When I went to the Minnesota History Center a few days ago, I was surprised by how big the building was. Standing in a polished outer hallway, I asked a volunteer sitting at a table outside the café for directions. The wash of sound in the otherwise silent hall was surreal. It was if I were speaking through mud, and with each turn-taking exchange it seemed as if the echo of a hundred other conversations might be excited by the resonance.

“How do you stand this?” I asked him.

He replied that the reverb was tolerable except when the bus drivers accidentally dropped off a few hundred kids at this entrance by mistake. I’ll bet it takes a long time for those soundwaves to quit bouncing.

Navigating the interior of the space was difficult because they had the tallest part roped off. They were hanging a small airplane on the inside. Not a replica, a real airplane. As a result, it was difficult to find my way to the library. It was supposedly on the second floor, but the construction had isolated it. I had to take the elevator to the first floor, cross to the other side of the building, and then take a different elevator up. The building, as beautiful as it was, seemed horribly unusable. This is a common critique of modernist architecture; but this building was done in a faux-nineteenth century style.

Poor spatial management doesn’t seem to be limited to iconic modernist structures. But as this film from Michael at 2Blowhards attests modern buildings lack “weight” or “depth.” Perhaps that’s as it should be. It just doesn’t bother me much—but not being able to locate myself irritates me. There’s been a lot of emphasis on aurality lately. It freaked me out to go between the CCCCs conference (writing teachers) and SPE conference (photographers) in Chicago this year and find panels about podcasting in both. It seems a silly type of technology to adopt for teaching visual literacy, and a dubious one for writing instruction as well. Ultimately, I think it’s a problem with location.

Granted, words begin life in speech, but when spoken they are evanescent. They exist for a time, within a certain space, and then they dissipate. More and more, it seems to me that people avoid any interface with soundscapes by staying constantly plugged in to iPods, cell phones, etc. It’s as if it’s uncool to actually be somewhere and to notice what it’s like to be there—to touch it, hear it, and see it. When I’m in a classroom, I want my students to be in it with me. It seems invasive to try to convince them that they should listen to my disembodied voice or someone else’s in another space on their own time. It would be like setting up a conference call to distribute an assignment. Silly—can’t we just talk?

Sound is a powerful tool. It’s a powerful tool to create an overwhelming presence. This is one thing that I think modern spatial management (in modernist architecture in particular) excels at. I am thinking of the Clinton Presidential Library in particular, because I was just there a few weeks ago. Making a message stick means being able to locate it relative to other messages. Rock music, at least the music I grew up with, was all about shut up and pay attention to me, listen to my story. Writing and photography teachers don’t have the same kind of clout, I don’t think. The power of rock (as compared with say, chamber music) is the power to dislocate someone from their surroundings, to make them imagine someplace else.

Don’t misunderstand me, I use film and sound in the classroom all the time. But it’s a shared experience in a shared space, not a “oh no the teacher’s inside my head” headset experience. It would really weird me out to listen to someone I knew through headphones, at least if they weren’t singing. I need my space.

The Minnesota History Center had some disconcerting attempts to recreate “soundscapes” going on in their displays. I’m not really sure what I think. It was part installation art, part “artifactual” experience. But it wasn’t nearly as annoying as those little techno sound-bytes that everyone feels they should place behind movie clips or documentary interviews. Yuck—give me some sense of space, even if it is just reverb-a-mud.

Aurality is not automatically dislocative or hyperreal; we choose to make it that way because we don’t understand the sound of the spaces we’re already in. Confronting spatiality is more important to me than avoiding it.