The pandemic gives a Wexner Center exhibit unforeseen overtones.

Editor’s note: The COVID-19 resurgence in Ohio has forced the Wexner For the Arts to temporarily close. 

Walk into the Wexner Center art gallery and you find yourself in a COVID-19 nightmare. Your eyes tell you nothing in the darkened room, but your ears suggest you’re in the midst of a huge, raucous crowd. Listen carefully, though, and you realize it’s like no gathering you’ve ever heard. 

The installation, Taryn Simon’s “Assembled Audience,” is “meant to be disorienting and to heighten your senses,” says associate curator Kristin Helmick-Brunet during a virtual Zoom tour of current exhibits just days before their Sept. 26 opening. Fellow curator Daniel Marcus explains that the piece has Columbus roots even though its creator is based in New York. 

Beginning in September 2017, Simon arranged for a single audience member to be recorded at every event taking place over a one-year period at Nationwide Arena, the Schottenstein Center and the Greater Columbus Convention Center. In the Wex gallery, a computer program randomly mixes the recordings from these events, which ranged from hockey games and rock concerts to graduation ceremonies and a women’s empowerment conference. 

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“It’s a piece that simulates being surrounded by a cheering crowd—or various cheering crowds,” Marcus says. 

Of course, Simon couldn’t have predicted that being part of even one crowd would be a distant memory for most people in late 2020, adding to the installation’s disorienting effect. Megan Cavanaugh, the art center’s chief operating officer, says she and Simon are working on possible additions to the piece that reflect this current reality. 

Meanwhile, she stresses, the center will make sure that visiting the installation is safer than it sounds. In addition to requiring masks, entry will be limited to “just the people in your group that you come with.