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Andrea Fraser, Down the River, 2016.
The average crow takes less than two hours to travel from Sing Sing maximum-security prison to the Whitney Museum of American Art, institutions separated by just 32 miles of land along New York’s Hudson river. Yet few humans journey between them – museums and prison are at opposite ends of our society’s self-imaginings, and their populations tend not to intersect.
In 2016 Andrea Fraser filled the museum’s immense fifth floor with nothing but sound from Sing Sing jail – drawing a link between two institutions bookending American society.
Visually, there was nothing to see because Fraser left the Whitney’s fifth floor empty. She wanted to concentrate visitors’ attention on the ambient sounds of correctional facilities, which she recorded at institutions including Sing Sing. Her intention was not to create a spectacle of the prisoners for museum-goers, but to put Whitney visitors “into the acoustic space of incarceration”. At Sing Sing, where the cells have bars, prisoners are physically confined but their sounds travel. The constancy of noise. The sound of birds, squeaks like sneakers on a gym floor, the rumble of voices, the hiss of a shower turning on, keys rattling, a clang. It ebbs and flows. Just when you settle into it, something new lashes out. Loudspeaker announcements, a yelling man.