of art.

Space worked with a team of artist-engineers from Smooth Technology in New York to build the eight phones for “Hotline.” Instead of a catalog, Space will produce a 12-inch vinyl record with songs and art works from each of the artists. Pickwick Independent Press, which is housed in the Space building, will design the artwork for the album cover.

Spavento said it’s been interesting to watch people interact with the work. When the room is crowded, lines form. Just as with the pay phones of old, there are no rules about how long it’s OK to stand and talk – or in this case, listen.

But everybody knows what to do. “We have not yet crossed that generational threshold no one knows what a phone looks like,” she said.

 

On the other end of the pay phones set up for “Hotline” are songs, poems and soundscapes created by a dozen artists, musicians, scholars, performers and writers. Photo by Joel Tsui, courtesy of Space Gallery


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