The Incidental Person: Reviewing the Identity of the Urban Acoustic Planner

Sven Anderson

1. Stepping Away from the Soundscape and Towards a Minor Architecture


In this paper I wish to reconsider the role of the urban acoustic planner as a practice that might not currently exist in any stable state, but that arises as an interface between different working contexts that involve the urban and the aural. 


To suggest how this context might be activated, I will outline a public art commission in which I explored the role of the urban acoustic planner through a self-initiated artist-placement working with a local authority in Dublin, Ireland. I will seek to develop an understanding of this form of institutional intervention by examining my work in the context of a series of participatory art practices that lie somewhat outside the canon of works usually encountered in contemporary sound studies. Once the parallels between these works have been set in place, I will conclude by briefly describing some of the more concrete outputs that have emerged through this sustained engagement. These outputs – which take the form of two permanent sound installations installed in prominent public spaces – complement the more discursive processes that define my working framework, comprising an ongoing project titled The Manual for Acoustic Planning and Urban Sound Design. My consideration of the role of the urban acoustic planner is very much tied to the circumstances of this project; thus this paper serves as an explication of these particular circumstances, documenting how this project has evolved in Dublin between 2013 and 2016.


As a point of departure, let’s consider R. Murray Schafer’s often-cited definition of acoustic design from 1977, in which the concept of the soundscape as “a huge musical composition, ceaselessly evolving about us” whose “orchestration and forms may be improved to bring about a richness and diversity of effects” is set in place as a primary analogy for understanding the multiplicitous voice of the city (Schafer 1978: 271). Shifting away from this, I propose to explore the foundation of the relationship between the city and its sound environment at its most plural, schizophrenic, fundamentally (and primarily) micro-political, and infinitely administrative, free from the constraints that references to the frameworks embodied by terms such as music, composition, and orchestration might carry with them. 


Free of this analogy and the centralizing concept of the soundscape,[1] the role of the acoustic planner can be reformulated in response to specific dialogues within specific working communities. It can be redeveloped in relation to a variety of sites and regions, working to maximize the potential of each particular context in relation to trends in regional urban development, utilizing the various languages used by those who shape local urban policy. Within this resulting less-unified framework, the professional identity of the urban acoustic planner becomes less scientific and less precise – perhaps more akin to a political role whose central responsibility is communicating with, collaborating with, and lobbying within a constantly shifting colloquium of individuals whose decisions and actions contribute to the formation of local planning policy and regional urban development. 


If we think along these lines, the acoustic planner might emerge from any number of professional backgrounds in order to represent a community or a cause within a local, national, or international context. The urban acoustic planner might be an artist, a writer, an engineer, a social scientist, an event manager, a planner, a musician, or a curator. However, they are not obliged to take this vast collection of perspectives into account – as that would result in paralysis. Nor do they need to prioritize any one perspective over another – as that would have the effect of collapsing this complex field towards a single pole. Because this role occupies a minor position in relation to more established professions, the urban acoustic planner is someone who is devoted to this task for a set period of time – whether this duration is based on a project, a short-term contract, or a longer term professional commitment. They are setting themselves at this task as one of many – as a member of a loose collective that might eventually evolve into a more established professional field. In order to become sustainable and legible in relation to outside perspectives, this field must naturally develop as such a multifaceted profession over a significant period of time, as an implicit collaboration between individuals who choose to approach this subject in different geographical regions with different strategies, goals, and ethics. As this field becomes more stable, the notion of the urban-acoustic-planner-as-micro-politician might become less relevant, but while it is still in its infancy (and remains rather hermetic as it slowly evolves), I want to work through this paper with this conceptualization close at hand.

2. The Manual for Acoustic Planning and Urban Sound Design


Since March 2013, I have been enacting the role of urban acoustic planner of the city of Dublin, supported through a public art commissioning scheme.[2] The funding for the project is derived from a phase of building in the city that went too far, only to collapse into a moment in which the city is struggling to rapidly reconfigure itself to retain its integrity. In this moment, the urban acoustic planner (and other minor architects) naturally rise to the surface, as the relationship between the built environment, the experience of the city, and the city’s urban identity is being challenged, and as the city (as an institution) is contemplating “What next for planning?”[3]


I launched the Manual for Acoustic Planning and Urban Sound Design or MAP as a public art project that aimed to explore the potential (for both successes and failures) that embedding an individual as an urban acoustic planner within the city council might produce. As an artist working through this commission within the council, I negotiated my presence through a hierarchy that was presented to me as a given, guided by a public arts manager working within a city arts office.[4] I was introduced to individuals in the planning department, the city architects department, the housing department, the parks department, the traffic noise and air quality unit, and other departments in the council. As conversations with these people evolved, I was offered a working space at a shared desk within an interdisciplinary unit called The Studio housed within the council’s premises.[5] As I worked through the year, I reacted to what I perceived to be higher-level shared interests in order to initiate conversations that would eventually shift from more general discussions of local issues to a focus on the aural. The city came first, as the common ground upon which to attempt to develop dialogues around the potential of sound as a condition, as a medium, and as a component of both the built environment and the experiential event-space defined by the city.

The Dublin Civic Offices along the River Liffey, where many of the meetings for the MAP project occurred between 2013 and 2015

The open framework that provided the foundation for the MAP project was supported via the public art commission’s emphasis on providing selected artists with the foundation to develop process-driven projects that sought to incorporate various resources represented by the council. The commission stressed that these resources could relate to permissions, infrastructure, or even to a professional working community as a site within which to produce and enact a conceptual artwork. Still, working in this way felt somewhat precarious from the outset. Dialogues that assert both a sense of general neglect as well as a positive ambition as regards working to activate the urban sound environment require leading others to grapple with a re-conception of the city that is not necessarily well-formed (as a development strategy) or comfortable (as an institutional or civic responsibility). 


As I presented different ideas through these conversations, I drew upon different points of reference to contextualize my interests in sound, public space, and more established strategies that were in place within this specific local authority and enacted through the work of the various departments with whom I convened. I worked with small groups and individuals, at times staging formal meetings or presentations, and at other times pursuing more informal conversations. In order to explore this more ephemeral dimension of the MAP project in the context of this paper, I will highlight a selection of elements that I included in my communication.

I often introduced the MAP project through general statements defining the ambition of working with sound in the context of urban planning, or even within a more general urban design context. For example, I would start with an adaptation of the first paragraph of the preface to the American urbanist Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City, published in 1960. This book discusses the notion of imageability, developing an objective perspective of how a city is visually experienced. Its trajectory might serve as a blueprint for similar considerations of urban space as considered from an aural perspective. Lynch begins: 


This book is about the look of cities, and whether this look is of any importance, and whether it can be changed. The urban landscape, among its any roles, is also something to be seen, to be remembered, and to delight in. Giving visual form to the city is a special kind of design problem, and a rather new one at that. (Lynch 1960: v)


I altered the text to serve as a preface to the MAP project:


This project is about the sound of cities, and whether this sound is of any importance, and whether it can be changed. The urban landscape, among its any roles, is also something to be heard, to be remembered, and to delight in. Giving acoustic form to the city is a special kind of design problem, and a rather new one at that. 


This familiar reference established a solid foundation at the outset of these conversations. As I worked through the project, developing such strategic points of transition to shift between more conventional approaches to working with the city to working (or thinking) through the medium of sound became a useful technique for stabilizing the introduction of my working methodologies.


Given that I was approaching the project from the perspective of sound art and practice-based research, I chose to continue my presentations by examining examples of sound art developed in public and urban spaces, reviewing a selection of Max Neuhaus’ permanent sound installations[6] as well as a series of works that have been presented more recently via the Bonn Hoeren project framework.[7] Looking at these projects on a conceptual level, in relation to the sites in which they were installed, through examples of printed and visual documentation, and also in the context of installation and maintenance, provided fixed design (or production) scenarios with which people could engage, regardless of their professional background or position within the council. From my perspective (trying to discuss the relationship between these sound installations and the sites in which they were installed), this provided a comfortable focus for the presentations, as I could choose to present my own working practice as an artistic gesture or as a legitimized institutional presence.


Following a discussion of these sound installations (and the production frameworks in which they occurred), I would try to sense if there was an interest in discussing the concepts and methodologies developed at CRESSON[8] and the applied methods that have evolved through the work of Björn Hellström[9] and Trond Maag.[10] We discussed sections of text concerning sound and public space by Brandon LaBelle[11] and Ultra-red.[12] We also referred to the European Environmental Noise Directive (2002/49/EC),[13] current noise-mapping strategies, the designation of quiet areas within the city, and other more conventional noise mitigation strategies that are currently in place – which most people (outside of the traffic noise and air quality unit) were largely unaware of. Simultaneously, we linked these discussions to local issues that were currently active within the city, ensuring that the project’s focus on the urban sound environment would be set within a broader context of how the city of Dublin was evolving.


Although quite time-consuming, these conversations always felt productive. The project’s trajectory as a discursive vehicle emerged not as a linear progression, but through a circularity and a sense of repetition that became my prevailing mode of operation. A single conversation was never enough to set a given idea in place; it was only after I had voiced a concept on several occasions that it might begin to gain a bit of traction. Spending time pursuing my own project set within the council allowed me to witness that this was the case with many projects or initiatives, diligently pursued by those who sought to introduce new working methodologies that were positioned somewhat outside of the more established responsibilities taken on by the council. This may seem obvious, but working this way feels in some ways to be a direct contrast to the ethos engendered via the pressures encountered in contemporary art and academic research praxis, in which the fetishization of novelty and innovation often shifts working focus away from patient repetition and the revisiting of ideas already on the table, and towards a scramble for anything that is considered “new.” 


Pursuing these dialogues on an ongoing basis also highlighted that working towards public sound installations as a form of output for the project was more legible to those with whom I was working than attempting to work more closely with existing noise mitigation strategies, or trying to introduce more strategic actions related to the sound environment within draft development plans. Discussing the formal aspects of urban sound installations – as concise design scenarios focused on discreet sites – quickly produced more action-oriented plans than seeking to integrate more discursive design methodologies within work that was already underway within the city. This reflected the city council’s desire to see real-world situations in which Dublin’s sound environment could be presented (both within the council and to the public) as an active site of production. At the same time, this focus was a response to practical constraints linked to the project’s timing (as a public art commission), given that working towards these installations primarily relied on work that I could develop independently within my own schedule, before liaising with the right teams within the city council for support with installation, site-integration, logistics, project administration, and PR. 


Within this context, my goal was to frame the public sound installation as a hybrid project that could be seen simultaneously as both a public artwork and as an urban prototype executed by the council. Demonstrating that such prototypes were premised upon functional strategies directly related to other civic responsibilities provided me with a core engagement through which I could sustain longer conversations about the subject of sound in relation to public spaces in Dublin. I proposed several concepts for sound installations to various departments, and two of the more ambitious projects quickly gained enough momentum to move forward. One of the installations, Continuous Drift, was completed in July 2015, while the second, Glass House, has been previewed as a prototype with a schedule for full installation in 2016. Both of these installations were devised not only as interventions that would activate conversations (both in the council and within the public) when evaluated as public artworks, but also as situations through which to explore specific problems related to the city’s relationship to the development and use of the sites in which the projects are being installed. These two installations will be discussed in more detail in the conclusion of this paper.


During the time that I have been working towards these projects’ installation, the city council itself has undergone many changes. The senior urban planner with whom I was discussing the impact of the MAP project framework on a deeper and more sustained level has retired. A new city manager took office, and the interdisciplinary unit The Studio which had provided my point of entry within the council was effectively disbanded. Administrative control of the Temple Bar district in which Continuous Drift is being installed has been transferred from the Temple Bar Cultural Trust (a trust that had been set up to manage the Temple Bar region during its evolution as a planned cultural quarter) to Dublin City Council.[14] Along with all of these changes, the logistics and permissions involved in pushing both of these projects forward to installation has been difficult, requiring patience and an ongoing trickle of strategic conversations with different people in the council. Every time the conversation moves forward to include a new participant, I find myself answering some of the same questions that I have been fielding since the project’s inception. This brings me to the next section of this paper, away from the more visible public sound installations and towards the core of the MAP project as a conceptual work.

3. Are There Any Questions?


In July 2014, I presented a talk at the Recomposing the City symposium in Belfast, loosely sub-titled I am the urban acoustic planner: Are there any questions? (Anderson: 2014). The talk emphasized the latent questions and challenges implied by the action of defining oneself with the authority associated with this position within a given region, as this role – although quite ambiguously understood and rarely pursued – attracts a host of definitions (in terms of responsibilities, ethics, trajectories, and outputs) from the professional fields and communities that it draws upon. I expressed that my interest in how this role is generally understood, occasionally referred to, and seldom enacted stems from an observation of how it occupies a position of both privilege and contradiction. The identification of this role establishes the inherent promise to meaningfully address a multifaceted set of social, environmental, and functional issues on the scale of the city, and in relation to a dynamic set of relationships which will remain primarily unplanned due to their fundamental phenomenology and despite any impulses towards their design, control, or management.


The title phrase Are there any questions? was a reference to a performance by the artist Kevin Atherton bearing this same title, in which the artist appeared in different artists’ talks armed with this single line – Are there any questions? – following which a dialogue with the audience would emerge. Atherton describes this work in an interview with Jackie Hatfield in 2005, featured on the Rewind online artists’ resource, documenting artists’ video in the 70’s and 80’s:


I used to do this piece when I would be invited to art schools. I’d arrive at the art school and the person who’d got me in to do the talk would be looking at me as if to say, ‘Where are your slides?’ I’d have nothing, not a thing, no preparation. I would stand in front of an audience. I would sit in front of an audience. I would ask the tutor in the college to do the introduction: ‘And today we have performance and video artist Kevin Atherton here to give us a talk’, just to set it up. Then I would come out to the front of the lecture theatre, it was great. I would sit at the front of the lecture theatre, fold my arms, look at the audience and just say ‘Are there any questions?’ and look around the room and wait for somebody to ask a question. (Atherton 2005: 3-4)


Atherton continues:


Somebody almost inevitably would ask a question, it will be a general question and I would answer it. We would go on for an hour and be conscious of the time. It would go on for an hour to the point when I sensed people had forgotten how the performance began. In the way that I would respond to them, I’d make them ask better questions and more specific questions to what was going on. Then after an hour I would go, ‘That's it, it’s over’ ... (Atherton 2005: 3-4)


This performance came to mind as I pursued the MAP project, continually revisiting the initial conversations that emerged as I introduced myself, my project, and the idea of urban acoustic planning to different people within Dublin City Council. Repeatedly stating I am the urban acoustic planner had almost the same effect as Atherton’s repetition Are there any questions?, and to a certain extent, pursuing these conversations with a consciousness of how performative these first meetings could be became an explicit part of the artwork, suggesting that the platform of my self-instigated placement within the council might function as a durational performance in which my primary audience was the council itself, and the more discursive site of the work was formed by my negotiations within this institutional framework. As either of these performances unfolds, their potential is regulated through a close feedback-loop between performer and audience. The emergent outcome (as a form perceived by both performer and audience) is thus gauged to be a success or a failure in real-time, as this dialogue is assembled. If the audience does not ask the right questions, the conversation goes nowhere. In any case, it must always revert back to a mantra: Are there any questions? / I am the urban acoustic planner.

Sarah Pierce, “Are there any questions?” Performance in the Project Art Centre, 2008. (Image courtesy of the artist)

Atherton’s performance was re-hatched by the artist Sarah Pierce in 2008 within a series of events that took place as part of If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution, a curatorial framework founded in 2005 by Frederique Bergholtz, Annie Fletcher and Tanja Elstgeest, seeking to explore “the evolution and typology of performance and performativity in contemporary art.” I spoke with Pierce following her performance at the Project Art Centre in Dublin in 2008, and again more recently, while writing this paper, to discuss the potential of this performance as a sort of litmus-test that might be used to gauge certain aspects of this closed-loop feedback system comprised of site (or moment), performer, and audience.[15] We discussed the expectations surrounding the original premise of the artist talk as a moment in which an artist is expected to present their work (along with some form of narrative or explication) to an audience, and how this expectation was disrupted by initiating a performance based entirely on the audience’s ability to participate, or even to perform. We talked about the potential for the performance or situation to “fail” – simply through the audience asking boring questions, which the artist would deflect, resulting in a palpable void that might come to dominate the performance. This reduced format amplifies both the boundaries and the potentiality of the situation at hand – and is heavily influenced by the artist’s personality, the audience’s inhibitions, and the context of the site of the performance (a lecture to MA students at an art college or a public performance in an art institution). The artist opens the gate for the audience to push them, to push the situation, and to take responsibility for directing the performance, because in fact, it is for them: they are there to bear witness to the artist’s presentation (or performance), they have chosen to participate in this form, and they are thus somewhat committed (and implicated) in what ensues. If they were to keep asking questions like “What did you eat for breakfast?” (apparently this was a very popular question, according to Pierce) or a series of directionless hypothetical questions, such as “What if I threw a chair at you?”, the performance would stand still.


The MAP project sought to tease out a very similar effect over a much longer duration. The first responses to my stating I am the urban acoustic planner became a quite predictable series of questions:


What is an urban acoustic planner?

What is an urban sound designer?

Do we already have someone working in this role?

Do we need someone working in this role?

Do other cities have someone working in this role?


These questions are certainly a starting point, and I always took time to answer them to the best of my ability, taking into account the background and interests of the people I addressed. Of course on many occasions, this series of questions would form a closed circuit, and the conversation would fail to develop into an opening for me to link my interests to those of the audience with whom I was in conversation. But this was not always the case: The first meeting I staged with the head City Architect Ali Grehan quickly triggered a question relating to how the city might sound if all of the roads that line the quays along the river Liffey were replaced with parks (perhaps this is something of an abstract ambition of the Council, in one potential vision of the city’s future).[16] From there, we quickly progressed into addressing what Jacob Kreutzfeldt refers to as “one of urbanism’s great paradoxes” in the chapter “Copenhagen Sonic Experience Map” in the book Site of Sound: Of the Architecture and the Ear: “that of the need for fast transportation at the same time as the desire for calm and sound living” (Kreutzfeldt 2011: 67-80). In such a conversation, the potential for the notion of urban acoustic planning – as a sustainable discipline set within the administrative support structure of a local authority, and as directly entwined with other aspects of the city’s development – could be fully realized.

The point that I want to take away from this loose pairing of Atherton and Pierce’s performances and my own work through the MAP project is that this form of process-based artistic research is extremely sensitive to and dependent on a multitude of parameters that exist within the context in which the work is enacted. The repetition of the work – whether this be the reiteration of a performance such as Are there any questions? in different cities or by different artists, or the re-staging of core conversations that laid the foundation for a project framework such as MAP in different city council departments, cities, regions, or administrative contexts – develops the potential of the work to evolve beyond a closed formal gesture and towards functioning as a catalyst for a more substantial form of research. In the case of working with the concept of the urban acoustic planner, these observations point towards a need to pursue as many iterations of this project as possible, as each new version will inevitably tend to produce a specific result within a given locale. This confronts the conception of the urban acoustic planner as someone possessing a specific body of knowledge and a universal approach to working with sound in cities and describes a more responsive, performative, and agile role, in which the potential extent to which urban acoustic planning methodologies might be relevant within the given locale is largely determined as the dynamic residuals of emergent conversations between the somewhat arbitrary groupings of individuals working within a city administration during a specific moment in time. My sensitivity to this is largely due to the realization that I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to have successfully pursued a process-based public art commission within a city council at the same time as the city was undergoing such drastic changes.

4. The Incidental Person


This tangent of aligning some of the performative aspects of the MAP project with the work of artists such as Kevin Atherton and Sarah Pierce parallels my instinct to understand this task of investigating the potential role of the urban acoustic planner as drawing from sources that lie outside of the usual canon of works addressed in the field of contemporary sound studies. The core form of institutional intervention underlying the MAP project seeks similar roots: The most valuable art-historical reference that has contributed to my understanding of how this project might be evaluated as it evolves through different stages has been the work of the Artist Placement Group (APG) in the UK, active in the 1960s and 1970s. 


Led by the artists Barbara Steveni and John Latham, APG developed a format for situating artists as incidental people within corporations and governmental organizations, seeking to activate the context of their placement in order to realize new forms of artistic output. This work has a bearing on the evolution of both participatory art as well as post-studio practices and has directly influenced the work that I have been setting in place to shape how the MAP project framework might be evaluated within the different contexts in which it is implemented. I want to briefly refer to the art historian and critic Claire Bishop’s study of APG in her recent book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, in which she considers the ethics and methodologies of APG, concluding that one of the most important effects of the group’s output was to provoke both a “rethinking of the function of the exhibition from show-room to locus for debate” and “an aspiration to set in motion a long-term evaluative framework for art and research” (Bishop 2012: 176).

Installation shot of the Industrial Board Room from Art and Economics, an APG exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1971-2

The APG acted as an intermediary between artists and hosting institutions in order to facilitate both a long-term conceptual platform for cultural production (through the repetition of this intermediary and somewhat curatorial activity) and through the shorter-term outputs developed by individual artists within their placements. Bishop provides a summary of the procedure used by the APG to set these placements in motion:


Barbara Steveni would write to a selection of host institutions outlining the goals of APG; these organizations were invited to pay a fee to the artist, who would undertake a residency on site; in return, companies were advised not to anticipate the production of a work of art, but rather to think of themselves having the benefit of a creative outsider in their midst (an ‘Incidental Person’, in APG’s terminology). (Bishop 2012: 164)


Bishop continues to work through Steveni’s explication of APG’s ethos, aiming “to bridge the gap between artists and people at work so that each may gain from the other’s perspectives and approaches to an activity” (Steveni quoted in Bishop 2012: 165). Of course, not all of the institutions that Steveni approached to work with the APG were interested in this framework (Bishop lists that in 1971, APG had carried out only six active placements for over 100 letters soliciting this type of project with various organizations). The placements were quite varied, as were the outputs, but as a research vehicle, APG continued to explore the relationship between the production of works that could be evaluated within a contemporary art framework in combination with social processes that were primarily evaluated within the working context of the hosting institutions, fostered through the relationships and exchanges between artists and workers. The complexities that arose as these multifaceted placements evolved through several forms of integration, production, documentation, presentation, and conceptual dissemination seem almost unavoidable, given the simultaneous ambition of pushing the envelope with new modes of artistic production and a more general call for societal change (in terms of redefining the artist’s place within society and the culture of the workplace), underneath which lurked the time-consuming activities forming the administrative backend of these collaborative processes. Particularly as this work was filtered into a form for consumption within a more conventional gallery-based setting, discrepancies inherent to this assemblage of desires and ambitions rose to the surface. Distilling photographic, video, and printed documentation from the placements featured in the Inno70 exhibition at the Hayward gallery in London in 1971 proved to be less than successful for many reasons; Bishop notes the Marxist critic Peter Fuller’s assertion that “the system of collaboration proposed between APG and corporations was flawed from the start since power relations were stacked against the artist,” exemplified by the artist Stuart Brisley’s placement, in which the APG’s contract between the artist and the hosting institution involved a “contractual promise not to harm the host companies, which removed the artist’s right to find fault.” Bishop also cites the exhibition’s garnering the criticism that it served to reinforce the bland “aesthetic of administration” associated with much conceptual art of the time, as well as potentially betraying “collaboration with – or capitulation to – the managerial, rather than critical distance towards it” (Bishop 2012: 170).


Stepping back to the MAP project with some of this in mind, let’s review the two projects’ fundamental structural differences before working through some of their similarities. MAP operates through a per-cent-for-art funding structure, administered by the city council through its own arts office. This commissioning structure did not itself demarcate the mode of placement, embedding, or infiltration that the MAP project set in place: This was entirely generated through the project itself, as conceptually developed during the proposal stage by myself, an individual artist, and outside of the institution. The hosting organization (the city council) agreed to fund the project through this public art commission, but the actual placement occurred as an activity initiated by the artist with the assistance of the arts office within the council. This results in a different cooperative structure between artist and institution, as the intermediary of the APG is absent, thus allowing a more direct feedback between the hosting institution, as both funder and productive context, and artist, as both the conceptual negotiator and producer. 


The ethics of the project are further differentiated from those of the APG, as MAP functions by staging an activity that it identifies not only as a concise public artwork, but also as a task (or a job) that could be permanently instated within the council as a full-time professional requirement not at all related to any form of artistic output or discourse. This is quite different from the placements instigated by the APG, in which the relationship between the artist’s work and the role that they played within the institution that hosted them was not established at the outset to be so closely linked to potentially functional thematics or output forms. This complication within MAP is an intentional gesture: As both a form of performance and a mode of lobbying for greater resources and attention to be granted to the understanding, design, and planning of the aural dimension of the city, MAP can legitimately draw from both the administrative and civic communities and resources represented via the city council as well as the discursive, critical, and creative potential of contemporary art practices in order to synthesize a discourse that addresses both specific projects within the city of Dublin and the longer-term collective activity of working to promote the relevance of the urban acoustic planner within various working structures and regional contexts.


Bishop describes what she identifies to be “one of the largest problems concerning socially engaged practice” through the evolution of the APG. This problem is expressed through “contemporary debates about the functionality of art, the desirability (or not) of it having social goals, and the possibility of multiple modes of evaluation.” In the case of the APG, these modes of evaluation involve assessments concerning the popular and critical success of gallery-based exhibitions, the monetary value placed on artworks emerging from various artists’ placements, the Delta unit (John Latham’s concept to identify an artwork’s value based on “units of attention” over time), or certain degrees of trust emerging between artists and hosting organizations. Choosing to pursue a decision “not to use an exhibition format but to present its projects through panel discussions throughout the 1970s,” APG was able to develop its own critical formulation of its output within its ongoing curatorial self-production (Bishop 2012: 174-176).


In similar fashion, the discourse surrounding MAP emphasizes a constant public negotiation of its administrative intent and its conceptual trajectory. This is one of the most open and fragile dimensions of the project – hopefully communicating an attempt to think out loud, without stopping to mediate the potential contradictions implied by declaring that the project might be an artwork, a performance, a framework within which public sound installations are realized, the beginning of a longer-term contract to work in this way within a given city, or a vehicle for testing a concept in real-time within a volatile system. The ethics that underlie this approach seek grounding in the project’s fundamental (and very earnest) emphasis on the need to reconceive the relationship between the city and its aural dimension so as to bring the latter into closer contact with both the design- and administration-driven components of local, regional, and national authorities. As with the APG, the MAP framework is trying to do (and to be) many things at once and therefore might seem compromised if evaluated solely as a conceptual artwork, a participatory process, a public artwork, or a mode of urban planning.

5. Collaborative Production Set in the Public Realm


Following this effort to explore how this mode of production might be understood within the context of these participatory art practices, I wish to return to the MAP project to briefly describe the two public urban sound installations – Continuous Drift and Glass House – that might be seen as a public front-end to the back-end institutional interventions that I have just described. As both of these installations are still evolving within the sites in which they are being produced, this section will offer only a brief overview of the projects. While an evaluation of the impact that they achieve within the context of these sites would be relevant, the observation and analysis that would be required to substantiate such an evaluation will not be in place until 2016 (following the publication of this article). With this in mind, these descriptions seek only to introduce the format and scale of both of these installations.


Continuous Drift is a sound installation that is being integrated into Meeting House Square, situated in Temple Bar, Dublin’s most popular tourist destination and cultural quarter. The installation acts as a framework for different sonic atmospheres – created by 21 selected artists – that can be activated by members of the public via mobile devices, to be played back from eight loudspeakers integrated into the four retractable umbrellas that cover the square. This installation encourages the city to contemplate the concept of control within the complex sound environments that it already supports, both intentionally and otherwise. 


The sound works that are accessible within this framework were commissioned from the following artists and collectives: David Blamey, Bik Van der Pol, Karl Burke, Taylor Deupree, FM3, Russell Hart, Brandon Labelle, Slavek Kwi, Danny McCarthy, Dennis McNulty, Raqs Media Collective, Garrett Phelan, Sarah Pierce, Steve Roden, Dawn Scarfe, Jed Speare, Stalker/ON, Wolfgang Voigt, Mark Peter Wright and Miki Yui. 


This selection of both locally-based and international artists has resulted in a multitude of approaches to creating sounds for this particular space and situation.

Continuous Drift; The four retractable rain-screens designed by Sean Harrington Architects in Meeting House Square. Upon entering the square, anyone with a smartphone can navigate to a simple interface at and activate different sonic atmospheres that play back from eight loudspeakers integrated into the rain-screens for everyone in the square to hear (photo credit Donal Murphy)

Continuous Drift; Looking into Meeting House Square from Temple Bar. During the day, the square is often used as a transition space

Continuous Drift; Three screenshots of the interface for Continuous Drift on an iPhone. The first shows the landing page at, while the other two show the interface for browsing the available works, listed by artist name and then by image. The order in which the works are listed is randomly generated each day to avoid a prioritization of certain works that would occur if these were listed in alphabetical order based on the contributing artists’ names

Continuous Drift; Detail of one of the speakers integrated into the retractable rain-screens installed in Meeting House Square. The speaker is installed behind the small circular grille set into the curved metal element, approximately in the center of the image. The speaker array is set up as a quadraphonic system, with four groups of two speakers (one on either side of each of the rain-screens)

Although the programming of the public user interface and the administrative controls for the more privately-controlled scheduling of this work represents a significant aspect of this project, the core of Continuous Drift is the work’s curatorial dimension. I approached a variety of artists to contribute to the work, presenting them with an open brief that defined the site of the installation, the work’s technical constraints, and my conceptual instincts, but leaving it up to them to decide what kind of sounds or compositions might define a sonic atmosphere to be presented through this artwork. The contributions are thus extremely varied, ranging from Garrett Phelan’s abstract monologues in the At What Point Will Common Sense Prevail – Archive to Wolfgang Voigt’s regimented sequencer patterns in Zukunft Ohne Menschen; from the fragile tonal tensions established in Miki Yui’s Clouds and Tails to the raw territorial explorations recalled through Stalker/Osservatorio Nomade’s Attraverso i Territori Attual


This variety of works – and the friction between the sonic atmospheres that they establish – adds to the democratic nature of the project and the relationships that it forms between Meeting House Square and the public, participating audience. If one person triggers a given work to play back in the square, anyone else can interact with the system to change the work to another composition, to change its volume, or to simply stop the playback entirely. This intentionally blunt format of control creates rough edges around the installation’s sonic output, which otherwise merges quite naturally within the reflective architecture of the space (particularly as the installation’s output emerges as a diffuse field of quadraphonic sound from the eight discreet speakers located overhead). Different compositions create different effects, navigating different thresholds in terms of whether or not they are perceived by people passing through the space. 


The resulting dialogues between listeners and participants – both in a given instant and over time – provide a vehicle for longer-term conversations about sound and space to emerge. The installation was launched in July 2015 and will be complemented by an array of prominent public signage (wrapping around the bases of the rain-screen columns), scheduled for installation in January 2016. Furthermore, The Arts Council of Ireland has funded a proposal to commission a new round of compositions for the system later in 2016, allowing the project’s curatorial dimension to expand even further. These new compositions will co-exist with the works already embedded in the space.


Continuous Drift is very intentionally sited in Meeting House Square, as the square plays a significant role within Temple Bar (and within Dublin) as a prominent focal point which articulates ongoing conversations about the public realm and the use (and administration) of public space within the city. The square was developed in 1996 as part of Group 91’s masterplan for Temple Bar.[17] Positioned as a transitional space between a range of cultural amenities, including The Irish Film Institute, The National Gallery of Photography, The Ark (a children’s arts centre), The National Photography Centre, and The Gaiety School of Acting (as well as several restaurants), the square is often used for outdoor events, including film screenings, concerts, and food markets. In 2012, Sean Harrington Architects designed and installed the series of four retractable rain-screens (that provide the infrastructural support for Continuous Drift) within the square, creating the potential to shelter these outdoor events from inclement weather and providing a definitive new visual icon set within the context of the architecture bordering the square. The square’s central but quiet role – set within Temple Bar and the predominantly tourist-oriented activities and nightlife that have come to characterize it – makes it a relevant space within which to explore the theme of control in relation to the atmospheric or ambient qualities of public space, as supported through the system set in place by Continuous Drift.


The second installation that has emerged through the MAP framework, Glass House, seeks to discover a new urban form that lies at the intersection between the city’s sound environment, the private mediascape of the cinema, and the public realm. Glass House is a sound installation for Smithfield Plaza that listens to the films being screened in the adjacent Light House Cinema and uses the melodies from them to create a subtle sonic trace that hovers in the public space outside of the cinema while films are being screened. The title of the piece alludes to John Cage’s theories equating experimental music to glass architecture, where one does not see the surface (or hear the music) but instead somehow looks (or listens) through it.[18] This sound installation spans the length of the square, embedded within the twelve lighting braziers that line the west side of the square. The resulting soundscape focuses on the open area of the plaza, leaving the apartments to the west and the small parks on the north and sound ends of the park relatively unaffected. The installation creates a responsive environment, continually adjusting its output according to the other sounds taking place on the site, and runs on a system of networked computers and custom hardware that is integrated into both the plaza and the cinema. At the time of this article’s publication, Glass House has been previewed during a prototype phase, installed on two of the twelve braziers in the plaza, with a full installation planned in 2016.

Glass House; The twelve public lighting elements lining the western side of Smithfield Plaza form the core infrastructure and visual element housing the Glass House sound installation. At the time of this article’s publication, Glass House is in a prototype phase installed on two of the twelve columns, with a full installation planned in 2016

Glass House; Working with the public lighting department to install cabling for the Glass House installation. This image shows the installation team working to install speakers and wireless networking equipment in the uplighter trays above ground level. The sound from these speakers projects downwards through a horizontal opening on the rear of the columns (visible in the next image) creating a subtle, dispersed tonal element that complements the more dominant sounds that emerge from the lower part of the columns out into the square

Glass House; Working with the public lighting department to install cabling for sound installation in Smithfield Plaza. This image shows the installation team working to install the core electronics – a weatherproof enclosure with a computer, soundcard, amplifier, and a loudspeaker – within the base of the lighting columns. The dominant sound of the installation emerges from within the column through an equipment grille, producing a subtle soundscape that projects out across the cobblestones into the center of the plaza

Compositionally, Glass House is predominantly experienced as a distributed set of very slowly-evolving tonal clusters rooted in the lighting elements lining the side of the plaza. The moderate volume levels that the installation achieves do not seek to create a continuous sonic space within the plaza; instead the intended effect on walking past these sources is one of passing in and out of a mediated form. Depending on the location of the listener, the continuity of this form will vary. This experience also varies depending on the weather (as the plaza is quite exposed – leaving it quite open to wind and rain) and according to the ambient noises that occur around its periphery. The piece will be most prominent when it reacts to the onset (or absence) of music in the films that are active in the cinema, fading in or out of the space over a long but perceptible duration.


The installation of Glass House has been quite complicated, requiring frequent site-visits with a team of electricians from Dublin City Council’s public lighting department who have helped orchestrate the power and signal distribution system required for the installation to function. I have developed customized weatherproof enclosures that house the computers, sound-cards, amplifiers, networking equipment, and other electronics that form the playback units that are installed in the braziers lining the square. The computers used for the installation are low-cost ARM units that perform real-time audio analysis and playback using patches composed in Pure Data Extended running on a customized Linux installation. The system is quite robust and cost-effective and is designed with long-term maintenance as a primary consideration, ensuring that once it is installed, it will be possible for Dublin City Council to devise reasonable maintenance contracts to keep it running over time.


These two project frameworks – Continuous Drift and Glass House – have provided vehicles for sustaining conversations about core issues related to their impact, perception, and relation to other urban issues and processes (both sound-related and otherwise), as well as reinforcing inter-departmental linkages within the council through the requirements generated by their installation, maintenance, and definition. 

Continuous Drift presents an interface for debate about the issue of control over the urban sound environment in Dublin, also linking to other specific discussions of participatory urbanism[19] which have been active in the council throughout the last two years. Granting the public control over the sound environment in this frequently-used space is a direct reference to some of the ambitions that the architect Constant Nieuwenhuys pursued through his ongoing development of the New Babylon project, in which he sought to create multi-use sectors in which the public would have control over various dimensions of the environment and atmosphere, including sound (Nieuwenhuys 1974: 12).[20] This installation positions Nieuwenhuys’ impulses alongside more contemporary studies of urban atmospheres, setting in place an ongoing public experiment in which these ambiances might be continuously adjusted by passers-by.


Glass House ties in with a re-development scheme called the Smithfield Enhancement Scheme, which the council has set in place to recover some of Smithfield Plaza’s identity and use as a public space following years of slightly ambiguous public opinion The area had been developed to house large events (including concerts), but due to the proximity of residential areas (including newly-built apartments lining both the eastern and western edges of the plaza), these events generated too many complaints, and such programming was discontinued.[21] The Glass House installation seeks to reclaim the open space of the plaza by defining a continuously evolving but experientially stable sonic identity as well as establishing a link between the privacy of a cinematic space and the open dynamics of a public plaza. The relationship that this establishes between the cinema (as a significant privately-owned cultural resource in the area) and the city council is also quite important to the project, as it engenders a form of cooperation between local business networks and local authority that aims to find new ways of working together to shape the identity of public spaces.



With Continuous Drift installed and Glass House moving through prototype stages towards its final installation, my perspective of the work that I have achieved working in collaboration with Dublin City Council to investigate the role of the urban acoustic planner remains optimistic. The public art commissioning scheme through which I initiated the project provided a sustainable framework within which such a project could persist on a relatively low budget for a significant period of time. Adjusting my pace to working on these projects in focused windows of time and then shifting my attention to other dimensions of the project – such as meetings, and eventually PR and community networking related to the installations – has proven necessary, in order to make sure that these two aspects of my position would receive equal priority. As I move through each stage of conversations related to each of these projects’ installation and realization with relation to their referent sites, I am aware that it is unlikely that either project could have existed if I had not been working in the background through this type of embedded artist residency. Each project involved so many variables and so many permissions; if either had been proposed directly at the outset of a public art commissioning scheme, they might have been judged as too risky to fund (given their lack of feasibility and reliance on such a vast network of support) from the perspective of a responsible selection panel. The background work that went into explaining both the impetus for installing such works in prominent public spaces and to providing a context within which such work could be evaluated in relation to other work in the public realm was only possible with the “position” that I invented for myself and with the stabilization of this position provided by the city council’s public arts manager and arts office. My instinct to write this article (as it evolved from my presentation at the Recomposing the City symposium in Belfast) is largely due to my desire to express a sense of gratitude to all of the people who have prioritized the project’s progression within the city council and within the city itself. Proceeding from that, the first stages of this article, in which I contextualized my work in relation to Kevin Atherton and Sarah Pierce’s performance framework Are There Any Questions? and the Artist Placement Group’s work of developing a context through which to evaluate embedded artist residencies strike me as the article’s most valuable assertion. The boundaries that we often sense between contemporary sound art practices and their manifestation alongside (or within) the major design professions that are responsible for shaping the public realm might be breached more often if those of us who are working within this field take the time to understand our work within a more open art-historical framework, which provides many examples of how we might address, transgress, and perform upon such boundaries.


My core project MAP derives much of its directive from a set of artistic practices that branch away from the domain of sound studies, understood alongside the history of work devoted to the specific definition of acoustic planning and of more discursive platforms involving the situation of sound art in public space. The project draws its strength from the context provided by the specific working circumstances and individual personalities that surround and interact with its quiet (but persistent) production set within Dublin City Council. The project’s momentum, as an experimental design tool set within a local authority, resulted in it being awarded the European Soundscape Award in 2014, presented by the European Environmental Agency in conjunction with the Noise Abatement Societies in The Netherlands and the United Kingdom to promote local initiatives to work to produce new approaches to the issues surrounding the management and perception of environmental noise.


In 2016, when Continuous Drift and Glass House are both complete and the artists’ placement exploring the role of the urban acoustic planner that forms the core of the MAP commission comes to an end, I hope that the issues raised by this project will continue to develop through the public reception of the installations within Meeting House Square and Smithfield Plaza. As these projects evolve over time, the role of the urban acoustic planner as an incidental person set within a local authority – and as the initiator of the processes that led to the integration of such projects within the public realm – might become somewhat clearer.



Anderson, Sven (2014). From Noise Control to Urban Acoustic Design: Exploring Civic Responses to an Activated Urban Soundscape. Paper presented at the Recomposing the City: Sound Art and Urban Architectures Symposium, Belfast.


Atherton, Kevin (2005). “REWIND: Artists' Video of the 70's and 80's: Interview with Kevin Atherton by Dr. Jackie Hatfield.” 


Bishop, Claire (2012). Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso.


Joseph, Brandon (1997). “John Cage and the Architecture of Silence.” October 81: 80-104.


Kreutzfeldt, Jacob (2011). “Copenhagen Sonic Experience Map.” In Brandon LaBelle and Claudia Martinho (eds.), Site of Sound: Of Architecture and the Ear (Vol. 2) (pp. 67-80). Los Angeles: Errant Bodies Press.


Lynch, Kevin (1960). The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Nieuwenhuys, Constant (1974). New Babylon. The Hague: Haags Gemeentemuseum.


Schafer, R. Murray (1978). The Tuning of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.