Sylvania: The sounds of South Philly

Philadelphia’s urban forest comes to life in Hannah Selin’s first solo exhibition.

“I’ve seen some things change and some things stay the same,” says Ed McBride Sr. from a small speaker. “I’ve lived here for 53 years.”

McBride Sr. and the voices featured in the sound installation, Sylvania, are the voices that make up South Philadelphia. You’ve heard these voices before—on the street and in transit. It’s the sound of a well-established resident, a person who’s been around the block a time or two, and someone with generations of deep roots in this city.

Local musician Hannah Selin, the sound artist and composer behind Sylvania, interviewed 15 residents of all ages for the project. “I really just said that I was interviewing them about living in South Philadelphia, I didn’t specify very much, so our conversations went in different directions,” says Selin, “I didn’t have an agenda I just wanted to listen to people, talk to people, and record their voices.”

The installation was born from Selin’s own experience living in South Philadelphia. “It was a good way for me to meet people in the neighborhood. I lived there for seven months and it was definitely hard to meet people in that very tight knit community.”

This subtle isolation translates through the work, yet the work remains objective, and void of melancholic sentiments or nostalgia. Sylvania touches on the more universal experience of living in a city, echoing the urban soundscape that we often try to block out.

The exhibition is composed of 32 speakers suspended at ear height from the ceiling of Rittenhouse Square’s Metropolitan Gallery 250. The room where Selin’s installation hangs is stark, barren, and free of overwhelming visual stimulants. The space lends itself to sounds and voices of one of Philly’s most idiosyncratic neighborhoods and offers a platform to a sense that is often neglected in the gallery scene.

“We live in a very visually oriented culture and as a result sound is placed on the sidelines. Often sound goes along with a visual, but overall, I think it’s overlooked. By listening and being more aware of our environments we can gain a different perspective and connect with the people around us,” says Selin. “If you are always walking around with ear buds in, you’re not going to hear what people are talking about, hear your neighbors wishing you a good morning, hear dogs barking, or cars passing, and there is a lot in all of those sounds.”

The piece both draws attention to and removes the tunnel vision that so many city dwellers acquire from years of living in a condensed environment.  The concept of subdivision, like the subdivision in South Philly itself, is paralleled in the installations structure and themes. The four sections of Sylvania are divided into grid, light, tech, and verb. Each of the connected floating stations has sound clips that pertain to that theme. Each section fades in and out of earshot. Grid is comprised people saying numbers. The other themes translate similarly. ”Grid revolves around the feeling of very rigidly defined spaces, parallel and perpendicular lines that intersect, and in peoples’ voices it’s a more tense feeling of counting, and time, and numbers. I associate it with how we measure our lifetimes through labor.”

Listeners are encouraged to wander and follow their own paths through the gallery while a randomized 30-minute loop plays an auditory collage of vocal clips fused with synthesized composition that mimic the urban soundscape.

“My name is Julianna,” says a young voice from one of the speakers, “I’ve lived here for ten years.” Selin asks, “Is there anything you like about South Philly?” Julianna pauses. “Umm, you get to go places.” “This group of kids was particularly pessimistic,” Selin comically adds as her recorded voice prompts Julianna to tell her more about school, home, and her everyday routine.

Metropolitan Gallery 250 is out of the way of the regular First Friday scene, but Sylvania is well worth a visit to see Selin’s first sound installation. It’s an ambitious project but the execution is well thought out and thought provoking. Like the questions Selin asked South Philadelphians the instillation prompts listeners to ask them selves a few questions, like what would happen if we embraced the city’s soundtrack.

The exhibition opens it’s doors to the public this First Friday and will remain open for two weekends only. To find out more about gallery hours and private showing contact Metropolitan Gallery 250.