When the Guggenheim takes its programming out to the streets, subways, and parks of New York City, they call on beloved prank collective Improv Everywhere, perhaps best known for freezing commuters in Grand Central and pulling off a yearly no pants subway ride with thousands of participants around the world.
Started in 2001 as an outgrowth of the improv comedy scene, Improv Everywhere’s surreal public performances have hit a nerve in the art world. Founder Charlie Todd has spoken at MoMA and the New Museum, and the group is now completing the last in a series of performances in collaboration with the Guggenheim for stillspotting nyc, a project spanning all five boroughs. They gave Prospect Park a mute button and provided Manhattan with a megaphone and lectern for the sole purpose of saying nice things. They rigged up a sleeper car on the subway in Queens and conducted a car alarm symphony at a Saten Island shopping center.
The final leg of the project takes Improv Everywhere to the Bronx for a group audio experience with a comedic approach to urban noise. Audiogram will be offered October 13 and October 14 (buy tickets in advance here). We talked to Todd about creating a “group hearing test” in collaboration with the Guggenheim and a distinguished audiologist. Retweet or share this post to enter to win tickets!
How did the collaboration with the Guggenheim come about?
David van der Leer approached me a couple of years ago asking if Improv Everywhere would be interested in collaborating with the stillspotting nyc exhibition. The result of the collaboration is that we have produced one project in each of the five boroughs. It’s been a fun challenge for us, as it’s prompted us to stage things in places we wouldn’t normally consider. The Audiogram project in the Bronx is the final edition.
Did you approach the project any differently than you would a normal Improv Everywhere mission?
The biggest change for this particular project is that it is a ticketed event. Most Improv Everywhere projects are undercover, but by the nature of this being a ticketed Guggenheim event, we have to get the word out publicly to participants. The other change is that we are doing it ten times over the weekend. A normal Improv Everywhere project happens once and disappears forever. I’m excited to watch this project grow and change as the weekend goes on.
Audiogram is the first time Improv Everywhere has worked with a scientist! What was that like?
I came up with the concept of having the project work under the guise of a hearing test, and it was great to have an actual audiologist weigh in on my script. While the whole thing is still very absurd, it is based in reality. Having conversations with Dr. Tina Jupiter inspired several new ideas for the script.
What is a “theatrical group hearing test”? Why test our hearing?
A “theatrical group hearing test” is something that is completely ridiculous and should never exist. There is no reason you would ever have your hearing tested with a group of others. The reason we’re staging the project in groups is that it will be way more fun, and way more interesting. The project itself won’t do any scientific testing, but the Guggenheim will be offering actual hearing tests after the project for anyone who is interested. There are so many noises in our day to day life in the city that we don’t even notice. Working on this project has given me a heightened awareness of the sounds of New York. So even if there is no medical value to the experiment, I think it can change the perceptions of the participants.
You’ve also given talks at MoMA and the New Museum—why do you think contemporary art museums are so excited about what Improv Everywhere is doing?
I come from a background in theatre and comedy, so I never really considered the possibility that these institutions would be interested in working with us. I’m thrilled to have had the chance to work with the Guggenheim. I can’t really say why they approached us, but it has been a good fit, and I’m very proud of all five projects we have worked on together. I’m hoping that Audiogram will introduce a new audience to Improv Everywhere.
Photo: Chad Nicholson. Improv Everywhere MP3 Experiment.