Visual artist Britni Bicknaver had a very successful MFA thesis show in the spring of last year at the Contemporary Arts Center. As her contribution to the exhibition, which included 11 graduates from the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP School of Art, she created Audio Tour. It led visitors on a guided journey of the various “hidden” or overlooked details of world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s masterpiece building — as well as the larger history of the institution and the plot of land on which the building now stands. Hadid died in 2016, 13 years after her CAC building opened.
“In a modest but thoroughly moving manner she made the CAC building more human,” says CAC Curator Steven Matijcio via email.
And so, in an effort to offer this same experience to visitors, Matijcio approached Bicknaver shortly after Audio Tour’s inaugural run to create four more tracks and amend some of the time-specific details in her initial project to bring the sound art piece in for an indefinite exhibition run, free-of-charge for CAC audiences.
The 18-track word and music sound collages are accessible either from four MP3 players with the exchange of an identification card at the front desk, or on a one-page mobile site over a smartphone. The visitor services department even loans out headphones, should people want to use their own devices but not have their own ear buds.
Sound art might seem like an odd choice of medium for Bicknaver, who has a long history as a practicing visual artist. But, a graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, she was part of local art collective/gallery Publico in the early to mid-aughts and has exhibited her pieces, which often straddled the conceptual line between drawing and sculpture, at such institutions as the former semantics gallery, Vox Populi in Philadelphia and the Weston Art Gallery. In 2015, Bicknaver returned to school to get her MFA at DAAP, which offered her a scholarship.
But it is the artist’s earnestly sincere voice and meticulously thorough research, which highlights everything from the profound to the banal about this public institution, that makes the piece unique.
Narrating nearly all of the tracks herself, one might be surprised to know that Bicknaver is a lifelong stutterer. It was something that gave her pause when deciding to move her studio practice in that direction.
“Ultimately, I decided not to stutter on it,” she says, describing her struggle over whether or not to include what she describes as, “an obvious imperfection as a way to present my artistic expression.”
Since she plays what she terms “a heightened version” of herself, Bicknaver made an artistic decision to leave her natural stutter out. “It made for a very humorous editing process,” the artist confesses with a laugh.
Ultimately, the decision to do sound art came from what Bicknaver describes as months of feeling like her previous artistic approaches were “just not working.”
In the spring of 2015, she attended Moogfest, an annual multi-day music art and technology festival in Durham, N.C., and saw avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson perform. “It lit something in me that made me want to try,” she says.
Bicknaver began experimenting with recording songs and spoken word tracks late at night in her closet with clothes piled around her and a quilt covering the door and walls to muffle the sound. She describes the audio files as “musical compositions with internal conversations to myself played over them.”
Encouraged by feedback from fellow artists and professors Vicki Daiello and Mark Harris, Bicknaver committed to doing sound art for her thesis work and initially set her sights on writing a Pop song and coordinating video.
“I wanted to make something that was full of emotion — I kind of wanted to be a Punk,” she says. “To see what I could get away with in my artistic practice.”
But when thesis time came closer, Bicknaver started questioning her approach and instead “thought about what it means to have something that’s not meant to be in a gallery — like a Pop song on the radio, or on the internet — that led me to think about music in the frame or context of a museum.”
And, as different as Audio Tour is from that untitled Pop song —which she wrote, by the way, but is an ongoing work in progress — Bicknaver argues that the two are “artistic cousins” because their motivation is similar.
“In a way I was really interested in something that was universal and accessible to all people,” she says. “And there’s so many more people interested in Pop music than there are into fine art.”
Curator Matijcio echoes this sentiment in his description of what Bicknaver’s Tour accomplishes: “Britni seamlessly marries historical facts, charming anecdotes, quizzical tangents and artistic fancy with Audio Tour,” he writes. “She is a warm, endearing narrator who opens up a building that can appear fortress-like and austere in its geometry and structure.”
“I wanted to have an intimate experience with my listener,” Bicknaver says. “Even though I’m giving factual information, I wanted to do it as if I’m sitting next to you on your living room couch and I’m really close to your face and I’m telling it to you in the warmest way.”
That’s exactly what she achieves. Bicknaver engages visitors in everything from the simple act of walking up the stairs at the exact beat she says each number in the sequence of the golden ratio, to witnessing themselves looking at their own reflection in the bathroom mirror. In doing so, the artist’s aim is to “expose all of these different layers of truth that the CAC owns.”
In scouring the building’s geological history, public record as a physical landmark and even quotidian circumstances, Bicknaver gives audiences — via sound — a new way to think about visual art.
The Contemporary Arts Center is located at 44 E. Sixth St., Downtown. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org.