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Audio Installation Haunts Underground Arts Space In Washington, D.C.


About eight feet beneath Washington D.C.'s Dupont Circle, there is a network of dark winding concrete passageways. It's the remains of what used to be a trolley system - train tracks, platforms, tunnels - mostly abandoned 50 years ago. But as NPR's Samantha Balaban reports, if you go today, you'll hear voices.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I looked again into the crowd of people...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A trolley driver worked this line...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Some of my best moments where in this station...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: That a trolley might ever come seemed like something from a myth...

SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: The voices flowed around like ghost passengers haunting the old station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Trolley isn't an animal...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who dares enough to speak the truth in love...

BALABAN: They're part of a new interactive audio installation at Dupont Underground, the arts nonprofit that took over the subterranean trolley station.

ERIC DICKSON: My sound installation is a series of monologues that are written in a way that it seems like it's a story of a person who was once on this platform.

BALABAN: Eric Dickson who teaches politics at New York University is the artist behind the audio exhibit. It's called "The Wind That Blows Is All That Anybody Knows."

DICKSON: The idea is that a trolley station is a place where people come, people go, people have chance encounters. And so this is a sort of series of somewhat interlocking stories about, you know, people who fictionally passed through here once upon a time.

BALABAN: Dickson takes us on a tour of the tunnel.

DICKSON: So right now we're walking along the trolley tracks that haven't carried trains in a long time.

BALABAN: It's about 150 yards long, mostly gray concrete and some graffiti. Not a lot to see, so you have to listen.

DICKSON: There are a couple of speakers off to our left.

BALABAN: Dickson won't say exactly how many disembodied people are with us on the trolley platform right now. It's at least 10, all voiced by different actors.

DICKSON: As you walk around the space, you'll encounter a trolley driver talking about his experiences driving the trolley. You'll hear from a young woman who met a man that she really liked on the steps.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: He'd asked me what time it was, but both of us knew he didn't care...

DICKSON: And then later, a hundred meters down the space, you'll hear from him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Maybe she'll come back someday. I want to tell her thank you if I can.

BALABAN: Dickson also won't say exactly where all of the audio exhibits are. Some of the monologues come out of speakers mounted to the walls echoing in the space around you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It wasn't a place that had any meaning for me.

BALABAN: But some of the stories are hidden. The audio tucked into nooks and crannies. The idea, Dickson says, is that visitors explore the space on their own. You might hear something coming from underneath a door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: You see this door? Now I've been in and out of this station for years before I ever really noticed it. I mean, why would you notice it? It looks like...

BALABAN: Or a crack in the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I'm not from around here. You can hear that in my accent. That never used to be a problem but now...

BALABAN: You have to actually press your ear to the concrete to hear the story of a woman who lives in D.C. but came from somewhere else.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: You never know what to expect, curious or friendly or angry.

DICKSON: We sometimes talk about people from different groups as being marginalized or falling between the cracks or something like that. So having a voice with an accent emerging from a crack in the wall, maybe there's some symbolic meaning there, too.

BALABAN: Taken together, Dickson says the audio pieces are meant to hint at a society on the verge of collapse because of polarization and fear. He hopes that by placing the exhibit in a trolley station, it will make visitors think.

DICKSON: A trolley is something that is available to everyone. It's something that binds parts of a city together, so trollies provide a lot of different kinds of metaphors for thinking about the importance of common spaces, thinking about connections among people from different walks of life and so forth.

BALABAN: Eric Dickson's "The Wind That Blows Is All That Anybody Knows" is open to the public now at Dupont Underground in Washington D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: On one platform...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: And then I turned from the tracks and...

BALABAN: Samantha Balaban, NPR News.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: ...And then a solitary trudge towards home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
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