public space has a soundtrack now


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public space has a soundtrack now

  1. 1. Public space has a soundtrack now. Lauren Brown
  2. 2. Public space has a soundtrack now. This research focus stems from previous investigations into the occupation of public space, situationist theory, sound art and the private act in public space. It is seen as a the first volume in a two-part ‘album’ about public space, in which the relationship between sound in public and acoustic privacy is played out through art means (as opposed to architecture, urban planning or policy). The role that headphones play in the relationship to sound whilst in the public sphere, is an underlying consideration. Public space has a soundtrack now, (Volume I) focuses primarily on the following questions: What is the sound of public space? How do we record and respond to sound whilst in public? Why do we use headphones in public and what do we say to other members of the public when we do? It aims to develop enquiry through a series of projects (rather than a single work) which begin to activate public space and highlight behaviour around sound in public. Conceptual background The divide between the public sphere and that of the private has traditionally been a discipline of media/ communication/cultural studies. Artists like PVI Collective, Guerilla Disco and Francis Alÿs have begun to address the issue through the visual arts, bringing it into a ‘whole of society’ issue. This research continues an interest in the line between public and private life and aims to condone a func- tioning public/political life through stability and understanding of ones private life. The political nature of public art and its role in encouraging engagement from ‘the public’ is an important one. As culturally valued objects and items of habit, the headphone is connected to the rise in urbanism through portable music development. An interest in how this plays out through ethnography, design and cultural codes is an underlying motivation for this research. Simultaneously, acoustic engineering and its role in public policy, urban planning, architecture and land- scape development is a relatively recent phenomenon (but one with increasing importance) as the city and urban environments become the primary built environment. This research is an added reminder that Public Art has an equally important role in the discourse about die Öffentlichkeit (the public sphere).
  3. 3. MPU: Mobile Privacy Units Mobile Privacy Units are headphone-based objects that play on the social codes and language surrounding the wearing of headphones and their role in creating acoustic privacy in public space. Headsets have been augmented with art materials also associated with soundproofing/creating quiet: card- board, felt, cotton wool (in your ears, mate) and take on the oversized form of DJ heasets. A range of text has been added to state explicitly the kind of language and messages that are often and/or unsconsciously conveyed through the wearing of headphones in public whilst listening to portable music.. Just the image of headphones over ones ears can be enough of a ‘do not disturb’ sign. These Mobile Privacy Units shout this need for acoustic privacy:‘sssh!’; ‘private’ ; ‘!sssh’ (in arabic); ‘quiet time’; ‘mon moment tranquille’ (‘my quiet moment’ fr. trans); ‘please leave me alone’.
  4. 4. Mobile Privacy Units: working with the community. Poorly designed public housing means that resi- dents are often deprived of acoustic privacy and security, resulting in sleep-deprivation, insecurity, petty arguments and other anti-social behaviours that infect live in public1. This project was a workshop with the residents of The Collingwood Housing Estate at The Harvest Festival, in which residents - mostly children - customised headphones as means to create some quiet and block out ambient noise from public spaces, transport and neighbouring residential disputes - known to cause social problems in areas with high social and spatial density1. This concept of ‘choice’ over their aural stimulation and acoustic environment is connected to empow- erment in early development, as well as creating a hands-on project with a fun, wearable and ‘show- off-able’ object as outcome. 1 As noted in A-Level Psychology Through Diagrams, Hill, Grahame.
  5. 5. A measure of the public soundtrack. Psychoacoustics, or the perception of sound, has medium volume is straight, high volume curves links with psychogeography as one way to map, or clockwise. HD Video, Microsoft Word and still im- experience the city and die Öffentlichkeit (the public ages were also used to record sound environment. sphere). This project measured public/ambient and The iphone/ipod touch application, Wide Noise was private sound taken into the public space - primar- intended to be used, but didn’t function without an ily music through headphones and externalises this external mic. liminal space through drawing. This has become a comparitive study of place Images were made by occupying a selection of pub- through its sonic output and the images represent lic spaces and mapping the ambient sound using the nature - aural and otherwise - of these places in a variety of capture technology. The primary device visual form. The drawings also mapped the concep- was the online Voice Drawing Tool by ze frank, which tual action of being in the public space, listening responds to sound through basic form from a laptop and measuring sound through drawing and in-built mic: low volume curves counterclockwise, technology.
  6. 6. A measure of the public soundtrack: sites Sites were chosen based on several key factors: Their place as identity ‘markers’ for a city, in particular the city of Melbourne: sites which represent the cultural, intellectual, sexual, ‘quiet’ spaces, geographical, historical, social, political, physiological and the ‘rejected’ spaces*: Carlton Gardens, Centre Place, Federation Square Frankston Station, Parliament, St Kilda (Grey + Gurner), State Library, Womens Hospital and Yarra River. All the selected sites are highly prominent places in which negotiation with ‘the other’ happens and most of them have a diverse range of sound- scapes. The specificity of sound denotes place and the focus on these sites is to simultaneously represent the places and to investigate what, on a sonic level, is being ‘blocked out’ by the introduced private soundtrack. *selected from personal experience, educated guess and online crowdsourcing.
  7. 7. A measure of the public soundtrack: Process The act of an artist sitting in public, occupying space antagonism towards the artist: yelling, derogatory as a proxy for “the public ear” is also a vital aspect comments and threats to destroy the camera.* of the project: the public recorder of sound for the purpose of representation. It was interesting to note that making artwork, con- spicously occupying space or capuring public space/ The project was conducted over two days: Sunday sound seems socially ‘acceptable’ or comfortable 10th May and Saturday 17th May, 2009. Recording within the bounds of CBD, but not, sadly, outside of sound and being conspicous in the occupation and this ‘zone’ in areas that are more contested by the engagement of public space (with equipment, cam- ‘outside’ behaviours of prostitution, drug deals and era, etc) on the Sunday in Melbourne CBD largely general boredom. presented no issue. However, on the Saturday, recording in Frankston and St Kilda - areas outside of the primary ‘metropolis’, there was quite a lot of * see bonus material disc for blog account of experience.
  8. 8. A measure of the public soundtrack: Drawings images, clockwise from top left: Parliament, Carlton Gardens, Federation Square, State Library
  9. 9. Listening and dancing to the city. This project aims to draw attention to all of sound in tion their own engagement or response to sound, the public space, the action of listening and listening, dance and the ‘soundtrack’ of the urban headphones-as-device through the process and/or environment, both public and private. performance of actively listening to sites and their rhythms in the CBD. This project also uses the artists’ occupation of space as a vital basis from which to make By performing the acts of listening and then dancing observations and to elicit change within the public to places in the city, over a reasonably prolonged realm. It places itself within the ‘political’, people-fo- period of time (well, an hour), the artists involved cused, process-based aspect of arts practice. will become attuned to the city and its soundtrack. Passers-by will also notice the sustained process of engaging with the sound of the city and ques-
  10. 10. Listening and dancing to the city: Sites Initially, the project was to involve 3 artists across 3 CBD-based sites of intersection: 1. Cnr Swantson St and Flinders Lane 2. Cnr of Elizabeth and Bourke Sts 3. Queen Vic Markets, Cnr William and Franklin St These sites were chosen as separate from previous sound-capture sites, significant intersections in the psychogeography of Melbourne and potential for high traffic - pedestrian and otherwise. Only sites 1 and 2 were used on the day, for their activated and prominent nature. Swanston and Flinders La was chosen as the junction between the ‘hidden’ laneway culture and Melbourne’s ‘civic spine’. Whereas Bourke and Elizabeth was selected for its openness, pedestrian focus and high tram/traffic area. The presence of an ATM in this area was also a big consideration (as a headphone jack).
  11. 11. Listening and dancing to the city: Process There were several clear outcomes from the process It was found that, although much less difficult to of listening and dancing to the city - from both an ‘enact’, the act of listening to the city whilst appear- artist and audience perspective. ing to be ‘plugged in’ to infrastructure (traffic lights, Crossing into the performance realm of art in the manholes, columns of the GPO) garnered the more public space, trust between performers/artists and interesting and engaged response. Passers-by were the process was vital and it was because of this joyously confounded and intrigued by the act of that the experience yielded great results. Working listening and recording sound in this way - unable to with Eddy Carroll and the art/fashion photographers decipher what exactly was important to note. Raphel Ruz and Jolyon James, the project was down- Whereas the dancing mostly produced a tunnel- sized from its original 3 x 3 x 3 size (3 artists, sites vision-don’t-look-at-the-freak-who-took-too-many- and photographers) to 2. On a conceptual level, the drugs-last-night kind of reaction from viewers whilst artists became an echo of each other - like a phe- sapping a lot of energy out of the artists from nomenological bird call across the city streets. anxiety and overstimulation.
  12. 12. Public space has a soundtrack now: Next steps. To extend current focus to determine the role of headphones in the changing nature of sound in the public space and how we respond to it. Further questions include: What is the nature of the sound in public space, including the introduction of private soundtracks (through portable sound/headphones)? How do we record and respond to sound in public (with headphones)? What do we say with headphones? Projects planned: 1. A zone of public relational/performance spaces, which provide acoustically private places within which the public can freely respond to introduced private sound in public space through dance and architecture. Emergency Dance Zone is a part of the State of Design Festival, 2009 (images below). 2. Expanding the ‘Listening to the City’ project to create a large-scale ‘social sculpture’ of 20+ people, draw- ing attention to the sound of being in public and the use of headphones as contemporary tools for dealing with it. 3. Focus on headphones in the workplace/open-plan offices by creating a h5eadphone building conceptual work and a process-based work in which an office building is made ‘silent’ for a day, through the actions of its workers.
  13. 13. Public space has a soundtrack now: Reflection on the projects to date. As a half-way point for long-term research into sound in public, these projects are just beginning to hone in on something interesting, or worthwhile. The key for this first ‘volume’ is to close in on the nature of sound in the public space. In the same manner as one reads theory and history about a topic before an essay, these works are investigating the nature of the beast. After some distance and reflection, the Mobile Privacy Units, as objects about social codes and used in only one application so far, need wider distribution into the public realm and for some of the text to be expanded and refined. This could be done as a ‘public service’ in open space, or public mailing systems. Whilst the ‘difference’ between public sound and private soundtrack was the initial intention of A mea- sure of the public soundtrack, the ‘survey’ style of capturing the soundtrack of the city and the interest- ing images produced has proven informative so far without having to overstate the introduction of private soundtrack. However, in future projects, this ‘soundtrack’ aspect to portable music and headphones needs to be fine-tuned. Current research is being done using consumer/visitor numbers to support the behaviour surrounding the total sound levels in the city. The Listening and dancing to the city project was a little smaller, but way more intense than originally intended. And doing it on a public holiday was positive in some respects (relaxed atmosphere and time to actually synchronise), and not so in others (quiet in site 1 and non-existent in site 3). As mentioned, the ‘dancing’ aspect of the project, whilst beautifully covered in 1995 by Gillian Wearing, did not generate the level of interest and intrigue (and therefore opportunity for engagement) as the acts of listening and being plugged into the structure/infrastructure of the city. This has prompted a slight change of tack for future projects and to expand this process up to 20 or 30 performers, for higher impact. Conclusion Sound in the public sphere and urban environments has a rhythm, distinction and diversity. The kinds of public spaces that literally resonate with a diverse range of sounds (not just cars and occasional pe- destrians) seem to resonate with the public. Melbourne’s trams and pedestrian crossings are a distinct soundtrack to the city, echoing across most areas within the CBD. These sounds pulsate across city life and support the rhythm and structure of active spaces. The relationship we have to these public spaces is significant for those living in urban environments. Keenly paying attention - listening to - the hustle and bustle of these engaging places, as in other relationships, can be overwhelming and physically draining. It requires a level of desensitising, as watching horrors of world news can require a visual ‘filter’. Might headphones be a vital filter for our aural engagement with the city? Can we function without ambient public noise at all? How much choice do we really have about sound?
  14. 14. Bibliography Public Art, ed Matzner, Florian Matzner; 2001; Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany. Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau, Michel; 1984; University of California Press, Berkeley. Public Good, ed Slater, Marnie and Booker, Paula; 2008; Enjoy Art Gallery; Wellington. Music, cognition, and computerized sound : an introduction to psychoacoustics; 1999 ed Cook, Perry R; MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. Master handbook of acoustics, Everest, F. Alton, 1994, TAB Books, Philadelphia A-Level Psychology Through Diagrams, Grahame Hill; 2001; Oxford University Press, Oxford. Sensation and Perception: An integrated approach, Schiffman, Harvey Richard; 2001; John Wiley & Sons, New York. Experience and the Public Sphere, Negt, Oskar and Kluge, Alexander; October - The Second Decade 1986 - 1996, ed. Krauss, Rosalind et al, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. Listening and Sound: Phenomenology of Sound, Don Ihde, 1976; Ohio University Press, Ohio. Privacy, A manifesto, Sofsky, Wolfgang; 2008, Princeton University Press, New Jersey. Human Performance and Ergonomics, Hancock, Peter A.; 1999; Academic Press, San Diego. Society of the Spectacle, Debord, Guy; 2001, Rebel Press, California Online references Rane pro audio reference guide; Wikipedia references on : noise psychoacoustics haas effect headphones. Acknowledgments and image credits sarah barber (photos pages 4, 6) romaine logere raphael ruz and jolyon james (photos pages 8-10) jen rae effie mason (photos page 6) ceri hann and public assembly michal teague (photos page 2) nella themelios ze frank penny algar and amanda clouston eddy carroll russell davies lawrence harvey niko herzeg derek thompson dan hill
  15. 15. Public sound tracks 1. Concept research Reading and traditional research 2. MPU: Mobile Privacy Units Object Design Community work 3. A measure of the public soundtrack Public sound drawings/action 4. Listening and dancing to the city Public sound action/performance Bonus material (DVD) Extra documentation Process diagrams Video footage of process cover photography: Raphael Ruz and Jolyon James, 2009