16 December 2016
Photo credit: Elizabeth Black
I composed a soundwalk and delivered a lecture at Kungliga Konsthögskolan, for After The Fire, a proposal by curator Elizabeth Black, in the form of a series of events concerned with how artists reflect on, rebuild and recover from disaster.
Feedback on the soundwalk (Malin):
My first impression: confusion stemming from the inability to trust my hearing. I never fully realised before to what a large extent I rely on my hearing for navigating a space. I thought that the confusion would decrease a lot during the walk, but in the end I still caught myself looking for cars that wasn't there.
• There was a really paradoxical thing happening during the walk. First, the creation of imaginary narratives in the mind of the listener. I couldn’t fully know what went on before, what the different sounds represented, but still images popped up in my head. I guess my mind maybe tried to make sense of the soundwalk by organising the sounds into different images. At the same time, what you did with the soundwalk was uncovering different layers of the particular places (spatial/temporal/institutional layers). That is, you actually caught unvisible/untangible qualities of a place and made them more tangible through sound. So the soundwalk created both fictions and a deeper truth/meaning of the place at the same time.
• This last point is perhaps a bit more theoretical than the others. I imagined that the sounds during the walk acted to reshape the contours of the space/place. I almost had a visual image in my head of how new lines were drawn in different directions (kind of like how I imagine sound might look to someone who’s synesthetic), making spaces smaller/bigger, putting up walls etc. The sound also acted as a virtual transporter of the listeners position. I imagined how my (subjective) position shifted during the encounters with the different sounds. I think the last point is where I get a bit “out there”. I’m not fully sure what I mean (or what the consequences of my reasoning entail), it’s more trying to explain a vague feeling I got during the walk.
Concrete experience of sound and of silence
Plays with expectations of reality, feeling of being in between, a space which is not here and not in the past - an abstract space not subjected to physical laws
Feeling of loss, of fragmentation and disconnection, feeling of doubt - questioning of reality, of the real, of tangible experiences
At times overlapping with images and sounds
Pace was interesting and sounds increased the feeling of pattern, of repetition
Sea and water movement and visuality mimicked sounds (ECG - graphic element of sound)
Object as presences - people on the same level as natural elements of spaces
Democracy of sound - giving time and importance of invisible/quiet/unheard some its
Categories of sounds
revealing of a hidden experiential possibility
Allowing space for exploration of the environment from another perspective/outside and yet still present within oneself
The loss of the Titaniuc is widely regarded as one of the most significant tragedies of the industrial age.
Gavin Bryars' The sinking of the Titanic’ (1975), the hymn the band was supposedly playing as they slipped beneath the waves
In theory dying sound waves from the disaster remain, if only we had the mechanisms such as ultra-sensitive hydrophones to pick them up.
Imagine the cacophony from a century of sound!
Water is an effective transmission medium, and an environment in which fishes are adapted to breathe, extracting oxygen. The apparently empty space that surrounds us and that we move through, the air that we draw in and out of our bodies using the bellows we call our lungs, is likewise stuff, is matter, is also a transmission medium. We live and breathe within our medium as the fishes do theirs. Imagine trees as though on the seabed, spreading out their branches to most efficiently draw CO2 from the air
The Irish philosopher George Berkeley asked if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Daniel J. Levitin in ‘This is your brain on music’ writes ‘pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological,” I mean that it is entirely in our heads, not in the world-out-there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves—molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies—do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillations can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call pitch.’
‘Sound waves impinge on the eardrums and pinnae (the fleshy parts of your ear), setting off a chain of mechanical and neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image we call pitch. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Simply, no—sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules. Similarly, there can be no pitch without a human or animal present. A suitable measuring device can register the frequency made by the tree falling, but truly it is not pitch unless and until it is heard.’
Imagine the residual sonic traces imprinted in our environment, if they could be captured and replayed in some way, via memory or imagination, the sounds that have become extinct or that would be drowned out.
Murray R Schafer coined the term ‘soundscape’ to describe the sonic environment that we inhabit. He was anxious that the soundscape was becoming polluted, as industry, transport and culture developed, and mourned the loss of what he felt were sounds more conducive to human health, that had become extinct. He described ‘sonic imperialism’, the ways in which the sounds around us reflect power structures in society. He also argued that in its ubiquity and volume we simply fail to listen and take notice and he pioneered the sound walk as a means of checking in with our sonic environment, and taking responsibility for it
Quantum physics tells us that nothing is solid, atoms have no physical structure and all is energy, flowing through everything, vibrating at different frequencies. Everything inside and outside us is in permanent flux, nothing and nowhere remains the same, we can never return to where or how we were. We can observe this shift through juxtaposing one thing (sound, image) with another.
The sound walks that I compose act as snapshots of an ever changing land and soundscape (technologies, populations, social practices). They map the present, provide a record of the here and now, but also draw upon the recent and distant past, juxtaposing the two, enabling us to imaginatively/sonically travel through time. Residual sounds from a few days, years, centuries ago re-surface to combine with the ever changing sounds in the present. It is a disorienting and unsettling experience, defamiliarising what we take for granted as stable and authentic. Although we assume that the world is just naturally the way it is, all we do and all we are as human beings is constructed, as though we inhabit a film or theatre set.
I view the soundwalk as a mobile form of listening that places sound in space, and I apply technology to achieve this. Typically recordings are captured along a previously determined route that includes liminal spaces, often using binaural microphones, which are then edited using computer software into a layered composition. This is experienced by a group of participants, each listening via an iPod or mobile phone through on-ear headphones. Having previously been requested to remain silent throughout, participants simultaneously press ‘play’ and are led along the route by a ‘pacemaker’ who ensures that the recording coincides with specific landmarks. Thus the sound recording is placed in juxtaposition with the physical and sonic environment, producing a form of augmented reality that disorients the participant, even in a location that is otherwise familiar to them. The social and technological aspects of the walks can be extended, for example through the use of smartphone apps that combine GPS with sound playback, to enable participants to undergo the experience independently, although my principal interest is in the collective encounter that occurs at the same point in time and space.
The mechanisms behind mobile and located sound include:
Embodiment. My soundwalks are geo-located and need to be engaged with physically – their effectiveness is diminished when separated from site. Walking produces embodied knowledge, involving proprioception and physical contact with the environment. Being rhythmic, it has the capacity to draw the walker into a reflective and observational state of mind, especially at a slow-pace when we can experience an elongated perception of time. A particular feature of the use of headphones especially relevant to binaural recording is the sensation of the listener seeming to merge with another being, through the sound of their breathing and footsteps. I want there to be a sense of weight, of the body, even of ordeal, as people engage with the walk.
Performance. The act of recording can seem transgressive in certain contexts although in both instances one can also feel ‘protected’ by the deliberateness of the intention, as though art provides a protective ‘cloak’. A group of people participating in a sound walk and behaving in an atypical manner can produce an major or minor intervention within an environment, but always a fleeting one. I don’t want to create stuff, to add to physical piles of object artwork. I want these experiences to be freely available and for the exchange to be a human transaction, not based on financial exchange.
Place – whether contested, liminal, marginal, subject to private or public ownership, ruination, gentrification, urban planning, or otherwise utopian vision, sites offer a variety of potential narratives. They can be explored using various poetic or narrative means, be they cinematic, music, literary, psychogeographical (ie dérive), or using identity or place-making. My practice is nomadic, responsive to opportunities and curiosity. Inevitably my soundwalks take place in contested spaces, with contemporary or historical resonance, perhaps undergoing rapid change of use, or appearance. I understand my practice as one in which I work in collaboration with sites and the issues that they and the people they are connected to face. For example, through a series of residencies at the former Spode ceramics factory site in Stoke-on-Trent I was able to immerse myself in its ambiences and histories and worked closely with a local archivist. The social implications of the closure of this long-established site provided a critical focus for the soundwalk that I produced. Likewise in Berlin I not only drew upon its historical palimpsest but also the locally-contentious contemporary trend of New Urban Tourism, going ’off grid’ in search of authenticity.
Augmented reality - My soundwalks place an alternate sonic (and often visual) frame on our surroundings to undermine what is taken for granted as stable and authentic, and emphasise the constructedness of our reality. The technology that facilitates the sound walk became widespread in museums before being adopted by artists, and this museological take on our surroundings seems worthy of deeper investigation.
Temporality – Sound walks map the present, but also juxtapose the recent and distant past, enabling us to navigate temporalities and to imaginatively/sonically travel through time. They function as snapshots of forever-changing land and soundscapes, through evolving technologies, populations, and social practices. The soundwalk juxtaposes the here and now with the there and then, and invites speculative consideration of future sounds and what our world may become. At root it acknowledges the processes of change, evidenced through the traces we pick up and those we leave behind.
Memory – Soundwalks expose traces and trigger associations in both those who devise the walk and participants’, and draw upon collective and personal memory
Community – I have long been interested in the social, relational and political. From my early involvement in DIY culture and practices such as hitch hiking, I can trace the decline of genuine socialisation and trust in strangers. To the point where the ‘other’ is seen as threatening our very cultures, which is odd because those very cultures were founded on socialisation. The sound walk can readily involve others in its composition and thus provide a focal point for a community, facilitating social discourse and a means through which to explore their relationship with place. One of my key motivations is the reclaiming of the histories of places of everyday lives, as opposed to the authorised grand narratives of the ruling elites. It is a tactical approach, creating a temporary autonomous zone in the midst of controlled public (and increasingly privatised) space
The role of the artist as cultural agent in relation to contested sites, and those who dwell in them. This involves sensitivity, reflecting it ‘as is’ (Hiroki Sasajima) and trying to avoid imposing or treading too heavily upon the site.