“Step by Step”

Reading and Re-writing Urban Space Through the Footstep

Elena Biserna


Table of Contents



This paper explores the materiality of sound by focusing on the interaction between the walker and urban space established by the most “basic” form of soundmaking on the move – the sound of our footsteps. It considers the presence of footprints and empreintes in the contemporary arts and surveys a series of projects by artists and composers – Peter Ablinger, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, katrinem, Dennis Oppenheim, and Jessica Thompson – highlighting the interplay between body and site established through the footsteps. By drawing on an interdisciplinary body of literature on city walking and on sound studies, I consider the step as the fundamental bodily contact with the environment while walking as well as a sound signal that generates a sense of presence, activates the surroundings, and locates us in space. Therefore, I interpret the footstep as a primary auditory event, allowing us to “read and rewrite” (Augoyard 2007) urban soundscapes, to explore and perceive – but also to reshape and participate in – acoustic spaces, establishing a material, embodied, situated, and mutual relationship with our context.




In his famous essay La Ressemblance par contact (2008), Georges Didi-Huberman retraces the history of the empreinte (the imprint), defining it as a technique that creates forms through physical contact. Considered as a process, as a “work in act” (travail en acte), the empreinte produces images through the inscription – the physical imprint – of form into matter. As such, it obliges us to re-read the history of art, challenging the model of “imitation” established since the Renaissance – the model of symbolic representation – and the refusal of matter that finds its origins in the distinction between liberal and mechanical arts.


The form obtained by an imprint was incompatible with the very notion or ideal of art because it was too directly derived from matter as it already existed and insufficiently derived from the idea that was so dear to the classical theory of art. Being both borrowed and imprinted, form was transferred directly from matter to matter. (Didi-Huberman 2008: 121)


This dichotomy relies on the opposition between symbols and indexes. As Rosalind Krauss reminds in her essay on the index and photography in the art of the 1970s: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axes of a physical relationship to their referents. They are marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify” (Krauss 1977: 70). In this, empreintes entertain a dialectical relationship with time, relying on both presence and absence. In order to explain this feature, Didi-Huberman uses an example: the footprint. He writes:


In order to produce a footstep as a process, the foot must sink into the sand, the walker must be there, on the same place of the mark to be left. But in order to make the impression appear as a result, it is also necessary that the foot lift, separating itself from the sand, and moves towards other footsteps to be produced elsewhere; then, of course, the walker is no longer there. (Didi-Huberman 2008: 309)


The step is the primary bodily contact with the environment while walking, and the footprint, the material form resulting from this act, can probably be considered as the most common and simplest form of empreinte. Produced through the pressure of the foot on the ground, on the matter, it is a tangible sign of someone’s past presence in a place: a collision of there and not there, of now and then. It is the trace of an event, a material mark that holds the memory of our trajectories.