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Silence isn’t the sound of ‘La Jolla Reading Room’

This sculpture, made to look like books, is part of a new installation at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.
This sculpture, made to look like books, is part of a new installation at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library called “La Jolla Reading Room.”
(Courtesy of Matthew Hebert)

A new sculpture-and-audio installation at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library taps into the inner voices of readers.

A library is supposed to be a quiet place. A place of study and comprehension and deep, immersive reading.

The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla is such a place. Walk in on a regular weekday and visitors will find a muted atmosphere — a quaint, historic place to grab one of the thousands of art books in its collection and get lost in thought.

That concept was fascinating for Jared Stanley and Matthew Hebert, friends and fellow creatives who have collaborated on several art exhibitions in the past decade. Their latest exhibit, “La Jolla Reading Room,” which opened Jan. 14 at the Athenaeum, explores and upends the idea of the quiet reading space via a sculpture-and-sound installation that, according to Hebert, intends to “crack the space open to the audience.”

“I’ve always been fascinated with the specifics of that place and the collection of books,” Hebert said of the Athenaeum. “We were thinking about what it would be like walking into a room like this and suddenly you’re a scanner and can hear everyone’s thoughts as they’re reading, and you’re sort of overwhelmed by these strange fragments. You don’t get the whole picture, but you get a crude representation of the book.”

Sculptor and installation artist Matthew Hebert is an associate professor of art at San Diego State University.
(Courtesy of Matthew Hebert)

‘Chorus of readers’

For Hebert — a sculptor and installation artist who is an associate professor of art at San Diego State University — Jared Stanley, his friend and collaborator, was a natural choice for what he had in mind for the Athenaeum space. Stanley, an award-winning poet based in Reno, says he’s always been fascinated with the idea of reading in public.

“We think of this exhibition as a chorus of readers,” Stanley said. “Over my time as a writer, you notice how much less people are reading books in public. Some writers will think about reading as something very intense, a rebellious act that you do in public. You don’t get that with a phone, because they could be doing something related to work, whereas reading a book is tied to leisure.”

“La Jolla Reading Room” was conceived in 2020 as what Hebert described at the time as an exhibition of “talking books.” It since has morphed into an interactive installation of “laminated plastic and plywood concoctions” or table sculptures, the tops fashioned to look like book covers, and assembled in the Athenaeum’s North Reading Room to resemble a maze. As the viewer moves through the labyrinthine installation, motion-activated sensors are tripped and audio snippets from interviews that Stanley conducted with readers are played from speakers hidden in the sculpture.

“The voices here are the voices of readers, and that’s where it’s like angels in a way,” said Stanley, who interviewed dozens of local readers, having them reflect on particular titles in the Athenaeum’s collection. “It’s disembodied. If you go to a room like that and 50 people are reading at the same time, that’s a lot of brain space happening. These things usually happen silently, so we wanted to see what that would be like if it wasn’t like that.”

Stanley and Hebert acknowledge that the experience of “La Jolla Reading Room” will vary depending on several factors. If experienced with a group, for example, the result could be a cacophony of voices coming together. If a viewer is alone, however, the experience could sound more conversational, depending on how fast the visitor moves through the space. What’s more, because the interview snippets are shuffled consistently, each visitor will get a unique permutation of the exhibit.

“When you walk by one, it will occasionally trigger another one, so there will be this cascading effect through the space,” Hebert said. “It makes sure that even if someone is in there by themselves, they will still have that layered experience. When there’s a couple of people in there, it will do that naturally, but we really wanted it to not be one voice at a time.”

“It will change every time because the audio is on these triggers, and that’s where this idea of the collage comes in and thinking about it as a choral work,” Stanley said. “You could hear it as a linear poem. Let’s say you go through it once, you could go through it again and it would be completely distinctive from the first time.”

Stanley added that some of the audio clips range from a train-of-thought discourse to one person who had an almost “noir” style of speaking. Some range from people reading excerpts from the books to simply saying things that sounded “interesting” to Stanley.

“There were some where people would describe what was happening in the book in a new and interesting way,” Stanley said. “There were moments where people were digging out their own biographies and telling stories about their own lives that were elicited from the book. It was just a large range of experiences.”

Jared Stanley is an award-winning poet based in Reno.
(Courtesy of Matthew Hebert)

‘Love letter to readers’

Stanley and Hebert first met 20 years ago in Chicago and bonded over their shared experiences of being two displaced Californians in the Midwest. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that they had the idea to collaborate with “The Desert Die,” an installation in Palm Desert near Joshua Tree. The idea, Stanley said, was to “combine interactive sculpture and language within landscapes,” and the two have brought that same creative ethos to “La Jolla Reading Room.”

Despite their seemingly disparate artistic practices, the collaboration seemed organic, Stanley said. “We had a lot of shared interests that transcended the genres that we were working in.”

Hebert and Stanley see “La Jolla Reading Room” as not only the result of a two-year collaborative process but as an abstract tribute to readers and the importance of libraries.

“It’s such an interesting space to me,” Stanley said of the Athenaeum. “As a writer, I, of course, grew up in libraries, so even though this is a very conceptual project, I also feel like it’s a bit of a love letter to readers. There’s a part of this that’s also about the resilience of reading as an act.”

‘La Jolla Reading Room’

When: Through Saturday, March 12

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Where: Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., La Jolla

Cost: Free

Information: (858) 454-5872, ljathenaeum.org