Sound Art / Street Life: Tracing the social and political effects of sound installations in London

Christabel Stirling



What kinds of social effects and affects does sound installation art configure, and who does it cause to be affected? Can public sound art play a role in extending publicness and urban public space, and if so, how can it? Are there ways of mobilizing sound that puts it in service to the struggle over social justice and/or access to the city? In what follows, I draw upon ethnographic fieldwork of three site-specific sound installations in London in order to address these questions. Two of the installations formed part of the Camden New Wave Festival, November 2013; the third was the culmination of an artistic residency at Bow Church in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, also in November 2013. All three were researched using a combination of observation, participation, informal discussion, interview, videoing, and photographing.


Investigating the public reception and socio-political effects of installation and place-based sound-works is a topic that has received little attention in sound studies, geography, music, architecture, and, perhaps most surprisingly, anthropologies and sociologies of sound. Relevant existing work pertains to writers who have focused on the experiential dimensions of sound art through auto-ethnography (Voegelin 2010); aural psychogeography (Pinder 2001); and discussion of how site-specific sound artists imagine and invite interactions with their publics (Kim-Cohen 2009; LaBelle 2004; Licht 2007; Lippard 1997; Ouzounian 2013). This article will build upon this burgeoning area of scholarship by moving beyond the context of personal experience or phenomenological self-report, and foregrounding ethnographic accounts of how different people going about their lives encounter sound installation art. One notable similar approach is the recent work of Michael Gallagher, who has adopted ethnographic techniques such as participant observation and interviews with artists – though notably no interviews or discussion with members of the public – to research a number of sound-works across Europe. Gallagher’s project is currently being expanded by the research network “Sounding Geography” at Goldsmiths College, London, and is most closely aligned with my own study in its desire to question what sound-works “do” in the social world.




Intensifying assaults to public space and public life in London are increasingly apparent. In music and sound culture, an unprecedented incursion of commercialism, bureaucratization, and large-scale corporate sponsorship into underground music is currently at stake; venues are compelled to install excessive surveillance measures in order to obtain a license, the cost of which – in combination with over-zealous policing – has prompted dozens of establishments to close;[2] and the criminalization of busking is imminent in numerous boroughs. Accordingly, my view is that questions of physical urban/public space should remain at the forefront of efforts to think politically. This view, however, is in tension with a recent denouncement of localization and “spatial closeness” in cultural geography, where some are arguing that a concern with spatial proximity is nostalgic in an age of interconnectivity and “liquid” sociality (Amin and Thrift 2013: 74; Bauman 2000; Castells 2000). Before introducing the sound-works, I thus want to outline a conceptual framework in support of my position by contrasting different academic approaches to the city. This conceptual groundwork provides the contextual, geo-political, and theoretical substratum for my ensuing discussion of the sound installations, and offers an initial perspective on why local artistic intervention matters in contemporary London.


In their edited collection Taking-Place, cultural geographers Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison suggest a “radically constructivist” understanding of space and symbolic orders (Anderson and Harrison 2010: 9). Drawing upon Alfred North Whitehead's vision of Cleopatra's Needle in Charing Cross London as an “event” that loses and gains molecules daily, “gets dirtier and is occasionally washed” (Whitehead in ibid: 21), they emphasize the ongoing construction of urban spaces, noting that “if we are caught within a world of becomings, where events can be found everywhere, then any ordering is always volatile” (Anderson and Harrison 2010: 20). Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift put forward a similar perspective in their book Cities, describing today's global city as “... a kaleidoscopic urban world, crammed full with hybrid networks” that are “spatially open” and “always edging in new directions” (Amin and Thrift 2002: 30, 8). What emerges from these insights is a relational thinking in which space and the social are seen as co-producing, co-evolving, and inherently mobile (Thrift 2006; Born 2013: 21). Such thinking abandons conceptions of space as bounded, pre-existing, or driven by structures, seeing it instead as a set of “multiple overlapping territories” that are constantly on the move and in process (Amin and Thrift 2013: 11). Amin takes these notions further in his book Land of Strangers, suggesting that a pre-occupation with physical space is anachronistic in an era of human-non-human hybridity and networked sociality (Amin 2012: 14). Why continue to channel our energies towards face-to-face “urban propinquity,” Amin asks, when face-to-screen and other mediated forms of communication have the capacity to strengthen social solidarities in ways that are both profound, and irreducible to the urban (Amin 2012: 20)?[3]


This body of work is productive and influential, enabling a hopeful understanding of urban spaces and socialities as the product of interrelations: neither inevitable, nor fixed or pre-conceived, but “constantly forming and re-forming like so many weather systems” (Amin and Thrift 2013: 52). Indeed, the inspiration that these authors take from new Affect Theories – particularly the call to define bodies by “their capacities to affect and be affected” (Blackman and Venn 2010: 9), such that bodily affectivity is seen to initiate social-spatial relations - confirms both the resolutely anti-structural and intrinsically political nature of their project, oriented towards an ontology of movement, hope, and change. While Amin and Thrift in particular are careful to acknowledge the unrelenting forms of power that striate cities, the broad view taken by these scholars is thus that “singing the same old refrains” of class struggle and subversive politics is not a solution (Amin and Thrift 2013: 178, 2). Instead, they choose to zoom in on the affective flows and vibrant energy of cities, questioning how this might allow conceptions of urban life to emerge in more optimistic ways.


Others working in urban sociology take a less affirmative stance, drawing attention to experiences of the city that might be characterized more by fixity than change. Avtar Brah's ethnography of Southall, West London, for instance, where violent lived realities of gender, class, and ethnicity are expressed spatially through a genealogy of “staying put” – a sense of feeling unable to “bolt” (Brah 1996) – throws into question the integrity of Amin and Thrift’s conceptualization of the city as a place from which “the new constantly proceeds” (Amin and Thrift 2002: 91). Similarly, Shamser Sinha's recent ethnography of the daily “infrahuman” treatment of young migrants trying to seek sanctuary in London’s East End, and the incapacitating consequences of their repeated exclusion from local public spaces/services (Sinha 2008: 12), again brings into relief the privileged position inhabited by those claiming social space as “always different” (Dewsbury 2000: 493). Finally, Nora Räthzel's account of an East London resident who surfs the internet by night and speaks to his relatives in East Africa on the phone but whose landscapes of risk are so pervasive that he is afraid to walk out of his own front door (Räthzel 2008: 199), compels one to ask whether global connectedness can really contend with local separatism. In short, while these sociologists are keen to stress the hopeful pluralistic side of urban life too,[4] the repetitive forms of informal zoning that they expose raise concern over the ethics of the conceptual apparatuses being mobilized by Amin, Thrift, and others, since it is unclear how a celebration of flow and emergence, or relegation of “urban propinquity” to the realm of anachronism, can help to keep challenging the social injustices and spatial imprisonments that concretize amidst London’s physical spaces on a daily basis.


The central issue that I see with cultural geographers’ affirmative stance is that by choosing to place less emphasis on the structural diachronic make-up of cities, and more on the body's capacity for change at the microsocial level, they circumvent the complex interrelations between “becoming” and “becoming-stuck” (Blackman 2012), as witnessed in the sociological studies of Brah, Sinha, and Räthzel. That is, they concern themselves with the flux of human-nonhuman relations on a moment-by-moment micro-scale, denying precedence to the wider socio-cultural stabilities and historical genealogies that infuse or orient “events.” One clear example of this is the a-social “washing” of Whitehead's Cleopatra's Needle mentioned earlier, devoid of labor, class, race, and gender – of the workers who do the washing, where they come from, the routines of their day, their individual histories. Another example is Latham and McCormack's equally a-social analysis of how alcohol and cars transform what “a body” can do in the city (Latham and McCormack 2004). In brief, what these examples do well is illustrate how materialities act upon “bodies” to extend or limit what they can do, just as “bodies” perform the affordances of those materialities in different and often unpredictable ways; but this is at the loss of who is doing the performing. Which “bodies” exactly? And are their experiences characterized by transformation, detachment, repetition, stuckness? In other words, without reference to who or what these “bodies” are, it becomes impossible to know whether the sociality “coming-into-being” is challenging wider forms of power and stratification, or simply reproducing them.


To embellish this point in relation to London specifically, it is revealing to consider the formal power structures that mediate the materialities of public spaces. Take, for example, the current phenomenon of “hostile architectures,” which refer to the stainless steel spikes installed outside apartment blocks and shops, or the sloping benches at bus stops and elsewhere, designed to prevent rough sleepers, buskers, and skate-boarders.[5] Or take those spaces that have been recently regenerated – e.g. Windrush Square in Brixton – into starkly arranged concrete plazas, with rounded boulders and chairs stuck to the ground in lines to prevent lying down, as well as what Lambeth Council boasts as improved lighting, better sightlines, and CCTV coverage. At the level of microsocial encounter, it is certainly possible to understand these urban spaces as “always different”: their specific materialities inevitably affect the movements and actions of “bodies,” who in turn perform and produce space. But zooming out to consider who is performing brings to the fore the perennial violence of these spatial designs, whose features act as a “keep out” to those vulnerable to excessive policing and marginalization (Jackson 2012: 728). Young people who cannot linger without arousing suspicion because they are stigmatized as perpetrators of anti-social behavior; homeless people who wish to avoid formal attention (Jackson 2012: 729); or “known faces,” frequently young black and Asian men, who are the repeated target of police stop and search powers, particularly if in a group of two or more.[6] Moving between microsocial encounter and wider social difference, then, it becomes clear that repetitive territorial patterns are in operation, owing to the recurrent geographies of anxiety and discomfort that certain spaces mobilize for certain individuals.


[1] With grateful thanks to Georgina Born, Eric Clarke, Sarah Lappin, Christopher May, Gascia Ouzounian, Merijn Royaards, and Thomas Turnbull.

[2] In east-central London alone, Vibe Bar, The Joiners, 93 Feet East, The Light, and Madame Jojo's have all either been forced, or chosen to close in the last year for these reasons.

[3] This view is echoed by Amin and Thrift in their most recent book Arts of the Political: “[S]patial closeness [...] is surely the wrong kind of worlding [...] What is needed instead is a leftist politics that stresses interconnection as opposed to the 'local'” (Amin and Thrift 2013: 74).

[4] Sinha, for example, recounts one of his participants being cared for by a stranger after becoming pregnant, homeless, and going into labor on the streets (Sinha 2008: 9), while Les Back notes that social arenas opened up by the internet and electronic space can provide life-saving relief (Back 2009).

[5] The idea of sloping benches was derived from “the Camden Bench.” See also Marc Vallée's photographs for the Guardian of anti-skateboarding architecture.

[6] These accounts were relayed to me by a combination of my own participants, and an informant who co-founded and works for a London-based anti-racist campaign.

Anti-homeless spikes, Southwark. Image by Andrew Horton, 2014.

The Camden Bench, Camden. Image by Factory Furniture Ltd., 2014.

Windrush Square, Brixton. Image by author, 2014.

Chairs, Windrush Square, Brixton. Image by author, 2014.

Rounded boulder, Windrush Square, Brixton. Image by author, 2014.

My reason for advocating “urban propinquity” as central to democratic politics, then, is not a nostalgic lament over the loss of “hard” forms of face-to-face sociality, “the fall of public man” (Sennett 1977) or “the end of public space” (Sorkin 1992).[7] Far from it: as sustained feminist and post-colonial critique of the Habermassian “consensus” model has shown, the claim that public space can or should fulfil a socially cohesive role is predicated upon the systematic loss of “others,” since it dismisses the fact that social space is “irrevocably split by antagonisms” (Deutsche 1998: 278). Rather, my reasoning stems from two concerns. First, a need to re-acknowledge, and thereby challenge, the affective complexes and expulsions that continue to arise out of gender, sexuality, class, age, race, and ethnicity in the traversal of public space. This is to say that, in my view, it is ethically problematic to conceptually eclipse older concerns over access and alienation with unconstrained spaces of difference and fluidity, for this simultaneously eclipses those who do not experience the city as fluid. This is not to (re-)advocate a determinism, nor to classify identities in a fixed or atavistic fashion, but simply to suggest a need to be more honest and open about the enduring macro-forms of power at work in our existing social-geographical-historical formations; and thus to account for relative stabilities and fixities as well as change and reinvention (Born 2005).


Second, since it is at the spatial level that these complexes are performed and made concrete (Lefebvre 2004), the opportunity to challenge them rests, to my mind, upon resisting the non-democratic appropriation of physical public space. While face-to-screen interconnectivity doubtlessly initiates new social bonds and ways of “participating,” it does not overcome, for example, the tacit classed and raced banning of individuals from music venues for particular kinds of dancing, or face-to-face harassment and intimidation leading to corroded rights to the city, and thus cannot be seen as a substitute for them. As Rosalyn Deutsche emphasizes, public space “remains democratic only insofar as its exclusions are taken into account and kept open to contestation” (Deutsche 1998: 289). The questions that follow, then, are: how might contestation be kept alive? Can artistic experiments in public space help make room for dissent, and if so what kinds of dissent? How can one assess the conditions, moments, and mechanisms that do, or do not, offer openings to other spaces?

[7] It is not, in other words, a lament over a past way of life that was supposedly “better,” in the vein of Richard Sennett and Michael Sorkin, who both assume that there once existed a public sphere that was unifying and accessible, now lost. As Bruce Robbins argues in The Phantom Public Sphere (1993), the only reason “the public sphere” appeared “coherent” in the past was because it was built upon the conquest of differences. The idea of an inclusive public sphere is thus not “lost”; it has always been an illusion.

Sound Installations

I now examine the sonic re-arrangement of public space in three site-specific sound installations. Drawing upon Georgina Born’s theory of social mediation, I show how the affects, interactions, and social formations produced by these sonic artworks were mediated by a web of genealogies - personal, social, cultural, institutional - as well as by the acoustic specificities of the installations themselves, and the materialities of the sites they inhabited. I thus illustrate, in line with my conceptual position above, the salience of relatively resilient social differences and historical forces in everyday encounters and sonic “events,” and thereby reinforce what is absent in Amin and Thrift, but poignant in the sociological studies of Brah, Sinha, and Räthzel, and in the territorializing effects of urban planning and state policing in London. To begin, I simply describe the sound-works, addressing both the social dynamics summoned into being, and the kinds of people or “bodies” involved in producing these dynamics. I then turn to how each situation was “multiply mediated” (Born 2011, 2012, 2013). Finally, I offer interpretations as to how or whether the sound-works might be enlisted as part of a process oriented towards mobilizing democratic designs.


Phantom Railings

“Phantom Railings” by Catalina Pollak was an interactive sound sculpture installed in Malet Street Gardens, Bloomsbury, in central London. Malet Street is unique among other public squares in the area in that, being a walled sunken garden, it escaped the reinstatement of railings following World War Two. Comprising 55 sensor-based acoustic devices, Pollak's sculpture turned the trajectory of passers-by on the street into a sound that purported to mimic that of dragging a stick along railings, though in fact was a little too percussive to be realistic.[8] I tracked the installation for a number of weeks, observing as construction workers, UCL and SOAS students startled upon gliding into proximity with the 50-metre long sounding wall, smiling to themselves or to another, or huddling into groups to examine the discrete speakers. The sculpture thus appeared to create transformative opportunities, encouraging passers-by to linger where they perhaps otherwise wouldn't, drift into shared space, and perform unusual spur of the moment gestures, such as waving, kicking, and punching the air. At the same time, however, those working on the ground floor of Senate House opposite found themselves torn between keeping their windows shut during the summer office hours, or opening them and exposing themselves to the “irritating” “clank clank clank clank” of the sculpture. Some even filed complaints to have the piece removed, and although this was unsuccessful, they did in fact have their wish granted after the sound work was vandalized one night by homeless people trying to sleep in the gardens. What transpired, then, were a host of ambivalent responses: the work not only functioned as a collectivizing “social gift,” in the artist's words, but also as an individuating point of contest, or simply a matter of indifference. 

“Phantom Railings”, Bloomsbury. Image by author, 2013.

“Phantom Railings”, Bloomsbury. Image by author, 2013.

 VideoObject 1: Cycling by. Video by author, 2013.

Bridge Links

“Bridge Links”, by London-based artist Esther Ainsworth, was installed for two days along Regent's Canal. Ainsworth's sonic sculptures permeated little more than the walking-length of two tunnels, situated in the Camden Town area of the canal; and the sounds of her composition were taken from local site-specific field recordings, meaning that the work re-mixed the natural soundscape of seagulls, barges, and overhead trains, rather than inserting something obviously artificial into the landscape as “Phantom Railings” had. Like “Phantom Railings”, however, the installation provoked conflicting and sometimes controversial responses. When I arrived at the scene, for instance, Ainsworth and her friends explained to me that bafflement and occasionally negative attitudes towards the work had prevailed, particularly amongst older Camden residents. One especially persistent passer-by had demanded that Ainsworth show her license, questioning her with allegations such as: “what gives you the right to do this on the towpath?”,“what's the point of it?”, and “but why is it here?” In spite of the acoustic inoffensiveness of the sounds, then, “Bridge Links” ignited a relatively extreme conflict over territories, with residents feeling that “their” canal towpath had been invaded. Simultaneously, children awed in wonder upon hearing the sounds, and a number of young arty individuals excitedly stopped in their tracks, eager to talk to invigilators - also mostly arts-associated people. Meanwhile, a busker singing just beyond the second bridge was by and large ignored by passers-by, in spite of the competing acoustic spatiality he was producing. Again, what came to light was a plurality of social a/effects - conversation, aggregation, hostility, obliviousness - resulting in the creation of fluid and nested zones of publicness and privacy.

“Bridge Links”, Regent's Canal. Image by author, 2013.

“Bridge Links”, Regent's Canal. Image by author, 2013.


[8] As I later learnt from the artist, this was due to there only being specific frequencies that would carry.


The final event, “Convergence”, was a collaboration between Ainsworth and light artist Kirsty Dixon at Bow Church in East London, and differed from the other two since it mostly took place indoors. The show comprised a bell ringing performance in the early evening, sound and light installations inside the church, and a “Traffic Jam” improvisation to finish, which invited members of the public and the church congregation to improvise together using musical instruments/objects of their choice. As the press release emphasized, the event explicitly sought to build bridges between the church and the local neighborhood. I arrived to find a chalked sign outside the church gates that read “Free exhibition here tonight! Everyone welcome!” yet, in spite of this, was joined only by one other person in the courtyard for the ringing of the Bow bells - a soundmark traditionally famous for deeming those born within earshot as authentic East End cockneys. The two of us listened as patterns that might initially have been mistaken for haphazard bell ringing gradually morphed into a carefully scripted change ringing composition, coordinated by Ainsworth and the Bow bell ringers.


Entering the church, I was immediately greeted by the ringers themselves, most of whom were white east London women aged between 50 and 70. They taught me about the challenges of bell ringing; how difficult Ainsworth's script had been to follow due to the heaviness of the bells, but how it had also given them “a lot of laughs”; and how the bell ringing social network is geographically extensive, such that, as they assured me, any one of them could walk into any church in the UK and “be welcomed.” In turn, I explained about my research, and discussed the sounds that Ainsworth was relaying into the interior of the church. The collaborative dimension of “Convergence,” then, made it possible for me, and other relatively predictable attendees such as subscribers to the Bow Arts mailing list, to make points of connection with a disparate sociality: the bell ringers, who were older, local, and a non-arts crowd. This emergent sociality was enhanced during the “Traffic Jam,” which produced a refreshingly anti-hierarchical social space, since most had little to no musical experience. Choosing a maraca from amongst tambourines, a guitar, and a piano, I communicated by watching others, making occasional rhythmic gestures, and laughing silently as one of my co-performers jokingly started to use her necklace as a rattle. These intimate microsocialities were distinctly genial; but what was of course different about “Convergence” from the other two events was that those present at the church had chosen to be there, and notably did not include any members of the Bangladeshi and black African communities that live in high population in Bow and the surrounding areas of East London.

Bell ringing performance at “Convergence”, Bow Church. Image by author, 2013.

Bell ringing performance at “Convergence”, Bow Church. Video by author, 2013.

Sonic Socialities


Zooming in, it’s possible to identify some of the agential currents that converged to orient people's affective responses and proximity to the sound-works. Here, I adopt Born’s four planes of music’s social mediation (Born 2011, 2012, 2013), adding other mediations that are applicable to installation sound art, such as the materialities of urban spaces. Particularly pertinent to my analysis is Born’s emphasis on how wider social differences and institutional conditions always saturate affective and social experience in musical and sonic practices, even as these practices refract the wider conditions. This section is not intended as a critique of the sound-works. Rather, it is an attempt to map out how and why particular socialities emerged around the sound-works, since without locating the multiple diachronies that lie behind “events” in the present, degrees of social change or continuity cannot be gauged, and therefore neither can social and political effects.


At the microsocial level, “Phantom Railings” and “Bridge Links” - both of which were exposed to a stream of unsuspecting passers-by - made perceptible a social space that was cross cut by multiplicity. Different people reacted to the aesthetics and genre implications of the sounds in different ways, often resulting in a clashing of feelings and actions. As the conflicting responses between older Camden residents, children, and young arty individuals at “Bridge Links” demonstrated, this was at times elaborated along relatively clear-cut lines of social and cultural difference, such as age and education. That those attracted to “Bridge Links” were mostly the young, arts-initiated individuals and uninhibited children, whilst those antagonized or shocked were the older non-arts local residents, suggests that visceral reactions did not simply stem from the material qualities of the sounds themselves, but rather from what those sounds connoted socially and culturally, or how instantly (un)recognizable they were as an artistic practice to different individuals and groups. In other words, the meta-meaning of sound installation as a genre - i.e. as a relatively new art form - was mediating the situation, as opposed to merely the sounds; and this was emphasized through the way in which Ainsworth was repeatedly confronted, while the busker nearby was ignored.[9] As one Camden resident put it:


... if somebody’s there busking, you see the guy to pay. It’s like, you know what it is, so you don’t feel the threat. But with the sound piece, it takes you by surprise. There are so many connections that need to be made to make us understand what is happening that of course for a split second you feel the threat.


Buskers, in this account, constitute a familiar genre of urban acoustic experience, while sound installation art is depicted as a strange and novel phenomenon. By contrast, for those passers-by who were familiar with artistic practice, such as the young arts-initiated, “Bridge Links” was instantly recognizable as a sound piece. What this shows, then, is that relatively stable forms of personal-cultural and social difference are in operation that mediate the ways in which our critical and affective lives resonate (Hemmings 2005), here leading to affective-social divisions along fairly predictable lines.


Yet, to understand sound’s affective capacities solely through its relation to people’s prior personal-cultural histories, social differences, and psyches would be to underestimate the volatility or vulnerability of the body as it is mediated by space, site, and context. For instance, the “newness” of sound installation art as a genre took on a very particular dimension for one woman at “Bridge Links,” who felt it unnecessary to be thrown into a state of feeling like she didn't understand what was happening, especially when pushing a pram. As she later explained, this sense of estrangement was amplified by the particular materialities of the site, in that her initial hesitation upon stepping into the resonant arch was compounded and transfigured by a dim awareness of being un-surveilled on the canal, as well as by the constraining physical geography of the towpath. She could not cross over to the other side or choose a different walking route, for instance. Geographies of knowledge and spatial properties of the site thus exacerbated her response to the sounds to produce a fleeting affect of fear: a fear of “not knowing”; a fear of openness and indeterminacy; a fear that was both pre-disposed by, and served to actualize and reproduce, her gendered positionality as a woman with a child walking in public space.

Stepping under the arches, “Bridge Links”, Regent's Canal. Note the busker singing in the background. Video by author, 2013.


By contrast, those who staked a claim on the canal, who felt that “their” towpath had been appropriated, experienced a different kind of fear: a fear that their complacent right to space was being toppled; fear of an impending loss of unity and certainty over a particular geographical location; a fear that challenged rather than affirmed their identifications. Further light can be cast on this if one considers that historically, the desire to control sound and noise on the streets was a classed resource. As John Picker's study of Victorian London shows, “silence-seekers” who fought to expunge street musicians and sonic “nuisance” were not only trying to “protect literal neighborhoods and city blocks from intrusive noises, but also to defend more abstract regions of identity [...] and the body” (Picker 2003: 45). In other words, to be irritated or negatively affected by street noise/music, and to fight for its removal, was both to assert a classed entitlement to space or region, and a desire to protect the quietness of middle-class domesticity (Picker 2003: 43). Parallels might be drawn here with those residents claiming a right to the towpath at “Bridge Links,” particularly in their efforts to conserve and purify local space and soundscape. Indeed, as was evident from the attempts to negate plurality by scolding Ainsworth, these people suffered from what Deutsche metaphorically refers to as “agoraphobia” (Deutsche 1998: 325), meaning, in this context, a fear of alternatives.[10]


While the socio-political implications of these instances will be returned to later, the key point here is that, as ecological approaches to perception have long emphasized (Clarke 2005; Cook 1992; DeNora 2000), the environment and spatial placement of sound is crucial. It is possible, for example, that the woman with a child would not have felt the same affect of fear had “Bridge Links” been installed in a geographically and materially different, more open site; and equally possible that residents would not have felt so antagonized had they encountered the installation elsewhere. Particularly revealing in this respect is the fact that “Bridge Links” was part funded by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, meaning that Ainsworth took inspiration from historical recordings of the canal conserved in the Society’s archives, and as such produced a composition that was both sonically and site-specifically sensitive. This (institutionally mediated) sonic conservatism not only highlights the irony of residents’ controversial responses, but also supports the likelihood that more than anything it was the installation’s occupation of “their” canal that provoked such responses. Thus, in addition to the persistence of personal, social, and cultural differences, the examples stress the importance of situational factors in sonic affective experience: how space, site, and context can alter the boundaries of corporeal experience, perhaps turning what might have been one affect into another.


Acoustic attributes of sounds themselves, such as repetition, volume, and pitch, are not without agency either, and may at times provoke responses that are relatively shared or trans-personal. An example of this was the affect of irritation shared by the homeless and Senate House employees near “Phantom Railings,” whose tolerance thresholds were synchronously breached. Indeed, as both groups emphasized, their aversions did not arise out of an ideological prejudice towards the sonic sculpture as a genre, but simply from (over)exposure to its repetitively “clanking” acoustic properties, which impeded their ability to sleep or work. This is not to universalize the listening subject, nor to suggest that particular sounds produce innate or automatic responses, but rather to acknowledge that, in Tia DeNora's words, sounds possess “specific and sometimes obdurate qualities, that may be[come] active ingredients in the constitution of agency” (DeNora 2000: 40; Cusick 2008). Again, however, pre-existing power relations and histories always animate sonic practices and occasions. Even in this case, with a repetitive sound escalating to the level of annoyance as it might for any person, powerful institutional forces were in play, the most palpable being the very presence of homeless people in Malet Street Gardens by night precisely because there are no railings - no “hostile architectures” - and they are able to gain access.


This leads to demographic presences and absences, where again a host of entangled agential forces can be identified. To take the relatively narrow sociality of the small Bow Church crowd, who were mostly friends of the artist or aggregated via the Bow Arts mailing list, factors such as sound art's connotations as a genre and its association with particular forms of culture might again be raised. “Phantom Railings” artist Pollak, for instance, was quick to trace her practice to Fluxus and the Western avant-garde, indicating sound installation's links to an arts-associated lineage - a genealogy supported by academic studies of sound art (Kahn 1999; Kelly 2011; LaBelle 2004; Ouzounian 2013); while Bow Church audience member Anna, who I interviewed afterwards, expressed her feeling that sound art was “elitist” and “pretentious” for many people, appealing only to those who'd been to “art school, or at least an arts-based college.” Further, Anna, who has occupied a live-work artist's studio in Bow for a number of years, speculated that the word “exhibition” outside the church might have resonated uncomfortably for long-standing non-arts Bow residents, who have been subjected to soaring house prices under mass regeneration schemes of the 2012 Olympics, and who, in Anna's words, “weren't happy when people like us artists moved into the area.”


The question of promotion, publicity, and the networked routes required to find out about the event is another important one for thinking through the socialities that were present/absent at Bow Church. As interviews with people who work at venues in East London have revealed, an ability to engage directly with different local groups can play a crucial role in transforming audience demographics, access, and tacit forms of exclusion. In other words, perhaps it was not so much the genre of event that discouraged local communities, but simply that they did not know the event was happening, or were not subscribed to the relevant platforms through which to receive information about it.[11] At the same time, representations of space - in this case a Christian church - plausibly played a role too. Indeed, the willingness to enter Bow Church might be considered from the perspective of the Muslim and Christian communities that live side by side in East London, complicated by historically complex, though as Les Back and others have shown, dissipating and re-forming “hierarchies of belonging” over the right to neighborhood space (Back 2009; Ahmed 2008; Back, Sinha and Bryan 2012; Keith 2008; Sinha 2008). Then there were physical geographies, such as Bow Church's awkward positioning on a traffic island in the middle of the A11 and A118 roads, which, before anything, impeded what venues refer to as the aggregating potential of “passing trade.”


The point is that questioning the absence of a heterogeneous sociality at this event - particularly in terms of ethnicity and class - is significant, given the densely multi-cultural and class-diverse landscape of Bow (Keith 2008); and not because I wish to add insult to the injured discourse of multiculturalism, or promote Trevor Phillips's argument that the UK is “sleepwalking into segregation” (Casciani 2005, in Farrar 2008: 4). Rather, it is important for the need to lay out and scrutinize the various planes of mediation that brought this sociality into being, so that a deeper understanding of how difference operates in musical and sonic practices might be achieved; and this is with a view to striving for, not jettisoning, the “pluralist transformation of public space, institutions and civic culture” (Wood, Landry and Bloomfield 2006). What I have shown in this section, then, is that both at the level of microsocial encounter and wider demographic presence/absence, it is crucial to attend to all mediations – who or what is affecting and being affected, how, and why – in order to begin to detect any social or political consequence.

[9] As one reader pointed out, gender also springs to mind as a mediating factor here, in the sense that it is usual for men – such as the busker – to dominate public space, while rarer and less acceptable for women such as Ainsworth to do so. However, when stepping under the arches at “Bridge Links,” it wasn't obvious who the artist was. Members of the public who raised concerns tended to address whoever was closest at hand – usually invigilators, who were both men and women – to ask after the artist. I would thus suggest that genre was the more powerful mediator in this instance, rather than gender.

[10] In the final chapter of her book Evictions (1998), Deutsche suggests that the lament over the “loss” of a unified public sphere by writers such as Sennett (1977) and Sorkin (1992) is merely a “panicked reaction to the openness and indeterminacy of the democratic public as phantom – a kind of agoraphobic behavior” (Deutsche 1998: 325). Like the agoraphobic who invents a “cover story” to conceal their fear of open public spaces, writers who tell of the “loss” of a coherent public sphere and past way of life that was supposedly “better” are merely attempting to hide their fear of the uncertainty and indeterminacy of a public sphere that does not and cannot flee from difference and plurality (ibid: 326).

[11] Promotion, however, requires time, work, and funding that artists and venues are extremely pushed for in London. In other words, this is not a criticism of the event.

Towards a Sonic Politics of Pluralism


The social effects of the sound-works might best be described as ambivalent. At each event, social-affective relations emerged from complex intersections between the sounds themselves, incarnations of sonic genre, relatively enduring personal histories, socio-cultural milieus, institutional forces, and more contingent material, geographical and sensory environments. Precisely because of these multiple mediating currents, the sound installations worked to both hail and deter, collectivize and individuate, aggregate and antagonize, sometimes to socially reproductive ends, at other times instigating tensions that contradicted wider forms of power. Returning to Amin and Thrift et al, it thus seems unhelpful to reduce differentially positioned people to “bodies” that are always-becoming, “always different,” embroiled in an inherently mobile social space. For doing so negates how people’s often-intractable histories and corporeal thresholds work to align situations with fixity and repetitive social effects, as well as change and emergence. Moreover, it is particularly unhelpful to use sound as a vehicle to advocate this position, as seems to be a popular move owing to sound’s affective propensities. Amin, for example, takes Deleuze and Guattari at their word when they ontologize sound as “the cutting edge of deterritorialization” (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 348), lauding sound’s capacity to pull “bodies” into shared space, to apparently create endlessly new affective and social connections (Amin 2013). But what this critically underestimates is that sound itself is bound up with history, culture, politics, and subjectivity, and is thus often a medium through which symbolic, representational, and ideological differences become somatically entrenched and reproduced.


So, what kind of politics – if any – did these sound installations portend? Far from engendering a sonic politics of movement, flow, and renewal, or a breaking away from the ideologies and social meanings linked to particular subject positions, the sonic practices actually made such (dis)positions “public” or perceptible. They produced and exposed the existence of resilient personal, social, and cultural differences as well as institutional milieus, and thereby revealed people as historical. Further, this did not necessarily lead to the reproduction of wider social stratifications, but also created affective-social struggles in public space that put those strata into question. I would thus suggest that the dissent and negotiation arising between relatively robust individuals and groups as they came into contact with the sound-works itself portended a politics. Conceptually, then, rather than eradicate social differences and stabilities by advocating an always-emergent social space, it surely makes more sense to sustain and empower those differences – to accept their “ineradicability” (Mouffe 2000: 1) – and to grasp that it is precisely the tension and precariousness arising between them that the “publicness” of public space depends upon. I now turn to three brief examples – one from each sound installation – to illustrate this politics more closely.


The first illuminates what Chantal Mouffe calls “agonistic” conflict (Mouffe 2000), and refers to the bending of street codes by those kicking and punching the air next to “Phantom Railings,” whose actions momentarily subverted normative urban behaviors.[12] Following Henri Lefebvre's bi-directional “tripartite” dialectic, the incident constituted a “moment” of abstract-concrete reversal in which affectivity, social rhythms, and modes of “habiting” overturned, or emerged relatively autonomously to, representations of space and spatial practice (Lefebvre 2004). Although enacted by individuals who already possessed the “right” to appear in that particular public space, the spontaneous sound-responsive movements that they performed on the pavement brought to the fore the constrictive character of the street, illuminating the fact that there are ways of conducting oneself “that have been repressed and that can be reactivated” (Mouffe 2007: 3). While wary of overstating what might seem like a small or trivial occurrence, the sonically-induced gestures of these individuals can reasonably be interpreted as a counter-hegemonic expression of particular power relations (Arendt 1998), since – whether consciously or not – they made perceptible existing social and symbolic orders; and in so doing, illustrated the subtle ways in which sound art can contribute to “making things public” (Latour and Weibel 2005). While their performative actions may have slipped back into the quagmire minutes after happening, the upkeep of, and opportunity for this kind of bodily freedom and spatial overturning is important in London’s increasing bureaucratic climate, helping, as it does, to prevent the total closure and homogenization of public space; to maintain the democratic function and “publicness” of public space as a battleground where different hegemonic projects come into contact and vie for power.


Making things public, “Phantom Railings”, Bloomsbury. Image by author, 2013.


The second example relates to the challenges posed by “Bridge Links” to those who harbored an overfamiliar, taken-for-granted right to space. The key here, following Isabelle Stengers, is not to judge the situation in terms of whether or not those stepping under the resonant canal arches were themselves transformed, but rather to learn to inhabit their “fright”: learn how their hesitation and irritation made perceptible a complacent claim to space, such that they were no longer able to take their continuity in historical time and space for granted. Whether or not these individuals actually experienced such moments of suspension as an opportunity to “think and feel and wonder” about the milieus that sustain them (Stengers 2008a: 51) – about what it is to “be historical” (Berlant 2008) – is beside the point. Rather, as Stengers reiterates, it is the “fright” of others that may “force” us to “question, or become attentive to, the way we are ourselves constructed” (Stengers 2008a: 51); to have transference with the fabrication of our own milieus; and to recognize the historical trajectories in which our own life-making activities are cast.[13] Becoming alert to people's differences as they manifest affectively through sound – as “Bridge Links” allowed me to – and learning not to criticize or convert, but empower these differences, is key to an ability to think politically, as this is what can help us to understand why people are able to “make sense” of certain sonic situations, but not others; to learn why our “exuberant attachments keep ticking” (Berlant 2010: 97); and thereby begin to understand ourselves and each other, and find ways of using sound/music to work towards a richly agonistic public life.


Finally, “Convergence” is relevant precisely because it facilitated the conditions for understanding: it assembled artists and non-arts communities into a situation where they could encounter, listen, and talk to each other, and possibly experience exposure to otherness in rewarding ways. Most significant, here, was the way that the artists spontaneously forged a connection between what the Vicar and bell ringers told them – regarding, for instance, the trusting social relationships afforded by the bell ringing network – and their own attachments and milieus. As Dixon elaborated, working with the church was the closest she'd come to experiencing what it was like to be part of an artists’ community. At her studio, people constantly need help, advice, and support: moving things, setting things up, experimenting, and talking things through. This, for Dixon, mirrored the sociality of the Bow Church community: both assemblages revolved around coming together, sharing needs, equipment, resources, time; listening to people, and helping them “get where they want to go.” In voicing this connection, Dixon revealed a crucial dimension of pluralistic politics: that collaboration need not be about conversion, overcoming conflict, or flattening difference; it is not a question of making them understand us. Indeed, the Vicar understood very well that neither artist was religious; and likewise, a number of the bell ringers, though intrigued, accepted that they did not really “get” the installation. Rather, again following Stengers, the potentials of collaboration lie in the ability to give the situation the power to “force” one to think, imagine, and create; to learn what others' specific attachments demand, and ask “how can we connect?” (Stengers 2008a: 57). It is about fabricating new attachments by listening to what others propose.


It is thus not only through producing an explicit dissent and “agonistic” struggle that sound installation art has the capacity to be political. Practices that are inclusive, sociable, and participatory can be progressive too - if they continue to acknowledge difference. This is a key point to emphasize, given recent scepticism surrounding participatory art (Bishop 2012) and the tendency for those on the Left advocating a politics of pluralism to dismiss communalism and inclusivity – including socially engaged participatory art – on the basis that they eradicate otherness and difference (Back 2009; Deutsche 1998: 282, 270; Gilroy 2004: 70). While I agree with the logic of these arguments, the point about “Convergence” was that the artists collaborated with an institution that was completely disparate from the gallery and the “art world,” and thereby introduced an element of potential antagonism into an otherwise insular art exhibition situation. Ainsworth and Dixon not only chose to circumvent the gallery, recognizing it as a reified network that does indeed exclude,[14] but also created the conditions for two unrelated socialities, the Bow Arts network and the Bow Church congregation, to meet. Further, the event had no a priori politics: the brief was open-ended and non-prescriptive. Thus, even though there were evident demographic absences at this event, the folding it enabled between two lifeworlds who did not attempt to impose their ideologies on each other, but found ways to connect with their differences intact, demonstrates that critiques of social cohesion don't apply verbatim. Rather, it is possible to affirm community and difference at the same time.


All assemblages presented dangers and risks too, however: dangers of re-constructing railings and borders, re-evicting those whose Right to the City (Lefebvre 1996 [1968]) is already under threat, reproducing the same hegemonic practices, where homeless people are banished from public squares, women struggle to walk city trajectories without fear, or individuals feel excluded on the basis of their culture or under the pressure of a reified sense of an “art world.” It might thus be surmized that none of the sonic-social relations discussed – antagonism or affinity, individuation or collectivization, conflict or connection – are in themselves “good” or “bad.” Processes of individuation that involve inducing fear in a woman with a child are clearly a different matter to processes of individuation that challenge an entitled right to space. Rather, only by moving between the flux of microsocial encounter and the relative endurance of wider social formation can one begin to think through the potentially political socialities that sonic-social assemblages enable: whether they might translate to, challenge, or transform social hierarchies, relations of domination, and inter-cultural communication; or by contrast, become accomplices to the workings of neoliberalism, stratification, and segregation. In short, only by analyzing and redefining precisely how the relations between the micro- and the macro-social are assembled in each instance, can one detect glimpses of the re-composed, transformative, or reproductive sedimenting effects of a sonic situation.


[12] Mouffe’s concept of “agonism”, or “agonistic pluralism,” originates from her belief in “the political” as a realm with ineradicable antagonism at its center. For Mouffe, the social world - and therefore the liberal democratic model - consists of conflicts that cannot be suppressed, and for which no rational solution or consensus could ever exist (Mouffe 2007: 1-2). To be political is thus to challenge power, to be in dissent, and to strive to make visible the acts of social institution and symbolic order (i.e. power that is concealed or sedimented). This is the basis of her politics of pluralism: accepting the political as a domain of struggle between opposing hegemonic projects that can never be reconciled rationally, but that instead produce precarious solutions that remain open to question (Mouffe 2000, 2007).

[13] Stengers’ politics bears some relation to Mouffe’s in the sense that both endorse our/democracy’s need for other positions, not just in a “tolerant” way, but in a way that recognizes our dependence on other positions; the power of others to transform us. Like Mouffe, the key for Stengers, then, is not to overcome conflict, but to “transversalize its terms” (Stengers 2008b: 5); to give a “situation” the power to “situate” those it rallies, without converting to unanimous consensus, and thereby to produce “a dynamic of controversy” (Stengers 2008b: 5). To inhabit rather than “snigger” at the “fright” of others is thus to give a situation the power to have one thinking and feeling; it is to become part of a milieu that has a need or use for what others propose.

[14] As Dixon perfectly put it, “the problem with gallery art is [...] you have to know about art.”

Concluding Thoughts


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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