New exhibition explores the diverse sounds of religious practice and expression

The immersive 'Religious Soundscapes' show is on view at Ohio State's Urban Arts Space Downtown through July 16

Jim Fischer
An Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Timiket celebration in Columbus.

Isaac Weiner has an infectious fascination with the sounds religion makes.

Of course, most of those sounds are made by people practicing, formally or informally, a religion. As co-director of the American Religious Sounds Project, Weiner, an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, and his colleagues have been capturing, archiving and sharing the sonic impact of religion on life in America. 

Whether we’re cognizant of it or not, Weiner explained, sound is often how we encounter religious expression and experience, either our own or someone else’s. “Sound creates moments of contact,” he said.

Bringing those moments of contact to ears beyond the people who initially experienced them is the idea behind “Religious Soundscapes,” an immersive, sonic exhibition at OSU’s Urban Arts Space.

Weiner and his colleagues are interested not only in formal worship and other religious practices, but also the ways communities gather around religion and the ways religion happens in public spaces. Some of the audio, he said, is just “really cool sounds.” 

A team of co-curators, including Alison Furlong and Lauren Pond from OSU, assembled the sounds thematically, also editing as many sounds as possible into audio collages, providing numerous touchpoints for the various expressions that have been captured. 

“I’ve always been interested in how religion crosses boundaries. When we started listening specifically in preparation for this exhibition, we soon found that there were many connections between them,” Pond said. “Most of the collages emerged organically, although there were others that were more intentional in the way we set out to do them.” 

The exhibition is organized thematically, considering not only the purposes of the various sounds, but also the spaces in which they were made. One section places the visitor both in a religious procession and at a protest. Another section includes sounds made by percussion representing a variety of religious expressions. Yet another focuses on sounds made in homes, with a particular focus on how religious sound changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Weiner said that religious pluralism has always been a goal of the project, he made clear that the collection is not a representative survey of religious practice, nor does it condone or condemn specific religions or religion generally.

“What we don’t do is take a stand on whether religion is good or bad, or true or false,” he said. “And we don’t tell people how they’re supposed to feel about religion.” 

“What we do say," he continued, "is that religion matters, that it’s important in understanding culture, because it intersects with every other aspect of American life. If you want to understand American life today, you have to take religion into account.” 

Audio in the exhibition is played via iPads connected to speakers placed in ways that sometimes mimic the original experience, whether outdoors or in a room. Indeed, the more intimate expressions of religion during the pandemic are heard via disposable earbuds, representing the technology used in religious “gatherings” while physically separate. 

Curators have also developed “playlists,” 15-to-20-minute experiences that provide different flavors of the exhibition for anyone who can’t spend a couple of hours listening to all the audio from start to finish.

The audio is accompanied by what Pond called “evocative objects” — images and items designed to help transport the listener to a particular space. There are word paintings by Chicago-based writer Veronica Salinas at each listening station, as well. 

Most of the audio presented in this exhibition was collected from Ohio, Weiner said. This is a nod to where it’s being presented, but it's also a doorway for inviting many of the participating faith communities to come and experience the exhibition. 

“I think people might be surprised by the variety of religions and practices that exist in the state,” he said. “Religion is complex and nuanced. Its place in life is complex. ... It demands and deserves our attention, and that demands that we stop and listen.”

"Religious Soundscapes"

Through July 16 

Urban Arts Space 

50 W. Town St., Downtown