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James Sprang, 2022 Pew Fellow. Photo by Neal Santos.

Pew Fellow James Allister Sprang on Creating Installations with “Spatial Sound” 

Pew Fellow James Allister Sprang recently opened his multisensory exhibition Rest Within the Wake at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art & Design. Featuring wall-based multimedia work, advanced spatial audio technologies, and an orchestral score Sprang composed while pursuing scuba certification, the exhibition evokes the experience of a descent into the sea. 

In this conversation with Sprang, he shares about his transformative encounter with 4DSound and what it means to be a “listener.” 


What has been a moment of transformation for you in your journey of being an artist?  

My first experience with 4DSound (a technology that renders “omnidirectional sound environments,” according to the Amsterdam-based studio focusing on spatial sound) was a hugely transformative experience. I was in Berlin doing a residency shortly after completing graduate school, where I had spent two years working in sound studies, performance, image making, and installation.  

In Berlin, I found myself working on a spatial 4DSound system, one of only four in the world, which allowed me to pinpoint the placement of sound in the room down to a millimeter. Being able to literally “play a room” as an instrument has unlocked a whole new way of listening for me. This technology opens new ways for recorded voice and sound to exist as part of an installation, as well as opportunities for public programming and communal listening.  Now, I own the sole 4DSound system in the country and am excited to share this tool and thinking with others.  

A dark room with side-lighting which casts shadows across a series of pillars that are part of a spatial sound system.
MONOM, a 4DSound venue in Berlin, Germany. Sprang hopes to build out a similar site in Philadelphia.

“Being able to literally “play a room” as an instrument has unlocked a whole new way of listening for me.”

In your practice, you describe yourself as a listener. What does that mean to you? 

The pace, grace, and cultural/spiritual tuning necessary to hear the many frequencies in any given room have always been helpful to my practice. Some might just call this creative thinking or code-switching. For me, being a “listener” means being actively receptive to many figurative and literal frequencies, often simultaneously. Passive listening is a modality embodied by many in this contemporary moment. Active listening is a tool that necessitates prioritizing frequencies beyond your skin. Active listening helps us connect with each other. In my practice, whether creating audio or visual work, I look to connect with others. On my better days, I help facilitate connection. 

Audience members sit in a dark viewing space in front of a bright blue cyanotype weaving.
Pew Fellow James Allister Sprang, Aquifer of the Weave, 2022; installation of cyanotype weaving, light and 4DSound, 36’ × 17’, 45 minutes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

As an artist, when you think about the future, what is one thing you can't stop thinking about?  

When I think about the future, I think about the ways artists consider creative approaches to art administration and artist support, generating new access points to creation and consumption. I hope to one day create a space that invites a diverse range of artists to help pave a path towards these ideals by way of spatial sound technology.  


What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?  

One of my biggest motivators is the joy that can come from collaboration.  

One of the things that dampens my motivation is my unending inbox.  

What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?  

I went to high school in Miami. My senior year we went on a field trip to the Freedom Tower to experience Janett Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet and continued on to Pérez Art Museum Miami to experience The Killing Machine. The Freedom Tower is where Caribbean refugees were processed during the Cuban Revolution and remains a national symbol. In that space, Cardiff had arranged a circle of 40 speakers, each playing a recording of an individual choir member singing. Standing in the middle of the circle you heard the collective. Moving through the circle you heard the individual. After leaving the circle and then the symbolic building, we went on to the local museum to experience additional audiovisual work. I think that experience planted a seed for the way my work looks to hold space through the metaphoric, intangible nature of sound while also connecting seemingly disparate communities and architectures.  

An installation view of James Allister Sprang's "Rest Within the Wake," a weaving and sound installation at ICA at Maine College of Art & Design.
Pew Fellow James Allister Sprang, Rest Within the Wake, installation view, 2024, ICA at Maine College of Art & Design. Photo by Ben Grancsos.

“To feel the presence of something unseen is empathic ancestral work, in addition to being cultural and intellectual work.”

For whom do you make your work?  

My work is centered on sonic holograms of disembodied instruments. Sometimes the recordings are of voices, and so the disembodied instrument is the human body. To feel the presence of something unseen is empathic ancestral work, in addition to being cultural and intellectual work. It is work that holds space first for BIPOC audiences and then for everyone else. It is far from an exclusive conversation, just a coded one. I invite all to listen deeply.