Upon entering the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), I wander around beneath the numerous speakers that float above me in the large entrance hall. I try to figure out where the sounds around me come from. There are definitely sounds emitted from the speakers, but they are interfered by sounds from the café, the register and people walking in and out. The interference of these different sounds gives me a keen ear. I wander around and remain listening for quite some time, but my direction is clear: there is one door leading to the sound art exposition.
When I walk through the door, the sounds around me change immediately. Different sounds from different directions attempt to grasp my attention. In contrast to exhibits whose sound art is offered through headphones, these sounds glide through the museum, hover past each other and penetrate my ear, proposing me a direction, a way into the exposition.
In Dutch we call an exposition tentoonstelling. This term is widely used in the museum world, which, with few exceptions, predominantly emphasizes the visual. The noun tentoonstelling comes from the verb tentoonstellen, which is constructed out of two words: tonen and stellen. The first means to show something, to display or to expose. Tonen is etymologically related to the Gothic ataugjan – which contains the German word for eye, auge – literally meaning to bring before the eyes. The second word, stellen, can be traced back to the Greek word stellein, meaning to set up or erect something. Thus we might think of a tentoonstelling as a (museum) space where something is put into place for the eye. A place where certainty is established concerning what is seen, because “[seeing] always happens in a meta-position, away from the seen, however close. And this distance enables a detachment and objectivity that presents itself as truth” (Voegelin 2010: xii).
In the context of my listening to the sound art exhibition in ZKM, however, this definition is highly unsatisfying: when (re)considering the word tentoonstelling as applied to this exhibition, an auditive aspect comes to the fore, one lost in its common museum culture usage, with its visual imperative. However, this time, a musical connotation arises with the word toon. A toon is also a musical tone, and a toonzetting a composition, or more literally an arrangement of tones. And tonen does not only bring something before the eyes, but is also used as a verb that means to sound or resound. Furthermore, a stelling is not only the certainty of something put into place, but also a proposition, not an undisputable statement that presents itself as truth, but rather the uncertainty of that which I propose to you. Thus, we can think of a tentoonstelling as a (museum) space where a sound is proposed to the ear. A place where there is the uncertainty of what I hear, because “hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener about the heard and himself hearing it” (Voegelin 2010: xii).
Thus this ambiguity, this double meaning, emerges in this exposition where the auditive and the visual meet. It is not the one or the other, but rather both at the same time. And as concerns expositie, the Dutch equivalent of exposition, the museum becomes a listening space, a place where I become exposed to sound. Sounds that grasp my attention establish relations between themselves and me, and in the context of the museum, question the silent white cubes of aesthetic contemplation. Sound art in the museum poses questions about sound and silence in the museum space and the established (visual) norms of the practice of exhibiting. In most – but not all! – museums, sound art is confined to headphones or listening booths, while the visual dominates. The exposition in ZKM can be listened to as a different approach to sound in the museum, as a different arrangement of the museum space through sound. The double meaning of the word tentoonstelling can be used to rethink the museum space, and our experience of art, by allowing sound into its space.
Van Dale online woordenboeken. Retrieved March 28, 2013, from www.vandale.nl
Voegelin, Salomé (2010). Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum.
 Retrieved March 28, 2013, from www.vandale.nl.