In 1976, Christopher Janney was one of only four graduate students to enroll in MIT’s new masters program in Environmental Art, where he first began his formal experiments combining architecture and jazz under Otto Piene, Director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, founded in 1967. His thesis, “SOUNDSTAIR: The Nature of Environmental/Participatory Art,” was performed on many iconic stairways — from the Spanish Steps in Rome to MIT’s own Building 7 — in which the dancer’s footsteps would trigger sounds, altered in real-time by Janney. In essence, the entire building became a musical instrument.
Now, almost forty years out of MIT, Janney continues to combine sound, light, movement, and architecture to create participatory experiences in urban spaces. What began at MIT became a lifelong project of sensory exploration and disciplinary cross-pollination in creating a visual, spatialized music. “Let’s make music physical,” Janney said in his lecture, “Can we touch the music? Can we wrap the music around us like a blanket?” That he “notates” his music on the the design software AutoCad should say something about the unusual dimensionality of his compositions.
In Janney’s work, the everyday architectural elements we take for granted talk back to us. Buildings make sound and dance, responding to the actions of the passers-by who interact with them. From Boston’s Museum of Science to Logan Airport to the Cincinnati waterfront, Janney’s installations exist to be happened upon by an unwitting public, outside the frames — both social, physical, and institutional — with which we ordinarily experience works of art. Integral to their meaning is the process of surprise and discovery.
With his background in the improvisatory rhythms of jazz — he has played the drums in jazz/rock groups since age 14 — Janney brings to his pieces that musical genre’s sense of energy and spontaneity. At MIT, Janney developed “Heartbeat,” where dancer Sara Rudner — and, in a later iteration, Mikhail Baryshnikov — improvised movements accompanied by the beat of her own heart. To realize this work, Janney acquired the medical technology from researchers conducting telemetry on rats running through mazes. ““Back in the 80s at MIT,” Janney said, “people used to say ‘we don’t have artists at MIT, but we do have Research Fellows in art.’”
By orchestrating situations where people have the opportunity to engage with total strangers, Janney also enacts a kind of social improvisation. “I encourage total strangers to interact with one another in creative ways if only for a few moments,” Janney said. In “Reach: New York: An Urban Musical Instrument,” subway riders reach and wave their hands in front of a green bar installed at the 34th street station to activate the tones of flutes, marimbas, or the ambient sounds of the rainforest. The piece aims to create a sense of community, a shared experience of play, where none existed before. “How can you bring everyone into the present moment?” he asked of his work, “you have to be in that place and take a risk. For me, that’s what ‘being alive’ is about.”