Reflecting the works and world of Henri Matisse with an experimental audio experience

A man wearing a black t-shirt who is sitting in a gallery is looking up and holding a mobile phone and wearing headphones. In the background is a woman wearing jeans and a white top, also looking up and holding a mobile phone and wearing headphones.

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"Spectacular." – The Latch

"A joyful immersion." – Broadsheet 

"Taps our contemporary psyche to reinvent ourselves in difficult times." – ArtsHub

 

The Art Gallery of New South Wales's summer exhibition Matisse: Life & Spirit – Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris overcame the near-impossible to launch when pandemic restrictions finally lifted in Sydney. Logistically, getting a large number of Matisse’s work from Europe to the Gallery during the pandemic is only the start of the story. 

For Art Processors, and the Gallery Digital team who were spearheading the charge to create an immersive audio experience in time, it was a case of creative problem solving to the rescue.

“Because we couldn’t travel to the Gallery, we tested transitions and the layering of audio around our office in Collingwood,” reveals Monica Zetlin, Project Manager and project lead. “We recreated spaces and journeys as realistically as we could, even using the kitchen and the bathroom as locations. Once we were actually on site, that's when we hammer-tested it.”

None of this seemed strange to Monica. “It's the new way of working,” she says. Even before the pandemic, the global nature of our business means working remotely across borders and time zones is essential. “We’re lucky to have a nimble team that enjoys overcoming complexities to create something amazing,” she adds. 

For Francesca Ford, Manager of Digital Projects at Art Gallery of New South Wales, the success of the project was testament to the talents of everyone involved: “Our responses to the unknowns of working life during a pandemic were solved with patience and talent, which the quality of the end product testifies to.”

“It was a remarkably smooth process considering the significant challenges,” agrees Monica.

It helped that the relationship between the digital team at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and Art Processors had already been cemented working on three previous exhibitions together – Japan Supernatural, Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage, and John Russell.

A wearing a black t-shirt and a woman wearing a white top and blue jeans are holding mobile phones and wearing headsphones while looking at a painting by Henri Matisse.

Intimate immersion

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, the Gallery’s Digital team were keen to create an audio experience for visitors that iterated and evolved our previous collaborations.

“The exhibition pushed our vision for how the audio experience could augment and complement the artworks on display to the next level,” says Francesca. Her vision was for the audio experience to calm and focus visitors’ minds, making it easier to listen to the words of the curator and engage more deeply with the artworks in the exhibition.

To enable that, we created an audio experience that immerses people in bubble as they wander around the exhibition. "It all happens very naturally to create that sense of immersion,” says Monica. There’s no need to have your phone out to select audio stops, breaking the spell of the surroundings. And there’s no hustling to read signs on the walls.

Instead, music tracks and stories weave in and out of people’s journeys through the art, whatever their chosen path. “It’s a fusion of contemporary approaches to interpreting art,” explains Monica. “Layering narration and music in this way creates an intimate auditory experience.”

The free-flowing nature of the experience also allows people to physically distance themselves throughout the show. The experience is available on iOS and Android so visitors can download it to their own device before they even set foot in the gallery. This helps with the immersion as there are no new controls to learn, and it’s COVID safe too, reducing the risks of shared hardware.

Further creating the sense of a personal journey, people can choose whether to hear solely music or spoken word. Narration can be chosen in English, French and Mandarin, with additional accessibility features including easy-to-read transcripts and volume control.

In the background there's some text displayed on the wall of an exhibition about artist Henri Matisse's work. In the foreground there's a silhouette of a man wearing a black shirt and holding a mobile phone.

Surprise and delight

Original music by French electropop musician Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab is at the heart of the experience. “We wanted our visitors to feel they were in the safe hands of the curator,” explains Francesca, “but also provide a more contemporary and experimental way into the life, spirit and artworks of Matisse via Laetitia’s beautiful score.”

“The soundtrack has been a delightful surprise for visitors immersing themselves into the colourful world of Henri Matisse. Sadier’s original music sits in concert with the insightful narration from the exhibition co-curator Jackie Dunn. It also connects to Matisse’s masterpieces through a shared creative making process, where blocks of colour and unique light present in the paintings, play against subtle synths, up tempo rhythms and traverse guitar-based lounge jazz and indie pop.”

As well as the curatorial insights visitors hear an inspiring score commissioned by the Gallery's Curator of Music and Community, Jonathan Wilson. “It's a brilliant mix of sonic interpretation layered with narrative,” says Monica, concluding, “Matisse is so important for what he brought to the art world, in terms of his joyousness, his use of colour, determination and experimentation. It’s been a delight to reflect that in our work.”