Aphorisms from the Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt (2001) appeared at different points during the course of the project.
Backstreet with fountain down the stairs from the old part of town, with conversation
and ambulances – T. Lossius. (Surround audio recording, best listened to through headphones.)
‘Places gather things in their midst. [...] Places also gather experiences and histories, even languages and thoughts. [...] The power belongs to the place itself, and it is a power of gathering. [...] What is kept in place primarily are experiencing bodies [...]. My body-in-place is less the ‘metteur en scene’ than itself ‘mise en scène’ – or rather, it is both at once) [...]. Places also keep such unbodylike entities as thoughts and memories. [...] Its power consists in gathering these lives and things, each with its own space and time, into one arena of common engagement.’ (Casey 1996: 24–26)
sonozones – sound and places, urban spaces, and social interactions, listening and sounding as personal and public acts, exploring sound art practices, listening experiences, and artistic investigation.
The project sonozones originated within the context of a larger initiative by the Institute for Contemporary Arts Research of Zurich University of the Arts (IFCAR). The multi-year regional arts initiative ‘Urbane Künste Ruhr’ invited IFCAR, and in particular its research initiative ‘Public City’ to set up a research lab in the German town of Mülheim an der Ruhr. In the context of this lab, four separate teams from different artistic disciplines, such as fine art, media art, or performing arts, carried out artistic initiatives. The project depicted here is located within and motivated by the perspectives of sound art and music.
During the summer of 2013, project leader Jan Schacher travelled to Mülheim on five different occasions, with stays lasting between three to five days, to carry out the project with project partners Cathy van Eck, Kirsten Reese, and Trond Lossius. The choice of these collaborators was motivated by an interest in their individual practices; nevertheless, although all three collaborations deal with sound and public spaces, each represents its own clearly defined focus. And instead of setting up a group process where the collaborations and interactions would occur within the whole group, the choice was made to engage in pairs, thus creating a more detailed perspective on one topic at a time and enabling personal exchange and dialogue. Originally the idea was to mix the three practices with the fourth practice by the project leader, but it rapidly became evident that this was not necessary.
The individual perspectives, which are represented in this article as three independent sections, cover the themes of performative listening with a focus on directed or focused listening, work with installative augmentation of urban spaces by interventions with small speakers, and the exploration and experience of the ‘placeness’ of Mülheim through field recording using spatial sound capture techniques. Between the four artists, a dialogue is constituted that converges and yet exposes the many fugue-points that are present in the perspective of each artists. It’s interesting to observe how this dialogue can be positioned, related to, or recognised within each sound art practice that takes place in an urban and public setting.
The three artists collaborated with the project leader, each time as a pair rather than in a larger group. Apart from logistical reasons, this was a deliberate choice in order to foster a concentration on one topic at a time. The three artists brought their individual practices to the project, which are all situated within the wider domain of sound art but represent different focuses. The three perspectives cover sound installation in public spaces, performative sound art interventions in public spaces, and field-recording practices with a focus on place and spatiality. All three approaches have their specificities, but starting from a central topic helped to unify them, if not in the manner of the individual practice, then at least in the repeated activities and methods applied to the processes. Since not only the entire project but also each individual artist’s process can be thought of as a series of experiments, as a series of different practices evolving along a series of notions, ideas, and questions, the comparison, combination, and juxtaposition of the activities on the different levels is necessary to obtain a meaningful overall impression.
In collaborative art projects the tasks are usually distributed among the artists, each working with a specific medium or method, or taking responsibility only for parts of the process and piece. This is legitimate, since reaching the goal is more important than being in the same place in the process all the time. During an artistic process it is usually not possible to fully enter into a collaborative investigation by focusing exclusively on one central aspect. Nevertheless, communicating about and understanding each other’s process and progress always represents an important part of joint projects.
In the three paired collaborative processes that were developed, however, the focus was put on only one set of questions, pertaining to the artist’s individual practice and addressed through their own methods. In each group, the role of the project leader was primarily an accompanying one, assisting with the specific activities, but also observing, questioning, and maintaining an appropriate level of dialogue and reflection. Through entering into a structured dialogue that circled many times around the core questions, the individual methods and findings formed a web of relationships. Although the original ideas were brought in first by the leader, it was imperative to maintain the artists’ integrity. The method and processes employed during the work sessions, as well as the manner in which the dialogue and reflection was framed, was repeated as much as possible to be able to compare and juxtapose the individual processes. The steps used in working loosely followed a kind of ‘protocol’ that outlined the serial character of the entire project. The method of going through analogous processes with the three partners and collecting similar traces and materials was intended to generate a fourth perspective that might serve to answer some underlying questions about sound art in public space.
Each of the artistic methods was thus complemented by a reflective part that took on a meta-position. The central topic of this fourth, additional perspective is not the sound art practices themselves, but a methodological inquiry questioning the validity of artistic practices as investigations into themes that exceed the usual scope of sound art. These themes are related to the wider context within which the project took place, and can be summarised as concerning social interactions in urban spaces.
During the course of the project it became apparent that a core question was: How does an art form that builds on non-narrative and non-propositional materials and forms create an impact in the lived world and social environment? In an approach that tries to tackle this, the overarching goal of the sonozones idea was to experiment with and explore these social dimensions of and through sound art practice. The project’s principal aim was to collect traces and artefacts of the artistic processes that permit an investigation into key elements of the public and personal dimension of listening, sounding, and the various elements that constitute the three practices of sound art brought together by the group.
In addition, the network of sound artists served as a primary (micro)society and a sort of proto-public for one another. The extended space and social significance of public space in the urban context of Mülheim changed the role and altered the domain of agency of the artist. This extension can either be viewed as a distraction from the original material or, as was the case here, considered a challenge and be perceived to enrich, charge, and expose any artistic practice taking place within it.
Exploring the urban and public spaces with sound and listening can be approached through different strategies. The artist’s perception is the basis for a work that will render the primary experience audible in the public space, for example in the small interventions that reinterpreted a sonic idea. Members of the public became actors when listening in the urban environment to participative forms such as sound walks that provide a situational focus, and where their listening experience can become the focus. The artist acts in the urban space and generates a work that reflects this elsewhere. By collecting traces and materials, the experience may be reconstituted, albeit in a mediated manner and in a decontextualised setting. The interaction with the public and other artists in the public space informs the personal processes that lead to the sound work.
By taking the stance that the three sound art practices in question were appropriate for this engagement, and guided by a number of questions set out at the beginning, the project nevertheless developed its own dynamic. An important question concerning decisions about methods was how to approach social and urban dimensions with the methods, materials, and aesthetics of sound art. The choices we made informed the resulting processes and experiences. While the main focus was on the ‘affect and percept’ of sound and listening and the rather phenomenal foundation of sound works based on an aesthetic experience, deciphering the role that the environment and space and place play in the process of creation is of crucial importance. This question applies also to the processes of perception both for artist and public and in particular to the dynamics of social interactions in the public space. For the project it was vital to determine the kind of experimental settings that would enable the exploration of the public and personal aspects of listening, noise, and sound.
The sonozones project is situated between the practices of music and sound art – that is, between compositional thinking or performance and installation using sounds or listening. The core area where the activities were carried out was clearly situated within an overlapping domain that does not refer exclusively to one context or the other.
Compositional work, on the one hand, deals with building structures using sounds, usually of instrumental origin, that are assembled into temporal, pitch, harmonic, and timbral systems. When this music is brought outside the traditional venues of transmission – concert halls, clubs, or even the everyday use of musical materials diffused in public spaces – it obtains a different meaning. The significance of this is related less to the cultural categories of musical style or genre and thus a specific stratum of society; rather, it becomes an almost subversive element that uses musical sounds to shift one aspect of a place and may give it a different atmosphere.
Sound art, on the other hand, since it has its origins in the domain of fine art, treats sound as raw material and more closely contextualises it with the place of its existence or occurrence. There is a greater importance given to establishing relationships within the environment or constructing new meanings through juxtaposing place and sound, presentation form, and the time given to contemplating a work. Depending on the cultural context, sound art, Lydkunst, Klangkunst, and arte sonoro denote different ways of approaching the spatial, sculptural, material, structural, and ultimately also social embedding of sound practices. In the German context, Klangkunst generally refers to installation works using sounds as evolving elements in sculptural, spatial arrangements mostly in art spaces, whereas sound art in the English-language context identifies a number of different practices ranging from field recording, collage, and concrete sound compositions all the way to performed noise and sound-based stage pieces.
Considering the continuum of these different practices, the three approaches represented by the project artists span compositional and performative aspects from music as well as installation- and intervention-based concepts that are clearly located within sound art. Nevertheless, although the act of listening in both domains involves an inward focus and state of awareness, the habitual ways of doing these differ considerably. The concert hall experience is based on a type of attention that enables concentration, whereas sound art pieces in public spaces have to be negotiated in competition with all the senses and the different sonic layers present concurrently in that environment.
A walk down into the subway station at Schloß Broich – K. Reese.
(Surround audio recording, best listened to through headphones.)
‘Places such as backstreets, backyards, the distant din of the city, the quiet, and forgotten pockets and oases of the city, this is suburban quality. We realise that the elements and places we interact with almost always have to do with transport vectors, pathways and motion patterns in the urban texture.’
Excerpt from Jan’s journal, in conversation with Trond, 15 August 2013.
‘Let us cross a large modern capital with our ears more sensitive than our eyes. We will delight in distinguishing the eddying of water, of air or gas in metal pipes, the muttering of motors that breathe and pulse with an indisputable animality, the throbbing of valves, the bustle of pistons, the shrieks of mechanical saws, the starting of trams on the tracks, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags. We will amuse ourselves by orchestrating together in our imagination the din of rolling shop shutters, the varied hubbub of train stations, iron works, thread mills, printing presses, electrical plants, and subways.’ (Russolo 2004: 12)
These lines were written by the Futurist composer Luigi Russolo in his manifesto The Art of Noise (1913) exactly one hundred years before we started our research project, sonozones, in Mülheim. In my part of this project I investigated how the ear could be made more ‘sensitive’ when crossing the city, as Russolo requests. In everyday life we tend to just find our way through the city, without listening much to the soundscape. Normally, the city sounds we perceive consciously are all warning signals, such as cars driving by, the footsteps of someone approaching us from behind, the clicks of a traffic light, or the siren of an ambulance. It is the second claim Russolo makes that caught my attention, though. He asks us to ‘amuse ourselves by orchestrating together in our imagination’ the sounds of the city. A compositional process should be the consequence of hearing the sounds of the city, with the result that one listens to city sounds as if they were music. It is this process that I investigate: How can ordinary everyday sounds of the city sound as if they were ‘orchestrated’, in other words, as if they are not only city sounds but also a piece of music? My research in Mülheim focussed on the border between everyday sound and music – how to cross this border and how to use this border as a valuable compositional parameter. I therefore developed three different ways of extending our ears, in this way focusing on sonic aspects of Mülheim that would normally be ignored and thus remain unheard. By modifying the ears with the help of mechanical, electrical, and virtual accessories, I looked for ways to transform ordinary city sounds into a musical composition.
City sounds have been an inspiration for many composers. A good overview of many different approaches can be found in Barbara Barthelmes’sMusic and the City (2002). Russolo’s manifesto was written in the period between two major musical ways of treating city sounds, of which the first is to imitate them and the second is to use reproductions of them. Imitation was achieved by composing orchestral pieces that prompt associations with city soundscapes. Apparently particularly popular around 1900, compositions such as Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark (1906) or Gustave Charpentier’s Paris s‘éveille (1900) (from the opera Louise) are examples of this approach. All these ‘atmospheric depictions of specific urban scenarios’ (Barthelmes 2002: 99) use what could be called imitation. To recognise the city sounds through the orchestra sound, the listener has to know what the sound refers to, what to listen for; in other words, what is heard factually is a violin, an oboe, or any combination of orchestral instruments. The cause of the sound is the musical instrument. It is only through association that a city soundscape inspired by Paris, London, or New York will be perceivable.
The second approach – necessarily from a later period due to its dependence on sound reproduction technologies – uses recorded city sounds to composie electroacoustic compositions. Phonographs – which could be seen as musical copying machines – were used by several composers, such as Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith (Kahn 1999: 126–27). One of the earliest examples of the use of city sounds is Walter Ruttmann's film Wochenende (1930). By using sounds recorded on film in Berlin, he created a composition with these city noises. This composition method is thus based on reproduction instead of imitation: a recording of a sound is used to copy the sound’s existence in the environment, and in this way the sonic environment – often called soundscape – is brought into the musical realm.
Evidently, the second approach is similar to the first as neither deal with the ‘original’ soundscape of the city. As Brandon LaBelle (2006: 205) explains, recordings are often thought to ‘carry sounds to our ears intact’. Recordings, too, could be heard as imitations, this time not by conventional instruments but by loudspeaker membranes. By capturing the ‘real’ soundscape with sound reproduction technologies, ‘microphones, audio tapes, headphones, radio broadcasts, speakers, and amplification systems function as magical tools for tapping the buried unconscious inside environmental sound, locating its messages by partially hallucinating in front of the acoustic mirror of its recording’ (ibid.).
In both approaches, therefore, the composer transforms a city soundscape so it becomes music for the audience. For them, the city soundscape itself is not the music; only after framing it with either recorded or instrumental sound is the audience able to hear the musicality the composer perceives in these soundscapes. The sounds are taken out of their environment and all visual references to what caused the soundscape are lost. In contrast to these, which I call ‘musicalised’ city sounds, more direct confrontations between audiences and city soundscapes have often happened in so-called sound walks, as described by composer Hildegard Westerkamp in her text Soundwalking (1974). Westerkamp is known for executing many of these kind of walks in different environments, including city soundscapes – defined by her as ‘any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment’ (Westerkamp 1974). In the experiments I developed for Mülheim, I searched for a way to allow the audience to experience the city soundscape they encounter in everyday life as being ‘framed’ for music. There is no explicit translation made from the soundscape toward a musical composition, as the composers mentioned earlier did, but due to the addition of these extensions the city sounds change. A conscious modification of a sound is often typical of music. By adding small modifications to the city soundscape, I try to ‘musicalise’ these sounds.
Video with excerpts of a walk with a mechanical ear extension (cone). The sound was recorded by the camera and is not what Cathy heard.
A recording of the same sound fragment processed through the iPhone app that has been developed during the project.
Extended Ears 1: mechanical
The ‘mechanical’ transformation is done with cones, made from cardboard, plastic, or aluminium. Historically, the cone form has been used for many different kinds of ‘listening’ activities. Famous examples include early aircraft detection systems and the megaphone invented by Thomas Edison. By listening through these cones, sounds from the direction the cone is pointed at are bundled together thanks to the funnel-like shape of the cone and directed to the ear of the listener. The sound waves coming from this direction will be more clearly audible than the ones coming from other directions.
In Mülheim I tried the cones at various locations (see map): on a bridge across the river, in a park, next to a busy street with cars, and in the main shopping street. In addition, I built many different types of cones and tubes, using different kinds of plastic and cardboard. Different listening experiments demonstrated that using one cone instead of two resulted in a clearer augmentation of the listening experience. Since the listening was done only in one direction with a single ear, one was focusing entirely on the sound entering the cone, ‘closing’ the other ear. There was a clear difference as well between the two ears, one extended and one not, which brought the listening itself into focus. By using only one cone it was easier to ‘search’ for what to listen to, whether by visual or by auditive triggers. It often happened that I heard a specific sound through the cone and could then check what it was by looking at it. This searching could be accomplished better by walking through the city than when staying at one specific place. It is the listening itself that directs the walk: a new sound directed me to a new place, letting me slowly discover the city through its sounds. Speech that was normally not audible could be caught by the cone and become perceivable. Fountains, air conditioners, bicycles, and strollers all became objects that the cone could ‘catch’.
Although the cone’s sound of the cone is only audible for the person who holds the horn against his or her ear, the visual appearance of the horn drew the attention of passers-by. Sometimes they reacted by talking toward the horn, and probably they started to listen differently to the Schloßstraße because they saw somebody listening to its sounds. The main aspect of this performance is not only how much the soundscape itself changes by adding the horn, but also how our listening changes as soon as we consciously listen to something. Consequently, taking the horn and walking with it through the city becomes a performance itself. The audience member is, at the same time, the performer of the piece.
Extended Ears 2: electrical
The ‘electrical’ transformation picks up city sounds through a microphone and plays them back through headphones. I started these series of experiments by listening through a Zoom recorder placed on a terrace table. When listening to what came in through my headphones, it was often difficult to relate these sounds to what I was seeing. I heard footsteps through my headphones and had to look for the source of the sound, suddenly realising that the woman was walking only two metres away from me. By being transferred through microphones and headphones, the soundscape was separated from its environments to such an extent that the relationships between the visual and the audible elements of the city – so self-evident in our everyday life – often became unrecognisable.
Unsurprisingly the microphone’s quality was very important for this project, especially its directional characteristics: from the mono microphone of the iPhone to the stereo image of the Zoom, which results in a two dimensional screen of sound, to the ambisonic microphone, which seems to turn the soundscape into a ‘hyper-real’ experience because it adds perspective to the perceived sounds (the one used by Trond Lossius). The electrical approach should therefore not be thought of as a single approach, but as many different approaches that depend greatly on what kind of microphone(s) are used.
Extended Ears 3: digital
The ‘digital’ transformation deliberately changes the soundscape of the city, by transforming it or by adding sounds. Together with Jan Schacher I developed an iPhone app that picks up environmental sound through the phone’s microphone, transforms this soundscape through different forms of live electronic processing and emits the sonic results through headphones. The app reacts differently according to the loudness of the surrounding soundscape. When the levels are set to average, some reverb is added to the soundscape, causing an unrealistic spatial atmosphere in the city sounds. When the city sounds are very soft, sounds are added by the app, such as whistling birds, talking kids, or a passing car. I chose sounds that might happen in these environments, although some of them are quite unexpected, such as the sound of a horse carriage. Hearing such a sound might lead one to look for its cause. Naturally, the source of this sound will not be found visually, since it is just a recording. An extra layer of city sounds is thus added on top of the original city soundscape. The third sound processing level of the app happens as soon as the sounds are louder than average – for example, it could be caused by passing cars or trams. They are filtered by the app, resulting in harmonic chords appearing out of these noisy sounds. The noise of the cars and trams is musicalised by having harmonies arise from them. Although my aim was to become more aware of the sounds of the city soundscape as well as their relation to the visual, the result was that my awareness of the original environmental sounds was lessened considerably. The relationship with the sonic environment was no longer focused on the sound of the environment, but on how this app changed the environment. Although this artificial soundscape was directly related to the everyday soundscape, its sounds had become a mere input instead of the main sonic material.
Comparing the mechanical, electrical, and digital ear extensions
All three forms – the mechanical, electrical, and digital extended ears – were investigated in many different situations at different places in Mülheim. The same soundscape could be heard through different ear extensions and a direct comparison of these listening experiences could be made. What sounds are interesting, fascinating, and worth listening to? By modifying the everyday sounds slightly with the use of common musical aspects, such as adding resonating harmonies, this kind of listening is encouraged.
By making many different sound walks through Mülheim, I discovered that walking along the Schloßstraße – the main shopping street in Mülheim – in particular provided interesting sonic experiences. As many inhabitants told me, this street used to be the main attraction of the city, but today many shops are empty and the remaining shops are often of poor quality. But the sonic conditions of this street are very interesting: first, there are few cars, which often mask numerous other sounds in a city soundscape. Beside this, many different kinds of sonic events happen, such as passers-by talking, skateboarding, or walking. Contrary to these transitional characteristics, the shops provide stable focus points in the soundscape: their music, air conditioners, and door sounds become cornerstones while walking down the Schloßstraße with extended ears. What is perhaps the richest experience of this process, though, is walking again down the same street, but without any extensions: suddenly, one becomes aware of sonic qualities that one did not notice before when listening through the extensions.
Comparing the three different extensions, the mechanical ears were clearly the extensions that caused the most interaction between listener and environment and allowed the border between everyday soundscape and musical experience to be crossed in both directions. There may be different causes of this: first, the listener knows exactly how he or she is ‘changing’ the soundscape by putting the cone to the ear. There is no invisible technology, as is the case with the electrical and digital ear extensions. By pointing the cone at what one wants to hear, there is a clear interaction between listening device and environment. This relationship is much more difficult to establish when using a microphone: the direction of the microphone is evidently not the same as the direction in which our ear is pointing and therefore less of a direct extension of the body. Whereas the compositional aspect of the mechanical and electrical ear extensions is merely the choice of technology as well as the place for listening, the digital extension gets much closer to traditional composition. With the filtered car noises, for example, which result in all kinds of harmonies, the sound is decoupled from the original source, and one starts to pay attention to the changed pitches instead of the city noise itself. Finally, the cone adds a visual element to the ear extensions. While walking with the cone, the listener becomes a performer him- or herself and attracts the attention of the public in the Schloßstraße, who recognise the cone as a device for hearing. By seeing someone listening with a cone, the passers-by’s own listening might change and they might ask themselves, what is she listening to?
Mülheim an der Ruhr, points of significant activities. Map adapted from www.openstreetmap.org.
From 22 to 26 July 2013, Jan Schacher and I spent five days in Mülheim an der Ruhr doing ‘sound art research’. Part 3 of this text gives day-to-day accounts of our explorations and fieldwork, which included devising and setting up small scale sound installations as interventions in public urban spaces. Reflecting on these experiences, one can differentiate several areas of research that we touched upon with our project in Mülheim. One aspect dealt with exploring urban situations/urban constellations through sound work/sound art. Setting up our installations and observing the reactions of people gave us hints as to how people use urban space in a given architectural and/or social space – where they find space to listen or to interact with sound.
Some specific aspects can ‘reveal’ themselves by working with sound in urban space: for example, the relationship between public space and privately owned spaces in a city, or the differences in attitudes/mentality of people living in a certain region (in Germany, or another country), or their general openness and willingness to communicate with strangers and share experiences. What the aesthetic and social impact of sound work/sound art might be, and how it can be evaluated, is a more complex question, which we nevertheless discussed frequently during our five days of research on site. Some thoughts on this topic will be addressed in part 2 of this text.
The other main aspect of research concerned the reflection of our artistic practise. This addressed general questions, for example: How does one go about conceiving a new work, what are the important questions one is confronted with, what kind of continuity exists, (when) does one do things one has never done before, what remains of a non-permanent work, how can one document works, and what is the value of documentation? The small-scale, experimental settings that we realised during the week on site were also an opportunity to evaluate technical aspects of sound work in public space, and how they link up with aesthetic aspects.
This practise-based ‘composition theory for sound art’ draws upon experiences with earlier works. In part 3 of this text more generalised aspects or conclusions drawn from our experience will be marked in orange. References to other works and comments, which also relate to other sound artists’ work, will be marked in blue.
Usually my works are conceived and developed for a specific context – for example, a commission for an installation at a festival. For the Mülheim project, the situation was very different. Because the project was defined as a research situation, the approach was open from the beginning. The setting really was experimental: our interventions/installations were ‘mock-ups’, not finished, self-contained artworks.
I first visited Mülheim alone, for a weekend, and I consciously didn’t try to come up with any concrete idea of what one could do in the project – I walked around the city, went on a boat trip up the Ruhr, visited a Middle Ages festival at Schloß Broich, and I observed and listened. Having no fixed expectations can be a radical starting point for any project, because it can serve to re-examine basic questions of one‘s artistic approach.
Connected to his concept of ‘small music’, Rolf Julius once asked why one wants to put new sounds into the world at all. ‘I do not want to introduce a whole lot of new stuff into this earth. The earth is filled up already. If we work carefully with small things, it is better for the whole system of the earth’ (Julius 1995: 164); ‘Ich möchte diese Erde nicht massenweise mit neuem Zeug befrachten. Die Erde ist schon voll. Wenn wir sorgfältig mit kleinen Dingen arbeiten, ist das besser für das Gesamtsystem der Erde. 10.2.1992’ (ibid.: 153).
In many or most of my works the starting point is a place/a space. In this case, Mülheim was a given (chosen by the research lab of ZHdK as an opportunity to investigate changing urban areas through artistic research – weblink). Still the first question to ask would be, why Mülheim? My main impression during the explorations on the first weekend was that Mülheim is indeed quite unspectacular. Its one particularity, which it shares with other Ruhrgebiet cities, is that it seems to have no centre. Urban and suburban areas blend into each other, one city bordering the next, with patches of countryside in between: a space with no gravity point, resulting in a strange feeling of looseness.
On the other hand, my experience of working in non-black-box situations, especially in places with their own reality, namely in the outdoors, shows that one will find something specific, even spectacular everywhere. The reality and the history of these spaces is so rich, that there are always reference points if one looks closely and ‘zooms in’ on a space (Reese 2012: 31).
Looking for a site for an installation for the SPOR festival 2013 I ‘found’ a ‘cofferdam’ – a structure intended to serve as a sound-damping system to reduce the noise level during offshore wind turbine pile driving – at Aarhus harbour (weblink). While working on Zoobrücke, an audiowalk on the pedestrian bridge crossing the Karlsruhe zoo, I coincidentally recorded a conversation of a child and her grandmother standing in front of the lion’s cage. Their short exchange exemplified a hypothesis in John Berger’s text ‘Why Look at Animals’, which is quoted in the walk, concerning the ‘historic loss’ of the ‘look between animal and man’ in the culture of capitalism. One of the other artistic research projcts within the Mülheim research lab of ZHdK, the project knowbotiq (Yvonne Wilhelm and Christian Huebler), was also exemplary in this context, because they found and focused on a dramatic aspect of Mülheim: the underground landscape, invisible yet unstable due to extensive underground coal mining, an aspect which they connected to African/immigrant street art dancing practised by young people in the Mülheim area.
The act of focusing generates that on which it is worth focusing. In this sense, every place can be a starting point.
Who is listening ? Aesthetic and social impact
‘Traditionally composers have located the elements of a composition in time. One idea which I am interested in is locating them, instead, in space, and letting the listener place them in his own time. I’m not interested in making music exclusively for musicians or musically initiated audiences. I am interested in making music for people.’ (Neuhaus 1994: 34)
Max Neuhaus’s programmatic statement from 1974 is still constitutive for sound art in public space today. Not only does creating a sound installation shift the compositional focus to space instead of time, but moving from concert halls to the public domain results in a change of audience. Neuhaus’s statement shows that opening up the circle of potential listeners – of who is listening – was initially of interest to him. Simultaneously, his works are devised ‘at the threshold of perception’ (Neuhaus 1994: 34); he wanted people to find them ‘in their own time and on their own terms’.
‘The impetus from my first sound installation was an interest in working with a public at large. Inserting works into their daily domain in such a way that people could find them in their own time and on their own terms. Disguising them within their environments in such a way that people discovered them for themselves and took possession of them, lead by their curiosity into listening.’ (Neuhaus 1994: 82)
The artist gives up (aesthetic) control of the audience. There is no direct communication with or feedback from individual listeners. Furthermore, there is no or little follow-up to the question of how many are listening. As most of Neuhaus’s works are permanent installations, the process of discovery can take time, and the audience will accumulate over the years. Consciously or not, the question of how many take notice of and receive a work, although essentially an economically oriented question, today seems to have seeped into our thinking about what makes sense, even with regard to sound art that is definitely at the fringe of the music business/art market. Devising works ‘at the threshold of perception’ seems to contradict the idea of attracting an audience, attracting attention, being noticeable, etc. When discussing what kind of interventions we wanted to try out in Mülheim, the idea came up to create an installation with loud, invasive sound (and in so doing also do something different from what we usually do). With Neuhaus one could argue that there are aesthetic and ethical reasons why the sounds implanted in public space should be soft and fitted into the environment. ‘When I work in the public sphere, I am not interested in generating a confrontation. I feel like I am working in a space which is theirs; I’m in their territory’ (Neuhaus 1994: 64).
Regarding questions of noticability and of who and how many are listening, Neuhaus’s works, although most of them are permanent installations, can be called transitory. Does this also mean they have a marginal aesthetic and social impact? Rolf Julius’s performative installations/short term interventions, for example in his Berlin concert series from 1981/1982, were witnessed only by a very small audience. In his Chamber Concert for Three Loudspeakers he placed three small speakers in the huge empty space in front of the Philharmonie in the Potsdamer Platz area (which at that time, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was literally ‘at the end of the world’). What traces remain of a transitory work, a (non-permanent) sound artwork in general? The documentation of the Chamber Concert consists of a sound document on CD, a short poetic description by Julius, and a photo (Julius 1995: 43). The photo in particular conveys a strong atmosphere; it can be seen as an example of how a photo or a sound document can create an imaginative context in the mind of a viewer/listener with an aesthetic impact in its own right. This connects to the issue of the documentation of sound art/spatial installations. Regarding our project, when writing the log of our daily explorations and interventions (part 3), it became obvious once again that recordings, photos, and videos really are different media from language, which ‘say’ different things and/or show other aspects than descriptions with words …
Usually when working on a sound installation for a specific context I think a lot about the prospective audience, especially if the work takes place in an open, public space that anyone could accidentally stumble upon without the framework of a presentation in an art context. I examine the social context of the space where the work will be presented and how people use this space, thinking about the way this might link to the work I want to develop. This stems from a genuine curiosity about what is going on in that place. These investigations are inspiring and feedback into the work.
With our experimental setups in Mülheim, the question of who is listening? was something we discussed on a more abstract level (for example at the Stadtmitte bus stop, see part 3). If one wants people to listen in contexts such as the ones we set up and follow-up on questions of aesthetic and social relevance, it is necessary to present projects within the infrastructure and framework of an artistic or social local context. In this sense, one could imagine an art project in Mülheim with many small-scale installations running at different places but within a certain timeframe, linking sonic experiences dispersed throughout the city to one event.
On the other hand, the idea of putting sounds, albeit ‘small sounds’, into the world and then letting them go, as illustrated in the works of Neuhaus and Julius, is a radical yet relevant artistic standpoint. It loosens the control of the artist and frees up the audience as autonomous artistic subjects. It also evades the often implicitly pedagogical approach of projects or statements in the tradition of the original soundscape movement of the 1970s (people should listen more, teaching people to listen, etc.).
One aspect that became clear is that even with the truly experimental and expectationless approach of the Mülheim project, the starting point was nevertheless the place and the giving of attention to a place by being present. All the questions and suggestions concerning the work – what is possible in the situation and context – arose from being there for a defined amount of time, with open senses and an open mind.
The motive of being present is especially important when working with technical media. In the final product, audio players and loudspeakers emit sound by themselves (there are no performers mediating the work through their presence, as in a traditional concert performance). The knowledge a sound artist has accumulated during the process of conceiving the work while being present is contained in the work.
The artist may be regarded as a seismograph, sensing a place, sensing an atmosphere. It is an outsider position, the position of an observer – the artist knows less about the place than the people who have been there longer, but being an outsider makes it possible to see things others might not see. Transforming ‘what is there’ may become possible (see part 3 and Reese 2012).
In Vor dem Tag (2010), a landscape composition and installation by Lukas Berchtold, Helmut Lemke, Urban Mäder, Daniel Ott, Kirsten Reese, and Enrico Stolzenburg, for a mountain in Swiss Vorjura, which took place from two a.m. until sunrise, we closely communicated and worked with the people of the nearby village, conducted interviews, and recorded choir songs and sounds of tradespeople working, and so on. A group of villagers also took part in performances during the night. Describing the impact that this event made on them as performers or audience members, the locals said it completely transformed the way they experienced ‘their’ landscape, a landscape they and their ancestors have known for centuries. (weblink)
In ‘sensing’ a place, the act of listening is of central importance – and this includes listening in a communication situation, talking to other people who are present, who live and/or work in this space.
For example, the relaxed manner in which we explored Mülheim led to a long, in-depth conversation with immigrants in a Croatian restaurant in the inner city on one of the first evenings there, during which they told us very personal stories. If we had been busily working into the night to finish a specific project, this might not have happened.
Conversations with people we were in contact with while setting up the interventions/installations are telling for the whole process of our interaction with Mülheim, and are therefore mentioned in part 3.
In Vexierklang Hardenstein (2011) the most interesting exchanges about the work took place with passers-by during the set-up of the installation in a public space in the outdoors, a recreational area by the Ruhr river.
3. Exploration and ‘findings’: Mülheim – log
Jan and I had agreed to structure each day of our five-day fieldwork in a similar manner, with three components: explorations in the city – observing, listening, and recording; reacting to our observations by creating a small-scale sound work in the work space; and installing this sound work at a specific space in the city, feeding back our experiences. This recurring structure stood for an experimental, but at the same time systematic approach, leading us not to judge the interim results but instead to focus on the process. In the mornings we walked around the city, exploring a new area each day. While walking, we talked, sharing and comparing our observations in these field explorations and discussing experiences with and evaluations of earlier works. In some places we made recordings – what struck our interest could be quite varied. The third part of the fieldwork involved installing small-scale interventions with two to four loudspeakers at chosen sites, through which could be heard recorded material from the site or sound material referring to the site in some way. The installations used the following equipment: 2–4 loudspeaker chassis with a diameter of 8 cm, mobile amplifiers, mp3-players; the installations were stereo or 4-channel. I had already used this equipment in several other installations in open spaces; for this reason, they were a good reference point for the experiments in Mülheim.
Video 01: Under the railroad bridge, beginning to rain and thunder. (Surround audio recording, best listened to through headphones.)
Day 1, Monday 22 July
1. Pedestrian zone Mülheim, Schloßstraße and surrounding streets.
1. Subway escalator: the sound of this escalator is striking, because it is very specific. Following R. Murrary Schafer (weblink), it could be termed a ‘hidden’ soundmark of Mülheim – ‘hidden’ because it is probably not noticed consciously by many people. Notably, the escalators in other subway shafts in Mülheim, such as Schloß Broich station, sound very similar. see Audio 01
2. Drone from ventilation outside a bakery in Schloßstraße: we called this drone the ‘Neuhaus drone’, because it reminded us of a Max Neuhaus installation: a chord (an impure fifth with fluctuating overtones), soft, barely noticeable at first, but once you had focused your listening on it, it would stick in the brain. see Audio 02
3. Recording in the space between the Forum shopping mall (since the early 1990s these malls have sprung up everywhere in inner cities in Germany; the Centro in nearby Oberhausen is a huge, famous shopping mall in the Ruhrgebiet that has had a long term effect on the situation of smaller shops and on shopping possibilities, and on the attractiveness and liveliness of Mülheim’s central district).
In Hoert auf diese Stadt!, an audio walk through the city of Magdeburg produced in 2013 in cooperation with Theater Magdeburg, one listening station was situated in the biggest local shopping mall, Allee Center. Like an inner voice, one hears the names of chain stores that one can see when standing at a particular position, company names typical of all these malls, and there is a discussion (between the characters in the audio piece) about public and private space and the functions that these shopping malls have today: are they the agora of today’s cities? Coincidentally, after having discussed these questions in preparation for the audio walk, we found out that the neo-Nazi party the NPD had recently used this exact location on their ‘action day’ to distribute leaflets against European politics. (weblink)
The Forum mall adjoins the (also privately owned) railway station building, and thus blocks the direct transition through the inner city – the route between the train station and the main pedestrian zone, the Schloßstraße.
4. Piezo recording inside a photo booth at the railway station: as expected, we were questioned by security guys, who informed us that making recordings, taking pictures, or filming videos in this space was not allowed without permission.
1. Placement of speakers in front of the bakery, playing the original drone recording with added synthesised sound matching the pitches of the ventilation drone.
Effect/observation: The installation was too soft – although the original drone at the site was also low in volume, it sounded much richer; the synthesised tones did not match the pitches/harmony of the drone.
Day 2, Tuesday 23 July
Along the back way from our flat through the Eppinghofen immigrant district, under the railroad bridge crossing the busy Tourainer Ring, and over the Helmut Schlitt pedestrian bridge to the Forum, along Schloßstraße again.
1. Under the railroad bridge: although one hears the traffic of the busy road under the bridge, and trains passing above, one also hears footsteps of a person walking alone – to me an impression of relative silence, representing the ‘backside of the city’. see Audio 03
Effect/impressions: The sound for the intervention consisted of samples of original jazz music, overlaid on the four channels. Playing the music from small speakers in an outside space embedded in a soundscape with lots of traffic noise decontextualised it, which made the music appear like abstracted sound material, like a ‘sound object’ in itself, rather than a piece of music with it’s own integrity.
The installation led to a long conversation with a passer-by, who had approached us and asked what we were doing. When we explained, he asked us if we were jazz fans. He was about eighty years old, a retired architect, who had apparently led an exciting, active professional career with many ups and downs. After he was forced to give up his company he had moved to Mülheim. He was well dressed, although in a conservative but slightly dated style, as if he had once been better off – but he showed a cheerful, optimistic attitude throughout the conversation.
2. Because of the heavy rainfall in the afternoon, we did not realise the plan to place an intervention under a graffiti reading ‘Pussy Riot’ on a wall at Tourainer Ring with sound from the Pussy Riot cathedral performance in Moscow. This would have been another reinstallment of unedited, musical material related to the space in a more abstracted way (name of pedestrian bridge – jazz scene in Mülheim and the Ruhrgebiet in the 1950s; graffiti naming a politically significant performance – recording of that performance).
Day 3, Wednesday 24 July
A middle-class residential district behind the Altstadt with turn-of-the-century buildings. The atmosphere was noteworthy and memorable because of the weather: light rain, very humid, with a constant rumbling of thunder in the distance. We walked through the Alter Friedhof cemetery and the adjoining park. We then proceeded to the Wasserbahnhof, the landing stages for the ships touring the Ruhr river.
1. Wasserbahnhof: tour boat before departure.
2. Piezo recording on the metal link of the big bridge, rhythmic clattering sound caused by the wheels of the passing cars. see Audio 05
1. Synthesised electronic sounds with music-box–like melodies were installed in a house entrance situated between a gaming salon and an orthopaedics shop, four-channel installation with higher and lower pitched sound.
see Audio 06, Audio 07, Video 02
Effect/observations: In this small cave-like space with considerable resonance, the sounds transformed the sober atmosphere of the space (to a more ‘mysterious’, ‘unreal’ atmosphere – appropriate words are difficult to find). The installation matched the architectural structure of this transitional space: whereas the sounds were barely audible from outside, inside the sound dominated perception of the space.
The irritated looks on the faces of the passers-by showed that they noticed the sound. What this irritation actually means, what aesthetic potential it has, is something that can be discussed and explored in further artistic research.
see Video 03
3. Water sounds from recordings of the nearby water fountains and synthesised electronic sound were installed on a street light pole on Schloßstraße. The two speakers were attached vertically down the lamp pole. The sound was soft, but noticeable, people stopped to listen to the sounds from close-up. With the sound bearing a slightly strange electronic twist (we called it ‘spooky’), the transformation effect could again be observed. As evening fell, the time of day (shops closing, a hint of dusk, less activity on the street) reinforced this effect. see Audio 08
In these summer days, we experienced the ambience and vibe of Schloßstraße – which generally would be regarded as a very average if not ugly shopping pedestrian street, typical of countless smaller German cities – as remarkably relaxed: retired people having coffee in the middle of the street at the tables of the cafés, small children playing at the fountains, groups of older immigrant kids playing with a soccer ball – the atmosphere resembled that of a relaxed holiday town. One women remarked that the music of the installation gave her ‘gute Laune’ (a good mood) and made her think of holidays in an Italian town, where she would also listen to music. During this installation we also met an art historian living in Mülheim, who we remained in contact with and who later visited other events within the project.
Day 4, Thursday 25 July
Broich, another middle-class residential area on the other side of the Ruhr.
1. Chewing gum automat on the street reminding us of our childhood in the 1970s …
2. Children bathing in a paddling pool in an area of lower-middle-class modernistic housing blocks from the sixties. → Audio 09
3. Birds in a small patch of trees amid the housing blocks.
4. Broich subway, with the specific sound characteristics of the escalators as in the previously recorded subway escalator sounds in the inner city.
1. A two-channel installation at the Stadtmitte bus stop at the end of the pedestrian Schloßstraße; a very busy road/intersection and one of the main bus stops in Mülheim, where buses arrive every few minutes: two speakers were placed on a ledge, playing mainly the ‘music box’ atmosphere, we also tested the metal bridge clattering. The ledge was the windowsill of the shut down department store (Kaufhof). This site tells you much about Mülheim and developments in the city centre: the department store, typically situated in the city centre, is now unused, and has a forlorn vibe about it.
In their project City Telling Ruhr: Stadt als Erzählung, Erinnerung und Idee, also within the Mülheim research lab of ZHdK, Tobias Gerber and Ingo Starz conducted interviews with Mülheimers, many of whom mentioned the Kaufhof and expressed regret that the department store had shut down and the site was unused.
Coincidence: above the ledge where we placed the speakers, there was the same tag, ECHO, which was also written on the wall where we placed our installation on the Helmut Schlitt bridge (see day 2).
Coincidences seem to happen so regularly when working in public space that I have come to call this phenomenon ‘structural coincidence’ – reality manifests itself in so many layers, that there will always be some kind of overlay (Reese 2012: 32).
The sound of the installation was very quiet, barely noticeable. Jan and I discussed what it means if an artist creates an intervention or installation ‘at the threshold of perception’.
Max Neuhaus (1994: 64): ‘The public works are all deliberately pitched at a threshold of perception, a point where people can notice them or not notice them. They’re often disguised, almost hidden in their environment.’
Is it a radical position from the artist’s point of view because it is not utilitarian, or is it elitist? The installation here seemed to give more of an indication of what people do at this particular spot in the city, and how the space itself functions, rather than having an aesthetic impact.
The temporal dimension of installations in open space – even if they are permanent or long running and have slowly evolving or constantly repeating sound material – became obvious here, at this very busy location at this particular time of the day. The sounds may remain the same, but the soundscape around them changes according to the structure of activities at the site, which itself changes according to certain rhythms – day and night (bus schedule!), weekday or weekend, weather, season.
2. A two-channel installation in trees in plant pots along Schloßstraße: the intention was to experiment with text/spoken words. The sound material consisted of a short newspaper clipping about the reduction of butterfly species. At first the passers-by were hardly aware of the sound. When we optimised the set-up, more people were attracted to the sound.
The audibility could be influenced and affected by manipulating the following parameters:
– Position and direction of the speakers
– Volume of sound tracks on the player in relation to the performance of the speakers (as loud as possible, but not so loud as to make the small speakers distort)
– Closeness to the audience in relation to the route they took along the street; for example when we selected a plant pot from which the distance to the next building was a bit smaller, this made people walk past a bit closer, and even a small change makes a difference with regard to the noticeability of the sound
– Sonic density created by adjusting the position of the speakers, placing them closer to one another
– Density of the sound on the tracks
– If applicable, acoustic reflections at the location
In general, because of their small size the loudspeaker chassis used are never loud, and can’t project over a greater distance, especially in the ambiance of a noisy city. The size of the speakers, on the other hand, makes them adaptable to the hearing situation in relation to the distance between the human ears. If the speakers are placed in a triangle with proportioned distances regarding the head/ears, pronounced panning and spatial effects are possible.
4. Installation of two speakers in the grid of the parking garage at Eppinghofer Straße, with the sound of the ‘music-box’ atmosphere. The sound from the speakers mixed with pop music that emanated from the parking garage in a way that meant it was hardly noticeable and distinguishable at first, creating a spatial depth with foreground and background. Two children interacted with the speakers (by touching them) and engaged in a conversation with us.
Although visually much more obvious than was the case with the lamp post, this situation was slightly off-center; thus, it was further from where pedestrians pass by and seemed to be self-contained – people did not seem to feel invited to approach and examine the loudspeakers and the situation, as they had with the lamp posts. Only one man sat down to listen. He associated the ‘spooky’ ambient sound with other music (‘sounds like R.E.M.’), and the listening situation of a home surround system. In addition, the owner of one of the nearby coffee shops approached us, fearing that his costumers might potentially feel bothered by us taking photos – another take on the question of the invasiveness of artistic interventions in public space. The art historian we met the other day at the lamp-post intervention came by again; she thought the listening situation was ‘very pleasant’.
2. Further recordings: ATM Machine, ventilation shaft, Schloßstraße fountains, pharmacy, road sweeper, newsagents.
3. Another long recording under the railroad bridge in the afternoon, this time with strong thunderstorms and rain. see Video 01
4. In the evening on the way home, a recording under the other railroad bridge, in the ‘silent’ pedestrian underpass, after the storm. see Audio 04
1. Installation on the pedestrian bridge named after Helmut Schlitt, a jazz musician who started a jazz scene in Mülheim in the 1950s. A four-speaker installation with Helmut Schlitt playing trumpet, banjo jazz/oldtime jazz.
This is an example of how, because of the way in which sound fills the space, by adding sound the perceived qualities and characteristics and thereby the atmosphere of a space is transformed. Max Neuhaus describes how sound changes the perception of scale: ‘In these imaginary places that I build, often the moment the listener first walks into the space, it is not clear that a sound is there. But as you begin to focus, a shift of scale happens. At first you hear what could almost be a room sound, which then suddenly becomes huge. As you enter into it, you move into another perception of space because of the change of scale’ (Neuhaus 1994: 97). In another of my own works I experienced how a sound work shapes and forms the space. In open spaces that are not shaped by architecture – by bordering walls and buildings – sound can form the space so that it is perceived as an integral unit. (Example: in Vexierklang Hardenstein the loudspeakers surrounding the castle ruins marked and shaped the acoustic space. – weblink) Also, visitors often remarked on the beauty of an installation’s location. This concerns the choice of site for the work, which is of course already part of the artistic process; but it is the transformation of the ambience through composed sound that can turn a site into a space with coherent characteristics, making it appear ‘beautiful’.
2. Reinstalling of subway escalator sounds next to the escalator itself.
Reinstalling existing sound at a site is a form of doubling, a sonic reflection, like the reflection of an image on a mirroring water surface. The word reflection points to the process of becoming aware, conscious, cognisant of something. A doubled sound image is never the same sound, there are differences – the doubled sound is emitted through speakers, it is usually softer, often spatially more directional, etc.
As the loudspeakers were placed in the trees, they were somewhat camouflaged. One could observe how the passers-by first became aware of the sound, usually indicated by an irritated look on their faces, then they started looking for the sound source.
3. Installation with four speakers on the ground surrounding a fixed metal chair in the pedestrian area of Eppinghofer Straße: again the installation was very soft, but it was possible to adjust the volumes and positions of speakers so that they had the appropriate amplitude for someone sitting on the chair.
Effect/observation: Being surrounded by sound, the person sitting will feel withdrawn from the reality of the site and observe what is going on – the continuous passing by of people (‘ant trail’) – as if it were taking place on a stage, resulting in a shift and transformation of reality. see Video 04
Day 5, Friday 26 July
1. Installation at the same chair as the day before, this time with a self-made plastic structure with two speakers attached that was directly aimed at the ears. see Video 05
Several sound materials were tested: the bridge clattering resulted in a kind of neutral perception study and in the listening room the clattering positioned itself around the ears and the head in a 3-D, geometrical way.
Effect/observations: Again there were two distinct outside/inside perspectives: from the outside the sound was barely noticeable, but inside it was very present and spatially differentiated. Because of the colourful plastic construction, the situation was visually striking and was noticed by passers-by.
In Mülheim, recording
Before arriving I had limited knowledge of Mülheim, but I had planned that recording in the field would serve as a strategy for exploring the place. The open-endedness of the sonozones project was a welcome opportunity to investigate not only Mülheim and surroundings but also how I relate to places as a sound artist, my own strategies and preferences with respect to field recording, and, more generally, how I experience, inhabit, and understand places through sound. If nothing else I hoped to be able to bring back interesting recordings and have had intriguing discussions with Jan along the way. Although it was not a requirement, the stay eventually resulted in a new work, and I believe that many aspects of the discussions and exchanges between Jan and me are reflected in the resulting audio-visual cinematic installation.
Sound and its spatial capacities are a primary interest of mine. Sound carries information to and from the places that it traverses, and it can be used for placemaking. In installations I tend to use many speakers, distributed throughout the space. This can create an awareness of place, and enhance and interfere with the architectural, acoustic, social, and cultural perception of that particular site. Similarly, when recording I find it important to capture the spatial information, and for this I use an Ambisonic surround sound microphone. The Ambisonic microphone captures sound arriving from all directions in such a way that recordings can later be reproduced as three-dimensional sound fields. Rather than recording sound as such, I find that this microphone captures a sensation of place. While listening to stereo playback leaves the impression that ‘it is there’, the immersive and enveloping qualities of surround sound instead makes you feel that ‘you are there’.
In Mülheim I started recording at various locations while Jan photo-documented the place and my activities. We quickly settled into a daily routine, first going for breakfast while discussing, and then strolling around looking for places to record. Generally we would seek out new routes and places every day, mostly venturing into the suburbs surrounding Mülheim. Between recordings we discussed the process and experience, our impression of the place, and reflected on what would make different places attractive as recording venues. Back at the flat I would import, label, and annotate the recordings, and the later part of the day would be used for reviewing material with Jan, further discussions and reflections, and documenting events and thoughts that had occurred during the day.
Having Jan coming along for the walks in Mülheim initially felt distracting because it made me overly self-conscious in a way that made it difficult to tune in. During the first day my perception of his presence changed, from being an anthropologist observer to someone involved with the recording process, listening to the places we recorded with a similar state of mind to what I depend on myself. Sharing the recording situation with Jan made questions pertaining to the practice of recording in the field more explicit. Past the first awkward recordings this became a fruitful discussion that continued for the duration of the two weeks we shared in Mülheim.
What do I choose to record? The titles of the sound files from recordings done over the first two days might give some initial indications:
Audio-visual field recordings as cinematic installation
When we first started out, Jan would take photos while I recorded, documenting the place and process. Early on, he also started filming. When reviewing material from the first day, we saw that some of the video shoot during one of the recordings, 2013-06-25-1315-along-river-away-from-bridge, had the potential to work in interesting ways with the sound material. The first part of the video captured me listening while recording. After a while the camera moves and zooms in on a more distant bridge and the town hall, which can be seen on the other side of the river. Trees in the park where the recording is being made frame the bridge and the microphone. This section of the video reflects many of the intentions and interests that we were already pursuing in the recordings: the ambient sound of suburban surroundings, sounds from near and further away, and how the most prominent features heard might not be the ones seen and vice versa. Maybe this section of the video first caught our attention as they reminded me of the cover of the LP Cluster & Eno (1977), an old favourite of mine. I have never read that cover just as a depiction of an afternoon sky and a microphone; instead it suggests an approach to outdoor ambiences that regards them as being as valid as any sound captured in a studio.
The second day we decided to explore the combination of sound and video further. When setting up for recordings, we first decided where to record, mounted the microphone, and then worked to get a good image composition for the camera. The camera would be mounted on a stand, and there would be no further adjustments or changes of camera angles, zoom depth, or similar, once the recording had begun. We ensured that the microphone would always be present in the image. It was still an open question whether we would end up combining sound and image or not, but reviewing the material in the evening and playing back sound and video more or less synchronised, we both felt that we were on to something interesting. The presence of the microphone in the image helps emphasise the importance of sound in the combined audiovisual result. The spatial differences between sight and hearing would at times be quite pronounced, as sounds would often originate from directions beyond the frame of the image.
At the same time, I was also planning ahead for an upcoming exhibition presenting the artistic outcome of Re: place. This was an artistic research project in 2012–2013 that investigated (relationships between) place, time, and memory as manifested in artistic works exploring image, sound, and text – or combinations of these. The project was carried out in collaboration between artists associated with Bergen Academy of Arts and Design, Oslo Academy of Arts, and the Grieg Academy, the Institute of Music at University of Bergen (Welsh 2012). The material that Jan and I were currently working on would work well for that occasion, and although the activites of sonozones started as an open-ended artistic exploration, we decided to develop our explorations as a project for this upcoming exhibition. The second week in Mülheim would be dedicated to making recordings for this project. As one of the Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt suggests, ‘Once the search has begun, something will be found’.
Mülheim an der Ruhr, August 2013 is a series of audio-visual field recordings presented as ‘slow cinema’, combining surround sound and statically shot video. Devoid of plot and characters, the suburban soundscape takes centre stage. The work was first presented as part of the exhibition This must be the place (Pick me up and turn me round (part I)) at KINOKINO Centre for Contemporary Art and Moving Image, Sandnes, Norway, in the autumn of 2013 as a cinematic installation in the larger downstairs cinema. The work is a sequence of eleven scenes, each lasting from five to twenty minutes:
Backstreet by train bridge
Cows and bridges
Park with distant noise and music
Saturday street by monument
Shop windows by bus stop
Street by night
Traffic junction by night
Trams from across the street
In each recording the camera captures a fixed view of an outdoor environment, with the microphone prominently featured in the image.
Post-production work on the audio-visual recordings from Mülheim would be for me a welcome opportunity to explore the potentials and limits of the commercial cinema surround sound reproduction system from a spatial sound engineering/production perspective. It also gave room for reflecting on how my field recording practice relates to, but differs from, the standard film industry approach to sound design for film.
The suburban soundscape
The recordings are made in various suburban settings that come across as bland, banal, and anonymous, such as parking lots, parks, squares, crossroads, or in the open area between buildings. I prefer recordings that leave an impression of open spaces – not only reflecting what is going on in the immediate vicinity, but stretching out, recognising, and embracing the larger, shared place that the recording location belongs to. These qualities are best captured away from buildings and other walls and structures that might limit the richness of spatial information in the recording. Many recordings are done near transportation routes, be they footpaths, roads, rivers, highways, tramways, railways, or flight routes toward the airport. The sound of footsteps, cars, buses, trains, and airplanes simultaneously suggest the here and now, as well as the place departed from and the destinations toward which they are headed. These sounds extend spatially and in time, and in doing so situate the location of the recording as belonging within a larger world.
Field recordists tend to focus on either urban or nature sounds, extending the Futurist ‘art of noise’ tradition (Russolo 1913), or recording isolated sound sources in nature for documentation, nature documentaries, or artistic purposes; eventually they may record holistic acoustic biospheres as advocated by Krause (2013). While distinguishing between human-made and natural sound can be productive, most of the sonic surroundings encountered in the suburb are neither purely natural nor purely urban, but rather a ‘dirty’ Anthropocene mix. Augé defines anthropological places as places of identity, of relations, and of history, while a space that doesn’t fall into these three categories will be a non-place. The appearance and proliferation of such non-places creates neither singular identity nor relations, only solitude and similitude (Augé 1995: 52, 77–78, 103). The Mülheim recordings were mostly done in such non-places. Most suburbs lack the singular and spectacular landmark qualities that proper places might have. Being ordinary, average, and anonymous, however, does not justify being unrecognised, ignored, and neglected, as is often the case, in particular when one considers that a large portion of the population, at least in the Western world, spend a fair amount of their lives in a suburb.
Most of the recordings we made have such mixed suburban qualities. For example, one of the recordings listed above was done in a mostly empty parking lot outside Mülheim. Little or no sound originates from the parking lot itself, but from one side we can hear birds and wind in the trees of an adjacent park. On the other side of the parking lot there is the sound of traffic from a nearby road. For the most part, the sound of birds is ever-present in the recordings done during the first week in Mülheim, at the end of June. Even in the middle of the city, birds can be heard more or less continuously.
A particularly intriguing example is Cows and bridges, a recording made in a meadow by the Ruhr river. At the beginning of the recording a number of cows are hiding from the sun in the shadow underneath an autobahn bridge crossing the river. Gradually, as the recording progress, the cows leave the shadow to graze, and at the end of the recording a cow can be heard grazing just a few metres away from the microphone. This spot first attracted me because it reminded me of prior experiences in the Etosha National Park, Namibia, where on several occasions I had witnessed springbok and other antelope hiding in the shadow of trees in the middle of the day. Here we witnessed a similar situation, but it is impossible to make any sensible division between nature and human. The trees are substituted for bridges, and the cows are livestock. Furthermore it is interesting how one of the most visually striking aspects of the scene makes no perceivable sound. Nothing is heard from the cows until the very end of the recording, when the quiet sound of nearby grazing, just a few metres from the microphone, finally manages to penetrate the constant traffic noise.
Video 01: Backstreet by train bridge. Full length, duration 18:36 (Surround audio recording, best listened to through headphones.)
Being in a place through listening
Field recording implies being in a place through listening, and can serve as an investigation into the foundational aspects of experiencing place. The microphone becomes a tool for ‘presence’, encouraging a durational attendance where perceptual scales gradually change and expand. When recording it is crucial to tune in to a place, and when I succeed entering the right state of mind, I lose myself in the world. There is no clear perception of time, but instead the unfolding events are experienced as passing through or resonating with the body and mind. Due to the lack of significant events and narratives, attention shifts toward the many small events. Initially almost nothing seems to happen, but as Cage suggests, extending the attention eventually transforms each situation so that it is ‘not boring at all’ (1961: 93).
Even though most sound sources can easily be identified and indexed, I enter a state that resembles what Pierre Schaeffer called ‘reduced listening’: listening to sounds for their own sake, as sound objects (Chion 2009: 30). Rather than deconstructing sound into a catalogue of singular objects, I listen to multiple simultaneous layers originating from different directions and from sources near and far, and in so doing tap into a complex web of socio-geographic energies and events. The act of listening also gives an introspective insight into how and to what degree we gain spatial information through sound – our psychoacoustic spatial hearing abilities. Auditory events might be coupled with or independent from visual information. Visually significant events, such as a cow grazing nearby, might be inaudible due to the overwhelming din of traffic on the autobahn. The distant trains and fireworks might be heard but not seen, hide in the dark or originate from beyond the field of vision. When combining sound and video recordings, it is striking how the two recording techniques differ in terms of what they capture spatially. Similar to how the eyes and ears differ, the camera is directional and selective, while the microphone captures sound from all directions indiscriminately. While sight is focused, targeted, and demands attention, we are less attentive to sound, and we rarely recognise or appreciate how spatial hearing serves to submerge us in the world. The listening experience while recording resembles listening to polyphonic music with respect to how many simultaneous layers can be identified and traced, but contrary to counterpoint the different layers have a high degree of independence. If it can be considered music at all, it is only because I choose to do so. Instead, listening is an acceptance and embracing of a plurality of societal intentions and forces of nature that happens to coexist and inhabit the same time and place.
In mainstream film, the representation of surroundings is generally knitted tightly to the plot, emphasising aspects that support and further the narrative while repressing distractions. The Romantic imagination associated the varying emotional states of the human with the plurality of states of the landscape. Early film adapted this correlation between landscape and emotion, for example, through Sergei Eisenstein’s use of nonindifferent nature (Robertson 2009: 98). This association still functions as a common and effective narrative means in film. The narrative relation between plot and characters and their surroundings also holds true on a more mundane level, in terms of what elements the scene contains. The need for selective construction of sound scenes implies that sound designers often refrain from using surround sound recordings, instead preferring to construct the scene from a number of mono and stereo sound sources that are then panned in the virtual surround mix. Thom (2013) describes the process of sound design as casting sound ‘like a casting director casts characters. As sound designers we’re always listening […] for sounds we can use. We then try to figure out how to get a recording of that sound with a minimum of environmental noise.’ Sound design for film depends on the right amount of authenticity, but the ultimate goal of sound is not to be authentic, but rather to support the story. In itself, ‘authenticity has minimal entertainment value’ (Thom 2013).
This might help explain why Dolby Atmos currently is evolving as the new de facto high-resolution spatial audio format for film. Dolby Atmos is an object-oriented spatial sound-scene description format, permitting up to 128 tracks, each of them with positioning metadata for dynamic panning of the source to a maximum of 64 loudspeakers positioned behind and beyond the screen, as well as surrounding the audience at the sides, back, and overhead. Dolby Atmos additionally allows inclusion of premixed multichannel sound beds, and suggests that this can be used for ambient effects and reverberation (Dolby Laboratories 2013b). A typical Dolby Atmos mix contains one or more beds that lay a foundation for the sound scene, including reverberation, with additional sound scene details, Foley, sound effects, dialogue, and music added as discrete sound objects. As such, the standard continues the practice of designing sound by layering many simultaneous sound sources. The Dolby Atmos mix of Ang Lee’s adaption of Life of Pi (2012) exemplifies how rich and detailed such spatial sound scenes might be: the flying fish scene involved a great number of sound objects, each representing the sound of a single fish and its movement (Dolby Laboratories 2013a: 32:00–37:20).
The work that resulted from the artistic research in Mülheim and surroundings focused on only one of the functional layers that are usually present in films – the ambience. Sound is not captured or reproduced using object-oriented spatial sound reproduction strategies; instead, we make use of Ambisonic. Ambisonic is an alternative approach for representing spatial sound, and provides a speaker-independent representation of a sound field, which is then decoded according to the speaker setup. The encoded sound signal can be understood as a holistic representation of the total sound field – embedding all sound sources and their spatial properties in one and the same signal.
In this project the holistic approach also extends to the actual recording situation. While the field of view of the camera is restricted, the sound recordings capture sound from all directions. In several of the recordings, prominent elements of the sound originate from behind. Most of the traffic noise heard in Cows and bridges originates not from the bridge seen in the image, but from another bridge located behind the camera, closer to the location of the microphone and camera. The sound of night insects that is a distinct quality of Street by night originates from a lawn that is mostly behind the camera. The trams and buses that are the predominant sound sources in Shop windows by bus stop are seen only indirectly as reflections in the windows of the closed-down shops. In several of the sequences, the sound of cars passing by, emerging, and staying behind occurs long before and after their appearance in the image. The video of Park with distant noise and music is shot with the camera pointing upward toward the branches and leaves of overarching trees. Apart from the rustling of leaves in the wind, there is little or no correlation between image and sound as the microphone captures the distant din of the city and rehearsals for an outdoor rock concert to take place on the other side of the river. This is an example of how sound not only contains elements originating from the sides and back of the direction of the image, but also captures sounds coming from afar, beyond what we can see. The sound of Cemetery mostly originates from streets surrounding the cemetery, while the camera only manages to capture a small glimpse of one of the street corners. A fair part of the distant traffic that can be heard in Backstreet by train bridge does not originate from the streets immediately surrounding the recording locations, but rather from roads further away. Cars passing along one of those roads can briefly be seen at the far side of the railway bridge.
In film, sound is held captive by images and narrative and tends to contain only what can also be seen. This contrasts with real life, where hearing and vision differ with respect to how they help us orient ourselves in the world. Vision is focused in the direction that we are moving toward or addressing as well as in the direction of the objects and tasks that we are relating to with our hand and body. Hearing provides information coming from all directions. If vision relates to intention and activity, hearing is not only important in order to discover dangers emerging from behind it also generally helps situate us in the world.
There is one more aspect that restricts spatial audio within a film scene. A scene is usually composed as a sequence of fairly frequent cuts between changing camera angles and locations. While a general impression of a place can be quickly established in images, more time is required when doing the same through sound. When camera positions shift rapidly within a scene, the question arises of what to do with sound. If sound sources are to be realistically located they will need to be relocated with each cut, with a danger that all sense of continuity and place in the sound and scene may be lost. Continuity of sound is crucial for a scene to come across as a continuous event, even if the camera moves. When engaging in a conversation we tend to change what direction we are looking in, but we still track the location of sound sources and recognise them as stable and independent of head movements. To achieve a similar result in film, location of sound sources need to be somewhat spatially detached from the image.
Although Dolby Atmos has at least as fine-grained a spatial resolution for reproduction of sound sources coming from the sides or above the audience as from the screen, the sound image in films mixed for Dolby Atmos, such as Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, maintain a strong frontal tendency. Surround channels are mostly used to create a sensation of envelopment, with only occasional spectacular movements of sounds along trajectories at the sides, or behind or above the audience. Most of the sounds of distinct events and sources remain located at or near the screen, in the general direction of where they are seen, and they rarely follow the movements of the camera.
The two most recent major enhancements with respect to film reproduction, 3D and Dolby Atmos, are both fundamentally about spatiality and enhanced opportunities to create and experience place. It can be questioned if current mainstream film production is able to make full use of the new artistic potentials these technologies have to offer. Experiencing place takes time, but the current strong emphasis on story, with its continuous urge for forward movement in time and space, does not have the necessary patience. Instead the new creative means are used to create roller coaster spectacles. I long for a different and alternative kind of film that dares to see less happening, but instead can elaborate on the places where the story unfolds, and maybe also to some degree liberate the ear from the eye – a new kind of ambient film.
The act of listening has the potential to root the experience of presence to a specific place by giving it a personal meaning, even though the auditory domain can come across as bland and anonymous. Concentrated attention reveals a multitude of elements that affect the experience of place, such as auditory zooming and increased awareness of insignificant sounds, the exposure to urban or suburban textures of transit-vectors and activity nodes, and the necessity to deal with the socio-political implications of capturing sounds and images in the public sphere. The act of listening inscribes the location with personal memory, a layer of personal history that establishes a personal rapport with the place. Looking back at the experience of visiting Mülheim, I have a vivid memory of and strong affinity to the many places that we recorded, places that I would barely have noticed if I just passed through.
KINOKINO Centre of Contemporary Art and Moving Image in Sandnes, Norway, felt like a particularly well suited location for the presentation of this work. On a smaller scale, Sandnes and the Stavanger–Sandnes conurbation share many qualities with Mülheim and the Ruhr. The centre of Sandnes is itself a small town. In the same way that the centre of Mülheim struggles due to the competition from the Neue Mitte leisure and shopping centre near Oberhausen, the centre of Sandnes seems to loose in competition with the nearby shopping centre at Forus. Whenever I was leaving KINOKINO while working there, I would immediately stumble across various locations that would have been equally suitable for this kind of works – mundane small-town and suburban (non-)places that we so easily tend to ignore, despite so many of us spending a fair amount of our lives in such places.
According to Friedman (2003), implicativeness is one of the twelve core ideas of Fluxus, and an ideal Fluxus work will imply many more works. This seems relevant to Mülheim an der Ruhr, August 2013. My work with Jan suggests an approach to the world: to stay in a place for an extended period and take in the environment and unfolding events as they present themselves to us through sound and sight. It does not necessarily depend on access to surround microphones or video cameras. Anyone can make similar works whenever and wherever they want, just by choosing to stay in a place for an extended period of time, losing him- or herself in the world. The suburb is particularly well suited to this kind of action.
‘But at the horizon one may note the giving, the e-venting, the point at which “there is given” into what is present. Nowhere is this more descriptive than in the experience of listening. The sounds “are given”, they come unbidden into presence, and humankind, in listening, is let in on this e-venting. Listening “lets be”, lets come into presence the unbidden giving of sound. In listening humankind belongs within the event. And as a presence, the sound is that which endures, which is brought to pass, the sound whiles away in the temporal presencing that is essential to it. [...] Presence is situated within its horizons, and at the extremes of horizontal limits can be discerned the “coming-into-being” out of the open and absent giving (Ereignis) and the region (Gegnet) that is “beyond” presence. [...] Silence is a dimension of the horizon.’
(Ihde 2007: 109)
One more point of view
From the outset, the sonozones project was declared an investigation into sound art that aimed to generate new experiences and insights through practical and exploratory processes rather than through working directly toward an artistic output. In addition to the three artistic practices, a fourth position emerged from the interaction of me, the project leader, interacting with the project members through reflections, perceptions, conversations, and participation in their processes. This fourth strand had its own methods and occupations, one of which was to generate all the media content that is found in this article, but also to identify and reinforce recurring themes and bring them to the foreground. Of course the role of project leader and organiser also led to a perspective that was a blend of assistant, critic, respondent, interviewer, instigator, producer, and co-conspirator.
During the weeks in Mühlheim, a number of questions emerged that were directly related to the individual practices, but which in many ways exceeded the range of the individual methods.
The following materials are notes stemming from my journal and as such are not fully blown discussions of, for example, research questions; instead, they represent a rough and unsorted collection of elements assembled in an associative manner, enabling a dialogue with the artists during the discussions on site. Here, they are ordered thematically.
Sound – tackling the phenomenon in urban contexts.
What are the typical sound elements in urban contexts? Characteristic soundmarks and predominant sound events are all human-made.
How does the urban environment influence sound dispersal and our perception of spaces and social interactions?
Listening – the activity, setting the focus, who is listening?
Listening is functional, almost exclusively so, in particular in everyday situations.
There is almost no place in which to focus on the acoustic properties of the place, or perceive sonic elements that have a different meaning, socially or architecturally, or even poetically.
Auditory horizon – urban contexts have significant deficits compared with vision.
The predominance of traffic noise or dense human activities reduces the reach of the acoustically perceptible.
The auditory horizon (Ihde 2001) is severely limited compared with the visual one.
Finding places where the inverse is true is an interesting task.
Architectural features such as buildings and bridges influence directly how the sonic scene is constrained, reflected, and charged.
In open squares or on top of a high bridge, the distance that can be heard is naturally further, than in a streetscape enclosed between buildings.
It is not only the line of sight [sic!] of direct sound that determines the horizon, reverberation and reflections can also mask fainter direct sounds that are farther away.
Intervention – how can this have a social impact?
Interventions can be performative or acoustical.
In both cases the visual impact is greater than the acoustic one, simply because the presence of objects or performers in the public space is perceived primarily visually.
These visual cues can help grab the attention or have a deictic function: they point toward listening and sound.
Social impact can be observed in the interactions with members of the public and could be seen in journalistic output.
This would indicate that a wider impact is possible, but ultimately it only acts on the experiential level of individuals who come into contact with the interventions and investigative actions.
Social situations – questioning the validity of sound art.
The question of social interaction or situations where sounding or listening can be communicated is the core of the project.
Being agents in the public space, interaction occurs automatically, and it’s relevant to say that these interactions are always charged with questioning the socially acceptable and the meaning of the activity in general.
Sound art practices can span a wide range of activities, many of them concerned with private listening or explorations.
Artistic exploration – generating artistic experience from research questions as a viable method.
In this project some of the core issues are located less within each artistic practice but, rather, more generally within the question of the meaning of artistic interventions, be they observational or actively interventional.
Experiences – how to communicate them as the central yet intangible result of the activities.
Finding a shape that can convey some core elements of the artist’s experiences during the exploratory process is part of the communication effort of the fourth layer as well as that of each individual form.
Since some of the core elements of listening cannot be described in textual form and some of the situations in the social fabric of the urban environment are equally hard to put into words, a media-rich, associative fabric of relations might better serve as the form through which to communicate project results.
This collection exemplifies the exploratory and experimental methodology that was used across the entire project. By conceptually probing these different thematic directions, the concrete activities were tied to or developed in a loosely contextualised manner. By not setting explicit questions as starting points, but rather extending the field through these thematic avenues, the iterative and process-oriented approach across the three practices served to discover connections and common threads that would serve to guide the exploration.
The following materials are notes taken from my journal that outline a framework that served to unify the three practices through common and repeated actions and methods.
From the notes, 21 June
The protocol serves to structure the time spent on site or in between the project weeks. Some of the elements are only for me and should be part of my private daily time and routine. Some elements should be daily routines to be executed with every partner. A detailed log will be collected here that tries to collect experiences, artefacts, and times/dates with possible observations. Negotiate with each partner which blocks will be filled or omitted.
– Explore – sound, place, methods
– Transform – recordings, situations, actions
– Reflect – in thought, in dialogue, in writing
The main modes of actions could be categorised as follows:
– Observe – Explore: exploration of site, place, space, urban context, landmarks, basic sources of sounding: geophonic, biophonic, and anthrophonic (Krause 2013: 39, 64, 155).
– Engage – with each other is the first social level, with locals, by being there and acting, by talking or intervening with the people – sound of the place.
– Convey – Experience. When an element/idea becomes clear, develop method of conveying it. Or does the conceptual work or the fact that it’s a development process not demand an actual intervention?
Excerpts from the journal
These are excerpts from my journal, which show some of the aspects of the project reflected immediately after work phases on site, or at a distance in preparation or resonance after travelling home.
Reflection on Mülheim, 3 July
In hindsight, the week in Mülheim was the first real test of my concept of sound art in an urban context. The most important aspect seems to crystallise in the question of how to establish the social situations and how to interact with the population (the public).
The issue seems to be the balance between an artistic investigation taking place in Mülheim and an artistic research situation concerned with the broader context of the project. Perhaps my role in this setup is not only to serve as an observer and idea-giver, or even as a dialogue partner with each artist, but to enter into the topic myself with an attitude and a clear idea linked to the urban and social situation. So perhaps I have to organise/engineer/envision and somehow develop social interactive situations for the three artists in the group? Does this have to occur in the process weeks themselves, or does it take place in the final symposium? Who is the audience? (the eternal question …) Of course, each of the three processes generates situations of social interactions by chance or coincidence.
– In Trond’s case, the act of field recording in the urban context generates curiosity and people ask what this is about and there’s the opportunity to engage them in the process; that is, by handing them the headphones and letting them listen to/through the headphones. Question: How can this be systematised? Where would this make most sense in terms of social interaction? (Downtown Mülheim, or inside the Centro shopping mall in Oberhausen)?
– For Cathy’s extended ear, the obvious interaction is the performative aspect of her being in the public space with the visible setup. Could this be offered to the audience actively? Create an event?
– In Kirsten’s idea, the question is how the result of her research process can be transformed into a sonic intervention that will influence the public space. Where would this be placed and is this also an event or a hidden, added layer that is not demonstratively shown? (Neuhaus 1994).
– Trond: present field recordings in an extreme situation.
– Cathy: provide an experience of the process to the audience.
– Kirsten: transform materials collected on site into a sonic intervention.
Reflections in Mülheim with Trond Lossius, 15 August
Again, one of the most striking elements of the work process was that we managed to get into the deep, almost meditative state of listening and attention while doing these twenty- to thirty-minute-long recordings. Thus, even if the apparent goal was the capture on film and audio of these situations, the actual effect was the generation of a primary experience for ourselves, of which recording provided a memory, an echo, and perhaps for the other viewers will be inherently perceivable as the invisible authors having had the original experience in real-time/real-life at these places – an atmosphere that the mediated form transports to another place in the future. An important part of this process is that we are doing this as a team of two, who are in constant dialogue and are able to verbalise the impression and possibly key-elements of experience right after the recording takes place. This creates a reflective layer that often is only present in temporally shifted forms and most of the time only for the individual artist during the process.
Video of a recording session on the riverbank. (Surround audio recording, best listened to through headphones.)
I’ve had similar experiences in collaborative situations for the stage, where it is necessary to communicate constantly during the process in order to be able to bring the work forward, and also in reflective hindsight. In terms of process for the sonozones project, this group clearly delivers a focused goal-oriented production process, rather than a very open and experimental search or research attitude. This concerns not only the focus on field recording, and that the work has a goal, but also the more traditional field-recording method used.
Overall, the strongest insight today is about the extreme slowing down and relativisation of everyday concerns – when we take half an hour to just be quiet and listen and wait in absolutely banal or everyday places without anything special occurring. The focus and emphasis shifts dramatically, we become much more sensible/sensitive to small or insignificant occurrences. Trond remarks on the changing inner state while recording: ‘You lose the why and the how of how you came to the place and the what and the inner state become important.’ The artwork resituated in its original place can draw on the tacit, intrinsic elements that constitute an experience. Instead of being a closed off work/piece, it relates directly to the surroundings and enables the reliving of past and present simultaneously. In the evening, during a discussion with Trond on the train platform while waiting, we find that there is an ‘emphasis on slowness, a reduction (paucity) of visual content and density of aural domain, the audio takes precedence. This is reduced listening, not in Pierre Schaeffer’s sense, but rather by reducing density until left with few enough elements/layers that it is possible to engage with the rich inner textures of them. […] Places such as backstreets, backyards, distant din of the city, the quiet, and forgotten pockets and oases of the city, this is suburban quality.’ We realise that the elements and places we interact with almost always concern transport vectors, pathways, and motion patterns in the urban texture.
Reflections in Mülheim with Cathy van Eck, 26 August
I had the feeling that in our project we worked on the method and the materials, but not so much on the pace and the connection to Mülheim – yet. We agreed that we would need to experiment with the three methods of extended ears. […] The look from passers-by and people in vehicles showed clearly that being active with thee contraptions is also a ‘performative action’ and creates a clear signal, a strong curiosity. […] One finding was that using only one funnel provides better differential hearing. My impression was that the overall perception is less disturbed and that with one ear, the horn functions more like an acoustic telescope.
From there we walked along the footbridge leading to the power station. We stopped again half way across the footbridge, at the point where it makes an angle and creates something of a platform overlooking the river and the marshes along the shore of the island. Here the acoustic environment, or acoustic horizon, is wide enough, far enough from traffic that low-level, filigree sound elements become audible. The most dominant sonic element at that spot becomes the aeroplanes taking off from nearby Düsseldorf airport. This is something that several people we talked to commented upon (young woman during the recording with Trond in the street next to the train viaduct and the old lady on the bus stop while filming trams), especially when they thought that we were taking noise measurements.
Reflections in Mülheim with Cathy van Eck, 27 August
To me it seems that this type of intervention (Cathy’s walk with horns) is more a performance and less an experiment than the work we did with Kirsten. Despite the exploratory phases with the horns, going to different places was more akin to an experiment. I wonder if exploring two other avenues with physical horns is useful, or whether it would be better to investigate an ‘extended ears’ soundwalk with the iPhone app and a listening walk just with open ears for comparison.
Reflections in Mülheim with Cathy van Eck, 28 August
In the afternoon we had arranged for a guest to join us for a last walk, where we would combine two modalities. […] Thus the situation changed: the two people active in the street became highly visible while the third, accompanying person remained discreetly in the background. The first part of the walk was with one horn each, […]
The feedback was positive and she said it had opened her ears, permitting her a new experience. Her main question about the project concerned its meaning or intention. After explaining to her what I consider artistic research to be, I also emphasised the question about the validity of sound art practices in a social-urban context. The most appropriate answer for me was to speak about the way in which interventions and the provision of experiences can touch people – even if not the masses, at least those that are open or curious enough to engage with it in the street.
‘The aesthetic subject in sound is defined by this fact of interaction with the auditory world. He is placed in the midst of its materiality, complicit with its production. The sounds of his footsteps are part of the auditory city he produces in his movements through it. His subject position is different from the viewing self, whose body is at a distance from the seen. The listener is entwined with the heard. His sense of the world and of himself is constituted in this bond.’
(Voegelin 2010: 5)
‘In a more general sense noise amplifies social relations and tracks the struggle for identity and space within the tight architectural and demographic organization of a city. In this sense, noise is a social signifier: determining unseen boundaries and waging invisible wars. A comprehensive noise map […] reveal[s] social relations on its fault lines of taste and tolerance.’
(Voegelin 2010: 45)
‘It is the body listening that is at the core of the aesthetic autonomy of sound […] and gives it speech. The listening body is a solitary subject who practices rather than assumes the work.’
(Voegelin 2010: 74)
‘Experience is compounded of feeling and thought. Human feeling is not a succession of discrete sensations; rather memory and anticipation are able to wield sensory impacts into a shifting stream of experience so that we may speak of a life of feeling as we do of a life of thought. It is a common tendency to regard feeling and thought as opposed, the one registering subjective states, the other reporting on objective reality. In fact, they lie near the two ends of an experiential continuum, and both are ways of knowing.’
(Tuan 1977: 10)
From the outset this project was set in an investigative mode in the context of a larger art-as-research context. Therefore the importance of exposing practice as research might be recast and viewed from the inverted perspective. In what way can an investigation into artistic processes be called practice, if the normal qualifiers for an artistic work are missing? These qualifiers determine, for example, whether an action or process is goal- and result-oriented in a pragmatic way or whether it is an aesthetic or poetic choice and thus an artistic intention is the principal driving force.
In the case of the sonozones constellation, we all felt that even though there wasn’t the usual target point to motivate the building and development of the artistic processes, in certain ways the work was more open-ended and headed into more unknown territories than if a classic show or performance had marked the end point. With each of the collaborative pairs, there was a moment when a delicate balance had to be found. This was at the beginning of each process, when it became apparent that the processes would not lead to a recognisable and familiar end form, and that by making plans and defining methods for addressing the concerns that were outlined by the questions in the concept, there would be a danger of missing crucial unknown experiences and new discoveries. There was a pendulum movement from following the project leader’s idea of social interaction to concern for the individual practice of each artist. Even though in discussions during the various phases of each pair’s work these different levels of the concept might come to the foreground, most of the time, during the actual experimentations, explorations, transformations, interventions, and performance situations in the public places, the core practice was in focus.
The questions that framed the project at the beginning, at times became quite peripheral to the concerns discovered to be much more pressing during the processes. In one of the processes, in an unforeseen turn, the need to work toward a finished piece became pressing. This was in the pair using field recording methods. However, the unforeseen benefit of dedicating a good part of that project’s time to gathering the materials for a finished piece was that a very coherent, repeated manner of working was established, which led to an unanticipated type of experience. As Trond writes in his section of this exposition, making long-duration recordings with video of a site or place permitted us to enter into a mode of perceiving the place that in everyday life would be inaccessible. The deep, meditative involvement with being in a specific place and listening and watching it without stirring and making any noise proved to be one of a number of recurring intense experiences. Interestingly this occurred for all three work-groups. Where field recording with the surround microphone and camera imposed a silent attention for a time span of up to half an hour, observation of the effects of Kirsten’s small installations on the dynamic of a place and the behaviour of passers-by and also the experience of walking for more than twenty minutes up the busy high street with a clearly visible cardboard cone had the same effect.
Thoughts and observations through and about the three practices
In Cathy van Eck's Extended Ears concept, the investigation occurred on three levels. On the first level, we dealt with materials and process research by building horns, assembling technology, and programming a smartphone app. On the second level, the task was to test and evaluate each model to find its limits and determine the actual perceptual effects compared with the planned or imagined effects. Finally, the third level covered the performative application of (two out of three of) the models as a social and shared experience and as a signifying activity in public space. From these investigations and actions, a number of insights or facts can be formulated. The acoustics of our perceptual apparatus can only be altered up to a point before the experience is completely changed. The experience of focused listening may be emphasised through external means, but the ideal is that it ‘just works’ with open ears. It becomes clear from these tests that documenting the actual listening experience is impossible as the technical means alter perception and the level of differentiation that our auditory system affords cannot be simulated. When examining the social interaction and social impact of this practice, it is evident that the main effect is through the performative intervention, by signalling to the public the action of listening, or though sharing the experience by providing means for having the same perception, for example by handing our listening devices such as the horns to passers-by and interested audiences. Yet, even in these social situations, the actual listening experience stays personal. The entire investigation was linked to the specificities of the Mülheim context by being tuned to the characteristic sound elements given. The predominant soundmarks and their balance specifically influenced not only the transformations programmed for the virtual model but also the manner of applying the mechanical one in the pedestrian zone of Mülheim.
For the concept of Augmenting Urban Sounds with Kirsten Reese, the activities were divided into three main categories. The exploration and collection of the sonic characteristics of the place were followed by a phase of transformation and composition that provided the materials used to reintervene in the places and modulate in subtle ways the sonic spaces given. Typically the process started from this premise, but we couldn’t foresee where this would lead. The serial character of the work process and the typical cyclical experimental setting shared many traits with ‘scientific’ experimental studies (on behaviour, perception, etc.). The results are not as tangible as in a finished artistic work, but the experiences can be put into words. The choice of the method of intervention had direct and indirect social impacts. The direct one was when passers-by noticed the added sonic elements (although often they first noticed the speakers and cables, rather than the sounds), and quite a few reactions came from this type of interaction, such as the encounter with the art historian, who later came back to experience more of our work. The indirect interaction concerned our presence in the public place and thus we entered into normal conversations and contact simply by being there as agents. The main insight of this project might be the notion of thresholds. Sound augmentation of public places through interventions with small sounds needs to pass the threshold of habitual perceptual filtering by the public. Different places or situations have different domains where this threshold is situated. On another level, the presence of power relations in public places became evident, something that is always present but is rarely addressed in sound art. By intruding into public places with these interventions, problems arise with authority, ownership, and hegemony. Issues of permissions and boundaries need to be addressed, also because members of the public might potentially perceive these artistic actions as threatening. Public space in a German town is highly regulated and protected.
Listening through recording, using recording technology as a focusing device, and approaching the sense of space and place generated by sound and listening were the main themes of Trond Lossius’s Losing Myself in the World. Taking concepts from from the situationist ‘dérive’ (Debord (1956) 2006) as an exploratory method, we added using the microphone to listen closely to a place. The goal was to get a sense of ‘place’ and ‘non-place’ (Augé 1995), with the recordings allowing us to capture sonic elements with their spatial acoustic characteristics. During the ten days spent in Mülheim we laid a network of visits across the town, attempting to capture as many different characteristics as possible. The shared listening experience between Trond and Jan was occasionally extended when other people curious enough to inquire were offered the headphones to let them listen through the microphone, as if looking through a telescope or the viewfinder of a camera. In recording and documenting the exploratory process, a form of field recording that includes video was found, with the clearly defined goal becoming to show it in an upcoming exhibition situation in a cinema in Norway.
Although this project ended in a properly finished piece, at the outset many of the processes were undefined. The investigation extended to more than just the recording activity. In many ways, the experience of spending blocks of time of twenty to thirty minutes in total silence without moving generated a condensed type of being, listening, and awareness of the kind that only a musician performing onstage might find; this proved to be the strongest and most intense experience of the project. In addition, through the sharing of these experiences, an intense process of dialogue between Trond and Jan emerged that helped to clarify the direction and intentions of this way of working. In the public place, again, the act of recording has a signalling function. Many people asked whether we were measuring noise levels, and since I was filming in parallel with the recordings, they often thought we were a film crew. The social moment of sharing the listening with the public occurred, albeit more rarely; children and young people were the most open to trying it.
The insights about space and place are multilayered and complex. One aspect that came up repeatedly was the question of the auditory horizon (Ihde 2007), in particular in combination with the visual field-of-view of the video recording and the ability of the surround microphone to capture all around our listening position. Although generally the auditory horizon was much closer than the visual one, mainly because traffic noise blocked out fainter and further-removed sounds, in some quiet places, the opposite was the case. In these quiet urban spots, the ear would not only be capable of perceiving things all around simultaneously, it would also pick up sonic events from much further afield than the eye could. This is particularly true for soundmarks such as church bells and sirens, but it also happened with the cries of a flock of geese flying across the river. We believe that this juxtaposition between the visual and the auditory horizons is perceivable in the screening format we chose, where the image contains less information than the sound. A final interesting discovery about the relation of field recording to a specific place such as Mülheim was that sound recordings tend easily to lose their site-specificity and therefore the intrinsic link to the place of their capture. Only if specific sound icons are captured can a place be recognised through listening alone. The photographic or ‘videographic’ trace can help anchor a recording to an actual place and a memory, rather than an internally constituted one.
Questions and insights
When trying to put into words the insights gained through the sonozones processes, the primary element that remains and should be communicated is the experience of the places of Mülheim by the artist through extended presence in attentive listening states. This insight is deeply informed by practices and processes carried out by the four artists, in particular through an intense presence on site, building up a foundation of impressions, concrete experiences of the town, and sensorial, sensuous, and personal moments. Only through this active engagement can the experiential gain accumulate and permit the construction of a web of relationships over all the layers of the practice.
If this statement is regarded as too subjective and not sufficiently universally communicable, it nonetheless shows precisely that the primary level of effect on artistic awareness and the processes of sound art practices is situated in the domain of personal experience. Through the project, this experience can and was communicated. This occurred on site by sharing the practice with others or indirectly by exposing ourselves to the perception of others through our activities in the public places.
It is in this sense that some of the questions formulated at the beginning of the project became condensed into one important underlying inquiry. Thus the issue is how an art-form that builds on non-narrative and non-propositional materials, forms, and practices, such as sound and listening, can create an impact in the lived world and in a social environment.
Social engagement through presence with sound art practice in the urban environment proved to be an interesting, albeit tricky topic. Not primarily because of the idea of creating an impact in the lived world, but rather because we didn’t intend to actively manipulate or engineer social situations. By being visible agents in the urban environment, for example by operating with a large microphone and a camera, by manipulating small speakers in marginal or so-called non-places or by ‘performing’ a listening walk using large cones, the public was clearly perceiving us through our activity as artists. This ‘signalling’ effect was a deliberate choice, intended to build bridges to members of the public. Whether the public’s questioning of this would lead to an active engagement frequently depended on the circumstances and on the type of person in front of us. There were many short encounters – for example with children who, with their natural curiosity, would engage immediately in questioning and try to understand what we were doing. Adults would do so in a more reserved way and usually provided their interpretations as questions: Are you measuring the noise levels? Are you a TV camera crew filming? Are you documenting the empty stores on the high street? These were some of the questions put to us. A very interesting question was asked by a teenager when watching Cathy van Eck walking with a listening cone: What is she listening to? Our attempts to answer these questions and explain our methods and goals would lead to conversations, which in once case motivated a person to join us in the common experience of a listening walk and a subsequent long discussion. These communicative moments were enabled by our being active in the public sphere in a particular manner, something that would not have occurred had we simply gone out to interview people.
Another critical aspect that reflected on our activities in the public sphere was the places where we encountered the limits of permitted activities with sound art. In one particular instance, the hegemonial subdivisions of public spaces became absolutely clear when security personnel prevented us from recording or diffusing sound on the public transport platform adjacent to the shopping mall, which forms a principal passageway from high-street to the neighbourhood behind the station. In another instance, at the downtown tram stop, we were asked to point the camera away from the waiting passengers, making evident the monopoly on surveillance or observation exerted by the public transport company.
In closing, a final phase of this project needs to be mentioned. It covers the communication after the fact of the experiences collected in Mülheim during the summer of 2013. The compilation of the materials presented here in this format, the recollection, combing through the traces and artefacts, the writing of accounts and the reflections – all these activities allow us to close the circle from idea to insight, but also permit us to widen the audience and let others engage with these sound art practices by way of the assemblage of elements presented here. We hope it possess an associative power that can evoke personally engaged awareness of sound in public spaces.
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This project was made possible by the Forschungsschwerpunkt Public City of the Institute for Contemporary Arts Research of the Zurich University of the Arts, Urbane Künste Ruhr, Ringlokschuppen Mülheim, and the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology of the Zurich University of the Arts.
The Re: place artistic research project was a collaboration between Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Oslo National Academy of the Arts, the Grieg Academy, the Institute of Music at University of Bergen, and additional partners, funded by the Project programme of the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme. The exhibition This must be the place (Pick me up and turn me round (part I) at KINOKINO Centre for Contemporary Art and Moving Image received additional funding from Arts Council Norway. Trond Lossius would like to thank all the fellow artists that contributed to the Re:place project for their collaboration, Nils-Thomas Økland at KINOKINO for invaluable help in the planning and execution of the exhibition, and Geir Petter Røssland for assisting with converting videos to Digital Cinema Package.
All the photographs and videos on this page are © 2013 Jan Schacher www.jasch.ch except where noted.
All sounds on this page are © 2013 Cathy van Eck or Kirsten Reese or Trond Lossius.