Wise Words

Turning up the volume on words of wisdom

The Challenge

IDEAS CITY is a biennial festival that examines the role of art and culture in shaping the future of cities. The theme of the 2103 New York event was Untapped Capital, with participants asked to explore underutilized urban resources. We chose to focus on a source of wisdom and experience that is frequently overlooked—the stories of the many women from around the world who immigrated to New York in the first half of the twentieth century. As urban pioneers, these intrepid women have played a crucial role in shaping our city and they have a wealth of knowledge to share. Sadly, in a youth-obsessed culture that prefers sound-bites to stories, their narratives often go unheard. We wanted to give these brave and brilliant women a voice.

The Solution

We recorded interviews with five women from diverse backgrounds (including immigrants from Haiti, the Philippines, and Taiwan, among other places), focusing on their experiences of building a new life in an unfamiliar city. We wanted to share these stories in an intimate setting, so we built tiers of wooden boxes that we placed in small groups, creating a “community of cubes” that mimics a social gathering. Some of these cubes house the screens that play the interviews, while others appear etched with photographs from the women’s lives, and still others contain small objects of sentimental value to the interviewees. When the viewer touches a particular object, the corresponding interview is triggered to play, fostering a connection between the listener and the speaker. We kept the playback volume of the recordings intentionally low, ensuring that none of the voices compete with each other, and prompting the listener to lean in and pay close attention to the stories being shared.

The Technical Details

The filmed interviews are displayed in the installation using a custom media server developed to be triggered by human capacitance. They are built upon Raspberry PI servers with our custom media server coded in Python. The sensors are designed using "Makey Makey" boards with customized code to sense human capacitance, and pass information to the media server.

Partnerships & Community

The project was created for the New Museum’s 2013 IDEAS CITY festival and was made in collaboration with Taylor Krauss and Michelle Brick.

Commissioning Partner

New Museum


Strategic Overview, Concept and Physical Design, Content and Technical Development


May 2013