Listening in/to Exile: Migration and Media Arts

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay


This exposition responds to the current flux of urban migration and the resulting condition of estrangement. Through artistic research, it examines the content and context of an augmented book project and a corresponding media artwork that deal with the issues of mass migration, hyper-mobility, placelessness and nomadism. These conditions are considered to be the impulses of a contemporary moment manifesting in the blurring of boundaries between the local and the global, the corporeal and the digital, the private and the public, or what could be understood as the intimate and the dehumanizing spaces. The artistic research sheds light on the aesthetics of addressing the notion of exile, alienation and estrangement in contemporary media art practice through an exploration of the poetic capacities embedded in everyday listening, which is the point of departure for the two projects being discussed.

Listening walk at Liminaria, Guardia Sanframondi, South Italy, July 2018.

A Nomad’s Guide to Listening

A Nomad’s Guide to Listening is an augmented book project, developed in response to the author’s research on migration, contemporary urban experience, mobility and cultural interaction. The texts stem from a meditated psychogeographic exploration of contemporary cities like Copenhagen, Berlin, Brussels, London, Kolkata, Vienna, Rome, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Amsterdam, New York, and others, gathering field recordings and site-specific writings. These writings and recordings form the body of the book and a corresponding audiovisual, interactive artwork entitled Exile and Other Syndromes. The latter work expands these textual and audiovisual materials in an augmented and generative installation. The recordings and writings were made during the conception of the artwork between 2012 and 2018, and the resulting artwork was produced between 2015 and 2019 – initially during a residency at IEM, Kunstuniversität Graz,[1] where a prototype was developed and premiered.[2] A more comprehensive version of the artwork was exhibited at Rogaland Kunstsenter[3] in Norway during the Screen City Biennial in October 2017.[4] Another exhibition from the project took place at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, India, in December 2018.[5] These two projects draw on the sited recordings and writings from the artist’s listening walks through the many cities he has traversed as an immigrant.

Mellem Bølgerne (Berit Dröse 2012) captures the project in its inception in Copenhagen; the video was exhibited at Kunsthal Charlottenborg (March 2013)

Listening in exile

I listen to the city, intending to push the record button even though I am elsewhere[6] at this time, as the day evolves into a mature evening. The age of this moment is immobile, like my gaze transfixed on a wall of sound. What if I am part of the people who are passing by? Not me, but my ears themselves avoid listening to the engulfing sounds, except for my own footsteps. Dark clouds hover over the people who pass by the site of listening. They sidestep it altogether, as if to avoid understanding the act of auditory presence. I wonder what they are thinking, looking at a microphone and seeing me as its shadow. But my thoughts do not remain static at all; they dissolve quickly into the crescendo of sounds that emanate from the hand-drilling machines of the construction site, just at the distance of interaction. I have been standing alone here by the roadside since morning, in front of the perplexing buttons of the recording machine. Is the practice of listening in a public space considered madness? If it is madness, why do people, with their ears enclosing silicon plugs, watch over other passers-by? In essence, everyone wants to touch someone else; everyone seeks to form delicate contact and longs to feel empathy, to reach out with intimacy to someone standing nearby. How difficult is it to translate the yearnings of that spiritless girl slowly walking by, who seems to be afraid of the clamour of the city – or isn’t she?

Excerpts from Exile and Other Syndromes

Listening, interrupted

Exile and Other Syndromes at Nacht van Kunst & Kennis, Leiden.

The corresponding media art project Exile and Other Syndromes (2015 – 2019) is concerned with the present adversities of mass migration, hyper-mobility, placelessness and nomadism in an interactive and generative context, incorporating the field recordings and writings from the project. The work assumes that these migratory conditions manifest by blurring the sonic perceptual boundaries between the local and the global, the digital and the corporeal, the private and the public, or the intimate and the dehumanizing spaces as mentioned above, instilling a sense of semantic fatigue (Demers 2009). Based on these assumptions, the interactive and generative artwork intends to develop a fluid, sculptural form of sound in a closely mediated interaction with sound-generated, quasi-abstract and asemic[7] textual patterns. These patterns are derived from the scribbles and notes made in various auditory situations[8] as part of the project fieldwork whilst navigating through the aforementioned cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. These notes are made vulnerable to their sonic environments through artistic intervention in order to form generative live visuals, which serve as the digital artefacts that aim to render visible the intangible and ineffable contemplations of a nomadic listener. The artwork incorporates multichannel live projection of the generative live visuals on multiple screens, augmented with multichannel sound installation for a 4-or 8-channel Ambisonics system, which is also configured for a pair of wireless headphones. This specific method of artistic intervention examines the way in which the memory, imagination and subjectivity of an itinerant listener become sensitized to the everyday sounds found within the context of intensified urban interaction and navigation in the contemporary conditions of migration, hyper-mobility and nomadism.[9] The work relies on intuitive capacities of listening rather than on ontological and epistemological reasoning, evaluations and deductions involved in deciphering the immediate meaning of sound.

Exile and Other Syndromes at Rogaland Kunstsenter, Norway (live intervention by the artist).

Listening through exile

I do not belong anywhere, even if a place might ask for my fingerprints, passport photos and biometric details to allow me to stay for a stipulated period of time, that feeble data and evaporating information will later be erased. Whose land is this? Do I have consent to step in? To whom it may concern, in regards to the geopolitics? I am deported by border control, pushed further into exile as the passport photos, regulatory stamps and signatures ensure that the validity of my drifting remains unambiguous. However amorphous, the opaqueness of the wall around the control booth conceals any documentation of my identity, immigration status and mobility, leaving me perplexed by an inexplicable fear of being watched and yet ignored, measured and excluded, scrutinized and removed. This small room of waiting in which they have put me is not silent, but the drone of the vacuum cleaner is overpowered by fear and a certain kind of impermanence, which in turn defines the psycho-location.[10]

Exile and Other Syndromes at Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa.

Listening to exile

On a hectic morning on this busy street, people walk without looking at each other. They can, however, listen to each other’s footsteps, but this listening implies recognition of the existence of the other and confrontation through eye contact. This implication works against the rhythm that the city demands. Some of the people in the crowd prefer to stay on the margins of listening.[11] Their choice is to be in the territory of that acute circle that social life offers. It is not unwarranted timidity that motivates such a choice, but fascination with loneliness. There are sounds of breathing, the rustling of clothes, a cough, a discernible footstep, a car horn, a shout that is carved out from the background – but these sounds will eventually dissolve into the tone of the moment, be enveloped by a sly urbanity, leaving no residue. No memory whatsoever of their occurring will be retained. Everyday sounds are not attended to, with the excuse of being alienated and self-absorbed in a crowd of many others – similar outsiders to the city. Existing on the margin of listening, one can become immersed in the inner world – there is another sea, another river that flows: a certain environment of soliloquy that outlines the selfhood.


Look at that man standing at the crossroad, reluctant to step out to traverse the frenzied street. His steps are suspended, as if the air were full of uncertainty today. His remorseful eyes don’t know where to rest their perfect glance. All the lonely, moving people and objects pass by; he doesn’t care to move forward from his own incurable stasis. Could he be listening to his inner flow of sound and silence, and the frantic world around isn’t prompting him to make a mindful navigational decision?[12] His mind is somewhere else, and he seems lost by the roadside. His steps hover over the minor chords of the sounding city. Standing at the boundaries of today’s tone, his inwardness reflects the margin of listening one can experience now and then, and how it affects navigating the everyday.

Exile and Other Syndromes at Rogaland Kunstsenter, Norway.

Exile and Other Syndromes at Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa.


The works discussed here respond to the contemporary issues of mass migration, hyper-mobility, placelessness and nomadism, which are considered to be the impulses of a contemporary condition that manifests by the blurring of boundaries between the local and the global, the corporeal and the digital, the private and the public, or the intimate and the dehumanizing spaces. The artistic research sheds light on the aesthetics of addressing the notion of exile, alienation, and estrangement in contemporary media art practice through an exploration of the poetic capacities embedded in everyday listening, which is the point of departure for the projects being discussed.

The exposition engages with the artistic matter; namely, the field recordings and on-site writings – artistic acts of poetic contemplation performed over the course of the artist-listener’s personal involvement with the contemporary urban alienation towards self-understanding and emancipation. The work draws on the artist’s own experience of migration, hyper-mobility, placelessness and nomadism. In the works, the artist approaches such conditions with a poetically detached perspective for self-reflection, which is communicated in this research exposition as a mode of questioning and the sharing of experiences and perspectives. As a methodology, public self-critique of this kind manifests in the artist’s analytical intervention and re-visitation of select texts from the works. This sense of deliberate and critical estrangement offers a contemplative distance, which allows for the location of a language able to articulate the artistic process as well as its layers of conceptualization. The approach of thinking through media and mobility in this way may help interlink ideas of sound and listening with the experience of urban migration and social estrangement. In this artistic research exposition, the rapidly emerging discourse that surrounds migration, mobility, and nomadism and draws on the notions of “deterritorialization”[13] is addressed within the practice of media art. Unpacking the project facilitates the examination of how enhanced mobility infuses the artistic practice with an affordance to involve an alien subjectivity, endowing a “nomadic listener”[14] with a context to exercise poetic elevation, contemplative transcendence, endurance, and emancipation.

Exile and Other Syndromes at Nacht van Kunst & Kennis, Leiden.

Critical Listening

By listening and meandering through a de-familiarized city as a nomadic being, the artist-listener may indulge in a mental journey as a psychogeographic re-familiarization of the city, as Merlin Coverley suggests, in “an attempt to transform the urban experience for aesthetic purposes”.[15] The artist can perceive and excavate a part of the acoustic geography as a “nomadic listener”[16] rather than as an everyday city dweller and “insider”. This deterritorialized, estranged, and unsocial position of the artist-listener helps to transform the perspectives of the de-familiarized city through artistic intervention to formulate something elevating, re-familiarizing and imaginative, which, according to Guy Debord, entails a “playful-constructive behavior”.[17]

Throughout this project, it was my assertion that an affective mode of interaction and navigation for the increasingly nomadic and deterritorialized urban dwellers in today’s post-global cities can be found by employing a practice of contemplative listening, exploring the specific artistic potential of psychogeography.[18] In this practice, the listening subject can be detached, like an onlooker, outside of the social margin – in other words, like an alien or a stranger; otherwise, in the mode of usually immersive listening in the city, the situated listener would lose the critical faculty of observation, failing to nurture the subjective emergence. Here, I would like to refer to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ work The Savage Mind (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1962), which can be interpreted as suggesting an artistic position. Artists can indeed be seen as savages, estranged and weird aliens in a social context; such a position bestows them with critical eyes and ears, removed from the everyday stress and strain of urban experience towards a contemplative engagement with a city.

Live concert from the project at 3ZEM, Rabat, March 2019.


Barwise, Jon and John Perry. Situations and Attitudes. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1999.

Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. “Beyond Matter: Object-disoriented Sound Art.” Seismograf/DMT, Special issue (1999).

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. “Auditory Situations: Notes from Nowhere.” Journal of Sonic Studies, Special Issue: Sonic Epistemologies, Volume 4 (2013).

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. “Object-Disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-Digital Condition.” A Peer-reviewed Journal About Volume 3(1), (2014a).

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. “Sonic Drifting: sound, city and psychogeography.” SoundEffects 3 (3),(2014b). 138-152.

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. “Auditory (Con)texts: Writing on Sound.” Ear │ Wave │ Event, Issue 2 (2015).

Chattopadhyay, Budhaditya. “Hyper-listening: Praxis.” In: Mateus-Berr, R., and Reitstätter, L. (eds.). Art & Design Education in Times of Change. Conversations Across Cultures. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017: 171-175.

Coverley, Merlin. Psychogeography. Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2010.

Cox, Christoph. Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. Nomadology: The War Machine. Trans. Brian Massumi. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. Anti-Œdipus. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. London and New York: Continuum, 1972/2004.

Demers, Joanna. “Field Recording, Sound Art and Objecthood.” Organised Sound, 14 (1), (2009). 39-45.

Dyson, Frances. Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture. California: University of California Press. 2009.

Ihde, Don. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. New York: The SUNY Press, 2007.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Paris: Librairie Plon, 1962.

Miranda, Maria. Unsitely Aesthetics: Uncertain practices in contemporary art. Berlin: Errant Bodies, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007.

Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. London: The MIT Press, 1999.

Self, Will. Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Wollscheid, Achim. The Terrorized Term. Frankfurt: SELEKTION, 1996.

  1. See: ↩︎

  2. See: ↩︎

  3. See: ↩︎

  4. See: ↩︎

  5. See: ↩︎

  6. We live in an era of pervasive mobility and (dis)connectivity that triggers estrangements and a sense of perpetual exile as perceptions constantly shift across sites, suggesting altered and unsettled geographies. These conditions tend to reproduce meanings and contexts that are at times independent from the source of their location. An increasingly migratory being, a wandering urban dweller of today’s post-global cities, is usually mindful of ambient and environmental sounds while navigating through various intersecting urban sites, considering them to be spatiotemporally evolving but gradually disorienting. Migratory auditory situations are juxtaposed with real-time spatial information and a memory of another place in another time. The nomadic subject may relate to these situations through the contingent processes informed by a contemplative estrangement from the social context and a poetic detachment from the site, conditioned by extensive mobility and nomadism. ↩︎

  7. Asemic writing is a visually abstract and semantically loose impressionistic writing. See: ↩︎

  8. The errant listeners interact with various intersecting places during their everyday navigation, often considering and/or perceiving them as spatiotemporally evolving but gradually disorienting “auditory situations” (Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Auditory Situations: Notes from Nowhere.” Journal of Sonic Studies, Special Issue: Sonic Epistemologies, Volume 4 (2013), and “Auditory (Con)texts: Writing on Sound.” Ear │ Wave │ Event, Issue 2 (2015). The listener may relate to these situations through thought processes (Barwise, Jon and John Perry. Situations and Attitudes. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1999; Achim Wollscheid. The Terrorized Term. Frankfurt: SELEKTION, 1996) generated by means of cognitive associations in the context of psychogeographic (Merlin Coverley. Psychogeography. Herts: Pocket Essentials, 2010) navigation through the situated sonic phenomena. Essentially subjective, private, and contemplative, the itinerant sonic interaction between listeners and these constantly emerging situations as cognitive processes of listening might arguably transcend the ontological and epistemological constraints of sound to include the poetic contemplations of the listener. ↩︎

  9. As such, the poetic suggestions allow for an inclusive interpretation of the intersecting sonic environments in contemporary cities. The belief in the inward contemplation and subjectivity available to wandering urban listeners enables the work to explore transcendental estrangement from the immediate here and now to counter the neuroses of contemporary urban living. Particular emphasis centres on the suggestion that the ineffable yet poetic attributes of an expanded mode of listening provide a context for exploring the unexpected splendour of everyday urban sounds and their transcendental potential. Emergence of contingent moments in the urban listening experience expands the Cagian idea of chance composition in the direction of the creation of certain fertile conditions that facilitate fluid and nomadic interaction with urban sounds in contemporary cities in Europe and across the world. The work thus essentially explores the introspective capacity of mindful listening to transcend the barrier of immediate meaning and to touch upon poetic sensibilities in order to create a sense of wellbeing in the midst of a volatile milieu. ↩︎

  10. In his seminal work Listening, Jean-Luc Nancy argued that a philosopher is one who hears but cannot listen, “or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize” (Jean-Luc Nancy. Listening. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007, 1). His argumentation has challenged the current epistemic discourse in sound studies that equates “listening” with “understanding,” “audibility” with “intelligibility,” or the “sonic” with the “logical” (Ibid., 3). Apparently, by retaining the epistemological as the sole framework for the study of sound, the linear equation between sound and meaning used in sound studies seems one-dimensional. Rather, it would be a worthwhile endeavour to explore the philosophizing and contemplative potential of sonic phenomenon at the listener’s end, rooted at a particular site but longing to transcend the place through the condition of mobility permeating contemporary cities. Departing from the phenomenological premises of sound (Don Ihde. Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. New York: The SUNY Press, 2007), subjective experiences become the foundation of my work, framing spatially hybrid and “unsitely” (Maria Miranda. Unsitely Aesthetics: Uncertain practices in contemporary art. Berlin: Errant Bodies, 2013) auditory situations, including aspirations for transcendence in itinerant listeners. ↩︎

  11. In a migratory navigational mode of listening, the contemplations activated by sonic phenomena arguably transcend the epistemic comprehension of the source identity of sound and move toward an outlining of the auditory situation including the sonic flux (Christoph Cox. Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). Such a context delineates the sound events beyond immediately accessible meanings and expands the epistemic knowledge-structure of sound and listening into poetic utterances, stemming from a sense of estrangement and rupture in the here-and-now, suggesting a marginal position for the listener. ↩︎

  12. Given the specifically chaotic and disorganized nature of contemporary cities, it is challenging for an urban dweller to envisage the city before appreciating, in the light of psychogeography, the navigational path more mentally than cartographically. We can think of the city as a circular urban constellation with inner and outer peripheries. Contemplative and mindful listening would then involve deterritorialized sound-walking from the inner to the outer, delving into spatiotemporal experiences and conjuring up emergent sonic imageries by interacting with and reflecting upon the specific ambiences and the auditory situations in an inclusive way. I have loosely termed such practice hyperlistening (2017). Further reading: Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Hyper-listening: Praxis”, in Ruth Mateus-Berr and Reitstätter, Luise (eds.). Art & Design Education in Times of Change Conversations Across Cultures. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017): 171-5. ↩︎

  13. The condition of “deterritorialization” manifests in a sense of site-unspecific otherworldliness, as I have explained. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the term “deterritorialization” to describe the disembedding and re-embedding of social relations from various objects and sites. The term describes any process that decontextualizes a set of relations, rendering them remote and virtual, and preparing them for more actualizations outside a fixed local territory. Many anthropologists use the term “deterritorialized” to refer to a weakening of ties between culture and place; meaning the removal of cultural subjects and objects from a certain location in space and time. Deterritorialization implies that certain cultural aspects tend to transcend specific territorial boundaries in a present world that consists of things, objects and places that are fundamentally in constant mobility, flux and transformation under the spectre of the contemporary condition. ↩︎

  14. A term I coined in the article: Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Object-Disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-Digital Condition”. A Peer-reviewed Journal About, Issue 1, Volume 3 (2014). ↩︎

  15. Coverley. Psychogeography, 10. ↩︎

  16. As mentioned earlier, this is a term that I coined (Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Object-Disoriented Sound: Listening in the Post-Digital Condition.” A Peer-reviewed Journal About Volume 3(1), 2014a) to denote a listening experience that is site-unspecific, transcendental, and emancipatory in a contemporary condition of migration and mobility. Further readings: Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Beyond Matter: Object-disoriented Sound Art”. Seismograf/DMT (special issue; 2017); and Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Auditory (Con)texts: Writing on Sound.” Ear │ Wave │ Event, Issue 2, (2015). ↩︎

  17. Simon Sadler. The Situationist City. London: The MIT Press, 1999: 77. ↩︎

  18. Further reading: Budhaditya Chattopadhyay. “Sonic Drifting: Sound, city and psychogeography, SoundEffects 3 (3), (2014b): 138-152. ↩︎