The Guggenheim's Stillspotting Tells the Story of a Mermaid on Staten Island
Georgina Wells

In Telettrofono, the fourth edition of the Guggenheim’s off-site installation series stillspotting nyc, participants are transported away from their noisy urban environment and into a world of serene fantasy. Guided by a pair of headphones and an iPod shuffle, visitors take a three-mile soundwalk through the St. George and New Brighton neighborhoods of Staten Island, past waterfront views of Manhattan and Brooklyn, salt mounds, industrial sites, and quiet residential areas. Telettrofono, created by sound artist Justin Bennett and poet Matthea Harvey, blends the true story of Staten Island resident Antonio Meucci, the unacknowledged inventor of the first telephone, with the imagined fantasy that his wife, Esterre, was a mermaid who left the ocean because she loved the sounds on land. With Staten Island as a backdrop, Telettrofono imposes its part-historical, part-fantastical tale onto the sights and sounds of the borough, offering visitors a new and reposeful glimpse of the city. Bennett and Harvey each answered a few questions about Telettrofono for Artlog below.

Stillspotting ticket giveaway: Submit your own stillspot, a place to get away from everyday noise and chaos, to ARTLOG Talk Back by noon on Friday 7/27 for a chance to win stillspotting tickets for two. Then check out the Guggenheim’s interactive map to explore other stillspots around the world.

Photo by: Kristopher McKay. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.


Artlog: How did creating the stillspotting soundwalk compare to creating your other soundwalks or sound projects? Have you ever used a plot in your work before?

JB: Some of my work tends to be quite conceptual, but there’s always a backstory that informs it. The great thing about soundwalks is that, as an emerging genre, no one knows what to expect so you can re-invent  the rules each time. For me, a walk, whether it’s through a natural or urban landscape, always invokes stories. Some of my urban walks have involved rumors and urban myths, sometimes I’ve worked with the stories of real people that you “meet” on your way. 

Artlog: How do you invoke “stillness” through a moving sound piece?

JB: Stillness for me is firstly a question of contrast and secondly a question of attention or focus. If you live in a noisy city, simply sitting next to a fountain can help you forget the noise by masking some of the sounds that fight for your attention. By learning to listen differently (focussing on certain layers of sound, or NOT focussing and hearing the whole, for instance) you can change your relationship to the noise around you. A soundwalk, by presenting you with a layer of sound that mixes with the real sound environment, can do these things too: the soundtrack masks the ambient sound, but if it fades or cuts out, you suddenly perceive the real ambience more intensely. It can also focus your attention on certain sounds.

Artlog: Staten Island is arguably one of the more quiet, less hectic New York boroughs. Did this impact how you approached the project?

JB: The same goes for working with the ambience of Staten Island. Because it is quieter – you still hear the noise of the city, but removed, at a distance, over the water – you can contrast it with recordings of Manhattan, for instance. Working on Staten Island made it possible to work with much subtler layers of sound than would have been possible in the center of the city.

Artlog: Tell me about your process for selecting the “stillspot” locations throughout the soundwalk. How and why did you choose the locations that you did?

JB: It was a combination of all sorts of different reasons, but the main ones are in fact visual, I think: a place where you can gaze back to Manhattan and Brooklyn in the distance, a view of the industry of New Jersey, a white mountain of salt, a densely wooded park where you can feel removed from the suburban surroundings.

Artlog: Your larger body of work explores sound in relation to urban environment. Why do you choose to examine the urban experience through sound rather than another medium?

JB: Sound became my “main medium” years ago, from making sound-sculptures, electronic music, playing in bands…. so it seems the natural thing to do. I use an audio recorder like others use a camera, and while travelling and making recordings in cities, I became very interested in the characteristics of different cities, the way that sound can create a sense of place, and more recently, the way architecture and city planning affect our use of public space and how this is reflected in the sonic ambience of these places.

Artlog: You were born in the UK and now live and work in the Hague, Netherlands. How would a stillspotting installation in the Hague or another European city compare to the New York City series? Would there be differences?

JB: Mainly I suppose it’s to do with the size of the city. The Hague is small and relatively quiet whereas other cities that I know well: London, Brussels, Barcelona, Istanbul could definitely do with a stillspotting map or an telettrofono-app to guide you to places of respite, of rest.

I’ve been working with students recently mapping the sounds of a very specific area of the Hague, an industrial area that nevertheless contains stillspots or places of acoustic interest. In the Netherlands, because it’s relatively densely populated, there is a lot of interest and activity at the moment around noise prevention and awareness – often this is more focussed on the countryside than on the city, as it’s very difficult to get away from large roads, airports, noisy agriculture, etc. 

Photo by: Kristopher McKay. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.


Artlog: How did you become involved with this project?

MH: [stillspotting curator] David van der Leer asked Justin Bennett to do a soundwalk and then Justin chose me to write the text. That started a six-month headlong dive into the world of Staten Island and the lives of the Meuccis, which I couldn’t be more grateful for.  

Artlog: You published a poem called The Straightforward Mermaid in 2010. Now, in this piece, you imagine that Esterre Meucci is a mermaid. What makes the mermaid so artistically appealing to you?

MH: I’m interested in hybrids in general—centaurs, mermaids, etc. They all speak to the fact that we consider ourselves different from animals, yet we are fundamentally animals—animals with slightly more developed brains, but worse eyesight than the owl, worse noses than the basset hound…. Hybrids make explicit that line between body and brain. “The Straightforward Mermaid” became a feminist reclaiming of the mermaid—this mermaid is not interested in sailors or nail polish or fitting into traditional ideas of femininity. Esterre Meucci being a mermaid interested me because she has the traditional longing for another world that the original little mermaid had, but in her case she longs to hear the sounds of the human world. Meucci, of course, was always inventing things that had to do with sound—telephones, megaphones, marine telephones, etc. I really enjoyed writing a love story in which two people fall in love because of their shared love of another thing. 

Artlog: What were the benefits and challenges of doing a collaborative piece?

MH: Justin was a delight to work with—a true collaborator. In the January cold, we walked around Staten Island together, both of us pointing out sights and sounds. As I wrote bits of the text, Justin would send back sound files. We both work in other mediums—so he also sent drawings and I sent pictures of the handkerchiefs I was sewing (as Esterre Meucci, who was primarily a seamstress). The collaboration was seamless really. However, I don’t think I fully comprehended the amount of organizational work that goes into making a soundwalk—[stillspotting project associate] Sarah Malaika and David van der Leer had so many details to juggle—sites, training the amazing volunteers, signage, equipment, etc. That was new to me. 
Artlog: Writing provides a static visual, as the reader can see only the words on the page as they read. What did it mean to have your words taken off the page — to be absorbed alongside changing visuals instead?

MH: It was thrilling to have your words read by multiple voices as well as illustrated and complicated by Justin’s soundscapes.  The walk itself introduces an exciting element of chance. The participant might be hearing about Esterre Meucci’s twenty-five cats as a cat walks by, or a rainstorm can hit while they are hearing about Antonio Meucci’s efforts to recreate a rainstorm inside the opera house. A number of my friends said it was like walking around inside a movie, and i like that description. 

Artlog: You’re a New York City resident yourself. How and where do you find moments of “stillness” in New York’s urban environment?

MH: Most of the windows in my apartment in Brooklyn look out over the rooftops of other buildings, so it’s actually very quiet—it reminds me of the Mary Poppins chimney sweep scene. But honestly, I don’t seek out quiet spots in my life—I like being surrounded by the buzz of everyday life. It helps me write. 

stillspotting nyc: staten island will be offered July 28-29 and August 4-5, 2012, from 12:00-5:00 p.m. Tickets and iPods can be picked up at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. For more information on ticketing, see the exhibition website.