The Secret Theatre Revisited: Eavesdropping on Locative Media Performances[1]


Pieter Verstraete


… to think about the mobile is to reflect on the urban itself: the mobile as urban strategy.

(Hemment 2005: 35)


Today’s artistic convergences between mobile media and performative arts beg for new interdisciplinary connections if we wish to analyze the aesthetic and social implications as part of more established practices within urban culture. In this article, I focus on the use of the Apple iPod in locative media art performances, an already older technology at the moment of writing, but one that is still pertinent when discussing an often overlooked dimension of the “spatial turn” in the social and human sciences: sound.


From the mid-2000s towards the 2010s many new media scholars were focusing on the spatial and social practices of newly emerging “locative” technologies, mainly because of their commercial development. During this time, as locative media became available to wider audiences with the arrival of the smartphone and the iPod, the interest in locative media began to shift, and many spatially oriented approaches and analyses were developed that examined either applications for media art or their wider uptake for everyday use. However, as Frauke Behrendt (2012) rightfully pointed out, most of the research and discourses surrounding locative media back then (and often still) are structured around a visual bias simply because space and spatial perception are often approached as visual phenomena, determined by the longitudinal coordinates connecting one point to another: sites as “sights.” Behrendt calls for a wider, multisensory focus, which would include the auditory qualities of locative media in spatial awareness and place-making.


Performances and artistic audio walks that make use of the inexpensive iPod technology – or any mp3 device for that matter – reveal significant aspects of the auditory experience of locative media. For this article, I choose to focus on three works of art that make use of mobile digital music media: Janet Cardiff’s Alter Bahnhof, Dries Verhoeven’s Niemandsland, and Judith Hoffland’s Like Me. All are performative audio walks presented in 2012; they all start or take place in stations, inviting social reflections on spaces designed for mobility; and they share a common feature of reconfiguring the urban experience by means of locative features and interactive relations with the surrounding spatial context.


One more fundamental aspect that these locative audio works share is the affordance of a “secret” theatrical experience, forging new relationships between the iPod users, inconspicuous by-passers, and their surroundings, which begs for a consideration of the iPod’s analogue predecessor, the Sony Walkman. In fact, the so-called “spatial turn” can be dated back to the 1980s when this low-tech device hit the developing global market. As a result, the 1980s were characterized by an awareness of “domesticating the external world,” as Ian Chambers asserted in his text “The Aural Walk,” by “imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment” (Cox and Warner 2004: 100). Shuhei Hosokawa (1984) disects this argument in his landmark article, “The Walkman Effect,” originally written in 1981, not so long after the arrival of the Sony Walkman in the spring of 1980. A significant new step was Hosokawa’s culturalist take on the use of the device as a practice or strategy of urban life.


Today, I take Hosokawa’s revolutionary text as my point of departure in revisiting his idea of the use of portable music media (“musica mobilis” as he calls it) in order to experience walking as a “secret theatre.” Not only for the sake of applying Hosokawa’s ideas to a contemporary usage of portable music devices as locative media, I also propose such an inquiry in order to achieve a better historical understanding of urban culture spanning the timeline between the Walkman and the iPod, however “worn-out” these portable music media may already be. I feel encouraged by Hosokawa’s use of cultural theories – such as those of De Certeau, Greimas, and Deleuze – to provoke interactions between contemporary debates on locative media in media studies and compelling concepts from audio (culture) studies, such as Bull’s “auditized looking” (2000), Weis’ “écouterism” (1999), Hollier/Sartre’s “auditory gaze” (2004) and Connor’s “modern auditory I” (1997). I will fill in the cracks that Hosakawa has left us to understand better the implications of the “secret theatre” for our auditory experiences of locative audio walks with the iPod today.

Drew Hemment already commenced such an endeavor by coining the mobile effect as a continuation of Hosokawa’s line of thought for locative media, albeit with a significant difference: “Whereas the mobile is oriented to connectivity and communication, the Walkman is oriented towards an individualized listening experience” (Hemment 2005: 33). I intend to further explore Hosokawa’s secret theatre notion as indicative of the private listening situation and use it to explain the iPod’s remediation of the Walkman effect:


The walkman effect must be measured in terms of this practical mode of operation. Even when one switches off, or leaves it behind, theatrical effects are still active. The show must go on till the death of the gadget-object. (Hosokawa 1984: 179)


If we can take this “death” literally, as the actual functions of the Walkman have been largely taken over by digital audio media, we can ask ourselves: How did the show go on in its locative afterlife? Before we can answer this, I suggest we first explore the concept of locative media and ask what it brings to the current discussion on sound.

Locative Media and iPods


Locative media are new, emergent technologies of the mobile and usually wearable kind that conventionally deliver contextually embedded or dependent content in relation to places. In the narrow sense, content is tied to places through a particular idea of GPS (Global Positioning System) and/or its Russian counterpart GLONASS or GIS (Geographic Information System) and linked to a digital cartography. By the same token, these locally added contents and digital information may facilitate making the digital space increasingly more physically realistic or even “embodied” by its inhabitants as in what is generally called “augmented reality,” when space is doubled (Manovich 2016).


Picking up on a strand of “off-the-desktop” user interface research of the 1990s, which already began in the 1980s (particularly at Xeroc PARC), Karlis Kalnins – while at the 2003 Art + Communication Festival summer camp in Riga, Latvia – allegedly coined the term locative media to denote those technologies that include augmented reality and pervasive/ubiquitous computing to enhance a given environment (Wilken 2012: 243). The word “locative” also points toward the spatial designating function of this Latin vestigial case; it is not only concerned with the where, the place or location, but operates to rebuild and re-establish a spatial context. Marc Tuters and Kazys Varnelis (2006), therefore, stress two categories of locative media: one is annotative – media technologies that allow users to virtually tag and consequently filter the real world (as with “geo-annotation”) – and the second is phenomenological, tracing the action of a subject in the world.


The latter aspect, however, opens up the possibility of understanding locative media in a much more global sense: context-aware technologies that not only technically or technologically afford place attachment and place-making but also a larger sense of spatial or location awareness, including social relations and use of space. When distinguishing a diverse array of location-aware media practices, we should include not only the vast area of devices that employ sensors other than GPS systems – such as accelerometers, pedometers, heart rate monitors, gyroscopes, fingerprint sensors, barometers, beacons, compasses, cameras, microphones, RFID, QR, NFC etc., all of which can measure, trigger content, and broadcast any type of output within specific locations – but more simple, one-dimensional devices such as the many iPod generations, and even the Walkman, also belong to early forms of locative media.


So “locative,” in this larger sense, designates the specific mode of experience and the positioning or locating of the subject – as part of a larger spatial turn within modern urban life and culture – more than the location itself. The term seems to yield a certain consciousness regarding our relation to our urban environments, emerging from a media archaeology way before the arrival of geo-tagging in mobile technology. Anne Galloway (2008) speaks, in this regard, of an increased extensibility and transmissibility of the city itself, along with an increased ability to be socially embedded within it, which Martijn de Waal (2011) and Mark Shepard (2011) capture with the notion of “the sentient city” as a result of the steady stream of increasingly intelligent applications that shape our experience of the city.


In their early stages of artistic experiment, locative media were likened to the Situationists’ agenda and their critique of urban geography or Walter Benjamin’s tactile mode of perception. Due to their development primarily for military and possible corporate/consumer purposes (such as Foursquare), locative media was initially analyzed within media theory with a strong focus on privacy issues, surveillance culture, and the disappearance of the apparatus (transparency vs. opacity issues) as part of larger critical debates of immediacy in virtual reality (cf. Bolter and Grusin 1996).


Literature arising around 2010 focused more on spatial and social practices of mobile technologies in everyday life (Goggin and Hjorth 2009; Ling and Campell 2009), where they serve to blur the lines between public and private space and facilitate social networking (Lee 2009; Humphreys 2008). Most studies focus on theories of space that allow for the mutual transformation of location and digital data to be understood as a process of becoming, a concept most fully developed in Deleuze’s philosophy of the virtual. Goggin (2012) talks of yet another paradigm shift as the “locational turn,” which he defines as a new trend in “the work of making place that has been occurring with mobile technologies” (Goggin 2012: 198). De Souza e Silva (2006) speaks of a true dissolving of borders between physical and digital spaces.


The discussions regarding transparence/opacity (Leaver and Lloyd 2014) as well as personal privacy (Keijl, Klaassen and Op den Akker 2013) reappear again when GPS technology is further commercialized and made more accessible to the larger public for the purposes of tracking, advertising, and profiling. But the potentiality of creating socialities through locative media also gradually became more recognized, and studies started to focus more on how the technologies create settings for modern identities and communities – as well as new forms of governmentality – in a world that is layered with digital systems (de Lange 2010; Barreneche 2012). In this context, Goffman’s theory of the presentation of self and George Simmel’s theory of sociability are often explored (Sutko 2011; Özkül 2014) as well as ethnic and national differences (de Souza e Silva, Sutko, Salis and de Souza e Silva 2011; Hjorth, Wilken and Gu 2012).


It is with the proliferation of location-based services and media that the need for artistic exploration of these new technologies and urban experiences has also increased, and we can slowly see a shift of attention from the audio-visual culture in the 20th century to the locative, mobile, real-time, and social experiences in the 21st century. Yet what is generally lacking in scholarly engagement with these artistic works is a consideration of sound.

Behrendt remarks with De la Motte-Haber (2002) that “[t]he ear is a much better analyst of space. It conveys to the perceiver the volume of a space and gives clues about its qualities” (De la Motte-Haber, 2002: 34; quoted in Behrendt 2012: 287). She points toward the relevance of atmosphere for places (Toop 2004), mood steering through Muzak, and mood management through the Walkman or “personal stereo” (Bull 2000). Despite Behrendt’s efforts, there is still a huge gap when it comes to experiential concepts that include the locative media user as listener. One question that leads me to the following paragraph is to what extent these new locative media “remediate” our listening experiences with the Walkman. To answer this, I believe we need to delve into Hosokawa’s “secret theatre” notion and gauge how the iPod creates – on its own terms – an audience that shares this secret. I will introduce this inquiry with Alter Bahnhof Video Walk by Janet Cardiff and George Burges Miller, as presented at Documenta 13 in Kassel, 2012.

Re-Entering the Secret Theatre: Alter Bahnhof Video Walk


With the rise of a global iPod culture in public urban spaces, the changes in our listening modes, spatial relations, and, ultimately, our perceptual habits, have been explored by many artists, among whom Janet Cardiff has been perhaps the most influential since the end of the 1990s.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (2012). Alter Bahnhof Video Walk” [Promo Video]. dOCUMENTA (13), property of City of Kassel, 9 June-16 September 2012. Uploaded by Cardiff Miller, 23 July 2012.



The setting for her Alter Bahnhof Video Walk is Kassel’s main train station. Each participant is given an iPod Touch, which contains a visual recording of the itinerary that one is about to take, guided by Cardiff’s voice as off-screen narrator. The participant is asked by the voice to hold the iPod at all times in such a way so as to match the given visual perspective of the video. By doing so, the iPod turns into a simple version of locative media. The participant is here the locative agent on command by the artist, trusting the logic of “geo-annotation” to work with her or his own agency in order to reveal the exact location of these “secret” places in a place that is most commonly used by travelers and commuters. The narrator’s voice gradually reveals a story of people who were once there, including Jews who were deported from this station during WWII. The participant becomes a detective in this reimagined war history, following the traces of sounds from the past and present that are entwined with Cardiff’s disembodied or “acousmatic” voice:


OK, turn the camera on. Press the video button. I am sitting here right now with you in the train station in Kassel, watching people pass by. It’s very intimate in ways, watching people. You can see how they walk.


I consider the process of “acousmatization” as essential in understanding the impact of (mediated) sound on listening. “Acousmatic” – from the Greek akousma, meaning auditive perception, or literally “what is heard” – most commonly denotes the sound one hears without seeing its source body or originating cause. The Greek word also holds an ancient reference to the Pythagorean venues (6th century BC) where the Master taught his pupils orally from behind a curtain – like an oracle – so as to not let his physical appearance and presence distract their focus from the spoken word and, thus, the content of his message (Restivo 1999: 137).


Here, Cardiff’s almost whispering but compelling voice is immediately acousmatized, as her presence in the physical space is assumed to be the one behind the camera showing us how she perceived the exact same place at the station hall at the time of the recording. This is, of course, not such a surprise to us, since mobile audio devices have made us quite familiar with, if not unaware of, disembodied or acousmatized sounds, but here the pre-recorded voice incites us to re-embody her aural and visual perspective through positioning the device, and, ultimately, through the act of walking. This embodiment of acousmatized sound that is unknown to outsiders is exactly the lure and the key to the “secrecy” of what Hosokawa describes in “The Walkman Effect”:


Whether it is the walkman that charges the body, or, inversely, the body that charges the walkman, it is difficult to say. The walkman works not as a prolongation of the body (as with other instruments of musica mobilis) but as a built-in part or, because of its intimacy, as an intrusion-like prosthesis (see Traverses 1979). The walkman holder plays the music and listens to the sound come from his own body (see Barthes 1982, p. 265). (Hosokawa 1984: 176)


Cardiff’s use of the iPod leads to this permeable experience of body and device. Although her voice emanates from the recording, it is re-embodied by the iPod listener through the headphones, thereby generating a highly acute awareness of the places that she visited before and that the listener is revisiting now. This creates a highly personal experience connecting the disembodied voice with the re-embodying listener directly in and through the space. It reminds me of Hemment’s analogy of the “mobile effect” as opposed to the “walkman effect” (see above): whereas the mobile is about connectivity, the Walkman is about individualized listening experiences (2005: 33).

The omniscient narrator’s voice continues:


This video will be an experiment. Or, like those prisoners stuck in Plato’s cave, we watch the flickering shadows on the screen. Try to align your movements with mine. Move your screen to the left, up, as I do. A red coat, I used to have one. I wonder where it went.


Earlier, the voice made us notice how the passers-by’s way of walking “can tell us they are happy or sad or lost somewhere in their mind.” Such statements seem to allude to more than the perhaps now worn-out idea of the “society of the spectacle” (Debord), turning the iPod listeners into eternal spectators. Here, the use of the iPod seems to question Hemment’s statement, as connectivity does take place through time and space precisely through the forged connections between looking and listening, between prerecorded, virtual space and physical, embodied place. Suddenly, Cardiff shows the viewer an image of a walk in the woods, first-person perspective, as if she catches the wandering mind of one of the passers-by. After this small interruption disconnecting us from the reality in the train station, the shared path continues.


Hosokawa’s chapter critiques precisely the assumed disconnection that would lead to (political) apathy among the young who use their headphones to seclude themselves from the outside world. He aligns in this respect with R. Murray Schafer’s “territorialized listening” through “schizophonia” – a rather pejorative word, invented by Schafer to denote the acousmatic listening situation. Similar to Schafer, who was interested in analyzing our modern soundscapes, Hosokawa’s ultimate focus is on the relationship of the Walkman with urban life itself. The Walkman adds a moment to a history of urban life in which the “listener seems to cut the auditory contact with the outer world where he really lives: seeking the perfection of his 'individual' zone of listening” (Hosokawa 1984: 167). However, does the Walkman really constitute an alienated sense of self in a “lonely crowd,” allegedly “suffering from incommunicability,” (Riesman, Glazer and Denney 1989) or does it exemplify the potentiality of the autonomy-of-the-walking-self (inspired by Lyotard’s expression of the postmodern self) (Hosokawa 1984: 165)? And does it, in Schafer’s sense, enhance a schizophonic, de-territorialized listening that alienates and takes people far away from a harmonious relationship to their sonic environments?


Hosokawa criticizes Schafer’s pejorative stance against the schizophonic listening situation as a sentimental lament of a lost Nature:


His 'humanistic framework', supported by the ravishing neologisms, aims only at the improvement ad hoc of the soundscape in question on the perceptual level (for example, 'ear cleaning') or on the situation alone (for example, 'soniferous garden'); there is no consideration of the underlying social interactions or of the process whereby the soundscape itself is institutionalised. His point of view still derives, against his wish, from that of the ‘urbanist or planner’, or that of the ‘teacher’, rather than of the user or habitant. (Hosokawa 1984: 174)


Hosokawa brings in De Certeau to claim that we do not live in “a one-layered ‘sonoferous’ reality, in which one factor can exercise its influence on total reality homogeneously, but in a multi-layered structure” (Hosokawa 1984: 175).


This is an urban strategy shaped by four properties of the Walkman: miniaturization (the device’s design trajectory of reducing space needed for its use), singularization (which removes our need to experience the technology in a social context), autonomy (which fills the nomadic experience with its own context and reality), and the deconstruction of meaning (which enables the Walkman user to re-read the “text,” or urban life, reforming it through her or his use). The same could be said about the iPod in Cardiff’s work of art, which singularizes and autonomizes the walking act by drawing the user into an imaginative space through the screen and earbuds of the iPod. Walking with the iPod thus creates an evolving and mutating environment in a process of Deleuzian becoming, which collects, congeals, and diffuses according to the device’s output and the agency of the individual listener-spectator.


Gradually, pre-recorded sounds of the station begin to blend in with the daily hustle and bustle of passers-by to the extent that these sounds penetrate the autonomous headspace, thereby calling attention to the multi-layered condition of urban lives. Suddenly an unexpected musical soundscape of horns playing appears in the background while the disembodied narrator’s voice continues:


So many people wear black here. Garbage bins have moved. Do you see the musicians between the pillars now? Let’s get up. Follow them.


Questions trigger sightings that make the iPod listener move around and suddenly notice things in the actual physical space that are normally overlooked. Simultaneous sonic realities of acousmatized and de-acousmatized sound seem to co-exist. The off-screen musicians enter the digital screen space, and one exchanges his horn for a megaphone, gesturing for us to follow, while moving along, continuing his walk. Now, while walking, the user observes a pre-recorded performance begin to unfold as suddenly a ballet dancer moves along with the echoing brass tune, which fills the headspace as if it is happening visually and acoustically right in front of the self-enclosed listener. The iPod listener witnesses this virtual performance while passing by. Hosokawa speaks of a deterritorialized listening as part of the Walkman effect and opposed to Schafer’s territorialized listening. It transforms every urban space into something familiar, a “space of security” (Barthes 1982):


It intends that every sort of familiar soundscape is transformed by that singular acoustic experience coordinated by the user's own ongoing pedestrian act, which induces an autonomous 'head space' between his Self and his surroundings in order to distance itself from – not familiarise itself with – both of them. The result is a mobility of the Self. Thus the walkman crosses every predetermined line of the acoustic designers. It enables us to move towards an autonomous pluralistically structured awareness of reality, but not towards a self-enclosed refuge or into narcissistic regression. (Hosokawa 1984: 175)


Cardiff touches upon the crux of Hosokawa’s deconstruction of the Walkman user’s autonomy, the “autonomy-of-the-walking-self” as urban strategy to contextualize the ever-becoming-complex reality of velocity and simultaneity of the 1980s while simultaneously decontextualizing the city’s given coherence through individual, mobile sound experiences. Hosokawa thereby responds to the earlier negative view of the modern subject as someone who fails to make coherence (just as Adorno described through his notion of “atomistic listening”). Many scholars after Hosokawa, such as Michael Bull, have argued that the “personal stereo” (Bull’s term to avoid copyright issues with Sony) remediates a cinematic experience, making the urban chaos highly personal yet social in terms of establishing new coherences.


It is in this in-between space that the Walkman effect turns the device into a “secret theatre,” according to Hosokawa, not just through its social implications but also in its ability to aestheticize the urban practices of walking and transporting oneself. The user listens “not only to something secret but also to the secret itself, a secret in the form of mobile sound: an open, public secret” (Hosokawa 1984: 177). The Walkman produces the possibility of a theatre for new interactions with the urban and with each other. It not only turns singular Walkman users into secret auditor-spectators who aestheticize urban realities but it also lets them communicate the secret amongst themselves. Hosokawa alludes to the game/play of a societé ludique (Alain Cotta) in this interaction while he stresses the role we choose to play in the “society of spectacle” through the Walkman. In the end he argues for a new sociability that emerges from a shared awareness of possessing a secret: "people communicate with one another through the form – not the content – of the secret" (Hosokawa 1984: 178). This is a rather bold claim, but we see an extension of this in Cardiff’s Alter Bahnhof Video Walk.


In fact, the addition of the iPod’s screen enhances a sense of a double frame – both virtual/inside and physical/outside space – which could advance Hosokawa’s main argument of the secret theatre even further. Its user becomes a secret listener as well as an actor to the outside world – turning the walking act through the station into a spectacle for others as well as a highly individualized aesthetic experience.


Cardiff places, besides the enclosing stereo headphones, a screen between the self and surroundings – a screen that carries the aura of a memory as much as suggesting an augmented vision that also enhances sounds that are either not there or not normally perceived. Not only images add to these new aural perspectives on the physical space, sounds also inform visual cues to the otherwise unseen, offering us this “autonomous pluralistically structured awareness of reality” (Hosokawa 1984: 175). In this way her piece and use of the iPod still align with Hosokawa’s statements concerning the Walkman.


Through the initial statement – “It is very intimate to watch people” – the iPod reveals a secret theatre, a promise to disclose a deeper reality that only the bearer of the iPod can access; it becomes a tool for a secretly-shared reality emerging between the sounds/voice and the self. Yet this new audio-visual and extant multi-layered and intimate space also holds something perverse. Watching and overhearing others as they move – otherwise disregarded but now enclosed in the secret theatre – reveals a deeper pathology embedded in our attraction towards these new, locative devices: a desire to overhear, surveil, or gain secret information to which others have no access, achieving greater agency while at the same time subjecting ourselves to the technology. Or, as Cardiff reminds us, becoming “like those prisoners stuck in Plato’s cave.” These technologies seem to hypostasize imaginary space into real space, not just as an escape from reality but as a compelling perspective on it, which totally consumes all of our attention as spectators, silent witnesses and/or temporary inhabitants of that space. In doing so, the technology does indeed replicate the workings of drama, as in a secret theatre that works through bridging distances by means of reimagining what is presented within the frame. Cardiff’s audio walk also offers a gentle trespassing into “secret” places, present and past, actual and virtual, real and imaginative, as far as her authoritative, acousmatized voice compels us to do so, within the confines of a pre-scripted narrative frame and pathway. Question is, however, if the locative aspect of this audio walk would not benefit from a more open pathway, beyond the metaphorical cave in the hands of the artist-puppeteer.


For the next step in my inquiry, therefore, I will focus on two other locative art works emerging around the same time as Cardiff’s but with a somewhat different position towards the interaction of space and technology: Dries Verhoeven’s Niemandsland (2012) and Judith Hofland’s Like Me (2013). These will help me to further discuss the idea of walking with digital, mobile music players as both a “secret theatre” and urban strategy by introducing a new set of concepts from sound studies. Like Cardiff’s work of art, these performative audio walks turn the privacy of the highly-individual experience of the secret theatre into a feeling of submission (a feeling of being subjected) to a piece of technology and a disembodied voice. Yet both focus on different experiences of human contact through breaking the distance between imaginative and real space as well as the interiority of the whole aesthetic listening experience which could be seen as extensions to Hosokawa’s line of thought. In the following paragraph, I explore the notion of “overhearing” as a further elaboration of the secret theatre notion. In so doing, I may slightly deviate from Hosokawa’s historical argument, but soon return to it.

Subjectification, Ecouterism, and Overhearing in Niemandsland


Dries Verhoeven’s Niemandsland (2012) shows us how distance in particular can energize a socially engaging experience in a common yet secretly shared space when mediated by a simple mp3 player and a performer who guides the way. In Niemandsland (literally, “no man’s land”), each participant is paired, as with a speed date or blind date, to an actor, someone with a migration background and a history of diaspora and who appears to be a commuter. They meet each other under the travel schedule board in a station (it was originally presented in Utrecht and Amsterdam, but there are also versions for Berlin, Munich, and Valencia). Initially, both participants and actors stand opposite each other while wearing headphones. They all listen to Henry Purcell’s well-known recitative and aria, Dido’s Lament (“When I am Laid in Earth,” ca. 1689), to which the actors lip-synch. This soulful song fills the train hall with a melancholic ambience for all those listening. This communal listening immediately shapes a bond: they share a “secret,” which the passers-by do not have access to.

Dries Verhoeven (2009). Niemandsland [Promo Video]. Huis en Festival a/d Werf, Utrecht, 22-31 May 2008. Uploaded by Arnoud Traa (De Auditieve Dienst), 13 April 2010.


Once the song has finished, the seemingly random, “secret” encounter turns into a passage through a multicultural neighborhood at walking distance from the station, the presumed living space of the immigrant. Each participant is invited to follow an immigrant while they hear a disembodied voice in their own language through the headphones:


This is me. This is my face. This is not a costume. This is no Dutch face. This is not my voice. This is not my language. This is the voice of an actor. I will bring you somewhere. You can walk behind me, a bit behind me, like this. Don’t lose sight of me. (my translation)


What the headphone listener experiences is differential mobility in action. Wood and Graham (2005) pointed out that access to transportation technologies, to the same extent as the ways in which we dwell in spaces, is distributed differentially among groups of different socio-economic classes. The audio walk makes those spaces, which most of us would not pay attention to, visible. Here the “secret theatre” discloses a whole new socio-economic realm, existing mainly in the narrative that is given by the disembodied voice.


The mp3 player is used here to frame a slice of social reality through a personal testimony narrative that otherwise would go unnoticed. Responses by participants ranged from feelings of recognition to feelings of powerlessness against the social injustices they hear about. Moreover, the connection to the outside world relies entirely on a sense of distance, which materializes first and foremost between the headphone user and her or his silent tour guide. This distancing mechanism is redoubled by the realization that the disembodied voice is clearly not that of the guide but of another (voice) actor in a studio. This quasi-Brechtian technique is not insignificant, as the “secret theatre” enables the listener to embody the voice, as if this voice emerges from the inside, the mp3 player functioning “as a built-in part or […] as an intrusion-like prosthesis” (Hosokawa 1984: 176). The distance works precisely to create a critical layer around the identifying process, which makes a point: we are not the same, nor can we fully appropriate the lives of others, their stories, or the places they have lived or live in.


Along the same lines, Drew Hemment points out a significant aspect of mobile media, one used artistically here: “The uncertain distance inherent in the mobile experience hints at the possibility of a critical perspective on the operations of control […] while the doubling that we have seen to be at play in mobile media helps us understand this ambiguity” (Hemment 2005: 35-6). This audio walk turns the ambiguous sense of being in charge of one’s environment around and plays with the pull of voyeurism, offered by the secrecy of the mobile music devise, which helps one feel safe while looking shamelessly at and into the lives of others, those who have become part of one’s own secret theatre. This is what Michael Bull (2000) calls “auditized looking,” namely the way those listening to a personal stereo can either make or avoid eye contact with others in ways they would not otherwise.


Elisabeth Weis refers to this privileged listener as the écouteur (the eavesdropper, from French écouter, listening), equivalent to the voyeur. Hence, she coins écouterism, equating the pleasure in aural stimulation to that of voyeurism. For her, this phenomenon is central to the cinematic experience, but I propose to extend this notion here to the mobile music situations that correpondingly produce a “cinema for the ears” (Francis Dhomont): “In every case the eavesdropper acquires some form of Knowledge […] a self-knowledge that the listener would not otherwise have recognized” (Weis 1999: 85-6).

Weis further refers to the so-called “primal scene” in psychoanalysis, when Freud describes the impact of the child overhearing his/her parents engaging in sexual intercourse. Écouterism often describes a situation that mimics the primal scene. She adds: “It is often not important what words are overheard; rather, that knowledge is often of something momentous, terrible (anxiety producing), erotic, and secret – carnal knowledge. The knowledge may bring pleasure or pain to the écouteur” (Weis 1999: 79). The secret acquired through eavesdropping may also appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions, as noetic knowledge that ultimately leads to self-knowledge:


We could call that recognition of the self in what one hears an ‘acoustic mirror’ if the phrase had not already been appropriated in a different context by Silverman. I’ll suggest ‘voice of reality’ instead. (Weis 1999: 80)


Precisely through the secrecy and the distancing act that propel the listening modes in the participants of Niemandsland, a sense of écouterism is established that might ultimately help us move from the representational confines of the Imaginary into the Real, or into what Weis calls the “voice of reality.” It produces very intimate, embodied experiences: a playful dance between listener and audio guide sharing the same urban space, that is equally terrible, overhearing some stranger’s life story and watching them from behind making their way through places that are familiar and yet so unknown. Although each narrative is tailored according to the gender and socio-cultural background of the immigrant and is therefore slightly adapted, one of the most terrible moments is when the narrator speaks of a past rape scene of a relative that the host has allegedly witnessed in her or his country. The identification-through-distancing turns the listener into a critical earwitness of this terrible scene; one wants to maintain the distance, but one simply cannot.


Petra Hallmayer critized Dries Verhoeven in the Süddeutschen Zeitung (1 June 2014) for playing too much with narrative templates and stereotypes of refugee stories, which are designed to confirm our own images and judgments rather than allowing for a real encounter with an ethnic other (quoted in Slagman 2014: n.p.). Yet this may also be seen as part of the overarching logic of distancing throughout the audio walk. Towards the end of the audio walk, the disembodied voice in the headphones reveals the reason for this distance and disembodiment, which lies within an inconvenient truth: “Maybe you think I am simply an actor, someone from the casting office. I can tell you there are reasons to keep the stories to myself, to not tell the truth” (my translation).


Distance is maintained throughout the walk; even the voice is exposed as someone else’s, masking the real voice and enhancing the voyeurism and écouterism until the invisible curtain is dropped: the other person turns around and looks straight at the participant. There is no longer any escape. This moment reminds me of the description in a passage of Being and Nothingness, where Sartre recounts how a man peeps through a keyhole, completely absorbed by what is unfolding behind the door. Suddenly, the man hears footsteps in the hall behind him. The resounding, yet invisible, footsteps threaten the voyeur’s gaze, as Dennis Hollier notes:


The gaze of the other, as Lacan praised Sartre for emphasizing, has entered the voyeur’s field of non-vision: it is an (offscreen) acoustic gaze, one experienced not visually, but acoustically, through the surprise of hearing another presence, of feeling him there acoustically, through one’s ears. (Hollier 2004: 164)


The moment of apprehending the other’s actual physical presence is formative for the “auditory gaze” (Hollier 2004). Sound can arrest you, pin you to a location, when it breaks through the metaphorical fourth wall – in the Brechtian theatre sense – the invisible wall of secret looking and listening that is suddenly revealed. In the case of Niemandsland, it is the voyeuristic gaze turned around that shocks the listener, who is suddenly made aware of the secrecy of his social bond with the other and their shared location. In my opinion, this feeling of being noticed is precisely what constitutes the erotic thrill of the secrecy of the Walkman effect, though unacknowledged by Hosokawa. Here the self-enclosure of the headphones does not bring comfort or safety, but allows for this “voice of reality” to penetrate, a confrontion with one’s own desire to control – to appropriate both the space and the other – through the mobile or locative device that enables this mode of overhearing in secrecy.


The audio walk ends in a beach cabin, where écouteur and guide find each other in the darkness of an intimate shared space and where the voice of the other resounds for the first time: the host tenderly sings a song from her or his home country. After that, the beach cabin serves as a camera obscura in which a lens projects an image of the guide holding up a paper with a name written on it: the name of the participant. On a micro-political level, the silent image is a final petition for self-knowledge about one’s own position in the world.

Breaking the Fifth Wall: Auditory Gaze or Navel-Gazing in Like Me?


The challenge of auditized looking in Niemandsland reveals the way we sense ourselves as listening subjects, or as Steven Connor calls it: the modern auditory “I” as a way of embodiment and subjectivity in relation to our s(urr)ounding world. Connor refers to Don Ihde:


‘My “self”,’ declares Don Ihde, the most enthusiastic of audiophile philosophers, ‘is a correlate of the World, and its way of being-in that World is a way filled with voice and language. Moreover, this being in the midst of Word [sic!] is such that it permeates the most hidden recesses of my self.’ (Ihde quoted in Connor 1997: 219)


Through the mediation of the headphones and locative media, audio walks can provide exactly this double awareness of the auditory self, between the inside and outside world, the embodied and digital space.


Judith Hofland’s locative media artwork, Like Me (2013), takes this being in the midst of World/Word a step further by linking it to the voices we imagine when reading words in social media. This interactive audio tour – originally composed for the Over het IJ Festival around Amsterdam Central Station, but also shown at Oerol 2013, Sense of Place, and the Travellings Festival 2014 in Marseille – also makes use of the iPod Touch, which makes it possible to find and meet other participants equipped with the same device.

Judith Hofland (2012). Like Me [Promo Video]. Travellings Festival, Marseille, 7-11 May 2014. Uploaded by Judith Hofland, 7 April 2014.


Like Me (exploiting the phrase’s double-entendre of a social media like and the suggestion of comparison) makes us think how virtual life and the constant data stream of social media permeate our lives, “secretly” changing and shaping our real encounters and interactions with people in urban spaces. Once more, this audio work starts with a disembodied voice, giving instructions and, just like in Cardiff’s work discussed above, belonging to the artist herself:


Hi! I am Judith Hofland. With this iPod you are now part of my social network. On your way, these kinds of images will guide you. You only need to follow the arrows. You will also receive questions on your way. Other pedestrians can see where you are, and they can respond to you. (my translation)


Here, on a micro-political scale, the locative properties of the iPod Touch are used to decentralize a centralized infrastructure, in this case the social network of the artist. The use of the iPod as urban strategy coalesces with network culture, something that Hosokawa could not foresee, but which Hemment reads into “The Walkman Effect”:


Hosokawa's analysis of mobile media offers one way of approaching the kind of political position opened, or closed, by the mobile. To the extent that the ability of the mobile user to ‘figure out a “short circuit” in the place he is walking around’ has a resonance beyond the purely personal, their engagement in urban space may be seen as a political intervention. (Hemment 2005: 34)


Hofland’s Like Me creates space to play with the personal and political implications of figuring out short cuts, deviating from what the disembodied voice affords – through its offering of directions with images and questions – as well as testing the limits of what Hemment calls the reliance on “the clinical precision of digital tracking” (Gemeinboeck and Saunders 2011: 163). It is exactly this location precision that places limits on locative art and which needs to be broken through. In this regard, we can understand Donna Haraway’s claim, “location is about vulnerability”: “Opening up the map, and its grid, and rendering it elastic, twistable, and lacerable allows for impossible relations to be read between the (grid)lines” (Gemeinboeck and Saunders 2011: 170).


Here, too, the use of the iPod plays with the tension between surrender to and control over the system, which Hosokawa referred to as part of the Walkman’s contribution to a sense of autonomy. French sociologist Antoine Hennion speaks in terms of the iPod listener’s own construction of passivity, specifically through his own control:


So instead of popular music pacifying the listener, as Adorno describes it, the listener actively chooses to surrender to the music and create a personal and emotional experience. As such the listener is very much in control throughout the listening. Even when he himself might describe it as ‘losing himself in the music’ the experience will often be staged and designed. (Leong and Gram 2011: n.p.)


In Hofland’s piece, the participant willfully surrenders to a disembodied voice, further referred to as Sascha, who feeds the participant options, possible perspectives, and philosophical thoughts on their pathway through the station. While walking, the participants answer questions about themselves on the touch screen and make connections with invisible, online friends, whose presence is displayed through messages. Then, Sascha introduces them to one other person in the network through a picture taken from the web and chosen by the participant:


You get to know a follower from this network, someone who is a stranger to you at present, on whom you’ve never wasted a thought, who has never surprised you yet. A stranger whom you might have passed in the street on countless occasions. Today you are on your way to meet that stranger. But whether you first get to know his profile on the iPod or his backyard by making a detour, it’s you who decides.


On seeing each other’s pictures, they are both individually asked to give their first impression. Then suddenly, they meet physically on the voice’s instigation:


Have you spotted the other one already? Have you been noticed yet? Or are you two shy people looking away? You’re no longer anonymous now. Has the other one smiled? Is this an encounter? Is this an encounter? You can also get up and shake hands as an investment for the future.


Whereas Niemandsland broke the proverbial fourth wall by making the listener aware of her or his own perception, penetrating the invisible canvas that separates life from theatre with a straight look in the eye, Like Me goes one step further by breaking a fifth wall, namely "that semi-porous membrane that stands between individual audience members during a shared experience” (Davenport, Agamanolis, Barry, Bradley and Brooks 2000: 468). Through these audio walks, we make the journey with a somewhat (post-)modern twist from an inwardly-drawn flâneur or secretive écouteur – dwelling in the colors and moods of our environment, which evolves as a shared secret between us and the artist who broke that up through the use of locative media – to a socially and politically charged environment, where the participant is given agency, becoming an active “spect-actor” (Boal) or perhaps, an “aud-actor” (my term). At the end of Like Me, the final question is asked: “Who do we prefer: the virtual Sascha or the real person?”

The After-Life of the Gadget-Object


The digital afterlife of the Walkman through the iPod begs the question: do we still want the anonymity, the privilege, and the lure of secrecy? According to Hosokawa a comparable question had already become obsolete by the time his text was written in 1984, in which he responds to all cultural pessimism that the Walkman would induce asocial behavior, stating:


Autonomy is not always synonymous with isolation, individualisation, separation from reality; rather, in apparent paradox, it is indispensable for the process of self-unification. Walkman users are not necessarily detached (‘alienated’ to use a value-laden term) from the environment, closing their ears, but are unified in the autonomous and singular moment – neither as persons nor as individuals – with the real. (Hosokawa 1984: 170)


Hosokawa’s belief in the gadget-object reads today as an audacious glimpse into the future, where locative media augment our urban lives and urge us to be aware of our place, our being (located) in the midst of World and Word. Today we see artists posing questions with regard to social media and the way we make use of them with our smartphones and iPods: aren’t we all engaged in narcissistic navel-gazing under the pretexts of being social?


Judith Hofland’s locative media work makes us see that these questions about how we relate to each other through social networks are intrinsically connected with how we occupy public space, how we “sound out” our existence and welcome others in our private spaces. And this is precisely what locative media are about, according to Drew Hemment:


Locative Media foregrounds place and context within social and creative interventions, and explores ways in which the devices people carry, the fabric of the urban environment and even the contours of the Earth may become a digital canvas. (Hemment 2005: 2)


The Walkman as early locative, low-tech device paved the way for discovering creativity in the walking act through its ability to deconstruct layers of meaning: “The experience of mobile media comes to be seen as a potential site of disruption where the city is remade” (Hemment 2005: 35). Behrendt speaks, in this context, of walking as “remixing,” where the experience of space and the distribution of sound are “pre-curated,” but the participants can “create their own version or remix of the service by choosing their path through the sounds” (Wilken 2012: 245; Behrendt 2012: 268). Such interactive designs give agency to the iPod or mobile music media user in a constant loop of control and surrender vis-à-vis a pre-composed path, as I have argued through all of the above audio walks.


Hosokawa’s deconstructive and positive stance towards the Walkman can give us some hope on how today’s digital canvas can be used as a creative locus to re-socialize and reconnect with a new matrix of collectivity and sociability as part of our urban experience. As locative media are thoroughly imbedded into our everyday lives and the controversies of our social existence, Hofland gives us something to think about. And Hosokawa shows us, once more, how intimate relational experiences using locative media, such as the iPod, can open our ears and eyes to our socially complex realities, rather than shutting them off.



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