An Inside Look at Chicago’s Invisible Museums

Combining audio, art, science, and technology to reimagine the relationship between people and spaces.

A woman outdoors with headphones holding up sketches for an audio walk, in one of Chicago’s parks.
Jeanette Andrews | Invisible Museums of the Unseen

With the upcoming launch of Gesso’s Creator Tool (which you absolutely want early access to), audio producers and creatives from various backgrounds can create location-based audio walks using our technology. Let’s take a look at how this type of audio storytelling is currently being used in Chicago to create invisible museums:

“Our museum’s imaginary architecture is based on that of a traditional museum. However, sound constructs the architecture of our spaces… Your movements will trigger audio to play as you enter each hidden wing and gallery to let you know that you have found that space. The audio you hear will help guide you.” These are some of the introductory remarks made in the “lobby” of the Invisible Museum of Gravity, part of Invisible Museums of the Unseen, a work of interactive audio art recently launched in Chicago by Chicago-based artist and sensory illusionist Jeanette Andrews and commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Andrews has been exploring the world of magic since age four and has followed this passion for the past 26 years, establishing herself as a pioneer in the creative world with her interdisciplinary approach to magic, contemporary art, psychology, and science. Typically her work focuses on in-person, performance-based experiences, but the pandemic propelled her to get extra creative.

“I couldn’t do my own performances due to the pandemic. As an artist, that’s who I am, you’re constantly trying to create. I wanted to make something where people could still have an experience that was, you know, hopefully something beautiful and thought-provoking. I wanted to make something that was getting people outside and getting people to have these really sort of imagined, you know, magical, outdoor experiences where people weren’t congregating,” Andrews reflects.

That’s when the idea came to her. “I met Henna and Michael a year and a half ago in New York… and then I started learning more about what Gesso was,” she says. “My whole practice has for over 20 years prior to this exclusively been in performance. And I listened to them talk, and I went ‘Somebody should do a really cool piece with this,’ and I started thinking of other artists who I know who work more in the tech space and I honestly really didn’t think about it [for myself]. Then flash-forward, I went ‘Ok, I can no longer really sustain a performance practice the way that I had. What do I do? I’ve got to think about some ideas if I can’t do physical performances.’ I was just walking around my studio apartment and I went, ‘Wait a minute… Gesso. There’s got to be something that can happen there.’”

Jeanette Andrews | Invisible Museums of the Unseen

The global pandemic has forced many to rethink how we form meaningful connections both with each other and with the spaces we occupy. In the midst of craving these experiences, we have to consider things like how to engage with our local surroundings safely and whether or not an activity can be done individually or at least socially distanced. Storytelling through audio, especially in the form of audio walks and sound walks, has seen an increase in popularity during the pandemic. A recent article from The Guardian mentions how “sound walks have presented a new way to travel — physically, mentally and, occasionally, back in time… At a time when many people are struggling to make it too far beyond their front door, being transported to another time or place may be the next best thing.”

To be agile and adapt quickly is something our technology allows for both now and in a post-pandemic world. There’s a lot of room for creativity here, and creators shouldn’t have to worry about how technology can bring their visions to life. We’ve already got that bit covered, leaving creators the freedom to focus on allowing their creativity to thrive and producing compelling content.

Wanting to make an experience for this particular moment in time and despite current limitations, Andrews set out to create a participant-activated, geographically-based audio experience that could be done alone without any sort of gathering required and at one’s own pace whenever fits a listener’s schedule best. She began creating an experience where listeners’ movements activate GPS-triggered audio to play, bringing forth invisible museums inside public parks that vanish after each listener is done exploring.

Using Gesso’s location-based audio technology, Andrews built different types of these invisible museums in four of Chicago’s public parks: Winnemac Park (Invisible Museum of Soundwaves), Lincoln Park (Invisible Museum of Gravity), Washington Park (Invisible Museum of Air), and Douglass Park (Invisible Museum of Reflections). The Invisible Museum of Soundwaves, for example, focuses on transforming measurements of natural objects and materials in the local landscape into wavelengths and musical notes that listeners hear as they continue on their walk. In the Invisible Museum of Reflections, participants are given a different experience, a looping ambiguous sound that can be heard in front of large benches which act as symbolic parabolic reflectors. “It’s trying to merge their visual world, what they’re genuinely seeing, within a described, fictitious world, and they’re hearing that through audio,” says Andrews.

Sketches and notes from the research and design phase of producing this audio experience. Includes park titles on a map.
Sketches and notes from the research and design phase of producing this audio experience. Includes park titles on a map.
Jeanette Andrews | Invisible Museums of the Unseen

Andrews’ voice guides listeners through sonic interpretations of their surroundings, as seen through various lenses such as the physiological, scientific, and historical. Researching these topics was one of her favorite parts of the process. “Ideas about invisibility have been a part of my research and work for probably the past five years, pretty at the forefront. It’s a concept I already had done a fair amount of research in, but never to this level, and so I had different overarching topics that have always really interested me.”

She says her research process always begins with the science, diving into what has been the historical trajectory of science on a certain topic, how the idea has evolved, and what some contemporary ideas on the topic are. Then, comes the blending of science and art. “Once I had the scientific backing, I tried to pair that with things that were more poetic and interpretations of those ideas in terms of thinking about, for example, soundwaves when I was really delving into the nitty gritty of how soundwaves work and propagate through the air. I was thinking about it going, ‘You know, this is really interesting that in essence, the human voice, which is what people are listening to, they’re listening to my voice, is essentially serving as a mechanism for moving and circulating changes of air and air pressure into people’s ears.’ And so I think it was really interesting to think about some of these different structures either as a mechanical device or as a poetic idea… so that’s how I started to frame certain things.”

Written notes from the audio walk production. A photo of a person walking next to directions about when to play the audio.
Written notes from the audio walk production. A photo of a person walking next to directions about when to play the audio.
Jeanette Andrews | Invisible Museums of the Unseen

For creators, the research process then evolves into creating a route with timed triggers, so the listeners’ movements will enable them to hear transportive audio stories based on their changing physical location. “The thing that I love so much about the piece is that it’s so malleable to every person, and every person is going to experience the work so differently not only in terms of their own personal experience and their own perceptions that they bring to the table, but also they experience it differently due to the magic that Gesso provides in terms of the experience, the wings of the invisible museum, the different orders and things like that,” says Andrews.

For her invisible museums, combining the feel of a guided experience while maintaining a sense of autonomy and wonder was of the utmost importance. “Users can have a succinct and guided experience but then also have these hidden and non sequential items so that people can genuinely wander freely and have this more almost like choose-your-own-adventure type experience… We could give participants full agency but then also still keep everything visible on the map and still have that true sense of discovery in every form of the word. They worked so hard to make that happen,” she says.

Finding a balance between using technology and immersing users in their environments is a core part of the audio walks we create and the type of experiences we work with other creators to make. “I tried to design the experience in my piece in a way that it’s obvious that you’re interacting with incredible technology, like that’s very apparent, but the work is also intended to sort of make us look up and open our eyes. It’s not about staring at a screen. I think it’s a really beautiful idea that Gesso originally had to use technology to draw attention back to the existing world, which was also the thing that I’ve been doing for decades, which is why I think our partnership worked so well,” she says.

Photo of person walking with text: Participant to hear, “To enter the gallery, step off the path and into the grass.”
Photo of person walking with text: Participant to hear, “To enter the gallery, step off the path and into the grass.”
Jeanette Andrews | Invisible Museums of the Unseen

Andrews reflects on what she hopes listeners will take away from her work of interactive audio art, “I’ve been a magician for the last now, almost exactly, the last 26 years, so I’m always really interested in these sort of everyday moments of astonishment and awe and wonder. That idea of drawing focus back to the amazing things that transpire around us everyday has always been at the core of my work.”

“I hope that the work serves to draw people’s attention to the fact that there are just an insane number of incredible, invisible things happening to make our experiences possible,” she says.

Is our world just a sensory illusion constructed of an infinite number of invisible building blocks? It’s up to the listener to find out.

Notes from audio walk production about measurements of the landscape.
Notes from audio walk production about measurements of the landscape.
Jeanette Andrews | Invisible Museums of the Unseen

Invisible Museums of the Unseen is accessible to the public for the duration of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s The Long Dream exhibition, which runs from November 7, 2020 through January 21, 2021 and is accessible via the Gesso app, available on iOS and Android. You can preview a trailer for Invisible Museums of the Unseen here.

Feeling inspired? We want to innovate with you. In addition to working with creators for experiences like this one, we’ve already created audio walks throughout New York, for example through Prospect Park, Williamsburg, East Village, and across the Brooklyn Bridge, but the opportunities to illuminate physical spaces through the power of audio are endless. “That’s one of the things I find most interesting about Gesso. It’s just so ripe for so many ideas. I think there’s so much that can happen… the ideas are endless basically because it’s a really flexible platform,” says Andrews. Sign up for early access to Gesso’s Creator Tool, and join her in being an early creator with us.

Co-founder of Gesso, maker of audio walks through cities + museums. Follow for latest insights on audio, museum tech, travel, culture, and more. www.gesso.app