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Public Art Project “Found Sound” Plays Chamber Music for the Masses

Washingtonians encountered an unusual public art installation on some streets recently. From the outside, they looked like ordinary portable toilets.

But they’d been retrofitted as listening booths, presenting works of “found sound” art – sounds manipulated to intrigue the ear.

“If you go inside a gallery, you don’t really have the time or space to reflect on sound,” says “Found Sound” curator Welmoed Laanstra. "There are always people walking in and out. And so we came up with the idea of a porta-potty, which is very affordable.”

Ms. Laanstra covered up the sinks and toilets in five such booths placed around downtown, and added red cushions and gauzy white curtains. “And it’s not a porta-potty anymore, as you can tell,” she says. “It’s more a sound cabin.”

“When I first learned of the project I was a little doubtful,” says radio journalist and sound artist Alex Van Oss. “I wasn’t sure that a porta-potty was a dignified venue for sound.” Mr. Van Oss, one of nine contributors to the show, created “soundscapes” based on the work of 19th century architect Adolf Cluss, a German immigrant, who designed several notable buildings in Washington – the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts & Industries “castle” among them.

Mr. Van Oss says his aim was to “not only present what is present now, but to give an idea of what might have been there for people to hear 120 years ago. And for that I used music a little bit, distant voice, to give the impression of memory.”

Works by most of the other artists in the show were more abstract. Three compositions played inside art galleries or buildings, while five were in the street booths.

But some passersby who paused to look at the exhibit flyer were reluctant to enter the sound chambers. “You know, it sounds like a good idea that art should be more public – it says here ‘more accessible’ – on the streets,” said one woman. “I kind of agree with that, but the idea of the porta-potty turns me off a little bit.” After learning that the porta-potties were all new, however, she decided to give it a try.

“It’s pretty neat,” she said, emerging a few minutes later. “It’s very comfortable inside, the red and white is nice, the music was different. I enjoyed the fact that it was a different sound. The one I was listening to was Oriental -- Oriental ‘bong’-sounding.”

“Found Sound” closes November 5, but a description of the show and excerpts from several works can be downloaded at