alana wolf

PhD, Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester

My research asks how the historical conditions of technology and human perception impact the ways in which we experience and represent space and place.


Areas of specialization

  • Histories of technology, science, and media
  • Modern and contemporary art 
  • Sound Studies and Digital Humanities
  • Land art, land use, and the built environment 
  • Archives and material culture


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A B O U T   M Y   D I S S E R T A T I O N 

'How Noisy is New York?' Mapping Sensation and Sonic Signatures of the Modern Metropolis, 1920-1930

My project reassesses of two canonical artworks - Joseph Stella's polyptych The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted (1920-22) and Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand's film, Manhatta (1921) - through the lens of sound. Prompted in part by art historian Wanda Corn's proclamation nearly twenty years ago that those two works, together with Hart Crane's long-form poem, The Bridge (1923-30), comprise "the summa" among the countless modernist portrayals of the city produced between the wars, this project investigates the painting and the film alongside a contemporaneous event - a public health campaign to reduce urban noise, overseen by the short-lived Noise Abatement Commission for New York City's Department of Health. While their motivations may have differed, I argue that these artists and government officials were linked in their sensitivity to the sonic terrain of their city and were invested in working out a representational language adequate to the lived experience of that percussive score.


Reading the artwork and public health campaign material as sound-reproduction artifacts, my project demonstrates how the technics of the metropolis were both imprinted upon modernist aesthetics and led to evolving auditory practices, as technological advances re-defined commonly-held assumptions regarding the act of human perception itself. Employing experts in efficiency science, medicine, engineering, and psychology, New York City's Health Department emphasized the scientific nature of the Abatement Commission's noise surveys, declaring audiometers' readings more accurate than the subjective fallibility of human ears. Sheeler, Strand, and Stella similarly envisioned a metropolis wherein modern technologies undertook somatic functions that had once been the exclusive domain of human sensation. My dissertation provides a trans-disciplinary reassessment of canonical American artworks by unpacking the representational strategies and material conditions underpinning these very different interpretations of contemporaneous auditory landscapes.

m a k e _ c o n t a c t

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