In this paper, I have offered ethnographic insights and theoretical reflections on the different kinds of publics that sonic artistic practices can afford. In doing so, I have addressed a topic that has received little attention in humanities and social science disciplines. The conceptual stance that I have adopted is one that, following Born, insists upon close analysis of how the macro-social dynamics of history and culture are not only mediated by, but also mediate microsocial interactions (Born 2005: 33-4). In other words, if one is to think politically about the potential for sonic practices to challenge power or put existing social orders into question, the conceptual foundations for analysis cannot be reduced either to microsocial encounters, or to the presence/absence of particular socialities, but must be alert to both at all times. It is a question of both affect/action, and access (Butler 2011). Further, before attempting to grasp the social and political effects of these mutually mediating dimensions, it is necessary to understand their social and historical workings – the complex relations orienting their emergence – without which degrees of social stasis or flux, continuity or change, cannot be detected.
While this conceptual position is not “new” as such, my adoption of it in this paper signals an attempt to mobilize Born’s analytical framework as an alternative to the influential literatures discussed in the first section, which appear to be “over” questions of access, spatial propinquity, and social identity, namely, certain strands of affect theory and cultural geography. This is because, in my view, although there are clear circumstances in which social structures and identity categories should be dissolved – for instance to assist inter-cultural dialogue and living with difference in everyday life – and indeed, much of the time are experienced as dissolved, there are also contexts, examples of which are described throughout this paper, where reducing socially marked subjects to “bodies” simply conceals or denies forms of social uniformity, reproduction, and exclusion, and thereby disables any understanding of how these uneven social relations operate, or how they might be transformed. It is thus a question of knowing when, or under what conditions, identity-based mobilizations are legitimate, and when they should be dissipated and made fluid (Farrar 2008: 5).
Finally, insisting that relative social stabilities and structures infuse social-affective experiences of sound does not negate the potential for sonic practices to be socially or politically transformative. It is not, in other words, a kind of social determinism. Rather, it is an analytical move, first, to accept that sound and affect cannot be isolated from the pluralism of values, and therefore to account better for the contradictory social effects of the sound-works, some of which illuminated forms of action and affect that could potentially aid in the extension of urban public space, some of which quite the opposite. And second, to call for a politics of a specific nature: not a politics of movement, flow, and constant difference, but a politics that resides in the encounters between more or less robust individuals, socialities, and histories, and questions how interventions between these planes can fuel agonisms, antagonisms, and conversations that give way to productive forms of public life. Each sound installation discussed in this paper articulated such a politics in its own way. Whether by illuminating passages for alternative modes of conduct and playful social interaction that contradicted sedimented forms of power, as with “Phantom Railings”; or by causing those privileged enough to possess the freedom or “right” to appear in particular public spaces to stammer, thus making visible the milieus and institutions that support them (and us), as “Bridge Links” did; or, like “Convergence,” by fabricating points of connection between disassociated socialities, all three assemblages demonstrated a subtle power to help keep space open, and question hegemony.
Sound installation art is still a relatively new idea, and what it can do socially is an emerging question. I thus want to suggest that if sonic artistic practice can play a role in the contemporary landscape of activism and urban politics by producing agonistic struggles that challenge forms of domination, if it can create the conditions through which to make other positions perceptible, if it can “force” us to think and feel, to assess our own lives, and continue to learn, then it is a practice that should be unquestionably fought for and experimented with. While I recognize that there are degrees of power struggle in London - and countless other places - that cannot be reached by art, or art alone, however critical, this paper has shown that sonic artistic intervention can at least constitute a dimension of democratic politics.
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