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88Nine Radio Milwaukee

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"Listening to Mitchell": Audio art rediscovers a historic street

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While I’ve lived close to Milwaukee my whole life, I am now only in my second year of living in the city.  Basically I’m still a bit of a newbie here.  I try to explore as much as I can but there are still hidden gems I haven’t found yet and places that remain unknown to me.  Last weekend though, I unearthed a special spot that was brand new to me but a familiar friend to many: Mitchell Street.

I participated in “Listening to Mitchell”, a public audio art installation presented by Adam Carr and Sonja Thomsen.  The two artists put together an audio scavenger hunt that takes you down the Mitchell Street corridor.  For seven blocks the listener discovers Mitchell, past and present, by walking the street and listening to pinpointed audio excerpts and finding images inserted into the hustle of the street that draw on its commercial identity.  The audio is a compilation of 50 interviews of people’s own experiences on Mitchell Street.  Each audio piece is accessed by your phone.  You call a main number and then choose clip 1-20 that correspond with certain locales on the street. 

Armed with a map, my iphone and my own two feet, I trekked up and down Mitchell Street hearing its history from first-hand accounts.  It was easy to be taken back to the heyday of the street and to feel like I was experiencing what the interviewees spoke about.  I was in a darkened Modjeska Theater while a woman told me about her first kiss there, I skipped class with a woman who bought her first bikini on Mitchell and I could smell sweet spices as a man described the beloved food on the street. 

Hearing the audio of the past while walking down the street today gave a good idea about how much has changed on the street.  Thomsen said she wanted people to rethink their perception of the area.  Just because they knew it in the past doesn’t mean it’s the same.

“There was a lot of times that people would talk about ‘oh yeah I’ve been on Mitchell Street many times’ but then they hadn’t been here for ten years.  In the 20 months we’ve been working on this street there has been so much turn over and so much change.  On a weekly basis it’s new for us.”

Being that I had never been on Mitchell, everything was a discovery for me.  I found great new markets and restaurants and window shopped at all kind of stores.  There were so many places I wanted to visit and revisit.  By partaking in the tour I came to realize how much we overlook on a daily basis.  Stopping to listen gave me the opportunity to actually take things in and really see what I was looking at.  Instead of driving down a street to a single destination I got to experience a whole new side of the city and got a rare opportunity to know the stories behind the buildings.  I saw so much but I barely scratched the surface. 

And I’m not the only one.  Even after working on Mitchell for months and after all his exploring Carr was still being surprised.

“Just the other day I was walking in the alley and found this really big beautiful corn mural that I had never seen before that’s been there for a long time.  There are these little weird things that exist in this place because there are so many layers.  There’s a lot to find here and we haven’t found it all yet.”

But the idea wasn’t just for me to relive other’s stories; it was to build my own.    

“We created a series of prompts to help people connect the dots, the images, the narratives and you yourself walk down the street or into a store and build your own experience.  That’s the art it’s not the image or the audio,” said Thomsen.

My walk was certainly a work of art.  I was given a map of things that Carr and Thomsen thought were interesting but that was just to open the door.  I got to notice things for myself as well.  I saw a barber practicing his craft, a man looking for his adventurous sons, people lost in Spanish music and I got a wave from a friendly shop owner.  These are the things that I experienced but not everyone else may see.  And that’s the point.      

The audio installation will run through September and will have a number of events happening with the installation.  Carr and Thomsen have a home base at 723 W. Mitchell (between 7th and 8th) where they converted an empty store font into a listening gallery.  Here you can listen to all of the interviews and see photos of the interviewees.  The gallery will be open through August 10. 

You can find out more about “Listening to Mitchell” and the events on its website