Public space has a soundtrack now.
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
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.
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).
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’.
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.
As noted in A-Level Psychology Through Diagrams, Hill, Grahame.
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.
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
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
*selected from personal experience, educated guess and online crowdsourcing.
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.
A measure of the public soundtrack: Drawings
images, clockwise from top left:
Parliament, Carlton Gardens,
Federation Square, State Library
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-
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).
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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?
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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
Public sound tracks
1. Concept research Reading and traditional research
2. MPU: Mobile Privacy Units Object Design
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)
Video footage of process
cover photography: Raphael Ruz and Jolyon James, 2009