Footprints and Footsteps. The step in art and sound practice


It is probably for these reasons that many artists, especially from the 1960s on, have used this form.[1] Clearly, the step is not an artistic or a musical technique. On the contrary, it is a sort of prototype of an act that doesn't require any virtuosity or training: an everyday action, often considered as quasi-natural. When used as the main means in the production of an artwork, it leads the artist to relate directly with the “extra-artistic” and “extra-musical” sphere. Therefore, during the 1960s and 1970s – a period marked by a widespread refusal of symbolic representation, of traditional artistic techniques, and a growing interest in site-specific practices – the step became a common, everyday act allowing the artist to project his presence in the environment, to leave a trace of his passage on the street, a mark surviving the specific moment of his action.


In Ground Mutations – Shoe Prints (1969), for example, Dennis Oppenheim leaves and then documents his footprints while walking on the snow in Kearny, New Jersey and New York City with a pair of modified shoes.

Dennis Oppenheim, Ground Mutations, Footprints, 1969. Shoe Prints - November, 1969.


In this work, footsteps are used as a means to inscribe the artist’s body in the urban environment, charging it with its presence, as a means to physically mark and measure space. In other words, footsteps have here the same function as the thumbprints transferred to the ground in another of Oppenheim’s works, Identity Stretch (1975): “the pure installation of presence by means of the index,” as stated by Rosalind Krauss (1977: 80).


This “installation of presence” comes back in several other projects, sometimes becoming a way to claim a social or political stance and to inscribe it in public space. In Who Can Erase the Traces? (2005), for example, the artist Regina José Galindo protests against the candidacy of the former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala by walking from the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura to the Corte de Constitucionalidad in Guatemala City. Along the walk, she leaves her footprints on the ground by dipping her feet in human blood. Here, the material and symbolic process of the empreinte is clearly charged with political implications, with the will to reclaim agency in public space by leaving a tangible mark on the ground.


Starting from the 1960s, the footstep, the sound produced by the step, started to appear in several works as well.[2] If the footprint is the material form resulting from the step, the footstep is the sound event resulting from this gesture, a sound event that is also based on physical contact, creating an effect of presence. How many times, I wonder, has any one of us been embarrassed by the sounds produced by a pair of overly-resonant shoes in a public situation? Or how many of us have felt scared or threatened upon hearing somebody else's footsteps coming up behind us while walking alone at night? The sounds of our footsteps announce from a distance that we are arriving. They are an index of physical presence; they communicate that we inhabit a particular place in a particular moment.


This temporality is especially important. The footstep is created through a material contact and implies the presence of the body but, in opposition to the footprint, it does not create a tangible form that outlives that contact. Sound is transient, in a constant state of displacement, dispersal and transmission, always temporal and ephemeral. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes, sound “is first of all presence in the sense of a present that is not a being […] but rather a coming and a passing, an extending and a penetrating” (Nancy 2007: 13). From an auditory point of view, the step establishes contact with the environment and generates ephemeral events taking place in the here-now. Therefore, the footstep creates a sense of presence as a “coming and a passing, an extending and a penetrating.” Nevertheless, this presence retains all the performativity of an exchange from matter to matter.


This ephemeral, temporal nature of the sound of the footsteps and the effects of presence that it generates is addressed in another of Dennis Oppenheim’s works, made in the same year as Ground Mutations – Shoe Prints: A Sound Enclosed Land Area (1969). This work is composed of an annotated map and an audiotape of the recordings of the artist's footsteps made while he was walking in a selected area in Milan.

Dennis Oppenheim, A Sound Enclosed Land Area, 1969, Milano, Italy.


As with Ground Mutations – Shoe Prints, A Sound Enclosed Land Area reveals the artist’s interest in exploring the relationship between body and site through walking, but instead of taking photographs to record the path of his footsteps through the snow, here Oppenheim records the sound events connected with his urban explorations. The recording becomes a remnant of a process of an individual, physical exploration of the city, an auditory trace of the artist’s past presence in the environment. In this work, the sound of the footsteps can thus be interpreted as a way to define a personal “aural space” extending into and penetrating the city.


A score by the composer Peter Ablinger proposes this process to everybody by inviting us to record ourselves while walking. As he explains in the description of WEISS/WEISSLICH 28, Gehen Aufnehmen/Walking Record (1990-96):


The piece would be to make a record of you while walking; i.e. to carry the recording device and, in particular, the microphone with you while walking. The result, a recording of indefinite length, with the (probably regular) rhythm of steps, integrated with various environmental noises, would include an insignificant, because common difference: the foot-steps were always similarly loud! The difference is the one between moving away and staying here, welded together in an inconspicuous as well as indissoluble paradox: in the impossibility of remove from oneself.


Through the recording process, Ablinger offers us insight into our immersion and “presence” in soundscapes, the opacity of the record itself as well as the impossibility of removing ourselves and our own sounds – the footsteps in primis – from the auditory context we listen to and traverse.


In line with the above, the sound of footsteps also appears in several soundwalks proposed by the World Soundscape Project in the mid-1970s.[3] Defined by Hildegard Westerkamp as “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment” (Westerkamp 1974: 18), soundwalking often involved soundmaking as well. As suggested by The Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, auditory exploration of the environment can be reinforced through a process of sonic interaction with it, and – along with voice – footsteps are mentioned as the one of the primary personal sounds allowing us to establish this dialogue with our acoustic context:


In order to expand the listening experience, soundmaking may also become an important part of a soundwalk. Its purpose is to explore sounds that are related to the environment, and, on the other hand, to become aware of one's own sounds (voice, footsteps, etc.) in the environmental context. (Truax 1999)


Accordingly, in some of the first soundwalks published in the form of map scores in the European Sound Diary, we can find several instructions asking us to “perform” and pay attention to this particular sound event. For example, the Vienna Soundwalk invites us to “stomp on the floor” of a telephone booth (Schafer 1977: 84), the Stuttgart Soundwalk to “enjoy drumming your shoes over the glass block surface” (Schafer 1977: 98), and the soundwalk in Stockholm proposes: “listen to your feet as you mount the steps. Enter the church. Your footsteps are resounding differently here. How long does it take for each sound to die away?” (Schafer 1977: 9).


In Soundwalking, Westerkamp clearly addresses this interest in footsteps and, in a suggestion as to how this ambulatory listening experience might be approached, interprets footsteps and voice both as a “measure” of the acoustic environment as well as a way to “converse” with its physical properties. Inviting us to begin a soundwalk by focusing our attention on our own sounds, she writes:


Start by listening to the sounds of your body while moving. They are closest to you and establish the first dialogue between you and the environment. If you can hear even the quietest of these sounds you are moving through an environment which is scaled on human proportions. In other words, with your voice or your footsteps for instance, you are "talking" to your environment which then in turn responds by giving your sounds a specific acoustic quality. (Westerkamp 1974)


Similarly, in the context of the World Soundscape Project, assessing the discernibility of one’s own footsteps also became the simplest way to determine the “quality” of an acoustic environment, to “test” its “proportions” and balance compared to a human scale. As proposed by Barry Truax:


A simple measure of the situation is whether one can hear one's own footsteps in such an environment. If not, one is acoustically “cut off” from the most basic connection one has to an environment, and the extent of one's personal “aural space” is reduced to less than that of human proportions. (Truax 1984: 42)


Yet, in Westerkamp’s text, this “basic connection” with the environment, as established by one’s footsteps, is also associated with the reciprocal relationship that always exists between a sound event and the acoustic properties of the space in which it propagates: she emphasizes the acoustic interaction between bodily sounds and the places we traverse, imagining it as a “conversation.”


This aspect is explored in a series of projects by the sound artist katrinem. Entitled go your gait!, this series commenced in 2004 and stems from an investigation of the relationship between sound and space through the practice of walking. As the artist writes,


A gait is a person's most distinctly individual pattern of movement. Audible in the sound of footsteps, our rhythm emerges from the regularity with which we place one foot after the other. An individuality which we reproduce almost exclusively in public, where one person's step rhythm joins in polyrhythm with that of another. While this rhythm often becomes masked by a city's background noise, it can be made audible again through the visibility of the motion. The ways once walked leave no trace but crisscross over the city like an invisible network. At all points where these crossings accumulate, we find vibrant city spaces. (katrinem 2013)


SchuhzuGehör_path of awareness, in particular, is a series of site-specific walks that has been developed in different cities around the world, investigating their structures, their architectural and atmospheric qualities as well as their walkability. In 2015, katrinem was invited to Marseille for a residency focused on developing a path for the Mobile Audio Fest.[4] During the residency she studied and explored the Belle de Mai borough by walking daily in the area with particularly resonant shoes and observing local walking habits – how the inhabitants use urban space, how they walk, how they relate to urban elements such as walkways, crossings, traffic lights, etc. During her study on-site she also documented her walks with different cameras and microphones. Then, after days of walks, exploration and observation, she planned a route – a “path of awareness,” as she calls it – designed to emphasize the self-consciousness of the walker with regards to his relationship with space through walking and, in particular, through the interplay between sound events (footsteps) and the surrounding architecture.

The final project was composed of many layers. First of all, a video documenting her walks and the acoustic exchange between footstep and environment in different places along the path. Then, artist-lead guided walks, considered as performances, during which she silently conducted small groups of people, inviting them to wear their most resonant shoes and to focus on the interaction between their footsteps and the environment.

katrinem, SchuhzuGehör_path of awareness, Mobile Audio Fest, Marseille 2015. Guided walk. Courtesy the artist.


Finally, she made a graphic score, inviting the public to realize her instructions to “interpret” the path on their own.

katrinem, SchuhzuGehör_path of awareness, Mobile Audio Fest, Marseille 2015. The score. Courtesy the artist.

Thus, SchuhzuGehör_path of awareness articulates a mode of subjective listening corresponding with that suggested by Westerkamp, based on a dialogue between the sounds we produce while moving and the environment. The artist explicitly compares the shoes to “musical instruments,” asking us to re-focus our attention on our footsteps as if we were listening or participating in a musical performance. In katrinem’s practice, selecting the trajectory, leading the group, and writing the score become a sort of compositional process in situ, based on this “conversation” with our context. Paying attention to the sound of our footsteps helps us to recognize our dialogue with the city, to carve out an embodied ecology, to locate ourselves in space, and to infiltrate the urban polyphony with our own specific rhythm, along with those of other pedestrians.


Another project explicitly focused on this basic interaction is walking machine (2003) by the Canadian artist Jessica Thompson. Here, our awareness of the interplay that we enter into with the urban environment while walking is literally amplified through a wearable device. walking machine is a simple unit consisting of lapel microphones attached to the walker's shoes, a mini amplifier, and a set of headphones. 

Jessica Thompson, walking machine (2003), Mobile Audio Fest, Aix-en-Provence 2015. Courtesy the artist.

In this way, the unit offers us the amplified sound of our footsteps, inviting us to playfully interact with the different materials and surfaces in the urban environment (gravel, asphalt, grass, stone, etc.) and the acoustic effects created by our steps in the architectural surroundings. When wearing the walking machine, walking becomes a form of behavioral and perceptual experimentation, a way to explore a relational sound universe as well as the discovery of an expressive language based on an acoustic magnification of daily actions. This device invites us to subvert conventional behaviors in public space and to experiment with other ways of moving: jumping on metal grates, dancing on marble steps, shuffling through the leaves or on the gravel. 

Jessica Thompson, walking machine (2003), Mobile Audio Fest, Aix-en-Provence 2015. Courtesy the artist.

The city and its materials become a field for playful improvisation, while the wearable unit amplifies the relationship between body and site in a generative, subjective, and contextual process.


In other projects, this phenomenological and behavioral investigation is expanded by considering other aspects of the relationship between body and site as established through the step. Marches is a performance and series of scores developed by the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan in 2005 and presented in various cities, including London, Glasgow, Lisbon, and Santarcangelo. Instead of a personal practice of urban space exploration, this project intervenes in urban space by means of a collective performance. A group of performers marches along a path selected and laid out by the artist so that they traverse the most interesting acoustic places in the area: “large halls, domed ceilings, glass walls, narrow corridors, piazzas, crowded spaces, etc.” (Abu Hamdan). They meet and disperse according to the artist’s instructions to interact with the architectures of the city and to create reflections, resonances, and other effects. The performers wear special shoes made by the artist in collaboration with artisans and designed to amplify this acoustic interaction (see also the video A Time to Make Ten Shoes – Marches). 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Marches, 2005 – 2008. Pair of customized shoes, 20 print works, audio. Variable dimensions. Installation view, Concrete Cities, mor charpentier, Paris, 2016. Courtesy mor charpentier and the artist.

As the artist writes, “loafers, boots and brogues were adorned with wooden platforms and hollow stiletto heels. The soles harbored different combinations of hobnails, taps and quarter iron tips while inside specially adapted leather insoles were inserted to induce squeaking,” creating “shoes that emit impulses and acoustically define the architectural space through which the wearer travels” (Abu Hamdan 2008: 1-2). As in katrinem’s project, the footstep is used as a means “to exemplify the aural capacity to delineate space, treating architecture like dormant music, awakening it through the act of walking” (Abu Hamdan 2008: 3). Yet, here the performers’ trajectories are also mapped out according to historical or sociological reasons: Abu Hamdan explored the histories of the cities to find stories of parades, marches, or protests that took place in the same area, thus allegorically echoing these past events. Therefore, the sound of the footsteps – emphasized by the customized shoes – allowed the artist to establish an embodied, material interplay with the urban context and to physically interact with the environment, playing on its architectural and acoustic features as well as reverberating its cultural and social history. 

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Marches, 2005 – 2008. Courtesy mor charpentier and the artist.