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. 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. 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.